There’s a slew of factors that will likely have tainted or heightened your expectations around the arrival of Black Sabbath’s new album, 13. Obviously, with the band’s latest release being the first Ozzy Osbourne-fronted album in 35 years, a fond sense of nostalgia is there—forming a large part of the pre-release anticipation for die-hard fans. Combine that with Sabbath’s stated desire to return to its roots on 13 and things get even more promising. The last time Osbourne howled on a Sabbath full-length (see the dreck of 1978’s Never Say Die) the result was riven by inter-band turmoil, seeing Osbourne’s unceremonious exit from the band soon after. So there’s unfinished business, for the band at least.
Some might say we don’t need another Sabbath LP at all, that all the low-end frights and ferociousness that we require were delivered on the band’s early albums, and that, in the end, the risk of the band embarrassing itself on an album this late in its career is too great. Fact is, Sabbath’s history is already full of missteps, and lackluster albums. The band’s years with Ronnie James Dio on vocals resulted in two fantastic full-lengths in Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, and Dio, guitarist Tony Iommi, and bassist Geezer Butler’s recordings under the Heaven and Hell moniker for 2009’s The Devil You Know album showed plenty of creative spark. However, outside of that, it’s been a mixed bag, with a few great songs and some utter disasters. And the last studio album under the Black Sabbath banner, 1995’s Forbidden, was a cringe-worthy calamity.
In truth, Sabbath have some making up to do on 13, and of course, Iommi, Osbourne and Butler want to end the band’s reign on a high note. One last wail into the void, that’s what Sabbath has set out to deliver, and the band has brought career reenergizing producer Rick Rubin on board in the hope of achieving just that. With 13 being touted by Rubin and the band as aiming to sit sonically between Sabbath’s first few classic releases, it’s understandable that expectations are accompanied by nervousness and excitement. The band’s early albums are heavy metal incarnate, and while plenty of proto-metal acts got the potion boiling, it was Sabbath that dropped the final and all-important ingredient into that brew.
Still, Sabbath’s promise of a return to the magnificently darkened doom of yore has to be tempered by a few simple facts. Osbourne, the previous prince of darkness, has become, for many fans, more a clown prince of reality TV. A series of increasingly uninspired solo albums hasn’t helped his reputation, and as he has rightly pointed out, 13 is his most important album in decades—offering a shot at redemption. As mentioned, Iommi and Butler’s work as Heaven and Hell was warmly received, but the band isn’t in the same hungry place as it was in the early ‘70s, and you could argue that doesn’t make it likely that it will be able to craft the same gut-wrenching, desolate doom. The contractual squabbling and then jettisoning of original drummer Ward from the project early on also took some of the shine off 13. The in-fighting was a reminder that Sabbath isn’t the us-against-the-world beast it once was—more a commercially driven behemoth—and understandably, a reunion of three-quarters of the original band might not seem like a true reunion at all.
All of that is just the backstory to 13—an abbreviated list of those aforementioned factors which come in to play here—and all the fond remembrances of Sabbath’s heyday have to be tempered with, well, realism. The prime question is, with Rubin in tow and Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk replacing the sadly absent Ward, have Sabbath been able to recapture the bone-chilling tones and themes of its ‘70 –‘76 years on 13? The answer to that is, no.
In simplest terms, if you cut a fair chunk from the album’s 53-minute running time, threw out the majority of Osbourne’s tired vocals, and dumped Wilk from the drum stool, then you’d have all the basic ingredients for great album. Iommi and Butler have put together passages that call to mind Sabbath’s primal years, but the obvious problem with that is a few minutes here and there isn’t what we’re looking for. Iommi’s mammoth riffing, and Butler’s earthquaking bass, get downtempo and dirge-like sections simmering with ditch-weed and supernatural glee, but those are snippets, offering a glimpse of past greatness.
