On November 11, 2011 [11-11-11], the four original members of Black Sabbath – Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Ozzy Osbourne, and Bill Ward – announced to the world they were reuniting to record their first album together since 1978’s Never Say Die, to be followed with a world tour in 2012. But this is Black Sabbath, and with all things Sabbath nothing is ever that easy. Shortly after the reunion announcement Tony Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma. With the passing of Ronnie James Dio in 2010 [stomach cancer] on his mind, Tony felt like he was a goner. Shortly after Tony’s diagnosis went public, Bill Ward dropped a bomb of his own. He wasn’t feeling the love financially. He told the world he wasn’t presented with a “signable contract.” So Bill bailed on the reunion, just as he did when asked to play drums for Heaven & Hell. Rumor has it there are other reasons Bill isn’t on 13, but I won’t go into them here. There are folks close to the band who know, but they aren’t talking and I’m not asking. But the big question was this – did the doctors detect Tony’s lymphoma in time, or was it already too far gone like Dio’s cancer?
Tony started aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments right away. The album would have to wait. Tony responded well to treatments, and he got the okay from his doctor to work, but only if he didn’t overly tax himself. So instead of working on the songs in Los Angeles, Ozzy and Geezer went to the UK so as not to tax Tony’s energy too much. When Tony was well enough, everybody went to Los Angeles to record with Rick Rubin.
Expectations. I didn’t have any for 13. I didn’t expect the album to be made. I am convinced that if Ronnie James Dio was alive today, there wouldn’t be a new Black Sabbath to listen to, enjoy and write about. The guys tried to record an album in 2001 – they never finished it; they just “stopped.” With Tony’s illness I didn’t expect them to finish the album. But having stared death in the face, I credit Tony’s tenacity in getting something done before he died. The best news of all is that he didn’t die. He’s alive and says he feels great, but lymphoma being what it is Tony will be living with it for the rest of his days. Until it was announced that Brad Wilk was going to play the drums, I had no idea who was going to get the gig. Ozzy’s drummer Tommy Clufetos played three shows with Sabbath in 2012, and from the video clips I’ve seen and heard he played very well [Bill who?]. Would Tommy get the gig? And then there’s Ozzy – how’s he going to sound? He sounds pretty rough in live situations these days, but how would the record sound?
First Impressions. No instant classics here, but the sludge is back. This is a lean, mean Black Sabbath with something to prove. Tony proves once again [as if we needed any further proof] he is an assassin. Geezer’s bass does what it always does – it keeps up with Tony’s riffs every step of the way. When Tony takes a solo, Geezer’s fat bass sound fills in the holes perfectly. Brad Wilk’s drumming fits in well on 13. There are hints of songs past [see below]. Usually, if I don’t like a song within 10 seconds of hearing the opening notes, I never will. I don’t have that problem with any of the songs on 13. I won’t feel the need to hit the “skip” button on my CD player. The lyrical content from the days of old is still there – fear and loathing of politics, corruption and greed, crises of faith, drugs, alienation, questions of theology, distaste for religious institutions, and space travel.
I wasn’t sure what 13 would sound like. I knew that Rick Rubin wanted the band to challenge themselves to sound like they did in the early days, like “what would your second album sound like”? Rubin wanted it “raw,” but how raw? To these ears, the album sounds somewhere between Master of Reality and Vol. 4 [or maybe even Sabotage]. I don’t hear many overdubs either. Instead of layer upon layer of riffs [think Fused or The Devil You Know], I hear one, maybe two guitar tracks per song. That being said, Tony Iommi still has the ability to create skull crushing riffs that would scare Satan shitless. Geezer Butler’s lyrics are still full of doom and gloom. Ozzy sounds good. Drummer Brad Wilk isn’t as nimble as Bill Ward used to be, but I’m not sure Bill Ward is either. This album definitely does NOT suck.
End of the Beginning – This opening salvo has the feel of the song Black Sabbath. The riff is loud at the beginning, repeated quietly while Ozzy sings, then full volume again. This is Sabbath doing a doom crawl at the get go, as if to tell the world “hey, we invented this stuff.” The tempo picks up at 2:40. Deadly solo at 4:42. The repeating guitar figure for the last couple of minutes reminds me of Dirty Women.
God Is Dead? – In 1882 Nietzsche made the assertion that “God is dead.” For all those who think Sabbath are a bunch of devil worshipers, Ozzy sings he doesn’t believe that God is dead. If I was producer for a day, I wouldn’t have two long songs in a row to begin the album [a minor gripe]. I’d put this song somewhere in the middle [perhaps after Age of Reason]. Geezer has a huge bass sound on this one. Brad Wilk makes me forget about Bill Ward starting with this song.
