So, first things first: I am a Black Sabbath fanatic. They've been my all-time favorite band since I first heard them on some kid's turntable back in the early seventies. (I don't remember the details - the album, the kid's name, the exact year - I just remember thinking "this is the heaviest music I've ever heard!")
So when the four original members of Black Sabbath - Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward - announced on 11-11-11 that they were going to make a new album (their first together since 1978), I was ecstatic. I also had some trepidation.
My main concern was that the band would not return to their original form, which was a mixture of doom, anger, power, and beauty, and stylistically: heavy rock interspersed with jazz, blues, classical and folk. And tempo changes: Black Sabbath songs were always full of tempo changes.
Tony was my main worry.
When the Black Sabbath Reunion album was released back in 1998, it brought about a sudden resurgence of interest in the original Black Sabbath with lots of press proclaiming them "the inventors of heavy metal", and more specifically calling out Tony as the "doom-master". Tony, it seems, had bought into the press's characterization of him and had been releasing albums (2000's Iommi, 2005's Fused - with Glenn Hughes, and 2009's The Devil You Know - with the Ronnie James Dio fronted Mob Rules version of Black Sabbath going under the name "Heaven and Hell") which contained an over abundance of slow "doomy" tracks - many of which seemed to be variations of Electric Funeral (from Paranoid) and Black Sabbath (from their self-titled first album). He had also grown to eschew tempo changes. He had fast tracks, slow tracks and mid-tempo tracks, but not many that would actually change tempos mid-song like the old Sabbath songs used to. So I was afraid we'd get another overly doomy album lacking the jazz, blues, classical and folk elements, and tempo changes, that had dotted the landscape of the original 8 Sabbath albums.
Then I heard that Rick Rubin, who was going to produce the album, was going to try to get the band to return to their roots. He actually mentioned that Black Sabbath was not a "metal" band and that they had elements of blues and jazz in their songs. OK, so I was encouraged.
Then Tony got cancer.
Now Ronnie James Dio had just died from cancer before Tony got diagnosed and I was really scared for him and prayed immediately for his recovery. I was also (selfishly) concerned for my own dreams: could it be that the 4 original members of my favorite group of all time would never get to make another album together? I was devastated (musically speaking). But Tony, by all accounts, had caught the disease early on and had taken the appropriate steps, and he wanted to continue with the album. So that was a good sign.
Then Bill Ward dropped out.
Now Bill is, by far, the most eclectic member of the group. His solo albums (1990's Ward One: Along The Way and 1997's When The Bough Breaks) were totally removed from the Black Sabbath doom and gloom, yet they contained, what were probably, the best songs written by any of the original 4 members in their solo careers. Plus, Bill was essentially a jazz drummer. He has almost none of the characteristics of the modern metal drummer. He refers to himself as an "orchestrationalist" and patterns his drum style on the percussion section of an orchestra. For this reason, I was really encouraged to see what he was going to bring to the table when the four of them got in a room together. Then he was gone.
The band began doing some promotional shows with Tommy Clufetos - Ozzy's solo band drummer - and he did absolutely nothing for me. He was the typical metal drummer: hard hitting, predictable and boring. "Please", I thought, "don't let him be the drummer on the album!"
Well Rick Rubin saved the day again! He told the band that he didn't think Clufetos fit and suggested Rage Against The Machine's Brad Wilk. OK, now I'm interested again.
Fast forward to today. I've got the finished project in my hands. The album's awkward title "13" is, according to Ozzy, based on the fact that it took 13 years to make (they had initially tried, and failed, to make a new album back in 2000). The cover - a burning "13" effigy - is also a bit ho hum. But Black Sabbath has never really been about album names or album covers - so what about the music?
Well, it's an amazing accomplishment. Given all of my fears and trepidations, I have to say that I am impressed with the album Rick Rubin was able to pull out of these guys. Most of the songs on the 8 song main album and the 4 song* bonus disk, have tempo changes and there's a ton of cool riffs here. That's good. The album has a decidedly "live" feel to it, and is much more raw than I expected. That is also a big plus. Then there's the song Damaged Soul, which is a trippy "Hendrix meets Cream then gets crushed by Black Sabbath" blues jam. Wow! And lastly, Zeitgeist has a jazzy guitar solo at the end. So all the elements I yearned for are there.
