I think it’s only right that a reviewer should feel some sort of pressure when writing about a new album release, and more so when it concerns a band who rightly so have been deemed as legendary. Reviews don’t necessarily make or break a band, but all too often writers flippantly claim that an album is “great” or “classic” when the reality is it’s just as average as most and rarely stands the test of time.
Even so, the murmurs of the long-awaited return of an Ozzy Osbourne-fronted Black Sabbath have been on everyone’s saliva-coated lips for years now, but having never come to fruition in the studio sense after several false starts, the woefully titled 13 was always going to be eagerly anticipated once the word was out of its impending release.
Now, before I start this review I want to make it clear that even as a huge Black Sabbath fan (who isn’t?!) I didn’t want to get caught up in the petty politics being spouted by so many so-called fans that seem to have spent more time ranting on about the omission of original drummer Bill Ward than the actual record.
Whatever conspiracies have been swirling around people’s heads since news of Ward’s exclusion, it’s time to get over it and stare at the cold hard facts; these being that Black Sabbath circa-13 does not include Bill Ward. Move on. In his place, rock ’n’ roll stalwarts Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler have recruited former Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave sticksman Brad Wilk, who certainly has big boots to fill.
Strangely, despite the purists complaining that 13 isn’t an official reunion, it’s interesting to note just how many line-up changes – mainly in the vocal department – Black Sabbath have had over the years. 13 is of course the first studio album of Sabbath to feature Ozzy Osbourne since 1978’s aptly titled Never Say Die!, and judging by some of the recent live performances from the band (mainly Ozzy) I was rather worried that the band’s 19th full-length studio opus was going to be a bit of a let-down, the sort of composition hindered, rather than aided, by modern dynamics, and so I knew I had to be careful not to compare it to the classics of the 1970s and early 80s.
There’s nothing worse than reviewers barking on about how a band’s new album doesn’t compare to their previous works, even though the earlier works are decades old. It’s only natural that bands move on, as does technology, and so 13, in my opinion anyway, has to be reviewed as a separate entity.
It’s only fair that we start with the track ‘God Is Dead?’ – the second cut of the opus – simply because it was the track being touted around long before the album release. Clocking in at almost nine-minutes it begins life as a simmering, creeping, stark Iommi chord, nothing more, harking back to those ominous strains of the band’s seminal ‘Black Sabbath’ anthem (from the 1970 debut album of the name). It’s eerie in its reflection and then disturbed by an avalanche of riff and Butler’s shuddering bass.
As an opening crunch it’s merely a tease, immediately resorting back to that trundling plod until the injection of Ozzy’s sombre narration. “Lost in the darkness, I fade from the light”, the Brummie warlord drools. “Faith of my father, my brother, my Maker and Saviour, help me make it through the night”, he continues, evoking images of all manner of nightmares. Even just a minute or so in the levels of suspense are gut-wrenching as the trudge continues until once again Iommi’s soul-shattering riff descends upon the room, bringing with it Butler’s battering bass and Wilks’ cascading drums.
Immediately, I am aware of the fact that the drums seem slightly lost in the mix, and relatively safe in their structure, lacking the unorthodox clatter of Bill Ward’s seminal tub-thumping. But hey, lyrically it’s Sabbath at their blackest, building and then simmering, building and then simmering again as Ozzy yawns “Will somebody tell me the answer, is God really dead?” amidst Butler’s dominant strums and Iommi’s stormy guitar sound.
Admittedly, the track doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s a lengthy sermon of rainy quality, but as an album teaser it’s better than a majority of songs released this day and age, and while there’s a familiar air about Iommi’s shift of riff six minutes or so in, it’s still Black Sabbath, and how we’ve gagged for such sincere darkness.
Suddenly, with nary an internet leak in sight, we are all poised with baited breath for the actual album which I scramble to purchase on darkest double vinyl to accompany those early works of art. With candles lit, wife out of the way (actually, she’s as equally intrigued!), and wind howling outside, the needle drops and the strains of ‘End Of The Beginning’ echo out across the moors (okay, so I don’t live near a misty moor, but just go with it for atmosphere!).
Again, it’s another eight-minute epic that oozes across the room like some foul shadow cast by the Grim Reaper himself. The riff is heavy – obviously – and the drums booming, but again Sabbath scuttle back to that ‘Black Sabbath’ style of foreboding. The chords are stark, the drum a sporadic thud and Ozzy does sound like he’s been transported back to the hazy, rain-soaked days of 1970, his bark as equally effective as his dove-headed bite.
‘End Of The Beginning’ is laborious, until it lurches into an uptempo shift which once again has echoes of the band’s ‘Black Sabbath’ track, Ozzy replacing “Is it the end my friend?, Satan’s coming round the bend” with “Release your mind, fast forward to the secrets of your soul”, as Brad Wilk’s remains steady as the back-bone to Iommi and Butler’s stern chugging. Throughout the track there is, once again, an air of familiarity, as parts of ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ (the title track from the band’s 1973 album) spring to mind – I guess there are only so many riffs the great man can come up with.
‘Loner’ lunges into the ears with a massive doom-laden groove as Ozzy’s crystal clear vocals – aided by Rick Rubin’s tight production – howl at the moon. Admittedly though, of all the eight tracks on the record this is the one that sounds more suited to an Ozzy Osbourne solo platter and remains rather unconvincing with a rather repetitive riff.
‘Zeitgeist’ changes the mood however. “Astral engines in reverse, I’m falling through the universe again” the Ozzman wails over a faint acoustic strum and deft bongo drum, resonating the hazy, drug-fuelled days of ‘Solitude’ (from 1971’s Master Of Reality) and ‘Laguna Sunrise’ (from 1972’s Vol. 4) as a mellow and often trippy vibe with a cosmic slant.
The seven-minute ‘Age Of Reason’ lumbers in on a traditional rock riff, Wilk’s drums, although once again safe, rumble as Ozzy yawns “Do you hear the thunder raging in the sky?”. As expected, Iommi’s guitar sound and Butler’s bass are monstrous as they work in cohesion – it’s an epic track with orchestral overtures – billowing smoke of doom until Iommi slows the pace with ominous aplomb, but then unexpectedly jarring us into the final verse before the gloomy ooze of the finale as the solo soars into the zenith.
We’re then treated to the albums perkiest cut, ‘Live Forever’, featuring a more complicated riff structure and Ozzy’s mournful cries of “I don’t want to live forever, but I don’t want to die”.
‘Damaged Soul’ is the bluesiest track on offer, soaked in a melancholic guitar and wallowing bass which accompany Ozzy’s grey whine of “Born in a graveyard, adopted by sin. I cultivate evil, that’s living within”. A great lyric, as Black Sabbath confirm themselves as the masters of occult-influenced rock with those earthquake drums and reflective, yet vibrant riffs.
And then we’re at the final epitaph – ‘Dear Father’ – introduced to us by Butler’s punchy bass and another masterful riff. It’s a fitting end to an album that some would say is rather uneventful, lacking that killer chorus like so many of those much drooled over classics. Even so, 13, although slightly restricted by the pinching production and despite lacking a truly magnificent composition within, is still the opus I hoped and prayed for, and as it reaches its rainy yet oh so poignant climax, circa the cascading drums of Brad Wilk, I’m almost moved to tears, realising just how much we’ll miss these old dogs of doom.
I doubt very much there’ll be another Ozzy Osbourne-fronted Black Sabbath album after this, and so as the church bell tolls amidst the cracks of lightning, it’s time to bid a teary farewell to the greatest and heaviest band of our time.
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