This is one of things that you never think you’ll see in your life. Usually the next statement after that is some kind of unbridled joy, but the release of Black Sabbath’s “13” leaves feelings of wary confusion. Questions remain abound – What is this? Why are we here? Was this trip really necessary? This isn’t a cash grab (at least it better not be,) so why does it even exist?
The risk/reward ratio for this album seemed to be unfairly tilted toward the former. Everyone I talked to, whether musician or fan or promoter, seemed to come to the same conclusion I had; that the odds of Sabbath’s new album being a classic were astronomical, while it was much more likely to be a forgettable dud. Given that Sabbath’s last good-by-consensus-of-opinion album was 1981 (or 1975, depending on who you are and your stance on the Dio years,) it seems like “13” is the answer to a question no one asked.
Surprisingly, the first thing one notices about “13” is that despite aging forty years, the messages coded into these songs remain much the same. Themes of doubt, warning and resilience thread the seams of “13,” as evidenced by the lyrics of single “God is Dead?” The more the world changes, the more it stays the same, I suppose.
When embarking upon “13,” it quickly becomes an album that’s easy to like. The requisite dirge “End of the Beginning” that leads off the record sounds like a Black Sabbath song. There’s a hook riff, some righteous distortion and Ozzy’s characteristically reserved wailing. The longer the album goes though, the more calculated and mechanized it feels. “13” gives off the feeling that as a listener, you like it because you’re supposed to like it; the album was assembled out of pieces that worked for Sabbath in the distant past. The opening two songs are over eight minutes because Sabbath songs are supposed to be that long. The riffs are heavy because in the ‘70s, the riffs were heavy. While it’s probably cynical to suggest that Sabbath merely plugged new variables into an old formula, it’s also naïve to completely write that possibility off. It’s in the details that “13” feels off. Sabbath’s best trick over the years was their ability to have a song segue to what sounds like a completely different song, then come boomeranging back with equal power to the beginning. We saw this for “Iron Man,” “Into the Void” and “Supernaut” among others, but only for “Age of Reason” does “13” even attempt it. Many of Iommi’s riffs, while powerful and thick, feel like notes put together rather than a stream of blues madness.
Musically, “13” has several moments that work and even sound sufficiently like Black Sabbath to satisfy the most Sab Four fans. Even the punch of filler songs like “Loner” is solid if nothing else. Layered on top of the mix is Ozzy’s vocal performance, which is expectantly flat but still honest. Anyone who heard his recent solo effort “Scream” knew what to expect, but Ozzy dodges a lot of bullets by not trying to really force the notes out of his lungs. On the subject of sounds, there’s been a lot made about the production of “13,” but it didn’t bother me so much. Of course, anyone who listens to a lot of metal is used to hearing things that sound like they were recorded in a garbage truck, so any improvement on that is a bonus. Plus, hey, isn’t a certain level of distortion simply endemic to Black Sabbath in the first place?
The end of the album has some very listenable parts. “Live Forever” is one of the album’s few riffs that sounds both organic and deep in that uniquely Sabbath way. That and “Damaged Soul” thud along with both power and melody, made in the same way we have seen so many successful revivals of traditional metal for the past two years. Some of these glimpses at the end are in the heady company of recent releases from bands like Gypsyhawk or The Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, giving way to the typically dripping petroleum darkness of Iommi’s solos (where he maintains his strength.) Of course, it shows you where we are that Sabbath is now compared to those bands, not considered above them.
As a complete work, “13” is like how you can never make chocolate chip cookies as good as your mom. You follow the recipe exactly, but something is always missing. When you ask your mom what she does different and she tells you the secret ingredient is ‘love,’ you’re pretty sure that’s BS, but you can’t prove that it is. “13,” similarly, is missing a little indefinable something, even though the mechanics all seem in place.
Cautious note; Ozzy has been equal parts celebrated and mocked for his ballads over the years and “13” can’t escape his willingness to try. The band breaks out the bongos for “Zeitgeist” and fans of the classic album “Sabotage” will start to fear lyrics about “woman child of love’s creation…” You get the idea.
Lest we see seem totally dismissive, “13” is not a bad record. However, there is a pervasive feeling that those who really love it have convinced themselves that they do, mostly out of loyalty and well-meaning fandom. There are a couple singles that if (God forbid) Sabbath should tour ten more years, might even make the live rotation. The question on everyone’s lips though, is, ‘is this a Black Sabbath record?’ The answer is yes and no. There are certainly post-Dio albums that have borne the name and been much worse, so “13” has a legit claim to the Sabbath legacy. Still, much as I think we all expected, “13” likely isn’t a lasting, cardinal member of the Sabbath pantheon.