Loner – NIB comes immediately to mind when I hear this. I defy any of the Sabbath faithful to NOT yell out “Oh yeah!” at the appropriate time. J Vicious solo at 2:56 and another one at 4:21 to close out the song – I like it!
Zeitgeist – Two words – Planet Caravan.
Age of Reason – This one keeps growing on me. I like this one quite a bit. They need to play this one live – a lot!
Live Forever – This one reminds me on Hole in the Sky, but just a little. "I don't want to live forever, but I don't want to die." What’s it going to be, Ozzy? You can’t have both…
Damaged Soul – Big departure - Sabbath plays the blues! Before they were Black Sabbath, before they were Earth, they were the Polka Tuck Blues Band. But if Tony, Geezer and Ozzy played any blues [as I know them], I haven’t heard it. I think the one thing that comes closest to this would be Warning from the first album. The last time I heard Tony play music this overtly bluesy was Heart Like a Wheel [from Seventh Star, 1986]. Ozzy blows the harmonica from Hell. I’m loving this one… Of all the songs released this one sound the least like any of the others. I’m surprised it made the final cut rather than appearing as a bonus track. I would have thought Methademic or Naiveté in Black [or both] would have made the final cut. This is a fine blues, but if blues doesn’t turn your crank, this song won’t change your mind. This is my favorite from 13 so far [End of the Beginning is a close second]. I like to hear God Is Dead? immediately after this one.
Dear Father – Geezer is the Catholic of the bunch, and he is rightly pissed off at pedophile priests here. As a molestation victim says to this priest: You have taken my life/Now it’s your turn to die! A very heavy song with tons of energy, this is a good way to end an album. The song ends with rain, thunder, and a ringing bell – just like the beginning of Black Sabbath. The circle is complete.
Methademic – Or perhaps the circle isn’t quite complete – not yet. This is Bonus Track #1. It has an acoustic intro, which back in the day would have its own name [like Orchid or A Bit of Finger]. This is one of the faster songs. It’s pretty easy to guess the subject matter.
Peace of Mind – Bonus Track #2. This is the only song under four minutes. This one is all groove – nothing’ wrong with that. But it has an “unfinished” feeling to it. When the song comes to an end I expect it to go on for at least another verse. Not only that, this song has no guitar solo. I don’t know if I can think off the top of my head of any other Black Sabbath song that doesn’t have a guitar solo.
Pariah – Bonus Track #3. This could be the flip side of Loner. Same tempo and it has practically the same subject matter, only it’s in the first person instead of third person. “I’m not your savior/I got no wings to fly/’Cause you’re Pariah/Don’t look to me when your life is over…”
Naiveté in Black – When I was growing up I thought NIB meant either Nuns in Black or Nativity in Black. There are two Sabbath tribute albums called Nativity in Black, but alas NIB was just a description of Bill Ward’s pointy beard [like the nib of a fountain pen]. This title is a play on the Nativity in Black thing. I’m glad the guys have a sense of humor about such things. I was told by my friend Lorch [from the Iommi message board] to expect this one to sound like Time Machine [from Dehumanizer]. And now having heard it, he’s right on the money. It’s a good one…
Lasting Impressions. I’ve lived with 13 for a week and here’s my final verdict. I would put 13 on par with Master of Reality. Time will tell if 13 is a masterpiece, but it’s pretty damn good. But perhaps Ozzy & Co. have finally made their Sgt. Pepper. Black Sabbath set the bar very high with their first six albums. After a week of listening, there still isn’t a song I would skip [including the bonus tracks]. That’s not something I can say about Sabbath Bloody Sabbath [Who Are You], Vol. 4 [St. Vitus Dance], Sabotage [Am I Going Insane (Radio)], Technical Ecstasy [half of the album], or Never Say Die [half of the album]. They borrowed from their past, but after being in existence in one form or another for over forty years, who wouldn’t? Ozzy’s voice stays within it comfort zone. Geezer and Brad Wilk jelled very well as a rhythm section. Tony Iommi is still untouchable at what he does.
A few years ago there was a spoof in The Onion about the state of rock music, to wit:
Is this the last we hear from Black Sabbath? Ozzy and Geezer have both expressed interest in doing it again, and I’m sure Tony would do it. But this is Black Sabbath – nothing is that cut and dried. If I was a betting man, I’d say this is the last one. Ozzy’s solo career has this annoying habit of getting in the way [$haron]. I hope I’m wrong – I could stand to have another album sound like this one [or better]. But if 13 is the last Black Sabbath album, this is a good way to call it a career. Well done, gents!
Favorite tracks – Damaged Soul, Age of Reason, End of the Beginning, God Is Dead?