Last week, Black Sabbath released 13, their 19th studio album. In case you haven’t heard, it’s kind of a big deal. This is the first album since 1978 to feature original lead singer Ozzy Osbourne and the first since 1994 with bassist Geezer Butler. Conspicuously missing from the classic Sabbath lineup is drummer Bill Ward, replaced by Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave) due to Ward’s contract issues. So, really, we’re talking about three-fourths of Black Sabbath. (This is still 25% more than what passes for Queen nowadays, so we’ll consider it a win.) Hit machine Rick Rubin produced the record, which is chock full of doomy goodness, questions of good versus evil, and terrific Tony Iommi guitar solos and riffs that harken back to Sabbath’s genesis in the early ’70s. In fact, there is so much harkening back, they’re almost plagiarizing themselves. Here’s our track-by-track analysis of 13, including the band’s most self-referential moments.
1. End Of The Beginning
The opening track starts with a series of resounding guitar notes that sounds an awful lot like the famous first notes of the song “Black Sabbath” from the band’s 1970 debut. Both tunes employ the “devil’s tritone” that Iommi helped popularize in metal–but in this song, he cleverly sneaks the tritone in later in the sequence of notes. The lyrics are some of the most retrospective on the record (“Is this the end of the beginning? Or the beginning of the end?”). A very familiar-sounding moment arrives at 7:06, with a melody (for the words “I don’t want to see you”) that’s literally identical to the melody for the words “looking for today” in the song “Looking For Today” on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973). Even so, it’s not a bad opener.
2. God Is Dead?
Arguably the strongest song on the record–and smartly released as the first single–“God Is Dead?” has Ozzy sounding like a conflicted deist. Who’da thunk we’d ever hear the Prince of Darkness sing, “I don’t believe that God is dead”? The tune swells to a volume achieved by Rubin’s penchant for emphasizing mid-range tones. It’s a brighter, pinched effect applied to the guitar throughout the record. You could call this “modern”, or you could call it tin-y (as in tin can). About six and a half minutes in, the song segues into a swinging beat, recalling “Fairies Wear Boots” (Paranoid, 1970).
Here again we encounter a guitar part comparable to a classic Sabbath track. This time it’s “N.I.B.” from Black Sabbath, where the main riff is written just a half-step above the riff that kicks off “Loner” on 13. The two riffs are rhythmically similar and have a minor third interval occurring on almost the same beat. If this sounds like Greek, just think of it this way: the relationships between some of the notes are the same in both songs. Generally, they’ve got the same vibe.
The song title (meaning “spirit of the times”) seems ironic in the context of how it sounds: echoey, watery vocals, bongo drums, acoustic guitar, and lyrics about traveling by spaceship. Hello, “Planet Caravan” (1970).
5. Age of Reason
If you only listen to two minutes of this album, listen to the last two minutes of “Age of Reason”. Therein lies one of the most glorious guitar solos of Tony Iommi’s career. Try to ignore the cheesy synths that sneak in about halfway through. They’re a bit “Mr. Crowley”, if you know what I mean.
6. Live Forever
After the intro, this tune goes into another shuffling, swinging beat. Ozzy ponders what happens after death, crooning, “I don’t want to live forever, but I don’t want to die.” The words weigh heavily in light of Iommi’s recent bout with lymphoma (he’ll undergo additional treatment throughout Sabbath’s forthcoming tour). The lyric also brings to mind the bafflingly robust health of “Dr. Ozzy”, a man who by his own account should be dead by now but somehow remains fit as a fiddle, a freak in the evolutionary chain of humanity.
7. Damaged Soul
There’s something not scary enough about “Damaged Soul”. It’s not the lyrics, which are are effectively creepy with a tale of being born in a graveyard, “adopted by sin”, possessed by a demon, etc. It’s the music that lacks an equivalent chill. The mix is too thick, so there’s not enough space for the imagination to wander between the instruments. Wilk’s drums are too busy, the tempo too fast. There’s too much mid-range and not enough bass. And is that a harmonica (a la “The Wizard”, 1970)? Or a very fuzzed-out guitar? The song finally opens up around the 5:30 mark, allowing Iommi some room for a strong solo. But it’s a bummer that what could have been a genuinely goose-bump-inducing tune feels rushed and cramped.
8. Dear Father
“Dear Father” sounds like a lost track from Ozzy’s ’91 solo record No More Tears (not named for the Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo). Lyrically, it’s “Mr. Tinkertrain” as a man of the cloth. The plodding ballad concludes with a thunder clap, rain, and a bell toll. Hmmm…now where have we heard that before?
Maybe it’s only fitting that a band who have praised the virtues of cocaine (“Snowblind”, 1972) and marijuana (“Sweet Leaf”, 1971) would need a song about crystal meth. Maybe this is Black Sabbath being new-fangled, singing about the latest destructive drug. Or maybe it’s a public service announcement: “You try to stop, but it controls you, your love affair with it won’t last…You live too fast,” sings Ozzy. Look who’s talking.
10. Peace of Mind
At this point, the album starts sounding more and more 80s. Fast forward to about the 2:15 mark of this track to hear a guitar riff that could have been quite at home on a hair metal record. (Def Leppard? Ratt? Or maybe a slower version of Ozzy’s “Bark at the Moon” from ’83?) This song just seems like a throwaway, especially with the abrupt ending, as though they all just ran out of ideas and decided to truncate the track. They could have left this off the album completely, and no one would have missed it.
Another anti-climactic mid-tempo rocker. Another bit of a guitar lick stolen from “N.I.B.”. Another set of lyrics with iconic Christian allusions. Meh. This album should have ended after the fifth song.
So there you have it. 13 is more of an homage to the roots of heavy metal than a pushing forward into new territory. Is it a groundbreaking album? No. Is it horrible? No. Even if it’s not Black Sabbath’s best, it’s definitely not their worst.