By Bill Adams
Some returns are highly anticipated, but then there was the wave of excitement which came with the announcement that a reformed Black Sabbath was entering the studio to record their first album of new material in thirty-five years. When the announcement came that Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler would enjoy a second-coming as Black Sabbath the year after the world was supposed to end according to the Mayan calendar, several generations of fan just went nuts. The initial reaction was spectacular to watch but, as always tends to happen in situations like these, it didn’t take long for misgivings to infiltrate the proceeding. Questions like “After thirty-five years, does Black Sabbath still have the touch?” and “Is this return just a contrived way of making a few dollars – given that Ozzy’s last album was terrible and Ronnie James Dio died a few years ago?” seemed perfectly valid at that point.
When the first strains of the music which would appear on 13 were heard, some longtime fans and critics screamed bloody murder which further heightened the tension and anticipation around the album’s release. No one could agree that what they were hearing was totally good or totally bad, and that guaranteed Black Sabbath would have everyone’s attention when the album did drop. From a PR standpoint, how the release of 13 has been handled has been a stroke of genius with all the magic new releases used to generate decades ago attached.
But what’s the verdict? PR is one thing, but does Sabbath still have that old black magic?
Well, yes and no. Those expecting 13 to be another Paranoid or Master Of Reality right out of the box will be disappointed; 13 is a process of return and that return includes an incredibly rough start. As “End Of The Beginning” methodically opens 13, fans will get chills because Sabbath just sounds so damned OLD; Ozzy’s vocal through lines like, “Is this the end of the beginning/ Or the beginning of the end/ Losing control or are you winning/ Is your life real or just pretend?” sounds thin and atrophied – like a grandmother telling children a ghost story. Likewise, Tony Iommi’s guitar sounds a little light at this beginning and, two minutes into the record, the spirits of listeners will really start sinking. Even devout believers will begin to question that Black Sabbath trying to re-animate itself was a good idea.
Those first two minutes of “End Of The Beginning” are hard to hear but, happily, Ozzy takes a breath after those first two minutes, Tony and Geezer both crack their knuckles and a pall falls over the proceedings at minute three. There, the sound in the song spontaneously beefs up – Geezer Butler’s bass joins the fray and both Ozzy and Iommi crank up the volume – and the band starts firing on all cylinders. Granted, it’s still not the best song that Sabbath ever recorded (the chord progression sounds like it was lifted straight out of “Soma” by Smashing Pumpkins), but at least it eventually begins to sound like it could be the work of the men who recorded “Iron Man” and “Symptom Of The Universe.”
From “End Of The Beginning” forward, Osbourne, Iommi and Butler comtinue in their laden pace with drummer Brad “on-loan from Rage Against The Machine” Wilk in tow through “God Is Dead” and “Loner” before picking up acoustic guitars for “Zeitgeist” and relaxing on the beach next to the tar pits for a few minutes. That summation may sound a bit lacklustre, but the early tracks on 13 are really hard to get excited about; while each of them isn’t bad, per se, (in fact parallels could be drawn between “God Is Dead,” “Loner” and “Zeitgeist” and the progression which could be found in “Children Of The Grave,” “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and “Laguna Sunrise”) the spark which the band had in its prime and most fans will still be looking for now isn’t there. Something is missing from this music.
Because something really DOES feel frustratingly missing from the first half of 13, many listeners will write the album off in frustration early – but it is worth pointing out that the band does get a few good tracks in before the record wraps. Particular standouts “Age Of Reason,” “Live Forever” and “Damaged Soul” find some great fire as the laden trudge of the record’s first half lightens to a kick-ass stomp. These songs prove that there’s life in the corpse of Black Sabbath yet and makes the chance of more impressive music to come from the band very real (after they knock off some more of the rust clearly caked on the belts of the machine) – as long as they pursue it further and make another album after this one.
But why are we already looking past past 13 for more music? How is it that this album is not enough? It may sound asinine to read it spelled out, but the reason why 13 doesn’t live up to a lot of listeners’ hopes is because it’s a record action-packed with excellent album cuts; there are no lightning-riding singles here which run in, electrify listeners and then get out again, just perfectly respectable and turgid, heavy SONGS. It sounds awful, but 13 is not a bad album – it’s simply not the Black Sabbath album that a lot of fans will accept as a rousing return.
Bill Adams is also editor-in-chief of groundcontrolmag.com