Tony's guitar playing is every bit as good as anything he's ever done - better perhaps. His riffs are amazing and his solos are too - never being over-the-top but always seeming to fit the song perfectly. And his blues guitar playing in Damaged Soul is right up there with my favorite blues rock legends: SRV, Hendrix, Roy Buchanan, Peter Green, etc. It's good to hear Tony stretch out and play something besides doom and gloom for a change!
And Geezer is a monster on bass! If you just listen to the bass playing on this album, you can't help but think "wow!" He is all over that bass! And his tone! It's the best bass tone I've heard from Geezer Butler in a long time - maybe ever. It's that good.
And Ozzy gives his best vocal performance in years. He has always been the weak link in Black Sabbath - not because of a lack of ability, but because he's blown his voice out so many times that he can no longer hit the notes he used to. And he never really took care of his voice. In fact I don't think he's ever taken singing seriously - I doubt if he's ever worked on breathing techniques, or singing from the diaphragm, or anything a professional singer would worry about - for him it has always been about having a good time and putting on a good show. Even back in the day, he often had trouble recreating the songs live like he had done them in the studio. But Ozzy's strength has always been his amazing knack for vocal melodies. And that ability shines through on this album. Even though he's working with a very limited range now, his melodies are right up there with Tony's riffs and Geezer's bass playing.
Brad Wilk does a credible job on drums. He doesn't really add to the songs but, more importantly, he doesn't detract from them either. He's no Bill Ward, (nobody is - perhaps not even Bill himself anymore), so there's really no eclectic orchestrationalism like I was hoping Bill would bring, but there's also no heavy handed rock drumming. So, all in all, Wilk is neither a plus nor a minus. That's good though because my main concern about the drumming was that I would notice it (in a bad way). I don't.
So what are my criticisms? Well, I have a few. First is the lyrics. They are never bad, that's not it at all. Geezer, who is Sabbath's chief lyricist, does a terrific job, along with Ozzy (who wrote the lyrics for 4 out of the 12 songs) in crafting interesting, topical lyrics with many an excellent "turn of phrase". So what's my criticism? Well, I've been spoiled by Geezer's otherworldly, phenomenal lyrics on albums like Sabotage, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Volume 4. Those lyrics were some of the best ever written in my opinion! Needless to say, nobody could probably live up to that standard, and on this album, Geezer falls (slightly) short.
Another criticism is that there are parts of certain songs that are completely derivative of previous Sabbath songs. The song Zeitgeist - with its lyrics about space travel, Leslie effected vocals, jazz outro and bongos - is a clone of Planet Caravan, (from the Paranoid album), while the song End of the Beginning borrows heavily from the song Black Sabbath. There's also a riff in God is Dead? that sounds remarkably similar to the main riff of Hole in the Sky (from Sabotage).
Also, I think the album could've used a little more diversity. I think Bill Ward would've helped in that area. I think that, more than his drumming even, is where Bill Ward is most sorely missed. I think he would have had some off-the-wall suggestions that Rick Rubin would've probably loved.
But those are nit-picky little things. All in all, I find the album to be excellent and, (and this is probably the biggest compliment I could think of), I would rate it right up there with the original eight Black Sabbath albums. It's that good.
Now, if you're not a Black Sabbath fan (meaning they're not your favorite band), then you probably won't get what all the fuss is about. That's OK, you're not meant to. This album was made for Black Sabbath fans. It wasn't made for the media, or the casual listener. In fact, if you're a casual fan, don't even listen to it because there is really only one way to listen to a Black Sabbath album, and that is at maximum volume! If you're not going to do that, then don't even bother.
Album rating: 9 out of 10.
* I got the Best Buy exclusive which features one more bonus song (Naïveté In Black) than the normal deluxe edition.