12 June 2013


"But the Emperor is naked!" The boy said. 
~The Emperor’s New Clothes, Hans Christian Andersen, 1837

It wasn’t gonna be Volume 4. It wasn’t even gonna be side one of Never Say Die!  There was no way they could ever have a hope in hell of possibly getting it right – was there?
Surely not.

With the brutal, untimely loss of Ronnie James Dio in 2010, and (ahem) “Heaven & Hell” with him, there was no question a patch-up with with the original Sab Four had to happen, and pretty tout-de-fucking-suite. But it seemed foreboding from its announcement on 11.11.11 – Tony Iommi’s cancer diagnosis two months later meant there was even less than no time to fuck around. Then, depending on whom you believe, Bill Ward got shanghai’d with a fugazy contract, so he gave the other three two fingers, his face got chopped out of the pictures, and before it had even started, the glorious “Black Sabbath reunion” looked pretty well teats-up - except, of course, it wasn’t.

Enter next The Rubin, who’s made a lucrative career of defibrillating many a flatlining music career, but here was the white whale, the holiest of Holy Grails - Black Sabbath: Just imagine what could be done if they got it together enough to do one last full-length! A band whose first four (er, six, actually) records are the dictionary-definition of tectonic: land-forming slabs from which all headbanger life was borne. Even Ozzy-era albums seven (Technical Ecstasy) and eight (Never Say Die!), the ones everybody shits on, have moments of timeless greatness on them. Needless to say, it was Rubin’s herculean task to Frankenstein an album out of a band whose first full-length in thirty-five years(!) had better be seriously fucking up-to-snuff.

Then -as if shit wasn’t hinky enough- some genius decides to title the record 13, for no real good reason (nope, no possible bad juju there), then some genius decides to get the kid from Rage Against the Machine on the skins (after first considering Ginger Baker – let your mind reel at that shit for a moment!). It seemed as if momentously bad decisions were the theme of the new Sabbath record before a lick had even been recorded. 

But here we are, many months later. So, just how is the -arguably- most-important-heavy-metal-record-in-a-very-long-fucking-time? Grandly disappointing, which was not unexpected;  But it’s all the more so because of those elements that almost, almost work, should work, and don’t - ultimately falling so terribly flat.

You don’t wanna be a robot ghost, occupied inside a human host
Somebody… no, not somebody… Geezer Butler actually wrote that lyric down and put it in a Black Sabbath song. Yes, opener “End of the Beginning” is chock-fulla asinine lyrical missteps, and it sets the tone for the rest of the record. Throughout, turns-of-phrase like Give me the wine, you keep the bread in “God Is Dead?” serve more to irritate than conjure up anything meaningful or clever. In fact, the majority of the lyrics seem tired and phoned in. No one’s expecting Rimbaud, but jeez, Geez, cliché lines like Well I don't wanna live forever, But I don't want to die... I may be dreaming or whatever, I live inside a lie! just seem like nobody’s trying that hard anymore.

On to Ozzy’s vocal work: I know - it’d be sure-as-shit unfair of me to compare Ozzy’s performance here to anything he himself recorded on the first few Sabbath records (even though that’s clearly what he’s going for); I’d be even more of a blue-meanie to compare his performance here to anything Dio handed in on The Devil You Know in 2009 - but even for Ozz, this typically over-processed attempt is anemic. And the hither-and-thither chucking-in of nostalgic oh yeah!s, alright!s, and okay!s , or the occasional demonic laugh just paint a bright red try-harder target on the band’s back. We know, we’ve all heard “Sweet Leaf”, you don’t have to remind us that this isn’t “Sweet Leaf”.

The drums? It’s not Bill Ward. End of story.

Okay, maybe not… Sadly, maybe even Bill Ward can’t live up to being Bill Ward these days, and if so, we’re all much, much poorer for that fact. Was Brad Wilk a worthy replacement? No, but in fairness, no one was. Wilk plays it by-the-numbers, whatever Iommi and Rubin want him to. He doesn’t get to shine, and why should he? He’s a hired gun, nothing more, nothing less. The album’s percussion limps without Ward’s showboatery, though – those crazy-train, about to fall-off-the-rails drums were as much a hallmark of the Sabbath canon as Iommi’s conquering riffs and Butler’s throbbing low end. You know as well as I do: it don’t mean a thing if it don’t got that swing.

But let’s talk hackneyed, ham-fisted nostalgia instead.

