Review Summary: 3/4 of the classic '70s line-up reunite for a relatively successful comeback.
Despite being an avid fan of Black Sabbath for many years, I can admittedly confess that my intrigue for 13
was initially tepid at best. To witness Ozzy Osbourne finally
return to his rightful place as the voice of Black Sabbath, has been one of the most highly anticipated events within the rock and metal communities. Although I myself have long desired to witness the original '70s lineup return for at least one more studio album, the increasingly lackluster quality of their individual efforts in recent years had led me to believe that such an event would perhaps be more devastating than momentous. After the release of 1975's Sabotage
, an album that fans and critics alike agree to be their last notable effort of the '70s, Black Sabbath went from being heavy metal visionaries to a group of 'has-beens' plagued by drug addictions and a growing disinterest in building upon the genre they (arguably) laid the foundations for. It wasn't until their phenomenal resurrection in 1980's Heaven and Hell
that, with the recruitment of legendary frontman Ronnie James Dio, Black Sabbath regained a confidence that had all but withered away. Even after that one moment of triumph, as well as the occasional hit such as 1981's Mob Rules
and 1992's Dehumanizer
, Black Sabbath have struggled to remain relevant through the various trends that heavy metal has undergone in the past three decades. Ozzy Osbourne's solo career has also followed an increasingly erratic path since the early 1980s, and it's come to the point where the man once revered as "the prince of darkness," is now viewed as nothing more than comic relief to the rest of the world. In fact, the one and only album associated with the Black Sabbath name that has found any acclaim in recent years is The Devil You Know
, which was a spin-off effort by Heaven & Hell (the adopted pseudonym of Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Vinny Appice, and Ronnie James Dio).
Now, with all of that being said, and Bill Ward still being the missing piece that would have made this long-awaited reunion complete
surprisingly culminated into the victory that Black Sabbath has desperately needed all these years. It is by no means a remarkable body of work though, especially in comparison to most of Black Sabbath's discography. Every clever scheme in 13
feels like an attempt to recapture some previously successful concept or execution. Nevertheless, it exhibits a great deal of confidence and staying power from a band that had been tarnishing their reputation with every new release. And for the first time in years, Black Sabbath have constructed an album that not only overcomes negative preconceptions, but actually manages to radiate a modest sense of infectiousness while doing so. Both its musical style, as well as the structural aesthetics of each composition, all nod to a sound that was originally fabricated in 1971's Master Of Reality
. The slowed down and low-tuned guitar work of Tony Iommi in tracks like "End Of The Beginning" and "Age Of Reason", certainly signals a return to the doom-inspired sound that Black Sabbath skillfully honed back in the '70s- and because of that, they're easily two of the most accessible tracks in the album.
Much like "Into The Void" and "Lord Of This World" emphasized on a riff-driven sound coated in thick distortion, as well as projecting a hauntingly dismal atmosphere throughout, "End Of The Beginning" and "Age Of Reason" aspire to replicate that same equilibrium of power and ambience. Musically speaking, Tony Iommi hasn't lost his knack for finding the right notes and chords that will send chills down the listener's spine (the dramatic intro in "End Of The Beginning" comes directly to mind), and Geezer Butler still proves himself to be an unrivaled wordsmith when it comes to conjuring up tales of depression and the macabre. Bill Ward's current musical proxy, Brad Wilk, also proves to be a suitable fit for the band. His drumming style has never been preoccupied with complex rhythms or unnecessary fills, instead focusing on simply feeling the groove and using his beats to compliment the centerpiece of every song - Tony Iommi's guitar work.
As for the Ozzman himself, his vocal performance remains reliably untampered with. Unlike Ronnie James Dio, who brought a more melodic tone to Sabbath's music with his operatic wails, Ozzy is prone to solely relying on that naturally 'eerie' tone in his voice to augment the band's sinister sound. On the occasions that he adopts the role of a 'singer' rather than a 'frontman', he is able to deliver some stunningly emotive croons. "Zeitgeist" is one of the main highlights in 13
and for the very reason that Paranoid
's "Planet Caravan" and Master Of Reality
's "Solitude" were such a welcome surprise in their respective albums - they spared us from the restless metallic onslaught, and instead offered us a calming ballad. "Zeitgeist" reprises that tender sound, and leaves the listener floating through a quasi-psychedelic state of introspective spaciousness. And just like the final moments in "Planet Caravan", we once again find Tony Iommi breaking into a jazzy, outro-solo to conclude the piece.
Aside from the calming interlude in "Zeitgeist", the majority of 13
regresses back to the usual fuzztoned, riffier grooves of Black Sabbath's heyday. Songs like "Age Of Reason" and "Damaged Soul" showcase the quasi-progressive jam lengths and doomy sonics that Black Sabbath occasionally incorporated into their usual repertoire. But while "Age Of Reason" and "Damaged Soul" serve as a testament to how well 13
can formulate a prolonged musical excursion and still pull it off with an exuberant delivery, some of the other 8-minute tracks feel like the band is just trying to milk a set of cleverly written riffs and solos for all their worth. "God Is Dead?", for example, feels like it could have easily been trimmed by least three minutes, and not only would it have still got its point across, it would have also had an even stronger impact due to the lack of tedious repetition. "God is Dead?" is definitely one of weakest points in the album. The way it alternates from a gloomy melody to abrasive brutality, and stresses that cliched Nietzschean quandary ("Is God alive, or is he dead?"), it just feels like a gimmicky attempt at producing a theatrically ominous vibe. I understand that 13
is supposed to be the album where Black Sabbath give the fans exactly what they want
, but to see them rehash old heavy metal cliches for the sake of a cheap thrill is utterly disappointing. Fortunately, most of the heavier tracks in the album don't fall victims to overdriven theatrics, and simply stick to delivering a powerful, doomy sound.
is primarily a journey into familiar territory, one that yet again focuses on Black Sabbath's acumen for vintage heavy metal. 13
is meant to envision a sense of nostalgia for longtime fans, it's an album that fondly looks back to Sabbath's heyday and gives its audience exactly what they demand - gruesome lyrics and magnified riffs. It by no means lives up to the legacy of their landmark releases such as Master Of Reality
, but it's a solid effort that is worthy of any metalhead's attention. 13
is a collection of slow burning tunes, each one working with a palette of darkly shaded colours to accentuate Sabbath's classically somber vibe. It's also worth noting that, at the end of the album, once "Dear Father" climaxes into its final seconds, we can hear a reprise of the intro in Black Sabbath
's opening track (the thunderstorm and church bell recording). Whether this is meant to signify Black Sabbath reaching the end of their life cycle, or if the mere sound of rain is meant to foreshadow a new chapter in their career, is up for speculation.