I was as surprised as anyone to hear the news that Black Sabbath would be reuniting with Ozzy Osbourne after over thirty years for a new album. The result is an album that has the potential to divide opinion between fans both old and new. While I did not find the album that appealing on first listen, beyond some catchy vocal hooks from Ozzy, it began to grow on me after a few repeat listens.
Rick Rubin’s production seems a little clinical at first, and the very clean sounding mastering accentuates this. After two or three plays, though, it sounds less harsh to me. This may be down to nothing more than the fact that I listen to a lot of underground recordings that have a far less polished sound. Rubin has perfectly captured Tony Iommi’s signature guitar tone while allowing Geezer Butler’s bass to cut through the mix. The only sore point for me is the snare sound, which sounds a little thin. This may work better for fast songs but it just doesn’t resonate enough here for my liking, creating a pronounced gap between each beat.
In an ideal world, the line up would be complimented by original drummer Bill Ward. Disappointingly, this did not occur. Instead, the drumming duties are handled by Brad Wilk, formerly of Rage Against The Machine. This might seem like an odd choice for the band that are rightfully regarded as the godfathers of doom metal. This is a clear example of the ‘Spinal Tap’ thing, the band foregrounding the three ‘musicians’ at the front, backed up by a faceless drummer. Judas Priest did this exact same thing for years, and it does spoil things somewhat (imagine Iron Maiden with Nickleback’s drummer instead of Nicko!). Fortunately, Wilk provides a solid performance worthy of any of Sabbath’s past drummers.
Black Sabbath 2013 (minus Bill Ward)
Album opener ‘End of The Beginning’ is based around a slow, repetitive riff that is reminiscent of their classic track Black Sabbath, even down a tempo change and jam for the middle section. These moments of deja-vu occur throughout the album. Echoes of the Paranoid and Sabotage albums are clearly audible and the band make no attempt to hide this. The most obvious example is the ending of ‘Dear Father’, which repeats the rain and thunder intro of the band’s eponymous 1970 debut. It would be easy to deride Sabbath for approaching the album this way and accuse them of deliberately retreading old ground but I think they’ve made the right decision. These flashbacks from the classic 1970’s Ozzy-era create the impression of the band coming full circle, echoing their own question: Is this the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?
The songs are mid-tempo and mostly range from five to eight minutes in length. This gives the band time to jam and add some classic Tony Iommi guitar solos. Iommi doesn’t do anything new, but there is no reason for him to try this late in the game. There are no fast three-minute head banging numbers on 13 but this adds to the doom-laden vibe of the overall record and will not receive any complaints from me.
My main criticism would have to be the album’s length. The last three tracks on the deluxe CD version are by far the weakest on the album and could quite easily have been left out. The Black Sabbath rain at the end of ‘Dear Father’ would have made a perfect ending point. Instead, the tracks that follow give the impression of being added as filler to bulk-up the disc. The market has moved on since the early days of Sabbath, and perhaps an eight song album was considered too short for commercial reasons. The result is another overstuffed mainstream rock/metal album that fails to fully capture the special vibe (for want of a better term) that is present in a lot of underground releases.The only other minor sore points for me are some of Ozzy’s vocals. To be honest, his performance is not really that bad. There are moments, though, when he just fails to hold a note. These are songs sung in the lower register and are largely confined to the first few tracks. It just seems a little strange that no one thought to transpose them into a higher key, or maybe even use a different choice of song, Ozzy’s voice being what it is.
Doom pioneers: The classic ‘Early Sabbath’ line up
There are low points, but they are few and far between, and the album is of a far higher quality than many of the classic rock comeback discs that have surfaced in recent years. 13 is not perfect, and it doesn’t come anywhere near the level of the band’s classic era, but it is worthy of consideration (provided you skip the bonus tracks). Black Sabbath have managed to deliver an album that grows in appeal with each listen and it’s good to have most of them back.
Copyright © Steve Wilson and The Third Realm, 2014