I can no more pretend to be impartial about a new Black Sabbath album than I can about a member of my own family. Further, I don’t think any critic who can claim otherwise has any business reviewing 13, the first studio full-length by Black Sabbath proper since 1995’s Forbidden ended a lackluster streak with vocalist Tony Martin prior to a 1997 reunion with Ozzy Osbourne, the successor in many ways to guitarist Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler’s 2007 reunion with Ronnie James Dio that resulted in Heaven and Hell’s 2009 outing, The Devil You Know (review here), and an album which – had Dio survived his bout with stomach cancer – probably wouldn’t exist. Prior to Dio’s passing, Iommi – whose band Sabbath has always been – showed roughly no interest in getting back together with Osbourne at the fore and seemed content to let Black Sabbath’s original frontman languish on his path of a declining solo career. Sabbath had done live stints between 1997 and 2006, and in 1998 released the “Psycho Man” single to promote their aptly-titled Reunion double-live album, but another studio full-length with Iommi, Osbourne, Butler and drummer Bill Ward seemed like a daydream. Of course, it still is. In 2011, when the band announced they were together with the completion of an album in sight, the shockwave resonated far and wide, but a contract dispute with Ward resulted in Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk joining in his place for the recording of the Rick Rubin-produced 13. This would be narrative context enough were it not for 13’s being touted as an attempt to recapture the feel of the original Sabbath – untouchable records like 1970’s self-titled debut, the same year’s follow-up, Paranoid, the stonerly perfection of 1971’s Master of Reality and 1972’s Vol. 4 – and were it not for Iommi’s own cancer battle, which it’s easy to read 13 tracks like “End of the Beginning,” “Live Forever,” “God is Dead?” and “Damaged Soul” as reaction toward, regardless of whether or not they actually are.
First, whoever decided to bill 13 as a return to Sabbath’s heyday was a fool. 13 neither picks up where the band’s last Osbourne-fronted outing, 1978’s Never Say Die, left off, nor harkens back to the band’s earliest glories in any way other than periodically recycling a riff. As regards the production, it is stale in the modern commercial metal sense, and if Rubin’s stamp is anywhere on it, it holds about as much meaning in terms of authenticity as the “organic” produce at WalMart. Drums are triggered – for the most part, Wilk is a nonentity here, personality-wise, injecting simple fills and keeping a beat when called upon to do so (good work if you can get it) – guitars and bass are “corrected” and if there was any thought that Osbourne’s vocals were going to be presented in anything close to their natural state, let it be corrected by the ending apex of 13 opener “End of the Beginning,” on which he goes from his half-spoken drawl suddenly to suddenly pitch-perfect high notes for the line, “I don’t want to see you, yeah, yeah,” and then does it again – the irony being that in the prior verse come the lyrics, “You don’t want to be a robot ghost/Occupied inside a human host.” Granted, Dio’s vocals on The Devil You Know had pitch correction as well, and he sang to backup tracks on Heaven and Hell’s final tours, but he could sing! Osbourne could never hit the kinds of notes in “End of the Beginning.” In Sabbath, he had maybe three years where one would be right on a technical level to call him a singer and not only a frontman – 1974-1976 – and even then he knew better than to attempt such theatrics. It’s the first of many instances throughout of Black Sabbath playing it safe on 13, creating a sterile and in some cases cynical collection of self-aware heavy metal that only in the work of Iommi and Butler does any justice whatsoever to the band’s legacy. It’s an album they’ll be able to go out and tour on, but for fans of Sabbath who had some hope that 13 might come along and revitalize the career of one of the acts singularly responsible for the creation of heavy metal and its many subgenres – most particularly doom – all these eight tracks do is realize how foolish and unrealistic those hopes were in the first place.
All this I know, and then that utter lack of impartiality kicks in and I think of 13 as being Black Sabbath’s final album. I think of how closer “Dear Father” ends with the same sampled thunderstorm that starts their eponymous song at the beginning of Black Sabbath, the sheer foreboding meaning of that bookend in light of Iommi’s cancer – that this is it, that he’s dying – and even the lame, watered-down revisit of that atmosphere on “End of the Beginning” and the hackneyed lyrics of the following “God is Dead?” and “Loner” seem excusable as pathways to one last collection of Iommi riffs and solos, best accompanied as they’ve always been by Butler’s trailblazing bass work (the easy argument is that he’s the most vital member of the band, and 13 bears that out), and though it’s a shame Ward isn’t a part of it, shouldn’t I just take what I can get and as someone who’s had his life changed by Sabbath’s work be happy? Isn’t it enough that Sabbath have another record? Does it really need to be good, too?
