Sound — 9
Thirty-five years since the release of "Never Say Die!" (1978), an album Ozzy Osbourne once called "disgusting," the original line-up of Black Sabbath re-entered the studio for the second time. Whilst their efforts in 2001 failed to produce an album, their work over the last year has proved successful, culminating in the release of "13." With tensions between Bill Ward and the other members of Black Sabbath at a peak, Brad Wilk of Rage Against The Machine was called in to replace Ward, in the early stages of writing. Cited as the pioneers of Heavy Metal, many of their albums have been considered as true classics, each more defining than the last. When "13" was announced, in January of 2013, with the recording almost complete, the music industry split. Half were largely sceptical as to how Wilk would replicate Ward, and how the band would sound in their forty-fifth year, particularly with producer Rick Rubin at the helm. The other half had faith. Clocking in at just over 53 minutes, the standard edition of Black Sabbath's latest release consists of eight tracks, each battling a number of radical and complex themes and motifs. Geezer Butler, the sole lyricist for 13, has openly stated that Rubin strived for the band to "pretend this [was their] second album," in an effort to rekindle the classic, genre-defining power of Black Sabbath. When listening to the album's opening track, "End of the Beginning," one can only assume that the band may have taken Rubin's advice too literally. While the song opens with the crash of Wilk's cymbals, and the roar of Iommi's guitar and Butler's growling bass, the song quickly slows down, and becomes remarkably similar to "Black Sabbath" the opening track from their eponymous debut album, "Black Sabbath" (1970). Iommi follows the same pattern of sparse note playing, with Osbourne's haunting vocals over the top. Whilst it starts slow, the song quickly builds into a progression of powerful, original riffs, with drumming from Wilk that fits perfectly, before closing with a melodic solo from Iommi. "God Is Dead?", a track held together by Butler's roaring bass guitar, is fantastic. Iommi's quiet, haunting guitar riff contrasts heavily with the power chords presented in the song's chorus. As the song develops, Iommi riffs alone, and as the drums enter, the song turns into a true heavy metal, groove-based, headbanging paradise. Whilst "God is Dead?" goes through a number of time changes, and guitar tones, it is a definite strong point on the album. Opening with a riff that relates heavily to "N.I.B.," again from "Black Sabbath" (1970), "Loner" epitomises Black Sabbath. Rhythmically, Osbourne, Iommi, Butler and Wilk truly connect. "Loner" shows that Osbourne can still wail as effectively as ever, and is vocally strong. Heavy riffs soon transcend into a melodic breakdown, before Wilk thrusts the song back into heavier territories with his powerful playing. Similar to "God Is Dead?", the song goes through a number of time changes, but the highlights of the track are Iommi's spacey, distorted guitar solos, recurring throughout. Whilst the album may have opened slowly, "Loner" and the songs that follow are truly iconic. The fourth track, "Zeitgeist," is transcending. An enigmatic acoustic piece, exploring the concepts of love, loss, and the universe, it is hard to truly describe how emotive and effective a piece of music it is. Following the heavy riffing of "Loner," the combination of Iommi's acoustic guitar, with Wilk's percussive playing, contrast heavily, and yet work perfectly with Osbourne's distorted tone. Beneath them all, Butler adds structure through his bass. Closing with a bluesy, clean solo, Iommi closes out a truly great song. Whilst Black Sabbath may be credited with pioneering Heavy Metal, recording pounding drums, and wailing guitars, "Zeitgeist" is a true acoustic ballad that deserves true credit. It is a shame therefore, that as Iommi's guitar solo fades into the distance, the listener is smashed with over-produced drumming, with a compressed snare, as "Age of Reason" opens. However, as Butler and Iommi enter, thoughts of hatred towards Rubin's tendency to over-produce diminish somewhat. Whilst the song is not as exciting, both lyrically and rhythmically as others on the album, "Age of Reason" builds into a great, solid track. The song truly comes alive as Iommi riffs over a layer of keyboards, before slowing into that plodding, sense of doom that Black Sabbath are famous for. Whilst "Age of Reason" starts slowly, it builds into a great song, with strong riffs and a fantastic lengthy solo from Tony Iommi. The three tracks that follow, "Live Forever," "Damaged Soul" and "Dear Father" are the three strongest, heaviest tracks on the album. Starting with pounding cymbals and bass, "Live Forever" quickly falls into the doom-filled grooves Black Sabbath fans love, with Wilk's drumming complimenting Iommi's riffs perfectly. After being slammed against the wall by heavy, hard hitting riffs, Iommi descends into a melodic solo, which suits the song surprisingly well. Wilk may not have that "swing feel" that Ward brought to Sabbath, but his solid, powerful, yet simple drum patterns fit Black Sabbath well. This can be seen particularly in the opening to "Damaged Soul," which is arguably the most blues-influenced. Osbourne's harmonica break leads into an effective building solo from Iommi, whilst Wilk and Butler work well holding down the timing and the grungy sound. The song ends strongly, as Iommi and Osbourne battle, between guitar and harmonica, to create a truly memorable finish. "Dear Father," the final track on "13," is a magnificent close to the album. Whilst Osbourne's lyrics follow Iommi's riffing, as well as Wilk's drumming, the track is relentless. As the band thrust endless guitar riff, bass licks, and pounding drums at you, Osbourne wails about a young child molested by a violent priest. There is no let-up, no slower breakdown, the song continually grows heavier and heavier, until suddenly rain. Black Sabbath fans are greeted with the sounds of rain, thunder clapping, and the infamous bell toll that was first heard more than four decades ago. Whilst some may believe that the band have become over-produced, and will point fingers in the direction of producer Rick Rubin, Black Sabbath undeniably sound heavier, stronger, and more precise than ever before.
Lyrics — 9
While it may only be three years since Osbourne's latest solo release, "Scream," his vocal work on Black Sabbath's latest album holds more power, strength and control than seems apparent in his recent releases. This is perhaps compounded by Rubin's production. At a time when artists are seemingly moving towards an analogue approach, Osbourne has praised Rubin's use of Pro-Tools, striving for modernity. While it is clear that Osbourne sounds different today from Black Sabbath's self-titled debut album, which is inevitable, Rubin still manages to capture Osbourne's distinctive wailing to great effect. Taking control of the lyrics on the album, Butler maintains the hard-hitting, direct style of Black Sabbath, with some exceptional craft. Whilst all eight tracks on the album are strong, some, lyrically, stand taller than others. In particular, "God Is Dead?", the first single from the album, is beautifully constructed. The lines "To safeguard my philosophy, until my dying breath/I transfer from reality/into a living death" offer a succinct summary of all that is Black Sabbath: horror, instability, death and prophesying. Through "Zeitgeist," Butler offers a true literary masterpiece. The opening lines "Astral engines in reverse/I'm falling through the universe again./Down among a dead man's visions/ faded dreams and nuclear fissions span" instantly whisk the listener to the cosmos, akin to "Planet Caravan" from "Paranoid" (1969). The closing lines, "And very soon/the boundless moon/will show us light./And as we crash/we'll pray and kiss/and say goodnight/goodnight," whilst again, are not complex in language, are complex in what they portray. Osbourne's voice connects with Butler's writing on a level that has arguably never been heard before, to create an emotionally complex ballad concerning love, loss, and the endless universe. The closing track, "Dear Father," a song Butler wrote twelve months ago, is again, a literary triumph. The song tackles the concept of living with abuse directly, as Butler writes, "Dear Father, forsaken/you knew what you were doing." While as words, they may not hold ultimate power, when combined with Osbourne's haunting tone, Iommi's endless supply of captivating and addictive riffs, Butler's growling bass, and Wilk's strong drum beats, they come together, to create a fitting close to a great album. All in all, Osbourne reinvents himself as a truly great singer, with incredible writing from Butler.
Overall Impression — 9
With the history, fame, and success of Black Sabbath, it is inevitable that fans, writers, critics and fellow musicians will compare Black Sabbath's latest release to the rest of their discography. Whilst the band were never going to achieve the sound and feel of their debut album, which was driven by youth and adrenaline, it is clear to see that they have taken inspiration from it. Black Sabbath have taken a new approach, but have managed to maintain the strength, and raw power of their younger days. "13" takes you on a journey a journey that completely summarises Black Sabbath's entire career. From the apocalyptic "End of the Beginning," through the emotionally complex "Zeitgeist" before slamming back into the plodding, inescapable heaviness of "Dear Father." Black Sabbath have returned, and are stronger than ever.