Review Summary: One of the best comeback albums in a long, long time.
It can be pretty hard not to feel sorry for certain bands that destroy their own legacy, whether or not they did it intentionally. Even if it was their own doing, there's a genuine desire for a group to succeed and continue making quality records based on how good their old classic records were. There are plenty of obvious examples that come to mind: Metallica, Megadeth, Queen, etc., etc.; however, one of the worst cases of this would have to be with Black Sabbath. Why? Because they were such a significant band in pioneering an entire genre of music, of course the genre being heavy metal. While the band's records with Ronnie James Dio behind the mic were damn solid releases, most of the other post-Ozzy records have ranged from merely passable to downright atrocious (do we even need to mention their last album?). However, the hype train rolled in once the band's 2010 reunion with Ozzy Osbourne was announced. With him back into the fold, the group set out to record their big comeback album known as 13; the big thing to mention, however, is that Bill Ward isn't playing on this one. Due to a disagreement about his contract, he opted out and American drummer Brad Wilk ended up being his replacement. So, after so much hype and everything else surrounding the band, how good is 13? It's absolutely astounding.
First of all, rejoice because this goes back to the old 70s Sabbath sound! Tony Iommi's guitar work is as sinister and doomy as ever, and the band as a whole locks in well with the bleak atmosphere that Ozzy conveys with his vocals and lyrical imagery. Going back to Tony Iommi for a second, his guitar tone is exceptional on this record; you'd swear he was throwing his instrument against a giant steel wall because of how thick and metallic it sounds. Geezer Butler's bass work consistently alternates between locking in with Iommi's heavy riffs and performing some very complex (and usually swinging/bluesy) bass lines around a musical backdrop. Brad Wilk is actually a very good replacement for Bill Ward, offering lots of variety and maintaining a heavy degree of precision with the other band members. Speaking of variety, the songs are extremely diverse and let each musician stretch out his skills a bit. There's definitely a heavier dose of doom metal than in previous efforts by the band, as showcased in the first two tracks, "Age of Reason," etc. At the same time though, the album has a more modern-metal slant to it, which is not a bad thing at all in this case. The production is crystal-clear, and the aforementioned guitar tone certainly sounds more befitting of today's metal music as opposed to back in their initial heydey. Take the five-minute hard-rocker "Loner" for instance; the song sounds like a mix of 80s Dio-era Sabbath and elements of modern 2000s hard rock. The difference is that the band have plenty of tricks to differentiate this song from that very hard rock crowd; for example, there's a beautiful clean guitar section that comes before the typically heavy choruses, and it really adds some emotional depth to an otherwise ordinary song. On top of this, there's an insanely heavy bridge section in the middle that almost channels 80s thrash; a fast guitar riff from Iommi and Butler clashes against manic drumming from Wilk, while Ozzy places a neat vocal melody on top to give the section just that extra edge. Great stuff, to say the least.
As I mentioned earlier, the band aren't afraid to switch things up a bit; the biggest example of this is with the gorgeous ballad "Zeitgeist." Tony Iommi switches to the acoustic guitar as Ozzy provides distorted vocals reminiscent to those of the band's 1970 song "Planet Caravan." The song is of a minimalist nature, but including a bunch of embellishments would most likely ruin the song's magic. Iommi swiftly switches between very well-chosen chords and little melodies to offset them. The chorus is especially lovely and displays Ozzy's vocal work at its best as he legitimately sounds brooding and depressed throughout the climactic moment. Also, blues-esque solo at the end fits the acoustic chords very well and doesn't overstay its welcome. However, the most exciting portions of the record come in when the band do what they do best: play extremely doomy, sludgy anthems of darkness! There are plenty of them to choose from on here; "God is Dead" has already been out for quite a while and remains among the album's highlights, but "Age of Reason" and "End of the Beginning" are right up there too. The former pits extremely hollow-sounding riffs with masterfully placed melodic lines that offer a slight glimmer of hope. The barren riff in the bridge is particularly intense, sounding almost like something off Death's album Spiritual Healing. Ozzy's sinister vocals as he sings over the riff are just icing on the proverbial cake. The latter song "End of the Beginning" is a wonderfully bleak opener that actually bears many similarities to the band's very first song, the eponymous "Black Sabbath." The quiet verses and loud doom metal choruses certainly remind one of the iconic 70s tune, but the faster section that begins in the middle is done just a wee bit better than the speedier section in "Black Sabbath." The band enter a bluesy section aided by Brad Wilk's swinging percussion and Tony Iommi's stylish solo, and the climactic vocal section that comes afterwards blends very well with the faster portion of the song. Songwriting like that is what makes this album work so well.
The only flaw with this album is that there are some points that are a little too reminiscent of the band's past songs, but that's to be expected when a group has been around for so long (just look at some of the self-plagiarism in Metallica's Death Magnetic!). Honestly, this album is mindblowing. The riffs are amazing, the atmosphere is great, the vocals are surprisingly good, and the lyrics are very well-written and suitably dark to fit the music. I'd recommend this not just to a Black Sabbath fan, not just to an Ozzy fan, but to any fan of hard rock or metal music. This is a comeback album done the way a comeback album is supposed to be done: with quality and, of course, respect to the fans who have supported the band over the years. Buy this; you won't regret it.