by Phil Freeman
It’s 2013, and there’s a new Black Sabbath studio album. That’s surprising. It’s not the massive shock it was sold as being, when it was announced last year, of course. They’d been reuniting off and on for tours since 1997; I saw them on Ozzfest in 2004. But it’s still a major event in heavy metal culture, most of which descends directly from the first six Black Sabbath albums.
Black Sabbath‘s sound had four crucial elements—Ozzy Osbourne‘s vocals, Tony Iommi‘s guitar, Geezer Butler‘s bass and Bill Ward‘s drums. The latter two were arguably the most important, because Black Sabbath‘s approach to rhythm, particularly on their three best albums (1970′s Paranoid, 1971′s Master of Reality, and 1972′s Vol. 4), was unique in rock. It was a sort of caveman jazz, swinging and bluesy without the intricacy of fusion or the looseness-unto-aimlessness of the Grateful Dead. Instead of simply hammering home the riffs, the way the rhythm sections of bands like Cactus or Grand Funk Railroad did, Butler and Ward wandered around, exploring and extemporizing, but always making it back in time to bludgeon the listener at the perfect moment. So when it was announced that this reunion album would not feature Ward on drums—he bowed out, citing financial chicanery—there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth from fans, who believed the project to be damaged beyond repair, especially once his replacement was named: Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, a capable hard rock drummer but one rooted in hip-hop, funk and metal, not the blues.
Of course, the deck was stacked against Wilk—and Sabbath—from the beginning. A great deal of the magic of the band’s classic records (basically, the first six, with the focus being on the 1970-72 trilogy cited above) was the organic, dudes-in-a-room-laying-tracks-to-tape feel they had. No record is made that way anymore, at least not when there’s major label money involved. Nobody plays whole songs through in the studio. This has been the simple, uncontestable truth for decades, even in the case of so-called “alternative” or “underground” rock. Most rock critics don’t say anything about it, because most rock critics have no idea how albums are actually made.
Listen closely to Nirvana‘s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and you can hear clearly that Dave Grohl‘s drum performance is looped—he recorded one verse and the chorus, and producer Butch Vig cut ‘n’ pasted his way to the end of the track. Contrast this to the making of the Stooges‘ 1970 album Fun House, during which the band ran through take after take of “TV Eye,” “Loose,” et al. until they had one that was golden. The complete Fun House session tapes were infamously released as a seven-CD boxed set a decade or so ago; it would be impossible to do anything similar for any modern album. Similarly, there was simply never going to be an opportunity for Geezer Butler to lock into an organic, fluctuating, live groove with Brad Wilk—this is the 21st Century, and the drummer’s playing is snapped to a ProTools grid throughout the album, which is called 13. (My assumption is that this title means to define the “real” Black Sabbath catalog as including the first eight albums with Ozzy, the three with Ronnie James Dio—Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules and Dehumanizer—and Born Again with Ian Gillan. And that’s it. All those ’80s and ’90s albums where Tony Iommi was virtually the last remaining member—Geezer Butler returned for 1994′s Cross Purposes, then departed again—have been excised from the canon.)
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