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.)
Is it still possible to create good Black Sabbath songs without the swing of the early material? Yes. Iommi and Butler work together very well on 13. Their complementary dynamic—Iommi the jackhammer, Butler the bulldozer—remains intact, and even with Wilk functioning as (mostly) a timekeeper, there’s plenty of visceral impact here. And he’s hardly a mere metronome, anyway—he knows the gravity of the position he’s been put in, and he works really hard. There’s nothing lazy or half-assed about his performance. From the first track, “End of the Beginning,” you can hear him changing up his fills as the song progresses, responding to and encouraging what Iommi and Butler are doing, and when the tempo shifts from plod to gallop, he’s right there, neither overdriving the beat nor slacking off too much. On the album’s shortest song, “Live Forever,” he creates enough swing, while retaining his own sound, to recall Ward’s coked-up, pile-driver work on 1972’s Vol. 4.
Plenty of critics and fans have offered names they’d rather have seen in his chair, from Ozzy’s live drummer Tommy Clufetos (who’s also played with Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent and Rob Zombie) to Clutch‘s Jean-Paul Gaster to Jason Bonham, and some of those guys would doubtless have done a fine job, too, but they’d have been every bit as constrained by modern recording technology as Wilk.
In many ways, the biggest risk factor on 13 was Ozzy Osbourne, whose vocals were always the weakest element of Black Sabbath‘s sound, even as they were crucial to the whole. The opposite of a trained or truly talented singer, he howled like a lucky fan thrust onstage with his favorite band, and his joyous enthusiasm (“We love you all!”) was infectious—you rooted for him. He frequently wavers here, losing his grip on pretty much any note held for more than two beats, and he goes flat a lot, too, but it happens so predictably that it’s clearly an artistic choice, just as much as the nasal twist he puts on other phrases, or the way he dips to the bottom of his range to finish a line. It’s also important to recognize the demands placed on a vocalist by material of this type. Singing at Sabbathian speed (or lack thereof) fairly demands a singsong delivery—the only other option would be a kind of droning chant, like medieval plainsong. Not much opportunity for catharsis there. And the lyrics, despite being written as they were in the early days by Butler, sometimes seem odd—”Loner” and “Dear Father” in particular feel like they’d be more suited to an Ozzy solo album.
A lot of the riffs and song structures on 13 are deliberately reminiscent of early Black Sabbath. Fans are likely to find themselves earwormed by 40-year-old songs while listening to these newer ones. The question is, therefore, how big a problem is that? Bands have styles, and that’s even more true of bands that have shaped entire genres in their image. Slayer songs sound like Slayer; Motörhead songs sound like Motörhead, Iron Maiden songs sound like Iron Maiden. What keeps the songs on 13 interesting is the way the players move things in slightly unpredictable directions, or take them just a little bit farther out than they might have done decades earlier. “Zeitgeist,” for example, is a ballad arranged primarily for acoustic guitar, bongos and Mellotron, with a little piano toward the end. So clearly a nod to “Planet Caravan” from Paranoid, right? Actually, no; the chords are less monotonous, the Mellotron is spacier, Ozzy’s vocals don’t have that strange filtering effect from “Planet Caravan” applied to them, and when the piano comes in at the end the track winds up sounding less like Black Sabbath circa Paranoid than Pink Floyd circa Meddle. Similarly, Iommi’s guitar tone on “Damaged Soul,” one of the album’s high points, is the bluesiest it’s been since he left Jethro Tull to form Sabbath. And some songs feel genuinely new—”Age of Reason” is built around a riff that sounds more like Audioslave than Sabbath, consequently making Wilk more welcome than anywhere else on the album. Also, the length of the tracks—five of the eight cuts on the main album are more than seven minutes long, and “God is Dead?” nudges the nine-minute mark—set 13 apart from any prior entry in their catalog. This album nods to the past, quite forcefully at times, but it is very much its own thing. (The band’s diehard fans, ironically, will notice this most strongly, as the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition are some of the most forward-looking, least nostalgic material here.)
And that’s the trouble. Metal seems ruled by nostalgia lately—overpriced vinyl reissues, ultra-deluxe boxed sets, bands reuniting to play decades-old albums in their entirety—not to mention the long-standing insistence that bands’ debuts, if not their demo tapes, are superior to anything they’ve released since. It can be difficult to argue for metal as a continuous, vital, still-developing art form (which it is) when its fan base keeps stamping their feet and shouting, “Your new album is shit! Your first album was the best one! Why aren’t you like you were when I was 15?”
I love hundreds of classic metal albums, but I love to hear new work by bands that have been around for decades even more. I listen to Metallica‘s Death Magnetic (2008) more often than Master of Puppets (1986), and the fact that the band played their 1983 debut album, Kill ‘Em All, at a surprise afternoon set in the middle of their Orion Festival doesn’t thrill me, or make me wish I was there—it depresses me. I listen to Guns N’ Roses‘ Chinese Democracy (2007) more often than their Use Your Illusion albums (1992). The current lineup of Motörhead is the best one they’ve ever had, and every one of their last five studio albums—2002’s Hammered, 2004’s Inferno, 2006’s Kiss of Death, 2008’s Motörizer and 2010’s The Wörld is Yours—is as good as or better than 1980’s Ace of Spades. And I can almost guarantee that I will be listening to 13 a lot this year, and in the years to come—more often than I revisit Black Sabbath, Paranoid, Master of Reality, Vol. 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath or Sabotage. I’ve got those albums memorized; I’m ready for something new.
Watch the video for “God is Dead?”: