Black Sabbath – 13 (2013)
Metal is often content–hell, it <em>prefers</em> to remain a mostly-underground music form, but every once in a while it plunges its grotesque, magnificent self into the unprepared spotlight to claim the world’s attention, to grab it by the throat, lift it bodily off the ground, and say, “You WILL listen.”
Black Sabbath’s first studio album with Ozzy Osbourne since 1978 is one of those moments.
The superlatives (and the expletives) roll in from the pleasantly-surprised metal community. So high was the anticipation that comments like the following weren’t terribly off-base:
“This album is going to fuck mainstream music so hard in the ass, it won’t even know what hit it.”
“I’m going to go up to random people on the street who look sad or depressed and say, ‘Chin up. Black Sabbath is back together.'”
And I’ll throw in one of my own: “Today all metalheads are Sabbath fans, and we can truthfully say: we kick all other music’s ass.”
I elbowed my way through a crowded J&R Music World on release day, still in a kind of disbelief that I was actually going to a store to buy a brand new Black Sabbath album. As I climbed the escalator to the 3rd floor music store, there was an enormous crowd present for an album release and autograph signing by gospel singer Hezekiah Walker, who had a full choir with him as he was completing an impromptu sermon. It was very appropriate, for Black Sabbath albums are indeed a gift from the heavens.
As I squeezed and excused myself around the gospel fans to get to the CD racks, I saw that a film crew had set up its equipment directly in front of the “B” section, blocking my access. I called out to them to please pass me the new Sabbath album. One of them glanced at the cover as she handed it to me, “What kinda music is that?” It was a very movie-like moment; this was golden.
I smiled warmly at her. “Metal,” I said.
1. End of the Beginning
2. God Is Dead?
5. Age of Reason
6. Live Forever
7. Damaged Soul
8. Dear Father
“13” contains many purposeful nods to Black Sabbath’s past, as is apparent from both the first and last songs: “The End of the Beginning” evokes the eerie calm of the band’s seminal title track from all the way back in 1970, with a rejuvenated Ozzy Osbourne wondering “is this the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end?” Indeed, will this be an overhyped retread or an energetic return to metal’s bluesy, Birmingham roots?
Sabbath has certainly had a lot to ruminate about in the years since their last reunion in the late 1990s, chiefly among them Tony Iommi’s recent diagnosis with cancer and the disbanding of Heaven and Hell after the death of Ronnie James Dio.
“13” is overall a very slow, doom-laden album, which is to be expected–there’s no new “Paranoid” on here, but that’s honestly the only thing that’s lacking. “The End of the Beginning” will be an excellent show opener as Black Sabbath returns to the road, and it visits the slow pound of classic Iommi riffing and a major-key, singalong chorus towards the end. “God Is Dead?” has the band practicing its tried-and-true tempo shifts as though they have never lost its sense of flow, and “Loner” is the most instantly-catchy groove on the album. “Zeitgeist” has echoes of “Planet Caravan,” with a subtle, spacey, understated blues atmosphere, and “Damaged Soul” has perhaps the most intense final few minutes of any song on “13,” a very strong band workout that wouldn’t have sounded out of place from an earlier incarnation of Black Sabbath in a live setting.
By the end of “Dear Father,” 13 has in a sense earned the honor–become worthy, really–of the inclusion of the original “rainstorm and bells” effect from the 1970 song “Black Sabbath.” This new album is worthy of that throwback inclusion because it shows the band no longer has to resort to copying their past efforts to make 13 good. It’s just a little present for the fans rather than a desperate cry of “Remember?”
Black Sabbath may not rewrite the metal rulebook all over again with “13,” but that’s okay…because they’ve already done that more than forty years ago.
Written by Matt P