Two years ago, if you told me that three fourths of the lineup that recorded eight albums and defined the musical style that would provide the soundtrack to my life would record and release a new album, I would have told you I would believe it only when I saw it.
I saw it. 13, the ninth Black Sabbath album, is finally here. As one good reviewer put it overly simply, it is as if they just picked up again where they left off in 1978. But as is always the case with this band, and doom metal in general, things are never as simple as those born and bred on pop’s narrow little keyhole world like to think it is. This brings me to divide this write-up into good and bad. I will start with the bad news first.
The bad news
First of all, as I hinted above, this is not a full Black Sabbath reunion. In spite of the fact that guitarist (and main brand manager, more on this soon) Tony Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma and may well not be around long enough to make another album, drummer Bill Ward elected not to participate over contractual dispute.
Much of the grief of the past thirty-five years of jokers calling themselves Black Sabbath and releasing shitty albums can be traced back to the fact that legally speaking, guitarist Tony Iommi owns Black Sabbath like a brand. He was the one who funded the band’s pre-fame exploits to a great degree (he was the only member who owned a van, for one). So in a display of those wondrous laws of entertainment, there is a certain amount of demarcation in terms of who calls the shots in and for Black Sabbath. Vocalist Ozzy Osbourne has, through his wife Sharon, asserted more control over the brand in prior times, but this leaves bassist Geezer Butler and Bill Ward in the position of having to negotiate contracts to participate in anything Black Sabbath does.
This led to Iommi, Osbourne, and Butler recruiting former Rage Against The Machine drummer Brad Wilk to record 13. Now, I had apprehensions about this. Black Sabbath are the band that made rebellion a musical form. Rage etc are the band that got the young to confuse rebellion with running around and yelling “fukk you” etc. But Brad acquits himself very nicely on 13, so no more about that until later.
Geezer still writes all of Black Sabbath‘s lyrics. Most of the time, he does brilliantly. Much like with After Forever or similar material, he revels in messing with the audience’s minds from time to time. But this does nothing to alter the fact that he is old, and many of the subjects that drove his best work are no longer relevant to him. And this creates a similar problem to what other bands of similar vintage have experienced. How do we stay relevant to the present generation whilst being true to ours?
Fortunately, Geezer acquits himself nicely in songs like Dear Father or God Is Dead?.
The only other real negative I can think of is that, as is implied in current commentary and press, this may well be the last Black Sabbath album. Guitarist Tony Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma early in 2012. Whilst he is currently responding well to treatment, none of the band are kidding themselves that they are young anymore, and thus every Sabbath album must be treated as if it will be their last.
Actually, as a final piece of what I will call bad news, you may have heard that 13 is available in several editions, including a deluxe edition that includes three songs that Black Sabbath themselves likely believed to be unworthy of inclusion on 13.
This is for a reason. Methademic, Peace Of Mind, and Pariah are terrible listens.
On his own journal where he discusses with the public aspects of the music business, or the independent music business, Earache Records founder and head Digby Pearson explains that when bands go into the studio to record an album, he likes it as a producer if they have more songs than they are intending to include on the finished product. This is because when a band goes in with sixteen or even just eleven songs, one can discern during the recording process which come out best and flow best together as an album. With the eight songs that are on the standard release on 13, that is clearly what happened. The eight best songs were on the finished album.
Methademic could be listened to once or twice, but listening to it every time one listens to 13 is ill-advised. It is just a no-flow song, and then some. The other two are as Torben Ulrich said to his son when said son was playing him the song that son was intending to open the next album with. I would bin them.
Hence, if you feel any sort of conflict about which version of the album to buy, the standard version that includes eight songs and only eight songs is perfectly fine.
Then again, if there were a version that included eight songs that are as annoying to listen to as Pariah on a DVD-Audio-like format, I would go for that one. Even in two channels, 96 kilohertz makes this album inherently more listenable.
The good news
Regardless of which real Sabbath album you consider to be the best… well, some say Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, some say the nameless debut. Hell, a small minority even say Technical Ecstasy or Never Say Die!. But if you were like me and thought that you would be okay if the album turned out to be listenable with one or two really good songs, prepare to be absolutely blown away.
The biggest piece of good news is that although it is very stylistically different, 13 deserves to rub shoulders with all eight of those albums. It is the equal of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath or Sabotage, and can reach up and poke Paranoid between the eyes. That is saying quite a lot when you stop and remember that Paranoid is the first real doom metal record.
On first listen, 13 sounds a lot like a compilation of riffs from Black Sabbath‘s period of greatest success. Just as Ozzy Osbourne still cannot hold a tune in a bucket, Tony Iommi still has never heard of a scale other than minor petatonic blues. But as many writers have said, Iommi‘s guitar playing might be simplistic and limited, but there is a good reason why it has inspired an army of followers.
Opening song End Of The Beginning is based around the riffs that longtime fans will remember from Black Sabbath and Hole In The Sky, the first songs on their first and sixth albums, respectively. During 13, Iommi borrows riffs from prior albums, and does so in a way that he does not even bother to hide. But the structure of the songs and his way of playing them make them sound even fresher than before.
