Monday, 22 July 2013

Black Sabbath's '13' - Album Review

In the metal community no album has arguably been more anticipated in 2013 than 13, the latest album by heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath. It is an album full of 'firsts' which I shall try and detail here. It is the first new material to be released under the Black Sabbath name since 2007 with the new songs recorded for The Dio Years compliation. It is the first new material to feature founding member Ozzy Osbourne since 1998 with the new songs recorded for the Reunion live album. It is the first Black Sabbath studio album since 1995's Forbidden. It is the first studio album to feature founding bassist Geezer Butler since 1994's Cross Purposes. Finally, it is the first studio album to feature Osbourne since 1978's Never Say Die! - that is a lot of 'firsts'! Since being annouced in 2011, the hype for 13 has been huge and I feel that things very rarely live up to the expectations. That being said, this album is exactly as I expected it to be. It is heavy, doomy, and moves at a slow pace like the Sabbath of old and fans of the original/classic line-up will find a lot to enjoy here. I will say that Ozzy-era Sabbath has never been a favourite of mine. Sure, I appreciate the legacy and sound that the band created but sometimes I find the songs turgid, slow and devoid of a good tune. In some respects this album is like that, but in others it is wholly enjoyable with plenty of mammoth riffs and solos from the Godfather of Metal Tony Iommi. Before I look at the songs however, I will make a quick note on the production. I think this album sounds great and the guitars, bass and drums all sound massive; but I have read and heard lots of people complaining that it sounds too compressed and is is a victim of the 'loudness war'. If I am honest, I do not really know what that is and everytime I try and hear the 'clipping' that is supposedly going on I fail to hear it or understand what the problem is. Maybe I am not susceptible to it, but if this sort of thing does bother you then I suggest you prepare to be disappointed in that respect as apparently, accoring to many, there is a lot of that to be found here.

The album gets off to a strong start in classic Sabbath style with End of the Beginning. The song is built around a simple riff that is actually quite similar to the first song on their first album, which I presume was deliberate, and evokes memories of Sabbath past. Osbourne sounds great on this album, as he did on his last solo album Scream from 2010, and it is great that after all these (hard) years he can still pull it off convincingly. Also, Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine; Audioslave) plays the drums on this album in place of Bill Ward and he acquits himself very well. While he does not really have the 'swing' that Ward had, he has a certain power and an organic feel that fits the band well. Lead single God is Dead? follows and this seems to be based on the writings and theories of Friedrich Nietzsche. It was also the song released as a taster before the album was released and managed to get people suitably excited for the rest. It is the longest song on the album at just short of nine minutes long but I would say it is my favourite. The riffing is stellar combining heavy passages with some doomy clean picking and Osbourne's voice has a certain haunting quality that has not really been present in his delivery for quite a while. The ending picks up the pace and evolves the riff some more to create one of legendary proprotions - truely great stuff! Loner is up next and this is a much more straight-up mid-paced metal song with another memorable riff from Iommi. Simpler stuff, but it is still really enjoyable without all the doomy extras. It edges much more into the hard rock territory but it manages to hold it's own on the album. The dreamy Zeitgeist follows and this seems to be a bit of a sequel to Planet Caravan from 1970's Paranoid. Acoustic guitar and distant percussion drive the song while Osbourne's effect-laden vocals swirl around it all creating a very different sound to what has come before on the album. The understated, bluesy solo towards the end is great too, and shows a different side of Iommi's playing. That part of the song almost sounds like an old and forgotten Deep Purple jam session!

Age of Reason gets back to the metal with another big riff backed up by a beefy bassline and some pounding drums. After a while, the song slows down into a 'cleaner' riff that should be on a horror soundtrack somewhere that only benefits from Osbourne's crooning over the top of it. More so than some of the other songs on this album, this one is based around a collection of future-classic Iommi riffs rather than taking one and molding it around a song. There are a few distinct parts to it, each with it's own identity and riff. Live Forever is up next and gets back to the simpler sound of Loner. Songs like this are needed on 13 to give a break from the longer, more experimental songs with many parts and a slow-burning atmosphere. In some cases a shorter, more to-the-point song can be just as effective anyway. The guitar solo in this tune is particularly good and has a very classic rock feel with a mixture of slower notes and speedy runs. Damaged Soul follows and this is probably my least favourite song from the album. The doomy blues sound of the track just does not appeal to me in the way that the other songs do and I find this one a little turgid and a collection of all the things that I do not like about Ozzy-Sabbath. I am glad that the band decided against making a whole album of songs like this, because this sort of thing just does not really interest me. However, it does pick up towards the end after the strange solo/jam part with another rocking riff and yet another great Iommi solo. The final song on the album, Dear Father, is another a good one. It is heavy and angry with melancholic passages that evoke sadness and fear. The song ends as the first album began, with storms and a tolling bell - yet more nods to their past! Overall, this is a solid album from a band with nothing short of legendary status. After all, the band have nothing left to prove and clearly made this album for the fun of it and beause they actually wanted to. There was no record label pressure here and it seems the band had total creative control over their material under the watchful eye of Rick Rubin. While it is certainly not anything new or revolutionary, we cannot really expect a band to be that twice now can we?

The album was released on 10th June 2013 via Vertigo Records/Universal Music Group. Below is the band's promotional video for God is Dead?.

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