2013 is proving to be the year of the seldom seen comeback kid, with My Bloody Valentine, Boards of Canada, David Bowie and Daft Punk coming out of their collective hiatuses and dropping credible works in our laps like manna from Heaven.
And then there’s Black Sabbath.
It’s been 43 long years since Ozzy and co broke out of Birmingham’s Black Country to bring what was to become defined as heavy metal to an unsuspecting public. The intervening years are well documented elsewhere, the bat biting, the drug ‘n’ booze abuse, the guitarist with missing finger tips, the satanic controversies, pissing up against the Alamo, life-threatening quad bike accidents and credibility-killing reality TV shows. If it’s possible to be pioneers and clichés at the same time, then that’s Sabbath all over.
Admittedly, this is not the classic Sabbath line up. Original drummer Bill Ward left early on in the recording process due to a “contractual dispute” and Rage Against the Machine’s tub thumper, Brad Wilk, was brought in as a replacement. But 13 is Sabbath’s first release with Ozzy on vocals for over 30 years. And the other two original war horses, Tommy Iommi and Geezer Butler are present and very definitely accounted for. This is about as close as we’re going to get to a true Sabbath album for the foreseeable future.
The re-animator of all things rock, Rick Rubin, produced these recordings. He’s told of how he got them to bring it back down to the way they used to record back in the day, to unlearn everything they’ve done in the last four decades. This simplification, distillation and rediscovery has worked. Sabbath are sounding leaner (‘Loner’), bluesier (‘Damaged Soul’) and heavier (‘End of the Beginning’) than we could have hoped for. It’s more stoner rock than what we now call metal, and it’s all the better for it. As the zoo keeper said when mucking out the elephant enclosure: “There’s some heavy shit in there.”
Whether or not Ozzy is channelling Hagel, Paine and Nietzsche when he sings ‘Zeitgeist’, ‘Age of Reason’ and ‘God is Dead?’, one should take heed of some wise words once uttered in a haze by a wise friend of mine: “Fuck the philosophy and enjoy the light show.” It’s probably best not to over think these things, just sit back and enjoy the sound of four men with over 150 years of combined musicianship laying down some decent heavy and solid tracks. There’s nothing here that’s going to change the world, but should there be? They’ve done it once already and isn’t that enough?
Ozzy has said that this is the most important album he’s made, and that was probably said with one eye set on the near horizon and the inevitable shuffling off from this mortal coil. After the carnival that is his life has finally left town, this recording will help restore some dignity and gravitas back to his and Sabbath’s legacy.
The album closes with ‘Dear Father’, ending with the stormy church bell that provided the scene setter for the opening track on their eponymous debut back in 1970. If they quit while they’re still back out in the lead then this will serve as a fitting coda to one of rocks defining careers. If they carry on, and they’ve threatened to, God only knows what will happen next.