Geezer Butler‘s bass riffs are also easier to hear in the 96 kilohertz version of this album than has previously been the case with any other Sabbath album I have heard. And yes, that includes the ones that I have heard on vinyl. He is a little more creative with the structure of his rhythms than Tony is with the leads, but still, the minor petatonic scales, especially C-sharp, still get more use here than they probably do on two dozen blues bands’ albums combined.
One significant difference between 13 and the other albums with Ozzy Osbourne is that the master tape on the recording sessions was not slowed down for Ozzy to sing along with on this go-around. Hence, his singing voice is more like that on his solo albums. High-pitched, heavily-accented, and often all over the place in terms of key. But just as was the case when his singing voice was slightly heightened by studio tape chicanery, it fits the music perfectly.
Which brings me to a point that a fukkload of people also miss about TRON: Legacy. When TRON: Legacy was being made, the director, producers, and writers were well aware that they were trading off something that a lot of people had happy early memories of. That the biggest audience for the film were children or parents when the original was released, and were now old enough to be parents or grandparents now. 13 follows exactly the same approach in terms of content.
That is, Tony, Geezer, and Ozzy know that they have aged thirty-five years since they last made an album together. And they have decided to let this new one reflect that. In so doing, they looked back at the state of the world as it was in 1978, then looked at the world as it was in 2012. And doom metal is so unlike “rock and roll” or a million other kinds of music. Only punk comes close to this unfortunate condition. Namely, when doom metal is more relevant now than it was thirty-five years ago, that is a tragedy.
The first single from 13 is a curious and slightly lengthy song called God Is Dead?. Again, slightly paraphrasing the riff from Hole In The Sky, the song finds Tony and Geezer creating a sonic canvas of a world dying from the selfishness of those in charge of it whilst Ozzy vocalises Geezer‘s written first-perspective contemplation of whether the god that is supposed to keep this world from falling into that state is dead.
There are some songs I click with less on this album than others. Loner, for example. They say that when you write about a subject, you ought to take the time to know about it. Geezer Butler does not understand the subject of this song well at all.
In contrast to other real Black Sabbath albums, 13 also has a very good production. In the 96 kHz format I have the album in, only the limitations of 2.0 channel audio really give away that Ozzy, Tony, Geezer, and Brad are not playing in my room for me to listen to. This is yet another album that makes me turn to MP3-ers and ask them not so politely to shove that format up their arse.
13 is also the first Black Sabbath album since 1970 to feature Ozzy doing something other than vocalise. That harmonica you hear on The Wizard and Damaged Soul, that is Ozzy Osbourne. Yeah, sure, the harmonica is a pretty common instrument in blues, but this proves that when you hear a violin or a kazoo on a doom metal record, you are not hearing a mere gimmick. You are, in fact, hearing a tradition of unusual or non-standard instrumentation being upheld.
All eight of the songs included on all editions of 13 are solid, hard, and driving. They vary in tempo from moment to moment, with changes in tempo being used in much the same manner as has become the expected norm in doom metal. To change the manner in which the listener responds to the material. But whilst the songs lack the pervasive sense of it being deeply personal that permeated the best of Sabbath‘s best, they still grab listeners hard and bellow “we need to have a little talk”.
I will not spoil the ending of the album as a whole. A piece of work this great deserves to be kept as much a surprise as possible on the first listen. But at the end of Dear Father, longtime fans of the band will chuckle and reflect on how long it has seriously been.
Very few people alive today can say that there are forms of music around that they were there to witness the emergence of. I missed the birth of doom metal by nearly a whole decade. But every day, I reflect on where or what I was on the first occasion that I heard the song called Black Sabbath, both the Type O Negative and Black Sabbath versions. So when I say that I laughed aloud during the last ten seconds of 13, understand my meaning.
During the glam poseur era of the 1980s when the major labels tried to water down and dilute the musical legacy of Black Sabbath, the material that a group calling itself Black Sabbath was releasing often prompted the question of how relevant they really were. In 2010, when one of their greatest (and biggest) fans died, I had no doubt that he looked Odin square in the eye and said “I improved a Black Sabbath song. What have you done?”.
But as the closing song on the album proper, Dear Father, demonstrates, there is only one Black Sabbath, and the year 2013 finds it even more relevant than it was in 1970. Hence, when Ozzy sings the declaration Geezer wrote that “he” does not believe that god is dead, it is easy enough to understand why. Odin still owns us all, and he has a number of representatives on Terra that are trying to lead us by example. Of which, Ozzy, Tony, and Geezer are still amongst the greatest.
Long story short, if you have not bought a copy of 13 already, do so now. It is not merely an attempt to recapture past glory. It is a musical damning of a world that has gotten exponentially worse in the time that the artist’s fans have been waiting for it.
It is yet another blueprint for what will be a plethora of inferior fascimiles.