Were people always this cynical or has the internet bought out a side of people hitherto kept sensibly hidden? It seems that no band these days, new or old, can bring out a release without attracting the attention of a sneering minority dedicated to explaining who this band has ripped off or how that band has no chance of ever recapturing its former glories. The case in point for today’s consumption is the long-anticipated reformation of the classic Sabbath line-up (minus Bill Ward, but with Brad Wilk in place instead) which has attracted a steady stream of opprobrium, starting even before the first track was aired, attacking everything from the artwork to the motivations of the people involved, a culture that has developed not least as a result of certain music websites endlessly recycling stories of inter-band feuds with the sort of glee that was once solely the preserve of the tabloids.
So what to make of this album after all the public spats, ill-health and a handful of startling live performances? Well, to dispense with the obvious, this isn’t a ground-breaking album and nor should it be – Black Sabbath have already broken enough ground for one life-time and their reputation would be secure in that regard even if one was to only offer their first four albums as evidence. It is also a different beast to ‘the devil you know’, the stunning (and tragically only) album released by the Dio-fronted line-up of Sabbath in the guise of Heaven and Hell, which veered heavily into doom territory. What ‘13’ is, however, is a heavy, bluesy trawl through Sabbath’s early years with a hefty dose of ‘Master of reality’ at its core. Firmly rooted in traditional metal and loaded with blistering solos, it is arguably the best Ozzy-fronted Sabbath album at least since ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ and it certainly does not do the band any disservice with its lengthy, grandiose trawls into the darkest areas of Sabbath’s extensive history.
With only eight tracks on offer (although the deluxe edition throws in an additional three), and clocking in at fifty-four minutes in length, it is clear that Sabbath have been writing, first and foremost, for themselves and for their fans. This is not a record with airplay in mind and it stands as worlds apart from Ozzy’s recent pop-infused metal records. This typically contrary approach is both a blessing and a curse – those raised on Ozzy’s solo work will quite possibly lament the lack of pop hooks – but for those who worship at the altar of the riff, Tony Iommi has dug deep to pull out some gloriously heavy guitar work and the album rarely drops out of its mid-paced march through the band’s darker side, giving the album a vintage doom that places ‘13’ between ‘the devil you know’ and ‘Paranoid’ in terms of weight and style, particularly with its very own ‘planet caravan’ moment in the rather beautiful psychedelic rock of ‘Zeitgeist’.
The album opens with the powerful crunch of ‘end of the beginning’, Tony’s trademark guitar snarl placed front and centre with Brad Wilk’s impressively restrained drumming coming a close second. Producer Rick Rubin has done a fantastic job of capturing the band’s sound, opting for a vintage warmth glossed with modern clarity The track itself is a swampy blast that perfectly captures the spirit of the band’s debut release with its quiet/skull crushing dynamic fully evident and gleefully riffed on by the band who sound as if they’re enjoying every minute, particularly Tony who revels in some spectacular guitar work on the bridge. One slight issue lies with the lyrics whichare at their weakest on this song, but Ozzy sings with passion and skill and it’s one of the best performances he has turned in on an album in some years, his unique tones seemingly tailor made for Iommi’s sonic assault. Next up is the album’s major single, the pounding, surging metallic miasma of ‘god is dead?’ which smoulders with a thinly veiled intensity on the verse before being propelled into the huge riffs of the chorus by Brad’s impressive percussive barrage. What truly impresses, however, are the multiple ideas the band bring to the song, varying riffs and tempo with ease, so that the song moves through a variety of moods before arriving at its adrenalin and sweat-soaked conclusion. ‘Loner’ is a deceptively simple take on modern apathy that says much in few words over a taut groove that is disturbingly insistent whilst the solo, with its spacy phase effects, comes straight from the Beatles circa the White album.
At the heart of the album is the mystical ‘zeitgeist’ which opens upon a creepy Ozzy laugh and proceeds to wend its way dreamily through your consciousness upon the back of Ozzy’s hazy vocals and the rich sound of Tony’s acoustic guitar, none of which remotely prepares you for the sublime, stately solo that brings to mind David Gilmour – it is a defining Iommi moment, and it is one of the most lyrical pieces of music he has ever put his name to. Things take a heavier turn once more with the brutal ‘age of reason’, a track which kicks off with Brad’s powerhouse drumming and then goes all the way up to eleven with Iommi’s towering juggernaut of a riff slamming into you with considerable force. Even here the band refuse to play it safe, and with Brad’s whip-crack drumming gaining momentum and the riffs getting faster and more frantic, you get the sense that Black Sabbath themselves feel urged on by the sense of their own legacy, and whilst for a less-confident act such awareness could be fatal, for Iommi, Butler and Osbourne, it is simply a sign to dedicate themselves to their art with an abandon that is as admirable as it is exciting – listening to Iommi’s stupendous solo work as he once again outdoes himself is mind-blowing, and a case study for younger guitarists keen to play both with feeling and technical precision. ‘Live forever’ is a snarling assault against the age process, Ozzy turning the old rock ‘n’ roll cliché on its head with the chorus “Well I don’t want to live forever but I don’t want to die. I may be dreaming or whatever, I live inside a lie.” The most surprising track is, perhaps, ‘Damaged soul’ which is the closest Sabbath have ever come to a pure blues track and it sounds fantastic, channelling the hellhounds that drove Robert Johnson into the abyss via the guitar of Hendrix (whose tone Iommi eerily nails) and the mind of Crowley. It may just be one of the best songs Sabbath have ever written. The album closes with ‘Dear father’, a demonically heavy slow grind that reminds you once again exactly why Sabbath are so revered. This is the band at their best – menacing and capable of whipping a storm even though their sound remains gleefully oppressive and ominously impenetrable.
As a music fan it is quite impossible to divorce yourself from expectation when approaching the first new Sabbath album in some 18 years and the first to feature Ozzy since 1978’s ‘Never say die’ (live albums excluded), and yet the band kick any worries into touch from the very first song whilst simultaneously playing with their legacy in a manner that often sends shivers down the spine. This is Sabbath shorn of the drugs, the excess, the ups and downs of the eighties and nineties and taken back to their devilishly bluesy roots. There is no innovation here as such, but to call this album a throwback is just plain wrong and smacks of lazy pundits listening to this densely layered album only once before dispatching ill-thought-out criticisms. For one thing, Iommi’s playing is a revelation; there are solos here that top anything the great man has ever done before – the beautiful, near progressive work on ‘zeitgeist’, the soul crushing fret-work on ‘age of reason’ spring to mind as particular examples. Then there is the small matter of Ozzy singing his heart out, Geezer laying down earth-shaking bass and Brad Wilk providing a solid rhythmic backbone that is deceptively simple until you start to actually consider the fills that abound in songs such as ‘live forever’. Even the cheeky, debut-referencing ending speaks of a band content to let history be itself whilst the present stands on its own two feet, and their intuition was right – this is a fine, magnificent album that stands tall amidst the grand works of Sabbath’s back catalogue and whilst it certainly takes several listens to appreciate the album’s many nuances, the time is rewarded ten-fold as the majesty of Iommi’s solos, the power of Ozzy’s voice and the earth shattering rhythm section of Wilk and Butler threaten to send shivers down the spine with all the force of the band at their youthful peak. ’13’ is a triumph and one that goes to show once again that, shorn of the drama that seems to surround the band like a tawdry soap opera, Black Sabbath are simply one of the finest bands ever to walk the planet.