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.