To say that this album has been long-awaited would be something of an understatement, but despite the setbacks and the personal troubles it’s finally here – the first Black Sabbath studio album to feature Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler together since 1978’s “Never Say Die”. It’s an album that has a lot to live up to and – with the best will in the world – when you have a legacy that includes the likes of “Black Sabbath”, “Paranoid” and “Master of Reality” then anything you release under the Black Sabbath banner four decades later is going to have to work very hard to try and capture that youthful energy and magic spark that defined their early works.
Which makes opening track ‘End of the Beginning’ something of a surprise when put into context with the rest of the album as it’s so understated. It’s not a bad song – in fact, it’s really good – and structurally very similar to the band’s eponymous track from their debut album but there is a slight feel of trepidation, as if the band are jamming it out and seeing what happens, a little like the bonus studio tracks at the end of the “Reunion” live album. ‘God is Dead?’ follows and doesn’t help things by sounding more like an Ozzy Osbourne solo track; again, it’s not bad at all but it doesn’t quite capture the magic that Osbourne, Butler and Iommi are capable of when firing on all cylinders.
But fear not, because after the subdued opening the band kick into gear, with ‘Loner’ harking back to the dark grind of ‘N.I.B.’ and the trippy ‘Zeitgeist’ echoing ‘Planet Caravan’. It’s not Black Sabbath re-working old riffs and structures, though, but rather nodding to their past and tapping into the creative well that served them so well forty years ago and bringing it back with everything they’ve learnt since. Hence, we end up with tracks like the brilliant ‘Damaged Soul’, where Ozzy’s mournful wail and evocative harmonica playing bounce along with Tony Iommi’s guitar and Geezer Butler’s bass to create a dense wall of blues-based hard rock that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in 1970 but still sounds so very now and like nothing else they’ve done.
Session drummer Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave) provides a solid backbone throughout, never intruding and neatly underpinning Iommi’s riffs, like on the stompy ‘Age of Reason’. He does a good job but the album does lack Bill Ward’s feel for heavy-handed percussion and disregard for conventional timekeeping, something that was integral to Black Sabbath’s early sound.
Overall, “13” isn’t quite the majestic slab of metal perfection that the idea of a new studio album by the founding fathers of the genre generates but it’s still an excellent representation of what Black Sabbath were and are. Sure, it lacks the presence of Bill Ward and that is always going to cast a shadow over the album but commenting on what an album doesn’t have instead of celebrating what it does have doesn’t do it any favours. If truth be told, anything that Black Sabbath have done since reuniting in 1997 has ultimately been dependant on Ozzy’s vocal performance and on “13” he sounds fantastic, dropping some of the vocal effects that have propped up some of his solo works over the past few years and letting his natural lung power carry those catchy melodies. Tony Iommi is as masterful as always, his solos reaching back to his earlier blues and jazz influences and adding some extra spice to those monolithic riffs but it could be said that “13” is powered a lot by Geezer Butler, not only with his bowel-shaking bass being more prominent in the mix than before but also his lyrical contribution, something that was noticeably missing from the “Reunion” studio material. The fact it isn’t a perfect album plays in it’s favour and, despite the slow start, “13” confidently brings the Black Sabbath legacy around full circle – just check out the final thirty-or-so seconds of ‘Dear Father’ for the proof.