Black Sabbath: 13

Black Sabbath 13

The announcement that Black Sabbath’s 13 was Classic Rock magazine’s ‘Album of the Year’ for 2013, its appearance at or near the top of many other end of year lists (including a very creditable fifth place in Über Röck’s albums of the year) , and news of multiple Grammy nominations, was greeted with great joy by many but a sense of incredulity by others. Of course it’s great that Sabbath (in whatever form) can top the album charts in 2013, but are the journalists, critics and punters letting their hearts rule their heads? The album’s been with us a while now, so perhaps it’s a good time to take stock and engage in a little sober reflection.

First, by way of context setting, some points to note:

  • Black Sabbath (by which, for purposes of this article, I mean Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Ozzy Osbourne) are not angry young working class men anymore. Not that I’m suggesting they’ve forgotten their roots – there remains something very grounded and earthy about all three of them – but they’re older now , experienced, successful and much better off. They don’t need to worry about factory (or burglary) jobs anymore, nor where the next pay cheque is coming from.
  • The members of Black Sabbath are no longer wide-eyed ‘innocents abroad’, stumbling (snow) blindly into the hitherto unknown joys, dubious or otherwise, of substances that do funny things to you. (Ozzy might have regressed a little, temporarily, but he’s more likely to have fallen off a Bentley than a wagon.)
  • It is no longer possible for a new Black Sabbath album, however good, to have the same kind of effect on me now as it did when I was a sensitive Catholic teenager almost 35 years ago. The same will hold true for many other fans. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, for the band and for the listeners.
  • There is no way the element of mystique and sense of danger that once characterised Black Sabbath can hold in the current age. Ozzy, for example is a household name now, with The Osbournes TV series finally putting paid to all that ‘Prince of Darkness’ malarkey. Bat and dove biting incidents have now very much been superseded in the public psyche (fairly or otherwise) by the image of the doddering joker, a comic book rocker at best.
  • And without wishing to restart old discussions or open old wounds, the absence of Bill Ward, replaced here by ‘young’ Brad Wilk (Rage Against The Machine, Audioslave), is significant. While Wilk does a fine job, Bill’s absence has made a difference to the way some fans have responded to the album.

The  first thing to say about 13 itself is that it’s a serious attempt by the band, all these years on, to rediscover their mojo. This is no exercise in treading water. It’s over 35 years since Never Say Die! and a near miracle that a new album has been recorded and released at all. Taking everything into account, including the age and health of the musicians, I guess they all knew that it was probably a case of ‘now or never’. Even if everything goes swimmingly well – and so far, the Bill Ward situation aside, it has – their track record suggests that 13 could be Black Sabbath’s last album. In the circumstances the choice of Rick Rubin as producer appears to have been a smart move, with Rubin having built his reputation on helping artists to rediscover and express the essence of what they’re about.

Consequently, and unsurprisingly, 13 leans heavily on Sabbath’s past. There are plenty of trademark Iommi riffs that hark back to the early Sabbath period. We are not just talking the first five albums though. Many of the vocal melodies are reminiscent of the Never Say Die! era, and, I would suggest, the musicians have drawn on experience from across their careers to create an album that sits comfortably  alongside others in the Sabbath canon. Ozzy’s performance, for example, sometimes seems to reference his solo work as well as his previous work with Sabbath, and is often punctuated with a range of trademark ad libs:  “Alright”, “Ok”, “Alright Now”, “Oh Yeah”,  and so on.

The lyric booklet is littered with M8s, Bridges, Outros, Swing Riffs, Fast Riffs and Pre-Choruses – proof positive that considerable thought has been given to the songwriting, with frequent twists and tempo changes keeping the listener guessing. One of the most pleasing features of the album is Tony Iommi’s performance. His furious soloing towards the end of ‘Damaged Soul’, ‘Age of Reason’ and ‘End of the Beginning’ suggest that he was on fire at the recording sessions and has put heart and soul into the project.