Yes and no. As I said, 13 is an album that Black Sabbath – Iommi, Butler, Osbourne and Wilk or whoever they get – will be able to go out and tour arenas. They’ll put a couple new songs in the set along with the hits they’ve played on and off for over a decade, and if it’s to be Iommi’s last hurrah, no one will ever be able to say he didn’t earn it. Fans who saw them in their first run will go, younger fans will go, headbangers of all kinds of all generations, everywhere they go, the venues will be full. It will be successful. Even being panned by critics won’t matter – Sabbath have the armor of never having been a “critic’s band,” so that even though the critics now may be two generations’ worth of Sabbath fans critiquing a hollow representation of what made them legends, they’re protected by the number of people who show up, the sheer scale of their profile. Fine. Records like Master of Reality, Black Sabbath and 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath will belong to the underground no matter how many copies they sell, and for every one oldschool Sabbath fan who refuses to see what he or she alleges is a false version of the original band, two more are willing to buy that ticket. Neither side of the argument needs the other at this point, and history is on the band’s side – with over 20 people in and out of the lineup over the years, who’s to say what’s genuine? Sabbath will do what they will do to reach as broad an audience as possible – reuniting with Osbourne instead of, say, Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, with whom Iommi recently collaborated for the Whocares benefit single, speaks to wanting to gather maximum interest – and those unable to reconcile themselves to what the band has become don’t need to have a part in it if they choose to not. If Sabbath know the difference at this point, I certainly can’t imagine they give a rat’s ass. Ward was their tie to the authenticity they purported to be tapping into for the recording of 13, and they were quick enough to let him go. Does the album need to be good? Well, it needs a logo.
It’s worth pointing out that the news as regards 13 isn’t all bad. Osbourne is a hell of a hurdle to overcome, and the production is stale and lifeless, and the whole thing is about 15 minutes too long, and for an album that fails to recapture lost magic, neither does it break any new ground, but even “God is Dead?” is infuriatingly catchy, and Iommi’s solos sound fantastic even if they’re utterly without context – see the penultimate “Damaged Soul” – and Butler remains the sonic anchor of the band. And when Osbourne takes a back seat, as on the same song’s later stretches, one can almost acclimate to what’s happening on 13 if one is willing to let go both of the shitty marketing involved in the album and of the notion that it in some way upholds what Sabbath were doing in a time before heavy metal even had a name. The “Planet Caravan” reworking “Zeitgeist” ends the first half of the album and is as close to psychedelic as mainstream commercial hard rock is probably allowed to come, complete with dreamy basslines and bongo percussion, and though “Age of Reason” is the moment on the CD when 13 most fails to hold interest, and the back end harmonica-laden bummer blues of “Damaged Soul” would be better off without “Dear Father” following, it’s just as easy to go back to the upbeat push of “Live Forever,” which doesn’t quite give Orange Goblin a run for their money in its motoring riff, but comes as closer than one could reasonably hope to doing so, Osbourne sticking rightly and comfortably to a mid-range approach throughout the simple and effective hook that gives a suitable-feeling examination of mortality, where 13’s other “fast” song, “Loner,” takes a riff that feels leftover from Heaven and Hell and sets it to lyrics that seem to be feigning some kind of teenage angst, each “Alright now!” and “Come on now!” from Osbourne coming across scripted and flat.
To dump “Loner,” “Age of Reason” – which seems to try to distinguish itself with keyboard flourish and arrives just a little too late at its joyously muddled midpoint groove – and/or “Dear Father” (why on earth would Black Sabbath feel the need to comment on priest abuse if not a cynical stab at controversy?) would have made 13 a more precise album and stayed truer to the LP length of the original ‘70s outings, but my understanding is they already cut a decent amount of material from these sessions – songs “Methademic,” “Pariah” and “Peace of Mind” are available as bonus tracks to a special edition – and doubtless there were contractual concerns as well. Ultimately, Sabbath has a broad enough reach that there will be people who will get on board, people who don’t and plenty in between who’ll either begrudgingly purchase a copy for completism’s sake or fold their arms and refuse to for whatever reason, and regardless of where any individual fan might fall on that spectrum, 13 is probably going to be the last album Black Sabbath release – it took over a decade to make it actually happen and seems to have cost the band their relations with their original drummer and Osbourne his marriage; no small toll to pay in either case – and it demands consideration based on that alone. How an individual listener frames that consideration and frames the album in some context for Sabbath’s career, comparing it either to Heaven and Hell, or the band’s original outings with Osbourne, or to nothing at all, it doesn’t change the reality of the record’s existence, diminish what Black Sabbath has been through over the course of the last 44 years or undercut the impact their work has had on the thousands upon thousands of artists who’ve taken their influence either directly or indirectly. Whatever it turned out to be, 13 was never going to affect that one way or another. Nor was it ever going to be the biggest misstep in Sabbath’s career. Black Sabbath’s legacy – Tony Iommi’s legacy – is set in stone, and nothing on 13 will lesson any of his or the band’s accomplishments. Over the longer term, 13 will no doubt prove to be as much as one could’ve expected from this lineup of players, and if it’s weak in comparison to earliest Sabbath, so is everything else.