Review Summary: A fine note to end on for Black Sabbath.
Remember when David Bowie, earlier this year, kicked the laurels out from underneath him and released a comeback album that eschewed nostalgia for refined songcraft? And it was one of his best? That's the standard that records like Black Sabbath's 13
need to be held to – and it manages to, if not exactly grab hold of that height, at least brush up against it.
Like Bowie's album, 13
just rocks without reservation. Guitarist Tony Iommi switches from groove to groove without effort, creating new moods to match the lyrics and turn the songs into pieces that rival “War Pigs” in their intensity and level of development. Opener “End of the Beginning” transitions seamlessly from an ominous chord-driven intro to a quieter, more menacing slide from note to note, before eventually exploding into a dangerous riff that soon turns uplifting, as Osbourne declares “Rise up, resist, and be the masters of your fate/Don’t look back, look for today, tomorrow is too late”. In any other context, this would be the obnoxious posturing of any generic hard rock band (or of Osbourne’s recent work as a solo artist) attempting to be inspirational. But because of the way in which the instrumentalists ebb and flow from tempo to tempo, and the way that Osbourne’s voice and the instruments are polished but not overproduced, the song actually achieves its desired, uplifting effect.
's production, for that matter, paradoxically retains the grit of older Sabbath material and the sheen of recent, popular New Wave of American Heavy Metal bands. Geezer Butler’s basslines are actually audible and musically complex, as opposed to Sabbath's imitators who bury their repetitive root notes in the mix like they bury their dead prostitutes. Brad Wilk’s drumming is efficient and intricate, and there’s even a bit of odd percussion on the slower, acoustic song “Zeitgeist”.
Except that “Zeitgeist” marks something of a turning point for 13
. The song is a barefaced attempt to rewrite “Planet Caravan” – the percussion, vocal mixings, trippy astronomical lyrics, and slow-burning mood. And the rest of the album doesn’t hit quite as hard as the first four songs – “Age of Reason” is powerful enough albeit formulaic when one considers its similar structure to "End of the Beginning and "God Is Dead?", but “Live Forever” is unmemorable and “Damaged Soul” amounts to an excessive blues jam with some painful lyrics (“Dying is easy, it’s living that’s hard”). “Zeitgeist” through “Dear Father” highlight 13
’s biggest problem: it’s scraping by on their past works, covering the same musical bases that their earliest works did with modern glamor, and covering the same lyrical subjects without uniqueness. “Loner”, “God Is Dead?”, “Zeitgeist”, “Age of Reason” – the concepts of these songs can all be found in earlier Sabbath records, performed more eloquently and distinctively.
Still, none of that necessitates that 13
is a bad album. It’s the best album that Black Sabbath have made since Mob Rules
. The problem is that its appeal lies in pandering to a preexisting audience by imitating revered works, at the sacrifice of innovation. But it's still a worthwhile listen, and more importantly, it's still an enjoyable listen. And the way that “Dear Father” concludes with the sound of a rainstorm, just as the first Sabbath record opened, is both a fitting close to the album and Black Sabbath as a band – because if they break up or get murdered in their sleep by a furious Bill Ward, this would be the best possible note to end on.