Ginger Nuts of Horror
By Jim Goforth
After almost five decades of existence, nineteen studio albums, myriad line-up changes, hiatuses and reunions, the band that completely altered the face of music, inspired and influenced generations of others, and were instrumental in pioneering the heavy metal genre, finally called time on their celebrated career early in 2017.
Call them pioneers, call them forefathers, shit, call them the motherfucking godfathers of heavy metal, for that’s what they are, Black Sabbath raised the bar and set it ridiculously high with not just the likes of the classic Paranoid album but arguably all of their first five albums.
The spawning of the four-headed, heavy as fuck, dark, doomy entity calling itself Black Sabbath way back in 1968 spawned not just one of the most important bands in all of music history, but created a sound that pretty much any act playing any form of metal under the sun owes some debt to. They were groundbreakers, trailblazers, goddamn musical bulldozers, indelibly stamping their influence over generations, and unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know Black Sabbath. Don’t have to be a metal aficionado, shit, you don’t even have to like music at all, but you know Black Sabbath. The layperson on the street has some notion of who Black Sabbath are, and could potentially rattle off a handful of song titles for you, such is the great influence the band have had over music as a whole.
However, my purpose here isn’t just to wax lyrical about Sabbath and gibber on about what their existence achieved for music overall (pretty sure the first three paragraphs take care of that), but rather to focus solely on one album in particular. The one that turned out to be their swansong, 2013’s 13.
After inscribing themselves into metal history and legendary status with those aforementioned first five albums (Black Sabbath, Paranoid, Master of Reality, Vol. 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath) how do I feel about their final offering, some forty-odd years after those first couple of classics crawled up out of the earth in a massive bleak wall of crushing sound?
Short answer? Mixed feelings.
Long answer? Well, let’s venture into some explorations of that album.
I love Sabbath, fucking love ‘em. They were to me, like myriad other kids all over the globe, one of my main gateways into metal and helped me cultivate my lifelong infatuation with the genre (and its plethora of sub-genres). In my previous article revolving around Iron Maiden, I made mention of how I was raised in a musical household, so I won’t rehash that here, but I will make mention of the fact that Black Sabbath were a natural progression for me in my music appreciation education. Rock music was always my favourite as a young kid and it was the heavy guitars that most appealed to me, and love for The Kinks, The Animals, Zeppelin, and many others had me seeking out even heavier sounds.
Enter Black Sabbath.
Over the years, Sabbath never went out of favour, they were a frequent soundtrack to my life through all my school years and beyond. While countless other bands jostled for attention as well, and many managed to maintain it too, Sabbath albums remained high in rotation. Some band’s albums eventually wear out their welcome, and some you just never get sick of, and Sabbath have a firm handful which slot neatly into that latter category.
Unfortunately, they also do have a few that fit into that former bracket as well. And well, 13 is one of those.
Being a Sabbath fanatic, one might assume that I was looking forward to the release of 13 with great anticipation, given the classic line-up, sans Bill Ward, comprised the personnel, but the reality of it was, nah, not so much.
Sure, it was awesome to have a new Black Sabbath record emerge, but essentially, did we even need a new Black Sabbath album? Four decades down the track after irrefutably changing the landscape of music, was it necessary? Not really. Sabbath wrote themselves into the history books long ago, so any new music, no matter how good it might happen to be, isn’t really going to be a patch on the classics, and anybody who suggests otherwise would be having a big lend of themselves.
I didn’t rush out to buy 13, just like I didn’t rush out to buy any of their albums from the 80’s or 90’s, so I didn’t hear the album in its entirety for quite some time after its 2013 release. I heard lead single God is Dead? enough times to temper any real desire to delve into 13 in any great capacity, and while that particular track is a solid number, featuring some great riffs and Ozzy sounding in remarkable voice given the amount of fuckery he’s indulged in over the years, it isn’t going to hurl one back into the glory days of when Sabbath ruled the roost. It has all the requisite Sabbath elements in place (bar the drums of Bill Ward of course, replaced here by the somewhat odd choice of Rage Against The Machine sticksman Brad Wilk), but somehow it lacks the brooding darkness, and the malevolence of classic-era Sabbath. Of course, did any of us really expect it to sound anything like seminal Sabbath days? Well, yeah maybe a little, but certainly not a complete return to form. That incarnation of Sabbath is untouchable, for anybody, and that includes 2013’s manifestation of Sabbath.
The thing is, much of the material on 13 does really fucking sound like it’s been gleaned from the heydays, the pure Sabbath, the true Sabbath if you want to look at it that way. And that’s probably because, well, it has been gleaned from the heydays. Sabbath on 13 tread so close to their doomy original embodiment, that one couldn’t be blamed for thinking they’re hearing reworked riffs from classic numbers.
There’s heavy borrowing from N.I.B. in Loner, Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath lurks in the shadows of morose opener End of the Beginning, and elsewhere, Zeitgeist sounds like it wanted to be the inbred offspring of Solitude and Planet Caravan and came away with the most stunted aspects of both, but not so much of the great. There are a handful of riffs in other places that hark back to other tracks from the classic albums and so forth, maybe veering close to complete rehash territory, but then again, at this stage in the game, at this point in their career, what does it really matter? One sure as hell can’t be expecting them to reinvent the wheel, and there’s none of that going on here; there’s nothing that deviates from the primarily gloomy trudge.
