Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Black Sabbath - 13 (2013)

On 11/11/11, the four original members of Black Sabbath announced to the world that they were reuniting, and would be producing a new Album and tour together for the first time in decades. Now, after significant drummer drama, a battle with Cancer, and a relapse of drug abuse, the album is finally here as promised- or not quite as promised depending on your point of view.  Whatever your opinion on the rocky road between the 11/11/11 announcement and the album's release, you have to admit that any new material from the aging progenitors of heavy metal while they are still healthy enough to produce and perform new music is welcome.

It is actually a minor miracle that the album "13" was created at all. Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Ozzy Osbourne, and Bill Ward were involved in a recent legal action over ownership of the Black Sabbath name, a situation that could easily have turned into a drawn out grudge-match of epic proportions. Instead of getting ugly, everyone kept things professional and quietly settled their differences in a remarkably mature and business-like fashion.

Shortly after announcing the reunion, Tony Iommi was diagnosed with cancer, a threat that could have easily ended any possibility of a reunion. Iommi, somehow hang tough and continued to write, record, and then tour between chemotherapy treatments- a near-miracle in itself. When the treatments began, so did the messy public contract dispute with drummer Bill Ward. Ward eventually left the project, only to be replaced by Brad Wilk from Rage Against the Machine. Brad, however, was not the band's first choice. They, so I've heard, wanted to record with Tommy Clufetos, who currently serves as their touring drummer, revealing possible disputes between he band, their management, and their producer.

Despite it all, 13 is here.

The overall sound of the album is very "doomy" - similar to the Heaven and Hell album. Iommi's playing has the same heaviness, and very angular, crunchy types of sounds. Ozzy has a processed sound similar to what you'd hear on his solo albums, but with the effects a little less dominant. He plays is smart and stays mostly in his lower register, which adds to the overall brooding gloom of the album. Brad Wilk's drumming is on the minimalist side- he generally sounds good, and hold the whole production together y maintaining the groove, but mostly stays out of he way to let the three veteran members take the spotlight.

As for Geezer Butler's bass sound... You would expect a strong bass presence on a doom-metal album, but Geezer is really off the charts. The bass parts generally dominate the sound, and are very strong in the mix, but extraordinarily clear. If you are a fan of the bass, this is a must have album. It has the best bass sound of any Sabbath album, possibly on any metal album to date, and Geezer is probably playing better than he ever has. At times it feels like Iommi's guitar is the rhythm section, and the bass is the lead instrument. On a good system you can hear every detail. The bass sound on the Heaven and Hell album is muddy by comparison. Geezer is he real star on 13.

If you take the gloomy vibe from the Heaven an Hell album, and add some of the bluesy groove from the early Sabbath records, and you'll have a good idea of what 13 sounds like.

The album is full of subtle, and not so subtle nods to the classic Sabbath catalog. The lead track, "The End of the Beginning", starts out with a plodding dirge clearly inspired by the title track from their very first album, then later breaks into a more groove-oriented riff clearly inspired by "Hole in the Sky." The track "Loner" has parts that seem vaguely similar to "Air Dance" from the Never Say Die album. "Zeitgeist" is a not-so-subtle tribute to "Planet Caravan" with a spacey, atmospheric groove, ending with a jazz inspired solo. "Damaged Soul" is very much a Blues track that comes off as a modernized take on the mood of the second half of their first album. Finally "Dear Father" ends with the same rainstorm and church bell loop that opened the first album.

The three bonus tracks are a little more upbeat and modern sounding than the rest, but are still very good tracks. "Methademic" in particular, could be the most interesting track on the album.

All said, 13 is worth listening to. Iommi's guitar is less dominant, and his solos are not quite as compelling as other efforts, but honestly, he still sounds grey, and clearly has not lost his knack for writing memorable riffs. Frankly, when you consider that he recorded this while battling a disease that normally stops people dead in their tracks permanently, his work on the album is astounding, and I think that Sabbath fans everywhere should consider themselves lucky that he can still throw down like the legend he is. There are overall stronger Sabbath albums, but 13 is a worthy and very welcome addition to their catalog.

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