(Guest writer marious has delivered unto us this review and defense of an album with an unlucky title by a band named Black Sabbath. I know I’ve heard that name somewhere…)
Hey all, this post is something of a defense of Black Sabbath’s 13. So, batten down the hatches, because I’m going to rant about some clean singing old guy metal for a little bit. I personally think this album is pretty incredible and a lot of people seem to be refusing to give it a fair chance due to some really negative hype online and their own preconceptions. If you have given the album a full listen or two and still don’t like it, I doubt I will persuade you. I’m not going to appeal to a sense of nostalgia or what not to bring the faithful back to the fold. This is for those people who have yet to hear it, or have only listened to one or two tunes at a glance. So, here goes.
One of the most common complaints I hear is that Ozzy can’t really sing anymore and that the processing on his voice is simply a method of making his singing passable. Honestly, Ozzy was never that great of a singer. His vocal patterns were always relatively simple in Sabbath and his range is not all that wide, but he’ll always be the voice people associate the most with Black Sabbath. However, if you listen to his vocal patterns on 13, they are pretty different from the classic Ozzy-era Sabbath stuff. Generally, he would sing along directly with the rhythm, but he has broken into some more interesting patterns on 13. I’ve heard a bunch of the new tracks live via the interwebs, and while it does sound like his voice is getting a bit strained, it is pretty much the same as it’s always been to me. The vocal processing on 13 doesn’t sound bad or out of place to me, especially since Sabbath had been using effects on Ozzy’s voice well before he was “too old to sing”. Check out Planet Caravan from Paranoid for a bit of evidence.
Another criticism that has been bandied about is the old “No Bill Ward, no Black Sabbath” thing. The backwards stuff that went down during the contract negotiations and all the internet speculation aside, Ward was offered a contract and he turned it down. That’s the bottom line, and if you read some interviews, Ozzy wanted Ward for the project in the first place. I also wanted Ward behind the kit; who wouldn’t? The way Ward swings and weaves through the riffs is nothing short of amazing and he has incredible dynamics. He’s one of my favorite drummers. Unfortunately, he didn’t accept the contract, but saying that there can be no Sabbath without Ward is like saying that there can be no Sabbath without any of the other founding members. The lack of one or another of the old lineup has been a common occurrence in the band’s history, so to start that now is just kind of silly.
So, with those general criticisms out of the way, let’s talk about content. A few listens through 13 should show Geezer and Iommi’s writing at some of its best in years. The songs shift in and out of plodding Doom passages and swinging Blues riffs with generous quantities of Iommi’s eyebrow-searing, layered guitar solos throughout. The bass playing is as excellent as you would expect from Geezer, as he plays little solos and fills, often throwing weird walking bass lines in underneath Iommi’s heavy riffing. On the other hand, some of the slower Doom passages do seem a bit drawn out. They might last a little too long for some listeners. Then again, I love Doom metal in all its forms, especially some of the slower, tone-saturated stuff like The Wounded Kings. Maybe I’m just used to that sort of thing, but it doesn’t detract from the experience for me.
Another issue I’ve heard is that a lot of the songs are derivative of Sabbath’s old material. This might be one of the more legitimate observations about the album, but to me it sounds more like an expansion upon the classic Black Sabbath sound than an attempt to rehash former glory. For example, Beginning of the End has been compared to the song Black Sabbath a few times, but is it really a problem for metal listeners if something sounds a bit like the first Doom metal song ever written? That is the riff that half of the stuff we listen to is based upon! You know what, Fenriz can probably illustrate this point better than I can. Take a look at the clip from the beginning to about 1:30 to see what I mean, but if you have time, watch entire thing, it’s pretty interesting.
The album has also caught grief for the lyrics being silly or simplistic. As you might expect, I disagree with that assessment. I’ve heard this criticism directed most toward their premier track, God is Dead?. I would suggest listening a little more closely if you feel that way. Underneath the attention-grabbing Niche reference is a tale about a man who falls into a pattern of supporting falsehood over reality, blinded by his faith in a religion that is entirely focused on the material instead of spiritual world. The song isn’t really asking you if God is dead, it’s telling you that God might as well be, because of how spiritually blind people have become. To fall into a pattern of defense for a religion that perpetuates that falsehood is to live a half-life. You can’t really be a vampire for Jesus.
The song that really stands out to me as the best of the Doom-oriented stuff is Age of Reason. It uses the age-old metal trope of critiquing the political structure of the world, but instead of only blaming monolithic powers, it also places the blame on a distracted and apathetic public. The poignant lines, “Mass distraction hides the truth. Prozac days and sleepless hours. Seeds of change that don’t bear fruit” are delivered amidst some of the most monolithic and oppressive riffs on the album. Finally, when the organ kicks in half-way through Iommi’s soaring guitar solo, I’m not sure how anyone who likes Sabbath could be disappointed. This song is Master of Reality-style apocalyptic prophecy at its best.
My favorite track on the album is Damaged Soul, which may very well be the best Blues tune written since Robert Johnson sold his soul at the crossroads. Apparently Rick Rubin was pushing for a more Bluesy feel, and I think he got what he wanted from this track. Wailing harmonica, multiple long guitar jams, and some pretty dark lyrics all make for some incredibly heavy Blues. In defense of Brad Wilk’s drumming, listen to the way he does his fills during Iommi’s solos. He’s not just throwing in flair that fits the rhythm, he’s interacting with Iommi and Geezer the entire time, dynamically moving between their parts. The song flows beautifully, never boring even though the basic structure changes very little. When it ends I tend to play it again, because eight minutes of a song this good just isn’t enough.
13 does have some issues. I am bummed at the lack of Bill Ward, who probably would have taken the feel of 13 and made it tighter and more interesting with his beautifully heavy and dynamic swing beats. The production is also a little thin, and sounds best on headphones and car speakers. That bothers me when I try to put it through the PA, but really that’s a small complaint. Sometimes a passage overstays its welcome, but you are always rewarded for your patience with an excellent driving Sabbath riff right after. Sometimes the past-catalog mining goes a bit too deep, such as with Zeitgiest, which just sounds a bit too much like “Planet Caravan”.
In the grand scheme of things, these are all minor problems. The album is timely, well-written, and scratches the sort of itch that only the Paranoid or Master of Reality albums could. In short, don’t judge a book by its cover, or in this case by all the negative hype, because 13 is really good.