With 13 setting out to recapture the crushing majesty of Sabbath, the bluesy and ponderous traditional doom riffs of eight minute opener “End of the Beginning” start things off well. The tune’s leap into a mid-song gallop is a reminder of Sabbath’s ability to wield the cudgel of rollicking psych-flecked heavy rock, and you could call it a great track if not for Osbourne’s vocals, which essentially repeat the prosaic mid-range work of his latter-year solo career. “God Is Dead” is a tried and true slow-baked bruiser that starts with a great tease of a riff, before becoming wholly predictable. The song falls victim to vocal failings again, and follow up “Loner” is essentially filler (as is “Live Forever”), although, Iommi does provide some great sludgy soloing somewhere in there. Worst case of all, however, is “Zeitgeist”, where Sabbath endeavours to cover Sabbath by trying to repeat the cosmic and psychedelic majesty of “Planet Caravan”, only to fail miserably.
It’s not all bad news though, if you can get past the preponderance of wince-inducing lyrics. There are two songs well worth visiting. “Age of Reason” is a thick enough throwback, and it’s probably the closet we get to the actual feel of Sabbath’s early ‘70s fare—with a big fat hook from Iommi, and a familiar “alright yeah” callback from Osbourne. “Damaged Soul” features ripping harmonica and stirring riffing from Iommi, and for eight minutes Sabbath gets on a roll before the dull-as-ditch-water “Dear Father” finishes the album with thunder, rain, and pealing bells, offering a silly nod to Sabbath year one.
So, where did 13 go wrong? To start with, the album is essentially safe and pedestrian. While a return to the band’s heyday is a worthy goal, Sabbath struggle to capture any of the ominousness or threat of old and there’s a clear sense of calculated rather than creative energy here—Sabbath aping Sabbath isn’t the same as the band tapping into the menace of its early years. Drummer Brad Wilk’s presence is another clear problem. He is, undoubtedly, a powerhouse drummer, but Wilk has none of the wild card roots and roll of Ward. 13 needs his sweat-soaked, swinging pummel (or at least a drummer of his ilk on board) because what we have here is flashy fills and meticulous hits—and Sabbath, at its best, was never remotely clean.
13 isn’t helped by Rubin’s production either. Actual tonal weight may not be an issue as such, but the lack of analogue murk is. For an album that is set on melding big old heaving traditional metal with the buzz of über-electrified blues, 13 is too clinical and neat. It lacks the ragged edged danger of Sabbath’s past, but to give Rubin his due, he has encouraged Sabbath to look to its core artistic strengths. There’s no doubt that Sabbath has attempted to mimic its early years on 13, and while continuing to mine instead of simply mimicking the band’s original vein of doom would have worked better, 13 shows that Sabbath hasn’t lost touch with what its essential strengths are. Butler’s bass has never sounded heavier, and along with Iommi, the duo’s instrumental offensive is very much in keeping with the darkness of Sabbath’s ‘70s fare. For all 13‘s faults, you can’t dispute the fact that Iommi, Butler and Osbourne have, at the very least, attempted to recapture Sabbath’s original flame.
In the end, 13 isn’t the Sabbath of old, but then, that probably doesn’t really matter when we already have Black Sabbath, Paranoid, Master of Reality, Vol. 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Sabotage. The band’s first six albums are definitive metal statements filled with pugilistic blues, prog and psych all wrapped in steel-clad riffs, with Ward’s untamed percussion sealing the deal. Obviously, the band was never really going to be able to recapture that same spirit of wonderfully unhinged doom in 2013, and frankly, any album that avoided the worst of Sabbath’s uninspired and/or desperate missteps would have been received with grace by die-hard fans.However, that’s not what Sabbath promised. The band said it would be returning to the sound of its heyday, and with that in mind, 13 has to be judged accordingly.
There are moments on the album where Sabbath’s past glory emerges, but in the main, Iommi, Butler and Osbourne are going through the motions rather than quarrying for any inventiveness here. 13 isn’t a complete disaster. As mentioned, there’s passages that many Sabbath fans will no doubt delight in, and given the number of comeback albums that are truly embarrassing, 13 doesn’t make you want to hold your head and weep for Sabbath’s legacy. Still, 13 certainly isn’t the all-blunts-blazing return Sabbath pledged, and with songwriting that imitates rather than evokes the past, all the goodwill in the world doesn’t change the fact that Sabbath has failed to deliver on its promise.
// Notes from the Road
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