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"13" is the 19th studio album by the godfathers - or grandfathers - of heavy metal, Black Sabbath. They announced on 11/11/11 that the original line-up of (in no particular order) Ozzy Osbourne (vocals), Tony Iommi (guitar), Bill Ward (drums) and Geezer Butler (bass) would reunite. However due to a "contractual dispute" Ward does not feature on the album, and instead we have Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine.
So that was one issue - it wasn't the original complete comeback that I'd been hoping for. It's a shame that Ward is not on board, but at least he's absent by choice and not because he's no longer with us - as has happened with so many others unfortunately over the years. In fact, it's marvellous to have the line-up we do, bearing in mind that Tony Iommi was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 and Ozzy has recently been back on the booze.
Black Sabbath were on the go for about 10 years when I began listening, so there were already plenty of classic moments behind them - in fact Ozzy was on his way out to be replaced by Rainbow's Ronnie James Dio (RIP - love ya man). There will be those buying the album who were fans from Sabbath's formation, and others who maybe only learnt of their existence after watching "The Osbournes". If you fall into either of those categories, I'd really love to know your thoughts on "13"!
The version I bought and am reviewing is the bog standard issue, not the special-ultra-deluxe-extra-material release. It does make me a little cross when music albums are packaged in this way -a special edition used to mean it was a picture disc! If you're going to release an album make it a complete piece guys - I'd ordered mine in advance off of Amazon not realising a few quid more would have got me the bonus tracks - which I still think is a bit of a swiz.
Rant over. On to the album.
Track 1 - End of the Beginning
I was beyond myself with excitement hearing the first "dar nar darnt" of the opening track. Like so many standard Sabbath tracks it has a grand opening, then falls away into quietness with menacing dark vocals, before picking up volume and thud. Sadly Ozzy's voice does lack the early sinister bite and emphasised "iiiiiiiieeeeee"s, but it does sound OK considering. I'm not aurally sophisticated enough to identify many production techniques - I have read a lot of criticism of producer Rick Rubin - and they're not in town until December so I won't hear Ozzy live til then.
Track 2 - God Is Dead?
Asking the question rather than quoting Nietzsche's statement. Similar in length dark brooding, growing pace to Track 1. The drums are amazing at the start, but seem to get a little lost as the track progresses. This is the longest track on the album - while I really like it I feel that it's too similar in structure and standard Sabbath-ness to follow in straight from Track 1.
Track 3 - Loner
A nice riff, plenty of "Alright Now's" and a good old-fashioned theme of a melancholy misfit. Got a serious case of the "deja-vu"s listening to this as it really reminds me of the best of the early Ozzy days. In fact this was the first track when I visualised him performing. It might have just about reached its sell-by date in terms of freshness, but yellow sticker or not, I consumed and enjoyed!
Track 4 - Zeitgeist
If I thought "Loner" was a throwback, then at first play I was convinced I was listening to "Planet Caravan" and thought this was just far too familiar. I began to appreciate it more after listening a few times - the acoustic guitar work is beautifully detailed, and in my opinion Ozzy's vocals sound best on this track. It may be the "old fart" track of the album, once I gave it a chance I did really appreciate it. Still, when I'm running late for work I'll skip this on the CD player, and save it for the drive home instead!
Track 5 - Age Of Reason
An absolute cracker! This has the classic Sabbath sound, without the feeling that it is just a copy. Great riffs, plus fantastic bass work, finishing off with some amazing solo guitar: a few of the tracks go on just a bit too long - but I'd like to have heard even more of this one!
Track 6 - Live Forever
Another great classic Sabbath sound. The lyrics "I don't wanna live forever but I don't wanna die" really make you stop and think about Tony Iommi's personal battle. It's fairly upbeat, but the theme makes it far from jolly. Am really looking forward to seeing this one live - and like Track 5, I wouldn't have minded if there was more of it.
