The reunion craze might be well past its sell-by-date, but no one could begrudge the return of metal’s true originators, Black Sabbath. There wasn’t the faintest whiff of decrepit desperation; both parties’ prowess was beyond reproach. Iommi, Ward & Butler had been receiving rave reviews for their latest Sabbath offshoot, Heaven & Hell, but were rocked by the death of front man and long time collaborator Ronnie James Dio. Ozzy, on the other hand, was writing throwaway hits, headlining arenas and, by all accounts, having a whale of time.
The band’s eventual return felt less like a cash-in and more like unfinished business: a chance to introduce a new generation of metal acolytes to the primordial power of genre’s original vision. The newly reformed Sabbath (minus Bill Ward who sadly jumped ship) categorically conquered Download Festival 2012. Tony might not play fast, but he plays heavy, grinding a 70,000 strong audience into the dust with one rib-rattling-riff after another. In the wake of a stunning performance that lymphoma failed to derail, anticipation naturally built for the release of 13: the first Ozzy fronted Sabbath album since 1978.
This should be simple enough: take Ozzy’s flair for addictive hooks, blend with a selection of vintage Iommi/Butler grooves, and a great album should naturally emerge, right? Not quite. Sabbath may have released four brilliant, game-changing albums in the early 70s, but the final two Ozzy albums Technical Ecstasy (1975) and Never Say Die (1978) were abysmal. The band, most notably, Ozzy, was consumed by alcohol and substance abuse. He quit, returned, went missing for days at a time, and delivered a sub-standard endnote to an otherwise glittering career. No wonder Ronnie James Dio was hailed as a saviour upon his arrival in 1980. In short, 13 not only has to live up to 2012’s live performances, it has to redeem Ozzy’s reputation and send the original Sabbath off on the right note.
To recapture the magic comes stripped down producer extraordinaire Rick Rubin. Famed for kicking away latter day crutches and uncovering what made an elderly artist great in the first place, he convinced Johnny Cash to embrace the macabre isolation of his man in black persona and encouraged Metallica to return to their thrash roots. Oddly, on Sabbath’s 13, Rubin appears to have entirely missed the point. The band remain bruising, but the bearded maestro has opted for a crisp and precise modern recording. The riffs, which are migraine inducingly deep, lack the fetid malice of the original Sabbath. The looming riffs of the 70s felt acrid, as if chunks of flesh where peeling off each meaty juggernaut as it stammered into action. The grooves employed on “Age Of Reason” and “Damaged Soul” feel less like a sledgehammer of thick black sludge and more tinny and contained.
It proves a hard sensation to shake. “Dear Father” might come complete with church bells and lightening storms but it lacks the naturalistic and distinctly British feeling of the occult. There are no blurred lines and dark shadows, every inch of each of this record remains in view and it dampens the Sabbath mystique. Ozzy suffers the worst; on “End Of The Beginning” and “God Is Dead?” he can be heard struggling to enunciate each syllable, and its off putting. No audience member ever wants to see an actor getting into character. We want the Lord of Darkness, not Michael John Osbourne straining to find the right shrill key.
Rubin might have given Sabbath an unneeded dose of studio polish, but no amount of sanitizing could erase the macabre merits of these eight clunking, thudding, grinding anthems. “The End Of The Beginning” slowly drowns its audience with looping hypnotic riffs, stiff percussion and a series of delightfully unexpected melodic changes. The sense of foreboding is inescapable. “Age Of Reason” and “Dear Father” are numbing; the slow churn silences resistance, forces submission and makes the promised demise (and the final galloping onslaught) a welcome reprieve.
Sabbath, who clearly grow in strength from the hook-assisted bludgeonings that opens the album to the more complex and concrete offerings that litter the latter half, don’t seek to re-invent the past so much as revisit it. They enter every nook and cranny of their original outpourings and prove they can still match their former glories. “Zeitgeist” is the finest example of this revisionist bent. Clearly an answer to the otherworldly creepiness of Paranoid’s “Planet Caravan”, it replaces that record’s strangeness, with a sense of delicacy and soothing calm. The pitter-patter percussions and airy acoustic guitars capture something of the weightlessness of space and rustic simplicity of the Arizona desert. Iommi and Butler’s Floyd like expanse sits alongside Ozzy’s wonderfully well judged melody (at this stage of his career his voice if far better suited to apocalyptic allure than shrill death cries).
13 couldn’t have hoped to shock. Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler are known quantities with well-developed tendencies and less capacity for sudden bursts of innovation. Their first album together in 35 years reflects this evolution. More professional than visionary, rather than sending shivers down spines Sabbath are content to smother the life out of anything and everything in their path. The melodies are more appealing and less dangerous, while the timing changes are simply impeccable, albeit devoid of the desperation and destitution that coloured their earliest releases.
Black Sabbath are comfortable, but they remain an unholy force to be reckoned with. Butler seems keenly aware of this fact. “I don’t want to live forever, but I don’t want to die”; 13 isn’t a dusty memorial to their former glories or a defiant break from the past – it’s a half-way house, the Sabbath of the present making the only music they’ve ever really known how to make.
Skip If: You prefer the murkier and macabre production of Black Sabbath and Paranoid.
Best Track: “Zietgiest”
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