Sabbath couldn’t ever be accused of being speed kings, after all, that ultra-malevolent dark brooding menace that Tommy Iommi brings to the table with his riffs makes them what they are, and that slow-march pace is pretty much the order of the day throughout 13, giving way only now and then for some marginally faster compositions to emerge.
By all accounts, producer Rick Rubin was seeking a sound akin to the classic albums, suggesting the band hark back to those days as if they were recording a follow-up album to those masterpieces, and yeah, there are plenty of moments where it does indeed work that way. I mentioned before about that deviating closely to riffery of yesteryear, but on their own merits, some of these tracks are quite solid numbers, and it’s probably a little too harsh to compare them to magic that is very difficult, if not impossible, to try and replicate.
While we’re on the subject of production, personally I feel 13’s production is far too clean, I suppose would be the right word, to suit a Black Sabbath album. I can probably count on one hand the amount of albums produced by Rubin that I genuinely have massive love for, and this one here isn’t about to add to that number. With Ozzy’s vocal’s too often at the forefront, and the guitars and drums left floundering in the background (or alternatively, vice versa), only Geezer Butler’s bass lines are given room to breathe without too much tinkering. The raw, sinister slog of sounds synonymous with Black Sabbath might be present in terms of some of the riffery, but the production far too frequently cruels any real attempt to evoke genuine menace or rawness.
Unlike those classic albums it is intended to mimic, the instrumentation is not allowed to coalesce together into a swampy quagmire of evil sound. It doesn’t sound organic, in fact, it sounds quite fucking sterile. A better production might have reaped better rewards-while it looks like Black Sabbath, sounds to an extent like classic Black Sabbath and has the ability to rock like Black Sabbath, the overall sensation is that it doesn’t exactly translate as a band, but more like four separate instruments.
These are, for the most part, fairly lengthy numbers too. Five of the eight tracks comprising the standard version of 13 span out longer than seven minutes with two of them, End of the Beginning and God is Dead? over eight minutes in duration. Clocking in a couple of seconds shy of nine minutes, the latter track would probably have benefitted from being cut in half completely.
Granted, Sabbath have taken us on some epic expeditions before with track length, but too often here, the songs wear out their welcome. Even the shortest track in residence here, the wandering acoustic guitar and bongo enhanced Zeitgeist carries on beyond four and a half minutes.
This particular song, as I made reference to earlier, is very much in the vein of Planet Caravan, and situated pretty much in the dead centre of the album, it serves as a space-travel intermission of sorts, a detour from the austere and riff-heavy doom stylings constituting the rest of the platter.
Following this, the bracket of songs that make up the second half of the album, are solid, if unremarkable, compositions. The fairly mid-paced Age of Reason and the more uptempo charge of Live Forever see the Sabbs taking it up a notch, albeit briefly. Ponderous power and crushing doom sensibilities return for the final two compositions, with Iommi getting to spread wings a little on the loose, raw, harmonica-tinged ‘Damaged Soul’, while things close off with the lyrically dark ‘Dear Father’, where an abusive priest finds himself hunted by a vengeful soul who was a target of his molestations.
Elsewhere, other lyrical explorations (with all lyric writing again handled by bassist Geezer Butler) tackle religious matters, death, black holes and astral wandering, and such cheerful fare. Nothing too extraordinary, nothing too astonishing, but a few interesting social commentaries and observations are in there, and they align with the bleak, ominous music quite nicely. For the most part, Butler’s lyrics are on par with the vast majority of his work over the years, though there are a couple of howlers amongst the more thought-provoking and intelligent lines. That’s been par for the course for the entirety of Black Sabbath’s career, so at least 13 maintains the consistency there.
All in all, you’d probably be drawing from this that I’m not a major fan of 13, and you’d be pretty close to the mark there. Is it a bad album? No, it isn’t. It just isn’t a great album. On the off-chance that you are one of those folks who just so happened to be living under the rocks I referred to earlier, and hadn’t ever heard jackshit by Black Sabbath before, and 13 was your very first experience with the band, well, hell, you couldn’t really be blamed for thinking it was a pretty good piece of work. Which, lyrically and musically (without measuring it against any of their previous output), it is.
In my case though, I grew up with those landmark Sabbath albums, so it’s inevitable comparisons get thrown, even if unintentionally. Sadly, this isn’t quite the swansong album an iconic outfit like Sabbath deserved, it’s more like Rick Rubin’s vision of Sabbath or even some Sabbath tribute band trying to recreate the inimitable sound of the first triumvirate or so records. A case of going out with a whimper instead of a bang.
I’ve no doubt the album has its fans out there, I’m sure it’s garnered an assortment of rave reviews somewhere, and by the same token I’ve a fair idea there are souls out there who take a dimmer view to it than I’ve done, or have far harsher things to say. Personally, I’m largely ambivalent about it, and ultimately, it was a record we didn’t even need.
Nonetheless, Black Sabbath still remain the godfathers of heavy metal, and nothing will ever alter that fact; one fairly vanilla album following a long illustrious career marked by some of the finest platters ever committed to record won’t put much of a dent in their legacy at all.
And if you just so happen to have a friend who doesn’t know the first thing about Black Sabbath, don’t be an asshole and recommend 13 to them as a starting point. A reasonable album it might be, but it is largely forgettable, and in no way is it truly representative of the massive power Black Sabbath were once capable of.