“We decided to write horror music” is how Ozzy Osbourne describes Black Sabbath‘s birth in the great new heavy-metal oral history, Louder Than Hell. And that’s exactly what they’re doing, once again, on 13 – a reunion set with three-quarters of the original band – that revisits, and to an extent recaptures, the crushing, awesomely doomy spectacle of their first few records.
Needless to say, this is kind of a big deal. It’s impossible to imagine heavy metal without Sabbath’s groundwork. And Osbourne hasn’t made a studio record with the band he founded for 35 years, not since he was ousted for being an unreliable alcoholic drug casualty after 1978’s Never Say Die! Moreover, this reunion comes at a time when the evil germ of the evil gene of their sound is deeply resonant: See Southern heavyweights Mastodon and Baroness; experimental metal acts like Liturgy and Boris; and hundreds of other bands around the world that owe a debt to the godfathers of gloom.
13 is steered by superproducer/superfan Rick Rubin, and it shows that, for all their innovations, Sabbath were a product of their era – at core, they’re a blues-rooted prog-rock band, and 13 may surprise some people in its proto-metal traditionalism. The eight-minute opener, “End of the Beginning,” goes through various time shifts, beginning with a sludgy stomp, switching to a galloping midsection and ending with a floaty, almost Beatlesque outro. “Zeitgeist” recalls “Planet Caravan,” from 1970’s Paranoid, with shimmering acoustic guitars and gentle-Druid hand drums set against restrained jazzbo soloing by Tony Iommi, the man who revolutionized hard-rock guitar with his downtuned tritone riffing. After some reverse-recorded psychedelic spirals, “Damaged Soul” goes from molten blues to a hot boogie jam powered by Osbourne’s harp; it’s not far from Cream or Hendrix.
Philosophically, of course, 13 is more monstrous, at times comically so. “Down among the dead men’s vision/Faded dreams and nuclear fission,” Osbourne whines on “Zeitgeist” in a voice as piercingly unpretty as it was back in the day; on the single “God Is Dead?” he rhymes “gloom,” “doom” and “tomb” – metal’s unholy poetic trifecta. Osbourne is the main wild card here. In the early Aughts, his drug-addled dark-lord persona evolved into reality-TV caricature. Yet he takes to his task here with full aesthetic sobriety, as if conscious of his responsibility to teenagers facing existential terrors for the first time.
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The other wild card is drummer Brad Wilk, formerly of Rage Against the Machine, filling in for original drummer Bill Ward, whose disagreements with his former bandmates have sadly reached a point where he’s even been cropped out of photos on blacksabbath.com. Wilk doesn’t have Ward’s subtle swing. But he’s a powerhouse, and his head-cracking style gives 13 a more modern feel. Above all, this reboot shows that the genre Sabbath helped birth remains timeless, insofar as the devil remains gainfully employed on Earth, and heavyweight rock shredding still kicks ass.