The influence of Black Sabbath upon virtually every aspect of hard rock and metal over the past half-century is well-known to even the most casual fan, but as lovers of all things horror, we should also acknowledge their intimate connection to the genre in art, entertainment and culture. After their formation in the late '60s, the band's occult and horror-based lyrics shocked listeners and drew fire from critics; their dark and ominous sound and spooky lyrics influenced countless horror-themed bands; original frontman Ozzy Osbourne still embraces horror visuals on stage and camera; and even the band's name was decided by guitarist Tony Iommi after seeing the English title of the 1963 Mario Bava film I Tre Volti Della Paura on a theater marquee.
While the band maintained its mighty legacy over the decades, with other vocalists – most notably the late, great Ronnie James Dio – putting their own stamp on the Sabbath legacy, a revolving door of personnel changes, and Ozzy continuing his lucrative solo career, the idea of the original Sabbath lineup officially reuniting pretty much fell by the wayside. They tried a few times, resulting in some acclaimed performances (the best of which are documented on the chart-topping live album Reunion), and in 2001 it seemed they would finally return to the studio together... but commitments to other projects, Iommi's recent health issues (he's been diagnosed with early-stage lymphoma) and a contract dispute with Ward held up that project until last year. Ward ultimately chose not to participate and Rage Against the Machine drummer took his place at the kit, with the legendary Rick Rubin overseeing production... and over a year later, the band finally unveiled the final product: the monolithic 13.
Naturally people are bringing an entire range of expectations into this one... but as for myself, I tried to temper my opinions (and disappointments, admittedly) with the knowledge that the band's style has been evolving practically nonstop for the past half-century, so it's already hard to pin down what I'd call the “Sabbath sound” apart from the band's first landmark albums. Oddly enough, the band dug pretty deep in search of that early vibe for the 13 sessions, and with Rubin's help, they actually managed to find ways to make it feel new again... and to have some fun in the process. You can feel the elders uncork the old bottled lightning in the opening track "End of the Beginning," and better yet, you can see it happen in real time through this live performance clip, in which the guys are deep in the jam and obviously loving it... dig the colossal breakdown on this one.
The best of 13 comes across in moments like this one, where the trademark doomy tones produced by Iommi and Butler are balanced by the high, urgent energy of Ozzy's distinctive tenor. While Wilk's drumming is solid and skillful, it's not quite as comfortably loose and confident as Ward's blues-influenced style (with some exceptions; more on that later). Rubin wisely employs an organic, old-school production mode reminiscent of the band's earliest releases, but doesn't push for nostalgia; the mix stays hard and gritty without lapsing into the mid-range sludge so many Sabbath-inspired acts try to hard to impose on their sound (although Rubin's one concession to modern technique is to push the compression too far... unnecessary, in my opinion). Ozzy's pristine vocals slide smooth as glass over the top, as they should. The heavy phase continues into the first single "God Is Dead?" which lays down a mighty slab of darkness that should remind all aspiring sludge/doom-rockers how the pros cut it; Butler's bass in particular, mixed to perfection, makes this one a mile-deep monster, and the chorus is mind-blowing. Check out the video here:
But while those powerhouse cuts affirm their ability to summon the forces of darkness, the band reminds us that they weren't all about that in the early days, and there's plenty of bluesy and progressive rock shades to the tracks that follow. The third cut "Loner" comes fairly close to capturing the style of the band's debut, but they really hit the bullseye with the jazzy psychedelic ballad "Zeitgeist,” which features warm acoustic guitars and a swirly wah-wah effect applied to the vocals. The experimentation of "Age of Reason" recalls the later, more progressive-leaning Sabbath, with evolving textures over five distinct song phases (including a spectacular bridge) aided by cool vintage-style effects; Wilk's robust rhythms here also come closest to capturing Ward's distinctive style. Ozzy's voice shines brightest in "Live Forever," and Iommi really gets to shine on "Damaged Soul," effortlessly sliding out from the sludge and into a sweet and gritty riff, as well as the album's most soulful solo. The closing cut "Dear Father" sports some excellent gothic atmosphere and one of the album's strongest hooks, which may see this one destined for the next single.
For the surprising energy and jam-session vibe, not to mention the experience of hearing the absolute masters of the game pick up their axes again, this album deserves a dedicated listen. But at the end of the day, the big question is “Was it worth the wait?” Well... as disillusioned as I'd become from the whole reunion hoo-hah – all the false starts and sudden stops, the endless hype, the split from Ward, Iommi's illness and so on – I think I'd actually stopped waiting for anything. Maybe that's why I was able to listen with an open mind (and why it took me a while to put this review together). 13 is no time machine, but that's not what I was after; I wanted to hear the dudes who pretty much created heavy metal get together and jam, with minimal bullshit to get in the way... and for the most part that's what I got. Worth the wait? Yeah, whatever. It rocks. Deal with it.
Oh yeah, remember that bit I wrote about Sabbath's relationship with horror and the occult? Fans of The Wicker Man may be intrigued to know the story behind 13's cover art. No Photoshop here, kids: on commission for Zip Designs, sculptor Spencer Jenkins constructed an eight-foot wicker installation of the number 13, which was then set on fire in the style of an ancient ritual, while photographed by Jonathan Knowles. The process is documented in the video below:
Update: 13 scored #1 on the Billboard 200 chart this week, marking the first time in the band's history they've reached the top slot. In fact, it's only the second time they've made the Top 10; the first was Master of Reality, which hit the #8 position in 1971.