Black-Sabbath-13As any metal fan knows, the first four Black Sabbath albums defined an entire musical genre.  Four slabs of vinyl with monolithic riffs that inspired future generations; riffs which many emulated, but few matched – especially in terms of superb tone.  From 1973 onward, Sabbath continued to make good music, but it didn’t always match the impact of their earliest work.

Following the departure of frontman Ozzy Osbourne and drummer Bill Ward in 1978, the band enlisted ex-Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio and his mate Vinny Appice to fill the void.  With Dio in the early 80s, Sabbath released two absolutely stonking metal records in ‘Heaven & Hell’ and ‘The Mob Rules’, but at least as far as studio output goes, this would be their last hurrah.  Following the dissolution of this line up in 1982, Dio moved on and formed his own band (their debut release ‘Holy Diver’ even outshining those Sabs records) while Sabbath limped rather sorrowfully through the next decade.  Albums with Ian Gillan, Tony Martin and Glenn Hughes on vocals represented reasonable rock fare, but were a world away from the career defining work of the band’s formative years.  While each a fine rock record – especially those with Martin – these were Sabbath albums in name only.

In the late 90s, most Sabbath fans got what they’d long craved, when the original line up of the band reformed and headlined the Ozzy Osbourne curated festival, Ozzfest.  After playing various shows, news came that – joy of all joys – the original Sabbath were to enter the studio for the first time in approximately twenty years, with legendary producer Rick Rubin.  Those 1998 sessions yielded just two newly released tracks.  Both ‘Psycho Man’ and ‘Selling My Soul’ would have represented great first attempts by a Sabbath-inspired young metal band, but the song writing lacked the edge of the band’s formative years and Rubin’s production, although fine, didn’t capture the “four men in a room, orange amps buzzing” brilliance of the standard set by Rodger Bain on the first two records.  Three years later, the band worked on new material with Rubin once again; the 2001 sessions led to no actual new studio material being released – although the previously unheard ‘Scary Dream’ was aired at a few shows.    …And it seemed that would be the last we’d hear from an Ozzy-fronted Black Sabbath…

Following albums and tours under the name ‘Heaven & Hell’ with Ronnie James Dio between 2007-2009, guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler reunited with Ozzy and drummer Bill Ward in November 2011; the announcement came that not only would there be live shows, but the four men were to record a new album.  We’d been here before…and, quite understandably, some of us wouldn’t believe it until the final product dropped on release day.  Not too long after the big announcements, things quickly turned sour, when Ward left the band very publically, before any recording had even taken place.  Would this reunion last much longer? How long would it be before Ozzy wandered off into oblivion? Questions, questions…

Black Sabbath finally released the first taste of the fruits of their reunion in April 2013, when lead single ‘God Is Dead?’ made its way across the internet.  Initial reactions were mixed to the ambling nine minute epic; but hopefully as part of a full work, it would sound better.  ‘13’, the first Black Sabbath studio album for eighteen years (and their first Ozzy-fronted album for far, far too long) was finally released to an eager audience nearly two months later.

Thirty five years on from ‘Never Say Die!’, how does ‘13’ hold up in terms of “classic Sabbath”?  The answer is pretty well, all told.  Right from the first barrage notes of the eight minute opener ‘End of the Beginning’, there’s a much better feeling than Rubin captured during the ill-fated sessions of 1998.  As if he’s throwing down the gauntlet to every doom metal band across the land, Iommi’s guitars possess an almost unmatchable crunch as they power through the slow, powerful riff.  It’s familiar tones are not quite those ‘Black Sabbath’, but certainly close – but once it drops into a sinister gentle musical motif, it’s so clearly modelled on that defining tune from 1970. Throwing in lyrics such as “reanimation of the past” and “rewinding the future to the past” means, of course, any similarities to anything you’ve heard before are entirely deliberate and Sabbath rise as if from the grave.  With a quickening of pace, Iommi churns out a groovy riff and Oz sounds extremely comfortable delivering lyrics straight from the early Sabbath handbook.  The high point of this opener comes as a fuzzy – and loudly mastered – guitar solo careens from the left speaker channel.  As with most genuinely great Sabbath, it’s not all bluster, either: make sure to keep an ear for Butler’s impeccable lead bass runs during the track’s second half. Compared to this, those early mixed feelings for ‘God Is Dead?’ seem entirely justified.  There’s something about ‘God…?’  that doesn’t quite work as well as it should.  Maybe it’s a little too long for a slow and thoughtful number – while Iommi’s cleaner guitar sounds are fine enough, the heavier end doesn’t really crush in the way it could have.  It may also be the fault of some wobbly lyrics – even by Ozzy’s standards, the rhyming of gloom, doom and tomb is a bit too obvious.  It’s also marred by some obvious studio tweaking on the vocals; although surely an absolute necessity at this point, there’s something just a little too clean and precise about Ozzy’s voice throughout.  Also, it’s not until around the six minute mark that anything genuinely interesting happens…  In all, ‘God Is Dead?’ is the weakest track on ‘13’; one assumes it’s only the religion-questioning imagery (something of a Sabbath staple) that put it in line for a single release.  Looking at it in its most positive light, if this were the debut track from a younger, greener stoner/doom band – much like 1998’s ‘Psycho Man’, it would certainly appear better.

