Black Sabbath may not have been the only band to mix a heavily distorted blues-rock sound with dark lyrics inspired by the language of horror, sci-fi and fantasy in the early ‘70s, but they are pretty much the one point of reference from which the entire genre of heavy metal emerged.
With such a massive influence, it would have been easy for Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler to simply perform a greatest hits tour for their much-publicised reunion, and stay well away from the problematic area of recording new music. But instead their reunion has revolved heavily around a new (and probably final) Black Sabbath album.
‘13’ bears all the hallmarks of a very deliberate return to the core of Sabbath’s genre-shaping sound in order to cherry pick the crucial iconic elements and repackage them for a modern audience.
Opening track End of the Beginning is an immediate return to familiarity for any Sabbath fan, with its measured onslaught of chugging riffs and eerie vocals. Like much of the album, the track takes its time to unfold, building upon the structure of slow intensity building into consummately orchestrated release. This template reaches its zenith on God is Dead? – a nine-minute powerhouse of pure heavy metal force.
The sprawling song length becomes a bit of a problem as ‘13’ drags on. The album descends into a repetitive succession of similarly toned riffs punctuated by the monotonous drawl of Ozzy’s voice – which is far more omnipresent than it should be. The sheer length of the album may be down to the fact that Sabbath have been away for so long (and may not be back again) but ‘13’ could have benefitted from much greater brevity.
But for Sabbath fans, epic length is par for the course, and the alternative would probably have been a much greater disappointment. Producer Rick Rubin (who has plenty of form in rebooting the careers of musicians following long absences) maintains a firm balance between fan expectation and the strengths of the band as they are now, rather than as they were.
When this all come together the result is a track like Age of Reason. It doesn’t break the mould set on the rest of ‘13’, but rather serves as proof that when all of these elements are brought together with perfect measure they are a recipe for classic heavy metal. With its swirling riffs built upon a solid of base of drumming from Rage Against the Machine’s Bard Wilk, Age of Reason actually veers closer to the style of Dio-era Black Sabbath. Its main riff is oddly reminiscent of Heaven and Hell, and is a reminder of just how powerful a guitarist Tony Iommi is when he’s at his best.
While Ozzy may be the frontman, it is Geezer Butler who was responsible for the majority of Sabbath’s paranoia-fuelled lyrics. ‘13’ is no different, and is packed full of everything from religious/philosophical exploration (the pseudo-Nietzscheism of God is Dead?) to a psychological examination of social outcasts (Loner).
Elsewhere there are more explicit attempts at imitation of previous material that fail to strike true. Zeitgeist is a carbon copy Planet Caravan, Damaged Soul has more than a hint of The Wizard about it (complete with harmonica), and Dear Father ends with a sample of the thunder, rain and bells intro of Black Sabbath. These moments of forced nostalgia only serve to recall what ‘13’ is not.
Despite its attempt to recapture the glory days of Sabbath’s youth, ‘13’ lacks the unabashed rawness of the band’s self-titled debut, as well as the genre-shaping power of ‘Paranoid’ or ‘Master of Reality’. But, by a similar token, it also has none of the impression that all the members would rather be anywhere other than a recording studio that was present on Ozzy’s final album with the band, ‘Never Say Die’.
The band never functions as anything less than a coherent unit. This may have a lot to do with producer Rubin looking over the shoulders, but it’s clear that Black Sabbath are putting everything they have left into one last hurrah for the fans.
‘13’ is nothing but a solid metal album – less of an attempt to break new ground than an attempt to return to familiar turf. It is Sabbath doing what they do best, and what, as a group, they haven’t done for a long time. When this fails it makes ‘13’ drag on with same-y, prolonged guitar solos, but when it works it is a fitting reminder of just why so many other bands have Black Sabbath posters pinned to the walls of their bedrooms.
If you liked ‘13’ you may be interested in Irish band Darkest Era.