Monday, 8 July 2013

Black Sabbath: 13 - Review

  • Genre: Heavy Metal
  • Release Date: 10/06/13
  • Number of Tracks: 8
  • Length: 53:18
  • Record Label: Vertigo
  • Producer: Rick Rubin


In June 2012 Black Sabbath headlined the 10th anniversary of Download Festival. The whole saga surrounding this performance including the absence of Bill Ward and the health issues with Tony Iommi have been well documented so I won't delve into them here. What I can say is on that Sunday night I was witness to probably the best performance of any band I have ever seen. Sabbath sounded brutally heavy and blew away every single band that had played over the whole weekend (and the 2012 line up was phenomenal). Naturally then I was pretty excited about the announcement for a new album because clearly Sabbath still have what it takes to be a brilliant live band. At the same time I was a shade apprehensive because I did not want them to release a terrible comeback album that could tarnish their reputation and that reeked of the need to make a quick buck.  

"13" is Black Sabbath's first album with Ozzy since 1978s "Never Say Die!" and is arguably as close to the "classic" Sabbath line up as we are ever likely to get again given the issues with Bill Ward. Instead of Ward, drum duties on the album were handled by Brad Wilk of Rage Against The Machine; I was a little disappointed not to see Tommy Clufetos on drums as he had played with Sabbath on their comeback gigs and was more than a perfect fit for the band. Whatever the reasons for Clufetos' absence, Wilk still does a solid job. The album was produced by Rick Rubin, who was an interesting choice given the infamous backlash from the production on Metallica's "Death Magnetic" (I'll try to avoid mentioning that too much!) and also given how much hate he got from Slipknot regarding his work ethic; more on him later.

What can be said about "13" is that Sabbath are definitely making a conscious effort to sound like they did back in the 70s when, arguably, they wrote their best material. One of the fun things about this album, for better or worse, is that there are riffs and tracks that sound reminiscent of classic Sabbath tunes. For example, opener "End of the Beginning" sounds like "Black Sabbath", "Loner" sounds like "NIB", "Live Forever" sounds like "Hole in the Sky" and if "Zeitgeist" isn't a deliberate sequel to "Planet Caravan" then I would be astounded. It can certainly be said that Sabbath are not trying to do much new and are instead playing on the nostalgia of their classic albums and to a degree this works really well, I for one really like it. "13" is a nice bit of vintage Sabbath and could easily have been released in '73 as 2013. 

As for the individuals in the band I think for their age they all do a brilliant job. Ozzy's voice still has that characteristic feel to it and he hasn't seemed to have lost much of his range with age. Geezer Butler locks in with Wilk all the way through, which, for me, gives Iommi the platform he needs to really steal the show. For a man with Cancer and missing fingers Tony Iommi is really still on top of his game. His guitar work on this album is incredible from the crushing riffs in the chorus of "God is dead?" to the beautiful solo that closes out "Zeitgeist" and it is this playing that  really makes the album. All things considered it is amazing that these guys can still write music like this but then, given their stellar performance at Download in 2012 I really shouldn't feel that shocked. 

Yes, "13" is a really enjoyable album and can be said to be a return to form for Black Sabbath and yet there are areas that prevent it from being considered as good as classics like "Master of Reality" and "Paranoid". The first issue with the album is the production value. I don't want to be the hipster douche that says albums are unlistenable due to production and it is by no means the case on "13" but it does have an impact on the overall feel. The album is definitely over compressed, leading to audible distortion (check out the intro on "End of the Beginning"), which means that everything sounds a bit lifeless. Some of my biggest gripes are that the drums sound like a MIDI kit, Ozzy's vocals do not sit well in the mix and I think the solos are too loud. I don't know what Rubin was playing at but I have to think that he should have targeted a feel more like 70s Sabbath instead of trying to bring the band into the "loudness wars". This will obviously impact on the listener depending on their tastes and knowledge of production, for me it wasn't a deal breaker but more of an annoyance.

Additionally, some of the songs are too damn long. "13" has 8 tracks and 5 of them are over 7 minutes in length. To put this into perspective I counted 4 songs of that length over the first 5 Sabbath albums. Don't get me wrong, I have no issue with long songs but I do have a problem with "classic" bands making new records filled with tracks that are way longer than what they usually write. The reason for this is because, in my opinion, it often doesn't work out as well as it could (Iron Maiden and Metallica I'm looking at you). What I find with "13" is that sometimes this approach works really well, "Damaged Soul", for example, builds slowly and has some awesome solo sections and everything blends nicely, it doesn't feel like parts were added on. However, opening track "End of the Beginning" feels like the opposite. It's not like parts of these tracks aren't really good but it is often very easy to lose interest as the approach to writing these longer tracks often feels "formulaic". Personally I think it would be better to keep maybe 2 tracks at that length, at most, and trim the fat on the others to make a more to-the-point record. Sabbath aren't usually a band that write loads of longer songs so I don't see why they felt the need to start now.   

Finally, although it is great that Sabbath are tipping their hat to their older music (and this is indeed one of my favourite things about "13") they often fall victim to the ridiculously high standards that they set for themselves. It is great that they have nostalgic riffs but then consequently you can't help but end up making comparisons to older Sabbath albums. Yes "Loner" sounds like "NIB" but the song isn't as good. This is the case for any of the songs comparisons previously mentioned and this just takes the edge off the album a little bit because you know what Sabbath are capable of. It could be said that Sabbath are imitating themselves to a degree but do not quite do it with the same levels of success. 

Black Sabbath were always going to have a hard time writing an album that was as good as their previous material but "13" is a really good listen. It is riff-laden, has amazing solos, is heavy as hell and is as good a "comeback" album as you could have expected from guys that are their age and have been through what they have. Of course the album is not without its flaws and doesn't necessarily stand up to some of their greater works but then was it ever going to? I personally think that "13" is a decent album and is well worth a listen.

Standout Track: "Zeitgeist"

Overall: 8/10


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