June 20--Last year, former Black Sabbath tourmates Van Halen pulled off an awesome trick: they reunited with vocalist-slash-carnival-barker David Lee Roth for their first LP with him as their singer since "1984."
But they did it without their bassist, Michael Anthony, whose soaring backing vocals were a crucial part of the band's sound. It didn't seem like a recipe for success. And yet, "A Different Kind of Truth," the resultant disc, easily was the band's best since that mid-1980s milestone, and -- if it wasn't as good as the early stuff -- moments of it got so close that listening to the album, just basking in its existence, was its own special thrill.
Black Sabbath's "13" was supposed to be a reunion of the four original members, but then drummer Bill Ward couldn't cut it. So, as it was with Van Halen, we're getting a three-quarters reunion with a fill-in (Rage Against the Machine's Brad Wilk). Ward's departure cast a sour pall over the whole project. And then, it was revealed that guitarist Tony Iommi had been diagnosed with lymphoma, which he fought all through the writing-recording process. It also was recently revealed that Ozzy Osbourne had relapsed with drugs and alcohol during the same period. So it's a bit of a miracle that this album exists, and it's an even bigger miracle that it's not just OK -- it's actually quite good.
Producer Rick Rubin deserves a good amount of the credit. The band members have revealed that Rubin sat them down at the project's beginning and forced them to listen to their debut album together. He then reminded them that they started as a blues band, not a heavy metal band. He made them jam together; forcing them to recall the chemistry they once had conjured up as young men. As a result, "13" recalls classic Sabbath, and it mines the same vein that their most-loved music did, both musically and lyrically.
There are times when this is too much, where the band's attempts to get back to its roots veer too close to repetition of old ideas. "Zeitgeist" is nearly a rewrite of "Planet Caravan" from the "Paranoid" album, right down to the effect on Ozzy's vocals. Opener "End of the Beginning" blatantly apes the dynamics of the debut's "Black Sabbath." The record even ends with the same rain-and-thunder sound effects that opened their debut. Throughout, the album has a dalliance with self-parody that sometimes threatens to overshadow the whole thing.
But it never truly happens, and this is because the sound that is made by Geezer Butler's bass, Iommi's guitar, and Osbourne's vocals is one that is their own. The noise they make still is completely formidable, even as degraded and compromised by time as it is. Ozzy Osbourne may not be able to hit the notes like he used to, but he's still Ozzy Osbourne. Or, rather, on this album, he has reclaimed who he used to be. On "13," he puts to rest the doddering old punch line he had become, and he reclaims his role as wailing doom-rocker, singing Butler's death-obsessed lyrics with gusto.
Those lyrics are a large part of the album's success. Iommi's illness, Ward's defection, Osbourne's addictions -- they're all in there, and they're being faced head-on with a grimness that only the Reaper himself could match. To hear Black Sabbath questioning organized religion and wrestling with mortality in 2013 is fascinating. The closer, "Dear Father," directly addresses the issue of child abuse in the Catholic church with an unflinching eye.
Musically, the riffs aren't as defined as they might have been, but they're good, and Iommi and Butler's playing is loose and full of their unique character. Rubin smartly doesn't buff all the rough edges out, either, leaving plenty of humanity in the tracks. And, while Wilk is no Bill Ward, he plays with a good amount of the swing Ward did, so he's not a major sore thumb. Songs like "Age of Reason" and "Live Forever" seethe and groove better than many of the tracks on the previous two Sabbath-with-Ozzy albums from the '70s.
It's likely this go-around might be the last one for this band, and you can hear that they know it.
Black Sabbath still is facing their demons in their music, and the weight that comes with the trials of addiction, age and impending doom has made it so that their new album is startlingly authentic, impressively real in the way Johnny Cash's later albums were.
"13" isn't something that was made for a quick buck or to appeal to the most people; it's what Rick Rubin wanted it to be: Black Sabbath, hobbled but still powerful, playing their own unique blues.
"God is Dead?" -- Black Sabbath:
Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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