Cue “Zeitgeist”, so transparent an attempt to recapture the vibe of “Planet Caravan” (itself the weakest link on the most done Black Sabbath album of all time), right down to its prominent conga line, its Pro-Tool’d vocal effect (no more carting around that Leslie speaker, eh? God, technology!), its hippy-dippy, love-in-a-black-hole lyrics, they could have just as well re-recorded the fucker, called it “Planet Caravan 2020” or some such cosmic twaddle, and it wouldn’t’ve mattered. It amounts to the same.

So many of the songs are just tepid, weak-tea attempts: “Loner”, “Age of Reason”, “Live Forever”, “Damaged Soul” – not a one of them has the slightest staying power.

I can hear the peanut gallery’s cries now: Oh, you’re just a hater, ‘n haters gon’ hate.

It was once said (by someone who, could he hear it, would surely be far more disappointed in this new Sabbath record than the lowly likes of myself) that you can only hate that which you once loved – so consider that as you bop your head, toe the line, and tell yourself “Hey, gee, this new Sabbath is pretty swell.”

Compared to what? This is not any band’s reunion album.

This is supposed to be the mighty Sab Four.
A band on whose back ten million heavy metal ships set sail upon black seas in honor of, in homage to.
A band which birthed The Riff™, in all its caterwauling-Rosemary’s-Baby glory.
A band which gave credence to growing your hair long and playing as ungodly-loud as fucking possible.
A band of four fuckups who came from black-lunged, industrial-wasteland nothing, only to accidentally invent a genre of music that proved beauty within ugliness, and gave breath and identity to countless misfits who reveled in the middle-finger, sonic-excess, self-righteous glory of heavy fucking metal. They’re the reason we’re all here. 

And this is why 13 is ultimately so, so disappointing. Perhaps the mighty Black Sabbath set the bar too high to ever be able to live up to their past glories.

But… There's a way it might have worked a lot better. That’s the hardest part. There are two bright moments, a pair of  shiny new pennies glinting out from beneath a pile of fresh manure, strong enough to  warrant praise, anyway - so I will say this much: A full-length was foolhardy; there was bound to be filler. But Black Sabbath could have, and probably should have done a single.

“God Is Dead?”, and “Dear Father”, for all their faults, come so fucking close to grabbing the brass ring:  Iommi’s riffs are sky-cracking, warlord, oskorei thunder - properly grandiose and apocalyptic enough that all is *almost* right with the doomslaked world. Even Ozzy’s processed-to-shit vocals are palatable on these songs; at least, they’re well in-line with, and work in favor of his capabilities at this late date. Ultimately, though, nothing can take away from Iommi’s Left Hand.

“God Is Dead?” is moody, with glimmers of “Hand of Doom” Geezer-creepy-crawl in the verses, and it’s got a great hook leading into the chorus. “Dear Father”, meanwhile, builds tension to a fantastic Sabotage-ian climax, before it erupts into “Hole in the Sky” madness. The songs aren't perfect. But on an album that's otherwise unmemorable, mediocre, with zero staying power, I’ll take what I can get.

No one in Black Sabbath needed the money a reunion album would bring. Shit, nobody buys albums anymore anyway. I’m sure their intentions were good [most of them - $haron’s a member of the band, right?]. Just as I’m sure much of the unbridled love for this record is the realization that, shit man - this is it, one last album, one last tour and it’s vaya con diablos to the mighty Black Sabbath. For. Ever.  Who’s gonna be playing heavy metal in their seventies?

Whether you embrace or reject 13, just remember - it is your Sabbath-given right as a metalhead to do so.



Kyle Antivenin said...

1) Advance copy. No, wait - actually, your version is better - I listened to 13 ONE TIME and wrote a review. Fucking idiot supreme indeed.

2) Generate hits? That's precious! This is a personal blog, and some friends of mine on Twitter were kind enough to share what I wrote. If it sees 100 hits, that's tons. If I wanted to generate hits, I could have just as easily published this at one of the other mags I write for.

3) Yeah, I'm too brutal for "Planet Caravan", *smirk*. I have no problem with the original, but I do think it's the weakest part of Paranoid, which is my least favorite Ozzy-era album.

4) If you honestly, honestly think 13 holds a candle to any other Ozzy-era album in Sabbath's canon, and will go down in history as a classic, I applaud your ability to settle for less.

Anonymous said...

I'm very pleased that I am not the only one that feels that "Dear Father" is oodles better than the rest of the album. Something about that chorus I really enjoy, not sure what. While I don't feel the album is as big of a disappointment as Kyle does, I have always stood by the thought that something mind-numbingly dull is sometimes far worse than something so incredibly awful. Nice write-up; this is a nice change of pace from the glowing reviews that many other publications give the album.