It’s a cliché, but I will never forget the first time I heard Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath. I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom aged 13, and from the moment I heard the iconic bell tolling through the rain, I knew I was onto something unlike anything I’d heard before.
I remember genuinely being scared by the intensity of the chaotic drumming style and the thunderous combination of the guitar and bass. I was transfixed by Ozzy Osbourne’s nihilistic wail. From that moment, I was hooked. Black Sabbath would form the basis of most of my music taste from now on.
Black Sabbath’s latest release, 13 has been anticipated as hotly by the rock and metal community as it has been fraught with setbacks. Sabbath’s original drummer, Bill Ward, pulled out of the recording and live tour due to contract disputes, and Tony Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma, from which he has thankfully recovered. Like many fans, pressing play was a tense moment. I wanted it to be good, and I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed.
The album represents a return to the dirty blues sound of the first couple of releases by the band, and while it’s obvious that Mr. Osbourne’s voice has deteriorated over the years, the album manages to recapture this sound admirably. There are tracks such as ‘Loner’ that could have come straight from the band’s Seventies output, as well as the opening brace of tracks ‘End of the Beginning’ and ‘God Is Dead’ that show influences from the crushing doom metal bands that Sabbath themselves influenced, in much the same way that Gary Numan’s recent output sounds like his protégés such as Nine Inch Nails.
The stand-out track for me on 13 is ‘Damaged Soul’. Probably the bluesiest song on the album, for me it sums up everything that I love about Black Sabbath; the sinister growl of Tony Iommi’s riffs, Geezer Butler’s innovative bass technique, Osbourne’s signature howl. Sabbath are a band that are going to put the fear of God into you, and they’re going to take their sweet time about it. The wail of the harmonica in ‘Damaged Soul’ is straight from The Wizard. Never has it been clearer that the blues truly is the Devil’s music.
On a less positive note, this album will make you appreciate what a wonderful and unique drummer Bill Ward is. Rage Against the Machine’s Brad Wilk puts a strong performance in on 13, but while there are moments where he captures the frenzied, jazz-influenced style that the music truly demands, particularly on Damaged Soul, the drumming is largely a little formulaic. The producer Rick Rubin is also a little guilty of over-producing Ozzy’s vocals. Sure, his vocal cords have lived quite a life, but the tracks so many fans love were never about pitch-perfect vocals.
These are relatively minor gripes in all honesty. 13 is one of the best ‘reunion’ albums I’ve encountered, and there’s plenty to keep fans happy. The closing track, Dear Father, sounds like a potted history of Tony Iommi’s time as unequivocally the greatest writer of crushingly heavy guitar riffs, and one of the things the album does best is to remind you of why you fell in love with the band, and make you go back and explore their back catalogue again, and maybe recapture the captivating terror of the first encounter. And as the final track thunders to a halt, there it is. It only seems right. That bell tolling through the rain that started it all.