Black Sabbath - 13 (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

Black Sabbath

13 (2013)

Vertigo / Universal

From: John Gentile
To: Bryne Yancey, Tori Pederson
Date: Tue, Jun 11, 2013 at 12:33 AM
Subject: Black Sabbath

Guys, everyone keeps talking about a new Black Sabbath album. I've searched high and low, trawled the internet and flipped through record bin after record bin, but I can't seem to find one. I mean, there's a new album with Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Brad Wilk, but there's no new Black Sabbath album that I can find.

Frankly, it's hard to separate the internal squabbling in the Sabbath camp from 13 itself. While Sabbath have existed in no less than 26 incarnations, many without drummer Bill Ward, it's hard to view this version, which is more or less being billed as "The Original" and "The Greatest" version of Sabbath as anything less than a symptom of the greedy machinations of that gruesome pair of rumpelstiltskins, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne. Following their attack on Iommi for the Sabbath trademark, despite the fact that Ozzy had not claimed it for over 20 years (much to my dismay, Iommi settled) and their extortion of Bill Ward, Ozzy and Sharon, in my mind, taint everything they touch including art. Art can often stand for itself despite this, but because of the pure greed and lack of respect for the contributions of others that emanates from their every action, that's not the case here.

Still, despite the (unfortunately successful) meddling of those avaricious hobgoblins, it's a testament to the power of Iommi and Butler that the new "Black Sabbath" album is actually really good.

Both Iommi and Butler pound out thick, heavy riffs that are as good as any other music they've made, and in some places, even better. Iommi twists and lumbers his sound while Butler provides a thick backdrop that makes the sound even more massive. Sabbath, rightfully so, have been credited with inventing doom metal. But if you really listen to the first eight Sabbath records, they really only adhere to the doom metal template–long songs built around slow, large riffage–about half the time. But in a matter of innovators imitating imitators, 13 is the archetypical doom metal album: Pounding, sludgy riffs played slow and with force. Even with that said, the Iommi/Butler combination still do it best.

To his credit, Ozzy turns in a remarkable performance, all things considered. The last two decades have reduced the prince of darkness into a drunken, incoherent buffoon and his solo albums haven't helped that perception much. Ozzy's solo records are rife with tales of ghostwriters penning the lyrics and frankly, it shows. Pretty much all of Ozzy's solo albums have laughable lyrics, particularly compared to the palpable dread which haunts his Sabbath material. But on 13, he's either energized by the band or hired better ghostwriters–Ozzy's lyrics are the best that they've been in over thirty years. He's finally shifted away from his use of overbearing directness and clichés, and has returned to his more metaphysical, amorphous ponderings. Likewise, his voice sounds the best it has in ages, and at times, reaches the ghostly wail heard on the classic first eight LPs.

You can't blame Wilk for trying his best. Who among you, when offered the chance, would not sit in for the mighty Sabbath? Wilk here serves as a hired studio gun and it shows. His performance is technically correct and competent, but you can tell he's doing his best to mimic Ward. Wilk is likely more accomplished a drummer in terms of sheer skill, but he can't quite replicate that heavy, thumping, purposefully sluggish rumble that Ward created and perfected, no doubt, from years of studying scratchy blues records. Wilk has the resume but Ward has the style, and you can't replicate style as easily. Still, Wilk does a capable job that doesn't ruin the album, though Ward's absence remains bittersweet… or maybe just slightly bitter.

Similarly, Rick Rubin's production works, but falls short of being magical. Rubin has always been a proponent of mega-production; But where that worked on the technical show that was Reign in Blood or the unflinching portrait that was the Johnny Cash American Recordings series, Sabbath thrive in darkness. Yet Rubin, who produces music these days in the manner that a part-timer assembles a Big Mac, shines bright lights on everything in the room. Where older Sabbath recordings thrived in a sludgy sound that made everything seem thicker and bleaker, the mega-production on 13 shows you exactly what the band is doing. With the curtain removed, a magician's tricks aren't quite as impressive. Also, Rubin seems to want to force the band to be not Black Sabbath, but what everyone thinks Sabbath are. If you really listen to the classic eight records, the band take a lot of daring, interesting detours. There are acoustic fiddlings, synth experiments, ballads about age and even love songs. Here, it seems the band just draw lyrics from side B of Black Sabbath and every song must either be a ghostly crept or smash-smash-smash.

But despite that there is nothing new here, this album does rock. Black Sabbath (along with Judas Priest) are the masters of metal for a reason and here they show why: Black Sabbath know massive riffs. Black Sabbath know haunting lyrics. Black Sabbath know darkness. Despite the birthing process of this album, Black Sabbath's product is a nearly unqualified success. Did I just call them "Black Sabbath?" The name fits. Sigh…

As you both can tell, I have lots of thoughts on this. What do you think?

From: Bryne Yancey
To: John Gentile, Tori Pederson
Date: Tue, Jun 11, 2013 at 11:40 AM

That was quite the manifesto.

I've been awfully surprised at the backlash Sabbath are getting by recording 13 without Bill Ward behind the kit. Ward is talented, no doubt, and the circumstances surrounding his lack of participation are dubious, but do that many people really care who's drumming, as long as Iommi's writing those monstrous riffs, Geezer's bass is thumping and Ozzy's vocals are as weirdly unique as ever? As you pointed out, John, Black Sabbath's lineup has shifted constantly over the years, sometimes embarrassingly so; if 13 isn't a Black Sabbath album, then neither is Mob Rules, which is a shame because Mob Rules kicks ass. As the progenitors of heavy metal, Sabbath's legacy is intact despite their turbulent history, and 13 is by far the closest thing to the original lineup us fans have received in 34 years, so maybe we should be happy with it nonetheless.