Track 7 - Damaged Soul
Brilliantly black, the lyrics are almost comically doom-laden, emphasised the plodding pace, which picks up into bluesy guitar and harmonica. Nobody does this better than Sabbath! Love it!
Track 8 - Dear Father
Lyrically, just as dark, but no comedy in here, as the subject of clerical child-abuse is tackled. Again it has a slow start, gathering speed into a faster movement as the words angrily question the perpetrator/s before resuming the original pace. It finishes with the rain and tolling bell that began the debut album - does this herald "The Beginning Of The End" and the guys themselves feel they have gone full circle?
So - that's the listing - what do I think of the album as a whole? Even with Sabbath things are never simply black or white: my opinions can be somewhat grey, and the more I listen to the album, the more they waver. I gave the album 4 stars: if I hear some passing dross on the radio I want to give it 5 - if I listen to "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" I want to give it a 3. I suppose my biggest concern is as I've already mentioned, there is a big difference between "classic" sounding Sabbath and "copied" sounding Sabbath!
Whilst writing this review I had listened to the bonus tracks on YouTube and I liked them a lot - many comments say that these are the best three tracks on the album. Again, I'm a bit miffed about all this deluxe edition carry on - if they were all available as standard I might be awarding that extra star after all.
Maybe there will there be a "14"? Certainly Tony Iommi has proved he is a survivor (and by the way did a marvellous job writing Armenia's 2013 Eurovision entry) and Ozzy - well, seems just indestructible (even having his DNA tested to see how "he managed to survive a pretty hard life"). It would of course be nice to see Bill Ward back in his seat, but to be fair to Brad Wilks I could not fault his contribution at all.
Since much of the old style sound is there it's a shame there isn't something really upbeat along the lines of "Sabra Cadabra" or "Never Say Die", but I suppose the Sabbath brand is just too Black for these sort of tracks now! However, it's great to see the guys (mostly) back and on the whole I do like the album, despite the room for improvement, both in content and in packaging.
Hope I get to write a review of the live show in Dec!
Thanks for reading!
Given the circumstances surrounding this record, that it ever came into existence at all is a remarkable achievemnt in itself. While fans have been hoping for an album by the original Black Sabbath line-up for a long time, perhaps the most remarkable thing is that they were, and still are, in the position to do so. With back-pages stuffed full of substance abuse and brushes with danger and death, Black Sabbath are in the surprising position to have all four original members still breathing. And now we have a new album with Ozzy on vocals, the first in 35 years. Stop-start, on-off reunions with the intention to create a new album have been going on since 2000, and with Tony Iommi being diagnosed with cancer, Ozzy going back on the sauce, it feels a bit weird to be able to sit here and review the thing as it spins round on my turntable. There's also a massive sense of relief that while this album isn't on a par with the best stuff from the early seventies, the trepidation that came from all the things that seemed to go wrong around it was mostly unwaranted. Mostly.
Yet we can't really call it a proper reunion album since original drummer Bill Ward walked away from the project, citing legal and finanical reasons for his departure. Filling in is Brad Wilk, of Rage Against the Machine. And it's the first thing that's noticeable about this record- it was hard not to slip into a priori fallacy mode and decide that it needed Ward before I'd even heard the thing. But it turned out to be true - Sabbath's greatest records were bigger than the sum of their parts. While primarily remembered for their gargantuan riffs and Ozzy's howls about the end of the world and drug-addled confusion, Ward's jazz-inspired swing and somewhat eccentric approach gave the songs a real angle that set them aside from the more pedestrian metal of Judas Priest. And on '13', his absence is noted.
Not that Brad Wilk is any slouch. He definitely does his best to add a rhythmic touch and level to the songs beyond that of a session drummer playing to a click track, but I can't help but feel that if Ward were involved, it would improve this record tenfold.
But anyway, on to the songs. Are they any good? The misgivings about the band didn't stop at the drummer. Ozzy was never the greatest singer, and in recent years his voice has sound pretty shot, especially live. But here he sounds grand, employing the double-track technique to John Lennon-ify his voice as he has always done. Rumours are it's had the dreaded autotune added to it, but if it has it's not overtly noticeable, at least not to my ears. Opening track 'The End of the Beginning' lumbers along in much the same vein that lead single 'God is Dead?' did, and was simialrly overly stretched in terms of time. The band has executed big epic pieces before, but to start the album with two of them was perhaps not the most sensible of choices. The tri-tone based riff and heavy slowness also pricked my ears
up as I got even more nervous. Are they just recycling their own ideas? It sounded so much like their title track, 'Black Sabbath', that they cooked up 40-odd years ago that the band were in danger of slipping into self parody and self-plagiarism. This fear was compounded further upon hearing 'Zeitgeist', which sounded so much like 'Planet Caravan' from their Paranoid album that I had to do a double take. Woozy spaced out guitars? Yep. Lyrics about cosmic travel? Uh-huh. Gentle hand-driven percussion? Check. It sounds very nice, but all a bit too familiar.
Luckily though, the album picks up some momentum. 'God Is Dead?', while about 2 minutes too long, thunders into a gripping finale, as Ozzy ponders about the Nietzchean problem and concludes that his faith remains unshaken. Or Geezer's does anyway, he wrote all the lyrics. Speaking of which, there are some couplets and lines in here that are really clunky, such as on 'Live Forever', which contains the horrible predictability of 'I don't want to live forever/But I don't want to die'. Plus there's all the references to scary Catholic battles between God and Satan. 'Loner' is a bit more challenging, doing a better job of taking on the subject of a deranged individual than the previous reunion song 'Psycho Man' did.
'Damaged Soul' is ace. Picking up the harmonica for the first time in ages, Ozzy and co. produce a bluesy, wailing track that uses their influences in the right way. Rather than nicking bits from their own back catalogue, this is the song closest in spirit to their original sound in terms of it just sounds so natural. 'Dear Father' continues in a similar way, another epic (urggh, enough of those thanks) that doesn't outstay its welcome. Perhaps in a knowing acknowledgement of their own self-references on this album, it ends with the rain, thunder and single tolling church bell that opened up their 1970 debut. If this does turn out to be the last Sabbath record, then to have come full circle in this way is no bad thing. It's just not as great a thing as it should have been. I've listened to it twice now, and it's sounding OK rather than disappointing the second time round, which is a good sign of a grower.
Another cause for concern had been the decision to hire Rick Rubin to produce the album. His work on Metallica's 'Death Magnetic', which had the potential to be a fine return to form had resulted in a complete mess of a record that had half a great album in it buried amongst excessively long, badly mastered mush. While at least three of the songs on this album are too long by about 3 minutes, it doesn't sound dreadful. Slick, perhaps, but not dreadful. The cavernous, murky sounds of their earlier albums has gone, but their ability to create powerful, doomy passages and riffs remains, thankfully.
Perhaps the most irritating thing about this though is how the album has been released. With a standard version, a deluxe version, a super deluxe version, and a best-buy version that has an exclusive bonus track, this album has been packaged to death. I used some dooyoo miles to order the vinyl version, which was very nice and glossy, but with a few bonus tracks scattered across different versions of the release it smacks entirely of profiteering. Even more so since 'The End of the Beginning' was premiered on the season finale of CSI. Never thought I'd have to say this about Black Sabbath, but guys, that's just not very metal now, is it.
The bonus tracks are... OK. Why they couldn't have saved them for an EP is a bit annoying. 'Methademic' is equal to the other songs on there, as Ozzy bellows about the dangers of the worringly common usage of crystal meth these days. 'Naivete in Black' sounds like an out-take from 'Heaven and Hell', but with Ozzy on vocals. 'Pariah' plods rather than rumbles, and 'Peace of Mind' shows another case of them going to the recycling centre as they re-write 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath'.
