The High Points: God is Dead, Age of Reason, Damaged Soul
The Low Points: Live Forever
The Verdict: Much better than it had any right to be.
The Rating: 7/10
Over the past fifteen or twenty years we’ve been having our poor little ears assaulted by bad reunion albums. You know how it goes: four or five guys who haven’t spoken in a decade get together and try putting together a record that sounds as much as possible like what they did in the past, and they manage to capture the style but not the substance. Every single track is a lesser imitation of something they did twenty years ago. Worse, a bunch of asshats on the internet give the record ridiculously high ratings and go on about how unfair it is to hold an older band to the standard it set in it’s heyday.
That’s about what I expected out of Black Sabbath 13. The Devil You Know had already been something of a disappointment; a handful of killer tunes does not a great album make. Then there was the horrible shit Ozzy has been releasing ever since No More Tears… not that I ever was the biggest fan of his solo career. I figured this thing was going to suck, and suck hard. I’ve never been more delighted to be proven wrong.
Right away it’s clear that the band is trying to recapture their glory days. The first song rhymes more than a little with Black Sabbath (the song). Similar slow, doomy riff, weird reverb soaked toms, Ozzy warbling over it in his lower midrange voice… then it kicks into high gear and explodes into something entirely other. Clearly they’re trying to recreate the sound and style of their early records… but this is maybe the first example I’ve ever seen of the approach actually fucking WORKING. Rather than being a lesser imitation, End of the Beginning manages to be a kick-ass song in it’s own right.
Sometimes it rhymes a little too much. The Loner has a main riff that is clearly a recycling of the N.I.B. riff… although to be fair it’s attached to a good enough song that you probably won’t care too much. Zeitgeist is clearly trying to be Planet Caravan part 2, but once again it’s quite ingratiating in it’s own right.
It’s clear that the Iommi/Butler songwriting team is firmly in control here. They’ve retained their stunning ability to weld together seemingly unrelated bits of music into a single cohesive package, creating songs that frequently ignore traditional song structures yet feel like a cohesive whole. Choruses? Who needs ’em? This approach is fully realized in the first single, the stunning nine minute monster God is Dead. The band shifts gears seamlessly, and Iommi cranks out riff after riff with practiced ease. Another example is the epic Age of Reason.
The other real standout is the complete oddball; Damaged Soul is weirdly bluesy in a dark creepy way that even Sabbath has never really achieved before. Ozzy pulls out the harmonica for the first time since the debut, and Iommi outdoes himself with some godly lead guitar. His tone is interesting here as well; is that a Strat he’s using? Sounds like it, although it’s the most demonic Strat tone you’ll hear this side of the nether regions.
Speaking of Iommi, the man plays his balls off on this. The riffs are fantastic, and the leads some of his best work ever. It’s particularly amazing when you realize he was being treated for lymphoma during the recording of this album. Nevertheless he pulls out all the stops and turns in one of the best recorded performances of his impressive career.
Geezer Butler sounds very inspired here as well, serving up his trademark melodic but groovy lines. The drums… ummm… well, here we get to the big elephant in the room, don’t we? This is NOT an original Black Sabbath reunion; Bill Ward is conspicuously absent. He left before the recording sessions and left a rambling, disjointed, and lengthy rant on the internet about “unsignable contracts” that could really be boiled down to one sentence: “Sharon Osbourne is being a cunt”. How true it all is I don’t know, but regardless he ain’t here.
Ward was replaced by Brad Wilks of Rage Against the Machine fame. He does a serviceable job, but not much more. He’s a better technical drummer than Ward, but his attempts to cop the classic Sabbath drum style mostly fall flat. In truth, I doubt if Ward could have been his old self at this point either so I guess it’s fine.
As for Ozzy, well… it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to hear that he’s getting a lot of help from studio trickery. Even so, he stays in his lower midrange voice. It works OK, but it sure isn’t the Ozzy we remember. That aside, the album could have been recorded better. I don’t know why Rick Rubin was chosen to produce given some of the epic fuckups he’s been responsible for (Death Magnetic, cough cough), but the bass is too low in the mix and the whole thing is overcompressed. The effect becomes painfully obvious listening on a good system, although I imagine Rubin and the band reasoned (correctly) that most listeners would be listening on their cellphones with cheap-ass earbuds.
The songwriting mostly makes up for the above deficiencies. It falls a little flat in a few places, but the only track I actively dislike is Live Forever. I know I’m rating this record pretty far down the list at number 14, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good album. In fact everything from here on out is strongly recommended; Sabbath has been nothing if not consistent down through the years. That’s why they’re my favorite band.
In short, I’ve rarely seen such a good example of an older band grabbing their younger imitators by the collar and saying look son… this is how the shit is done. This album does suffer a bit from inconsistent songwriting, the production is less than spectacular, and at times it seems the band is trying maybe a bit too hard to pretend they’re the same guys that recorded Master of Reality and Volume 4. The calculated nature of the beast hurts the end result; part of the magic of those old albums is that the band really didn’t seem to have any idea what the fuck they were doing or how significant it would turn out to be. But in it’s best moments this record manages to serve up music that can stand unashamedly alongside those hallowed platters, and most of the rest is pretty good as well.
One little side note: get the deluxe addition. It includes a few bonus tracks that really should have just been on the album. How often does that happen? Bonus tracks usually suck. Not the case here; if Methademic and Naivete in Black had been on the album proper instead of Dear Father and Live Forever I would have given the record a higher rating. Meanwhile here’s God is Dead in all of it’s evil glory.