Across the album the lyrical themes (presumably Geezer has again contributed significantly here) are also ‘typical’ Sabbath fare – metaphysics, science fiction, personal estrangement, alienation, mortality and religious hypocrisy.  Curiously, ‘Satanic’ imagery didn’t feature as much in early Sabbath as is often supposed (if this matter interests you, check out my analysis in Words and Music). But it is re-introduced here (see ‘Damaged Soul’, ‘God is Dead?’) – presumably as part of the regression and self-rediscovery process Rick Rubin seems to have put them through.

So, what about the songs?

  • ‘End of the Beginning’ opens proceedings with an excellent and characteristically doomy riff. Many will point out the early structural similarities to ‘Black Sabbath’. Iommi’s solo is superb and arguably it’s his playing here that keeps this track’s head above the waters of self-imitation.
  • ‘God is Dead?’  I can’t make up my mind whether it’s brave or foolish to pin a lyric on an oft-quoted but little understood Nietzschean concept, and I’m not sure that the lyric contributes greatly to Nietzsche exegesis. All the same, it’s a decent track, given a real edge by Butler’s bass, and it’s not without its lyrical charm as Ozzy, with “God and Satan” at his side (my emphasis) ponders “holy fairytales” and the death of God. (Ozzy’s performance reminds me of his Bark at the Moon/Ultimate Sin period.)
  • ‘Loner’ hints at the monster riff to ‘N.I.B.’ before slipping into ‘Never Say Die! era melodies (think ‘Johnny Blade’). Ozzy chips in with a few ‘N.I.B’ ad libs and a passionate “Come on now!”
  • ‘Zeitgeist’ has a much gentler vibe. It shows the other side of early Sabbath and, in style, at least, is reminiscent of ‘Planet Caravan’ and ‘Solitude’. Great band performance. I love this track.
  • ‘Age of Reason’ is the second track that seems to draw from existentialist philosophy, this time utilising the title of a Jean Paul Sartre novel (though the phrase is less distinctive than “God is Dead”, so there could be other sources). It has a great riff, but also one of the album’s least memorable melodies. There is, however, a fantastic solo to fade, with warm almost ‘choral’ accompaniment (à la ‘Children of the Sea’).
  • ‘Live Forever’.  People have often said how much early Budgie sounds like Black Sabbath noting the production work of Rodger Bain for both bands. Here though, the wheel turns and Sabbath produce a riff which is very much like Budgie’s ‘In For The Kill’. I also hear points of contact with ‘Zero The Hero’ from the much maligned Gillan-fronted line-up. Ozzy’s melodies again put me in mind of his Never Say Die! contributions.
  • ‘Damaged Soul’ has a wonderful, swinging, bluesy riff.  This and ‘Zeitgeist’ have slowly emerged as my favourite tracks, and, indeed, they are perhaps the two tracks that sit most comfortably with the band’s early repertoire and sound most ‘authentic’. Geezer’s bass is suitably moody and the harmonica playing – credited to Ozzy – is a wonderful touch and a tip of the hat to ‘The Wizard’.  There’s a passionate, raw sounding solo from Iommi, and a great band effort to fade (as Satan waits “for the righteous to fall”).
  • ‘Dear Father’ is, lyrically speaking, the album’s most grim track. Musically it’s a rag bag of all sorts of Sabbath-isms that are somehow combined to produce a coherent and worthy album closer. I hear ‘Megalomania’ style melody at the start and a ‘War Pigs’ like riff around the 3 minute mark. I like the shift in pace thereafter … the uptempo romp into yet another doomy riff.  Thunder, rain and church bells see the band going out of this one as they had come in on the mighty title track of their debut an incredible 45 years ago! Have they completed the circle? Is this a kind of goodbye? Perhaps.

Ultimately, 13 is a solid and bona fide Black Sabbath album that is worthy of the Sabbath name. Is it as good as their early albums? You’d be hard pushed to find many older fans who’d say yes, but then I refer you back to some of my initial context-setting comments. It would be extremely difficult for Sabbath to produce an album now that had the same creative and psychological impact as their 1970s oeuvre. But it is a thoroughly enjoyable album with some great moments. Personally, I don’t begrudge them this album or its commercial success. And if it is to be their last, then it’s a fitting end.

So, given that it is a decent album which, astonishingly, went to Number 1 in both the UK and the USA album charts and picked up the ‘Best Metal Performance’ Grammy (for ‘God is Dead?’), why did I say at the top of this piece that some music fans have greeted its success with incredulity?

Jamie Richards is a fellow Über Röck scribe and manager of a very promising young band, the Dead Shed Jokers. He has an interesting take on the matter: “To me it was the greatest marketing campaign of the year,” says Jamie. “I love Sabbath, I just think people need to move on. I guess I see it as part of this enormous nostalgia wave that’s engulfing the genre. Nostalgia is being marketed to us and, by and large, I think we’re lapping it up. ‘Classic Rock’ was once a term for old rock bands, but the birth of Classic Rock magazine seems to have almost encouraged a whole generation of new bands to sound like old bands and become ‘classic rock’ by choice.”

In Jamie’s opinion: “classic rock fans, by and large, seem to only want old bands doing their thing, or, if it’s a new band, they want them to sound like one of the old bands.” Rock radio and magazines are both fuelling and pandering to this very limited and conservative take on what rock music is and what it has to offer. This makes life even harder for young bands who are influenced by the past but who are striving to be creative and original and are not so easy to pigeonhole.

“The Sonisphere announcement,” says Jamie,  [which has The Prodigy, Iron Maiden and Metallica headlining – Ed] “underlines to me that Britain hasn’t produced a rock band in 30 years who are capable of headlining a festival, Stereophonics and Biffy Clyro aside, and if we continue to go over the top about the likes of Black Sabbath, then it won’t change. I believe it’s foolhardy of us to think that Sabbath can really make a great album these days, simply because their creative peak has been and gone during the 1970s. Like I said earlier, it was the marketing campaign that was brilliant, truly great – there was massive coverage in all the major magazines, and it even came down to the album being released on the Monday immediately before Father’s Day in Britain. Dads got Sabbath instead of socks! That, to me at least, is why it was well received, because it hit a market that is bathed in nostalgia, and it reached people who rarely buy a record these days.”

On a more positive note, he adds: “I do feel that this is a step in the right direction though, away from the tribute band infestation!”

Jamie, does I think, have an excellent point or two, especially in relation to some media attitudes to young bands and new music. I’ve no doubt he is right too about the focus and reach of the marketing campaign, and similar comments could be made about the success of AC/DC’s Black Ice album a few short years back. However, I really would like to think that the success of 13 is built on the quality of the music and the enduring legacy of early Sabbath rather than just nostalgia.

Ultimately, I can’t see having a Sabbath album sitting at number one in the charts as anything other than a very positive thing.  It has raised the profile of Black Sabbath, classic rock and heavy metal beyond all expectation. Perhaps it will encourage the dads who “rarely buy a record these days” to dig out and dust off their original albums and start listening to music again, and perhaps it will encourage younger fans to check out the great albums and great bands of the late 1960s and 1970s.  At the very least, it shows that when presented in the right way, there is still a market for heavy rock and that this sort of music still matters to people. Perhaps …

Mohammed Osama 13

Artwork courtesy of Mohammed Osama

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9 Comments

  1. Wonderful, Michael! I hadn’t worked up the courage to review 13 yet, because so much needs to be addressed. I think though, that you have addressed everything here.

    I am a huge fan of 13. I have been a Black Sabbath fan for a long time. I like almost all eras of Sabbath, but we all know that the first 8 albums has something unique to them that cannot ever be duplicated. Although it’s hard, I like to think of 13 is just the next album. The one that followed The Devil You Know (which I count as a Sabbath album, and have it filed as such in my collection). So taken as a followup to The Devil You Know? I think 13 is a smashing success.

    Regardless of all the questions and worries I had, I spent a lot of time listening to 13 in the car, and at home. I bought it multiple times, I have 5 bonus tracks. It’s worthy of the name Black Sabbath.