This is a hard record to assess. On one hand, it's not all it could or should have been. On the other, the fact that it's even here, and manages to not be a catastrophic failure is to be lauded. And since I was subjected to several hours of 'The Voice' the other night, hearing a proper band play with genuine energy and enthusiasm, despite the self-references, was a welcome reprieve. The recycled ideas are one riff away from making this album irritating, but they just about get away with it. Tony Iommi still carves out enough original metal riffs and lines with enviable ease, Geezer Butler's bass sounds enormous and Ozzy doesn't let the side down. I wonder if they'll go and make '14' now that this has shot to number one in the charts...
Black Sabbath - 13 (2013)
"13" is the 19th studio album by British heavy metal band, Black Sabbath. It was released in 2013 on Vertigo Records and produced by Rick Rubin. The line-up for the album was Ozzy Osbourne (vocals), Tony Iommi (guitar), Geezer Butler (bass) and Brad Wilk (drums).
This is an album which has been 34 years in the making, ever since Black Sabbath fired Ozzy Osbourne from the band because of his drug and alcohol dependencies. It was announced on 11/11/11 that the classic Sabbath line-up of Osbourne/Iommi/Butler/Ward would re-unite to record a new album which would be followed by a world tour, but, predictably, not everything is plain sailing on the good ship Sabbath. Bill Ward decided not to participate in the recording and tour because of contractual disputes, and his seat on the drum stool was given to Rage Against the Machine's Brad Wilk. Via way of promoting the album, the band performed "End of the Beginning" on the season finale of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation". This was the first Sabbath album for Ozzy since 1978's "Never Say Die!", and the first for Geezer Butler since the 1994 offering, "Cross Purposes". Is it any good? Let's find out!
End of the Beginning
The first thing to note about the opening song is that Rick Rubin's production leaves no stone unturned, as each instrument is crystal clear with a perfect mix of volume leveling. The introduction sounds a little like "Electric Funeral" from the band's 1971 album, "Paranoid", but slowed down with a chord missing here and there, and the progression is just too slow, even for the doom metal pioneers. But the slating must stop there, because this is what people wanted from Sabbath in the 21st century, right? When it gets going it's a good rocker of a song, with a classic groove to it that can't fail to enlighten the diehard Sabbath fan. There is some good solo work from Iommi, who had been battling with lymphoma since January, 2012. The guitar has that all-too-familiar Sabbath sound of the 70s but gone is Ozzy's Sabbath style, instead adopting a pitch often used on his solo records.
God is Dead?
Ozzy says he came up with the song title while in an office, after looking at a magazine which had the words 'God is Dead' on it. The vocalist says that Geezer wrote around his ideas, and the song is really about how people question religion when innocents are dying in bombings around the world. It opens with an eerie introduction but when it kicks in with the power chords, the longest song on the album sounds just like a metal album should. However, it does seem to be a little too laboured at times and goes on without much feeling in a lot of parts. It can be noted that while the guitar, bass and vocals are at the forefront, Wilk's drums do sound a bit too toned down and in the background. Would that have happened with Bill Ward? That is anyone's guess. The song might not be the Black Sabbath everyone wanted, but it is a Black Sabbath for the here and now. The outro is has a good pace to it, proving that three 60-somethings and a hired drummer can keep up with the younger generation.
This is a by-the-numbers song that the fan will either love or hate. It's a simple riff for the most part played along at a steady rate but once again, Ozzy fails to recapture that magic he had with the band for the best part of the 1970s. Music has to evolve but after 35 years, Sabbath has to reignite the flame the band once had, and they fail to do that here. It might have been a decent track if Rick Rubin had played "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" and said to Ozzy, "this is what I want you to do again". Of course, a 65-year old vocalist may not be able to perform like that anymore, but Ozzy may well have been reluctant to sing in his Sabbath style, as opposed to his solo career, as noted previously.
