Through heavy metal’s storied history, no universe is bigger than that of Birmingham pioneers Black Sabbath. From the very beginnings of metal’s timeline, through Sabbath’s trailblazing, classic era, the drug-addled 70’s, the Dio-era, the less-well received late 80’s and 90’s, the entire heavy metal, and offshoot stoner, sludge, and doom scenes, ‘The Osbournes’, the hirings, the firings, the rehab, the cleansation, the bitter arguments, the eventual reunions – there’s not a corner of metal’s history, and indeed Black Sabbath’s history, that hasn’t been touched, influenced or even publicly flogged and disgraced and then hailed again like Aston’s favourite sons. You can’t get by listening to one of their many descendants without them immediately described as having ‘Sabbathian’ riffs, a denonym unto itself, as much a noose as it is a form of worship.
But who could have even seen this day coming? True, this isn’t the first time the band have attempted to get back together. There was that period in the middle of the 2000’s when the original line-up of Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Ozzy Osbourne and Bill Ward all toured together. But even after the very public and disappointing spat between Ward and the remainder of Black Sabbath over payments and contracts and everything, the reunion has largely come through unscathed, still widely celebrated – those Bill Ward diehards seem to go a bit quiet, more so in the wake of Iommi’s battle with lymphoma and so the Sabbath return has been hailed as a triumph of metal. Of sorts.
‘13’ is certainly the best thing that Sabbath have done with Ozzy on vocals for a long time. Considering he was barely able to finish the disappointing ‘Never Say Die’, Ozzy sounds in fine form, as do his compadres Iommi and Butler, over the course of fifty-three minutes. Rick Rubin has done his usual trick of stripping back the old horses sound a la Metallica, Johnny Cash, etc. to excellent effect again, helping to take Sabbath back to the 70s with a modern shine, all relatively cleaned up compared to the days of old, but no less accurate with the laser-precise vision for the riff. There’s not a short moment on ‘13’ – the shortest song is still a reasonable 4:44 – but Sabbath still remain determined through it all to reclaim their throne atop metal’s vast pyramid.
It certainly starts very well – ‘End of the Beginning’ gets straight into business with a loud and clear signal of intent. As the initial din slips into skulking pace, Ozzy muses ‘Is this the end of the beginning?/Or the beginning of the end?’ It continues on as a diatribe on our ever-digital world, commanding us to ‘rise up, reset and be the master of your fate’, morphing into a celebratory riff which Iommi leads with huge pomp. We then get the now very familiar opening strains of the single ‘God Is Dead?’, which follows familiar Sabbath territory with the juxtaposition between jangling chords and huge roaring riffs, as it plods along with menace and great deliberation, while ‘Loner’ is a straight up rocker that screams huge riffs, huge drums and huge grooves.
Black Sabbath – End of the Beginning
It’s really a shame the rest of the album can’t match up to that – not that its particularly bad, just not memorable in the way the rest of the album. There’s some interesting lyrical themes – ‘Age of Reason’ slams the politically, religiously, financially obsessed world while ‘Live Forever’ is a reflection on mortality, and the excellent ‘Dear Father’ is the spiritual successor to ‘After Forever’, focusing its ire on the child priest abuse scandals within the Catholic church. But it just doesn’t stick out as wholly memorable –the opening half packing such considerable weight and force that the inevitable tailing off in quality creeps in.
It was widely talked about that producer Rick Rubin took the remaining original three on an ‘unlearn everything’ approach, taking them back to their debut album and telling them effectively this was their second album. You can see his point – Sabbath throw everything at trying to recapture that late 60’s, early 70’s spirit. ‘Zeitgeist’ is perhaps the most poignant example of this, blatantly harking back to ‘Planet Caravan’ but doing so in supreme fashion, bongos being tapped away and the most melancholy of vocals from Ozzy, the acoustics strummed away in supreme spacey fashion. And by and large, Butler and Iommi are having a hell of a time pulling off the the grooviest dirges. Rage Against The Machine drummer Brad Wilk fills in the inexorable void left by Ward – and does a pretty good job, even though he doesn’t feel quite as free-flowing in style as Ward does, though in the context of Black Sabbath 2013, he fits in fairly well, even as Rubin’s hired hand.
But is this worth the apoplectic praise that some of more established metal zines are losing their stuff over? Hell no. Such fawning is undoubtedly their valid opinion, but it smacks somewhat of hero worship rather than modern day realism. This doesn’t mean that ‘13’ isn’t worth hearing – in fact, this is the most definitive Sabbath album for many, many years, even if it isn’t a patch on anything produced between 1970 and 1974. For me, it just falls short of the line between ‘good’ and ‘great’. Considering Ozzy’s car crash of an exit in 1978, and all that has passed since, the fact three of the four have got back together and made an album of considerable quality, without disgracing either themselves or their back catalogue, is proof that they retain a place at the mantle of 21st century heavy metal, and can be considered an achievement, if not the absolute.