After that quality dip, ‘Loner’ sets everything back on track.  This tune proves that while metal may have evolved into all kinds of mutations since the original Sabs were kings of their own doomy castles, in 2013, they still have a more than credible presence.  A slightly less doom-laden and more groove-oriented riff recalls the days of ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ and ‘Sabotage’, while Ozzman sounds better here than he has in many a year previously.  The backbeat – supplied by Rage Against The Machine’s Brad Wilk, deputizing for the much missed Ward – is solid without ever attempting to become overbearing.  This basic approach is all such a song needs, but at the same time, it’s as if Wilk doesn’t want to impose.  Also of interest, Iommi’s solo sticks out a mile since it’s been phasered to absolute buggery – and not in a purest 70s way; there’s a shine here which belies ‘Loner’s origins as a more modern recording.  …And that, of course, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  While there’s a fanboy sense of fun in spotting homages to Sabbath tunes of old, it’s absolutely thrilling to hear the band adapting their “classic” sound and bringing it more into a more modern age in a way they’d failed at in the late 90s.

With three intense tunes out of the way, it’s time to close the first half with something different.  Just as ‘The End of the Beginning’ recycled moments of ‘Black Sabbath’ for the twenty first century, this track revisits an older tune in a far more brazen fashion.  With Iommi taking acoustic guitar in hand and the hard rock drums giving way to soft percussion, this is instantly familiar as a reworking of the musical themes of ‘Planet Caravan’.  The vocals are put through the same psychedelic filters…and yes, it even closes with a soft jazz guitar solo, with Iommi trading in overdriven metal for something inspired more by the likes of Kenny Burrell. For those looking for something which makes it different enough to ‘Caravan’ to pass muster, keener ears will notice how the few untreated vocals that appear mid-way owe far more to Ozzy’s solo output than anything he ever recorded with Sabbath.  Most of this tune may appear to be shameless recycling, but hey, it’s all recycled with love.

‘Age of Reason’ blends a classic riff with a tiny nod to ‘War Pigs’ with a very confident air. During the first half, Geezer’s bass isn’t as high in the mix as Rodger Bain would have placed it, but there’s no denying this represents everything you love about Sabbath’s glory years.  The second half of this number increases the intensity, with a few moments surrounding Iommi’s particularly savage lead guitar break where you may even forget this wasn’t recorded during the ‘Volume 4’ sessions.  The main reason for this?  A huge rattling bass emanating from the left channel!  It’s great to hear Mr. Butler sounding like he used to – such a shame we didn’t get to hear him a little more this time out.  With a more mid paced approach [mid paced by metal standards, quite fast for Sabbath], ‘Live Forever’ makes the idea of this long overdue reunion seem natural.  Not only are the whole band sounding a bit looser – including Wilk, who approaches the kit a little more intensely – but Iommi offers not one, but two particularly meaty riffs.  There’s a natural flair to the lead work, while riff-wise there are hints of ‘Children of the Grave’ and ‘Tomorrow’s Dream’ lurking – each of which goes some way to making this an important tune in the Sabbath cannon.   With a slow, bluesy swing, ‘Damaged Soul’ harks back to ‘Warning’ with its near-live fuzziness.  Fans of Butler’s bass will undoubtedly cherish this tune – for bass work, it’s the best, hands down, especially when the bottom end sounds mesh with Iommi’s overdriven blues licks.  If any further proof were needed that this is another loving tribute to Sabbath circa 1970, Ozzy even tackles the harmonica again, although the results aren’t quite as thrilling as, say, ‘The Wizard’.  While many will love the slow, metal moments of ‘13’, in terms of playing from all concerned, this is the album’s best track, without question – maybe even their best track since ’75.

The album’s closing statement ‘Dear Father’ crams in (almost) all of the best moments from the previous seven tunes, resulting in another Sabbath classic.  With another slightly questioning religious bent, the lyrics call to a higher power after the protagonist’s live “has been left in ruin”.  Its bones are ground from standard Sabbath fare, made all the more enjoyable by another typical Iommi riff and thunderous drum line.  There’s little more to be discussed – certainly nothing which hasn’t been tackled previously – but if by this point ‘13’ has been an enjoyable neo-nostalgic experience for you, this will also guarantee a few musical thrills. …And after a pretty spectacular seven and a half minutes, the track comes to an end with a clap of thunder, the sound of pouring rain and the sound of a funeral bell’s toll; bringing us back to where we came in some forty three years previously, all with a very knowing wink.

Ozzy’s voice mightn’t be as good as it once was – and let’s be fair, measured against the likes of Dio, Gillan and many others, it was never that great – and the music sometimes leans towards the overly familiar, but Iommi’s riffs are absolutely stellar.  The more modern recording techniques mightn’t always bring out the best in Sabbath’s sound (bar ‘Damaged Soul’, when Rubin gets everything absolutely spot on), but it’s always possible to hear the roots of what made this band almost untouchable in the early 70s.  This is the Ozzy-fronted Sabbath’s finest hour since 1975’s ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ and their best overall release since ‘The Mob Rules’ in ’81.  Sure, you’ll have heard it all before from Sabbath – not to mention the many acolytes that followed in their wake – but if slow and doomy is your thing, then ‘13’ ticks so many of the right boxes.  …And if, after this, you still remain unconvinced  and you still miss that fuzzier, more primitive sound of ‘Master of Reality’ and ‘Paranoid’, there are still a mountain of albums by Orange Goblin and Fu Manchu out there…  After false starts aplenty and a catalogue’s worth of albums which felt like Black Sabbath in name only, ‘13’ finally finds metal’s most legendary outfit back somewhere near the top of their game.

June/July 2013