    Reply
    • Thanks Mike – yeah, I think the release and success of ’13’ does raise more issues than most (hence the article, I guess). Like you I regard ‘TDYK’ as a Sabbath album and file it as such! (Loads more issues there!)

      Check out Mohammed’s comments below. What do you make of the bonus tracks you mention? The version of the album I have has an extra disc with 3 bonus tracks: ‘Methademic’, ‘Peace of Mind’ and ‘Pariah’.

      Reply
      • I agree with Mohammed that the bonus tracks are of great quality! Better quality than you usually expect from bonus tracks.

        The 4 he and I have include “Naivete in Black” which was only at Best Buy. It’s insane. It’s very fast, almost like Time Machine. When I first heard the album it was my favourite song and it’s still a contender although I now have “Loner” as my ring tone…

        The 5th bonus track was only on Spotify. This was a live version of “Dirty Women” from Australia, with Clufetos on drums. First official release with Clufetos on drums on this is not on the current live album either. This being Spotify, I can’t get it in Canada but a friend somehow managed to rip it from Spotify for me, so I do have all 5 tracks.

      • “Naivete in Black” – haven’t heard it yet but will check it out. Love the title!

      • I didn’t know what to expect from that title! I was better that with a title like that, it would be an instrumental. I was wrong, it’s a vocal song and a great one at that. The fact that the guys had so much material for this album is another cool thing. I don’t know what happened to some of the older material that they wrote back in the late 90’s, songs like “Scary Dreams”, but considering the length of 13 and the bonus tracks, it could easily have qualified as TWO Sabbath albums by the standards of the 1970’s.

      • So glad that two of us file TDYK as a Sabbath album!

      • Well, you me and Joe Siegler file it as a Sabbath album anyway 🙂 I believe his site has alternate artwork you can print so you can MAKE it a Sabbath album!

      • Ha, ha! You can always rely on Joe for Sabbath-related common sense!

  2. Some interesting comments in response from Mohammed Osama (posted on FB):

    “Great article and a perfectly timed review of Sabbath ‘13’, I agree with most of the notes posted but would like to reflect among a few of them, I personally think ‘13’ is quite a brilliant album, its got that fine balance between recapturing that original vibe, spirit, chemistry and nostalgic feel of the original line-up while still being quite spontaneous, fresh and more modern to what the band and individuals sound today.

    Love him or hate him, Rick Rubin was quite smart with the approach and direction he choose for this album, given the conditions and the fact that the members of the band haven’t been writing and playing music together for quite a long time, an attempt to be too experimental, adventurous and progressive as they did on classic albums like Vol.4,SBS and Sabotage (my most favorite albums) could have ended with a far more negative note.

    Sure there is a lot of nods and hints of older classics as heard on ‘EOFB’ , ‘GID?’ , ‘Loner’ and ‘Zeitgiest’ but still there are a lot of fresh , new and modern musical rendezvous on the likes of ‘Age Of Reason’ , ‘Methamedic’ and ‘Pariah’ , also given time , all new songs seems to settle and stand out as a respectful body of their own (specially on their live tour set where the new tracks seemed to fit well with the rest of the classic Sabbath standards).

    There is much more to Sabbath’s ‘13’ success than just the marvelous marketing campaign and nostalgia factors , I knew the album would crack the top 5 U.S charts with ease , back in 2009 TDYK released under the ‘H&H’ moniker peaked at #8 (their highest position in the U.S charts along with ‘Master Of Reality’) and given that the Sabbath name wasn’t even used at the time with a quite poor marketing campaign compared to ‘13’ , I had zero doubts that ‘13’ was going to be their best charting album in the U.S by far ! Of course landing at #1 was still mind blowing and the band’s management should be heavily credited for picking a release date that didn’t coincide with any other major competition at the time.

    Too many things to be discussed but I have to say that I would have loved to see your take on the 4 bonus tracks as a part of your album / songs analysis, they’re integral part of what makes this album so great and some tracks are actually more better than the ones that ended up on the single album release.”

    Reply

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