The song kicks in with a psychedelic sound, which is followed by Ozzy laughing. What follows is a strange yet enchanting mix of acoustic guitars that sounds a lot like "Planet Caravan". This is the shortest song on the album, but it is also one of the most interesting, musically. Ozzy's delivery is nailed on, but it almost seems as if the track is too long, as once the vocals end, a little acoustic piece carries on for nearly a minute. Black Sabbath has never done things the easy way, and this song is no exception to that rule. The intricacy of the guitars gives it the leading edge, and it proves that you do not need power chords all the time to create something that will stick in people's minds.
Age of Reason
Moving into the second half of the album, and finally we get a taste of some good old fashioned classic Black Sabbath. The riffs are strong and Ozzy's singing is hitting all the right notes, even if it does switch back and forth between Sabbath and solo styles. What is pleasing to hear, though, is the heaviness of Geezer Butler's bass lines, which almost echo through the speakers at times. Backed up wonderfully by Iommi, the two form a unison that a lot of heavy metal bands just cannot create. There are some great time changes throughout the song, but going towards the end there is an unmistakable riff which sounds like part of the "Cheers" theme. It doesn't last long and is quickly superseded by some brilliant guitar solo work before the song is brought to a close.
Right from the start this song is quick to grab hold, and that old Sabbath sound is back for vengeance once more. The track is full of riffs, with the main bulk of it giving the listener something to nod their heads to. The song is very catchy and it would be a crowd pleaser if the band would play it live and Iommi is on form with one of his squeaky solos near the end of the track. The lyrics of "And I don't wanna live forever but I don't want to die" gives pause for thought, and the thought of Iommi's lymphoma problems can be at the forefront of people's minds when this song is listened to, just as those that remember Joey Ramone's battle with the disease, around the time of recording his first solo album, and in particular his poignant cover version of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World".
This song is a blues-laden, doom-infested number that is packed full of everything that Sabbath was and is. It rolls along - almost ambles at times - but that's a good thing, because this is what Sabbath is good at. There is a neat little Iommi jam during the bridge which is backed up by Geezer's chunky bass, and the song also features Ozzy on the harmonica. If it could be imagined that Angus Young and B.B. King had formed a band with Ozzy Osbourne, this song sounds like something you would get. It is rich and complex, yet it flows so freely. "Damaged Soul" is a winner which pushes the album in the right direction, and a special credit must go to Brad Wilk who plays the drums like Bill Ward almost certainly would have.
The album ends with another slow song, and perhaps there are not enough tracks on "13" that are speedy, but the doom metal merchants have earned the right to do exactly what they want to do on a record. If there could be any criticism of the track it is that the production is just a little too much. The early Sabbath albums did not have that luxury, and, as such, had that different quality that spoke to everyone in such a way that the public took notice. However, it does close the album on a high with some excellent doom riffs, but the inclusion of the rain and bell tolling from the beginning of "Black Sabbath" at the end might be a little puzzling to fans. Was this purposely put in because it was the first thing the listener heard on any Sabbath album and therefore the last? Only time will tell.
This album does not, in most parts, have the touch of classic Black Sabbath, but it does beat a lot of today's manufactured heavy metal hands down. This is an album which is part Jekyll and part Hyde. The first half is slow, laboured and tired, while the second half is completely different, and has some energy, guts and gusto. With Rick Rubin at the production desk, Sabbath has attempted to move forwards but the band has taken too much of their past and thrown it into the mix, without really bringing the past along with them. Some fans will like the idea of moving on, but those that love the early Black Sabbath will yearn for the sound that was synonymous on songs like "Iron Man", "Paranoid" and "War Pigs". This is by no means a bad album, but it could have been so much better. Would it have been better with Bill Ward? The answer to that question will never be known. "13" would probably sound out of place in the 1970s, though.
1. End of the Beginning
2. God is Dead?
5. Age of Reason
6. Live Forever
7. Damaged Soul
8. Dear Father