As for the music itself, based on how long this incarnation of the band have been away, it's far better than it has any right to be. Iommi's riffs are as sinister as ever. I agree that Ozzy's vocals are surprisingly strong–he's never been a conventionally or technically skilled singer, but the manner in which he's able to manufacture tension, uncertainty, fear and weirdness into his approach continues to be impressive. I'm especially impressed at how retro 13 feels, despite Rubin's loudness war apologist production. Sabbath didn't need to buck any trends here, because they are the original trendsetters, and thankfully they stick with what got them here.

And of course Wilk is emulating Ward on the drums, why wouldn't he? He does a nice job–I wouldn't say his time in Rage Against The Machine or Audioslave particularly informed or helped him perform in Black Sabbath, just because of how different the styles are. Those two bands don't have much soul, either, so it's not entirely unexpected that while Wilk's playing is technically sound, it's missing the intangibles that Ward had. If this doesn't blow over, we need to get Dave Grohl to drum on Sabbath's next record.

From: John Gentile
To: Bryne Yancey, Tori Pederson
Date: Tue, Jun 11, 2013 at 11:53 AM

Bryne, it seems that you and I agree on the facts of the circumstances, but come from a different perspective. Usually, when the main members of Sabbath have left the band, it's because they felt like leaving. Even when Ozzy left in 1980, it wasn't so much that he was fired as he wanted to leave. But while Mob Rules was good, you'd have to admit that the fundamental, tribal stomp of Ward is the engine that drove the previous albums. Yet here, this seems to be the first instance of a member being muscled out of the band, plain and simple.

I have trouble separating the Gordon Gekko-like tactics of Ozzy and Sharon from the album. Had Ward been on the album, it would have been better, no question; it also would have been one of the few great reunion albums to ever exist–Sabbath doing classic Sabbath. Instead, we get a really good album tinged with a certain loss. Mob Rules was a Sabbath album, sure, but it came after Ward felt like leaving the band and only a year after the previous album. Contrast that to 13, and this isn't pitched as just another Sabbath album, but it is pitched as THE BLACK SABBATH.

That being said, as I stated above, Wilk does a good enough job. He just doesn't quite have the magic of Ward.

From: Tori Pederson
To: Bryne Yancey, John Gentile
Date: Thu, Jun 13, 2013 at 12:58 PM

The scrutiny given to Sabbath's drummer situation isn't surprising, but that doesn't make it any less ridiculous. Let's be honest, Brad Wilk kills it on this album (his fills in "Damaged Soul" are nothing short of dizzying). I was thrilled when I heard he would be recording the album with them instead of the competent, but boring Tommy Clufetos, whom they've been using for live dates. The only drummer I can think of who would be more suited to the job, who's mastered Ward's heavy hitting but is loose enough to lock into a groove style would be (and I'll probably catch hell from the commenters for this) the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Chad Smith.

I've been fortunate enough to see the Ozzy-fronted Black Sabbath twice, once with Ward, once with Faith No More's Mike Bordin. I can safely say there were no major differences between the performances. While Bill Ward is undeniably a legend and Sabbath's sound wouldn't, nay couldn't have become what it is without him, at this stage in the game he's the least essential piece of the puzzle. If anyone still wants to gripe about his absence, put the blame squarely on Sharon Osbourne. Let's not pretend Ozzy has any control over what she does.

Speaking of Ozzy, how great does he sound on this album? It might just be a coincidence that he turned in his finest vocal performance since No More Tears around the same time he started hitting the bottle again and headed back to rehab, but whatever he's doing, it's working. I couldn't help but have a huge smile on my face when I heard the "Alright, now!" scream in "Loner."

I agree with John that Rick Rubin seems to want to make the band into what people expect rather than what they truly are, and since they are often looked at as the originators of doom metal, it makes sense that he and the band would put two slow-burners at the front-end of this record. Still, while "End of the Beginning" and "God is Dead?" are perfectly fine songs on their own, (okay, "End of the Beginning" is an awesome song) it is a bit of a momentum killer. 13 as a whole could definitely stand for some resequencing.

Rubin is definitely more of a consultant than a knob-turner these days, so the sonic conditions of an album with his name on it vary depending on who's actually in the studio with the band, but he doesn't let bad songs through. Thankfully, Greg "Death Magnetic" Fidelman learned his lesson from the backlash against that album, and there's no clipping or cardboard drum sounds to be found here.

From: Bryne Yancey
To: Tori Pederson, John Gentile
Date: Thu, Jun 13, 2013 at 1:39 PM

I will say that while Iommi's mammothly sludgy riff in "End of the Beginning" anchors that song, Wilk's percussion has a lot of nice flares to it that add a lot to the song–even if the song itself is basically a rewrite of "Black Sabbath." And when that bluesy riff kicks in? Holy shit, that rocks. As for your Chad Smith mention, Tori, I see what you're saying but come on, Chad Smith sucks.

I don't think we've mentioned Geezer Butler since the top, but those bass riffs in "God Is Dead?" and "Loner" are delightfully filthty. Sometimes I feel like Butler gets the short end of the stick because of Ozzy's persona and Iommi's virtuosity dominate the conversation more often than not, but without Geezer, Sabbath wouldn't have that low-end thud that makes their music so goddamn punishing. And thank Satan that Rubin and Fidelman's work doesn't drown him out. (Granted, Metallica haven't really let their bassists be heard since Cliff Burton died, so maybe that's not entirely their doing.)

The more I listen to 13, the more I think that while it's not a perfect record–or a perfect Black Sabbath record–it's the most perfect comeback the band could have made, outside of recording with Kurt Ballou or something. It's not as innovative as Black Sabbath or as sinister as Master of Reality–let's face it, they're too old for that–but it's Not an adjective one would normally associate with Sabbath.