The heart of Hollywood hosted an exclusive invite-only press listening party last night for the new, highly anticipated upcoming Black Sabbath album, entitled 13. The album marks the first time in 35 years that original members Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler, and Tony Iommi have created and recorded original music on a studio release.
The definitely not black tie affair was held at the Ricardo Montalban Theater on Vine Street just off Hollywood Boulevard in the late afternoon on April 10, 2013. Limited to about only 40 journalists, yours truly was fortunate enough to be one of the members of an audience primed and ready to be in essence the first people to listen to the new album, aside from those involved in its recording (such as people like producer Rick Rubin and drummer Brad Wilk, who is playing in Sabbath in place of original Sabbath drummer Bill Ward, a move that has been rather polarizing to many die hard Sabbath fanatics). In a year marked by new musical releases by legendary rock artists like David Bowie and Iggy and The Stooges, Black Sabbath’s 13 also has created that same kind of neon electric buzz among the rock and music community.
After hobnobbing for about 15 minutes or so in the main lobby over soft and hard refreshments, the contingent of us ushered into the small but spacious theater, greeted by three large screens which sported the album cover for 13, which was simply that number being roasted in flames with a backdrop that appeared to be a black forest. Classic Sabbath songs played over the PA as we waited for the opening notes of the new album. Jack Osbourne (Ozzy’s son), who was there filming segments with a camera crew for what looked sure to be footage for a likely upcoming DVD release of the making of the record, also hosted the proceedings. He showed some footage of the band recording the album, mainly at Rick Rubin’s house/recording studio in Malibu.
The footage was mainly dubbed with old Sabbath songs as we saw the men tune up, laugh, and naturally sport the usual kind of camaraderie a camera crew recording this kind of milieu would hope to achieve. Rick Rubin spoke briefly about the challenges of recording the album and was conscious of fan expectation. Ozzy, Geezer, and Tony also spoke of the same and the fact that it was great to get the old band back together again kind of phrases, Ozzy even mentioned that this upcoming album was “the most important album of his career.”
Interestingly, all references to original drummer Bill Ward, whether in the new interview footage where each member spoke individually or in quick clips of old footage, pretty much omitted any reference to the man; in essence, vaporizing him from the present and his contributions in the past. Brad Wilk also said in the footage that he seemed at ease recording with veteran rockers and that there were laughs and good vibes all around during the making of the record. Again, there was no mention about having big shoes to fill or anything to any reference of Bill Ward, who was originally scheduled to reunite for the album with his former bandmates (see previous here and here).
Finally, after the footage was screened, the lights went down and the Sabbath record began. The opening track, “End of the Beginning” started off like the very first Sabbath song did on their self-titled debut album 43 years ago. Doomy, dark, punctuated guitar riffs meshed with crashing drums, the mid-tempo in full musical force and fettle that instantly harked one back to the “olden, golden years” of classic Sabbath. When Ozzy’s vocals kicked in, and let me say right away, Ozzy has not sounded this doomy and intense since possibly Sabotage back in 1975, he was back in his element instantly, and upon hearing it, there was an instant contrast in realizing that as good as his solo career has been, how much he has been missing with his original kind of musical vocal approach. A lot of his solo career has the sly wink with it, Ozzy sort of comes across as a heavy metal carnival barker with a large megaphone; it’s not a negative statement, he was in a different element and he took the ball that his solo career inflated for him and ran with it, but again, listening right away to him singing this kind of music, this kind of original music, with Tony and Geezer, there was an eye opening, oh yeah, he’s still 100 percent capable of doing THIS kind of stuff, the stuff that in essence really made him the legend that he is, and that the band is.
The first song clocked in at 8 minutes. The second one, “God is Dead,” was even longer. It also had the signature Sabbath sound firmly intact. Ozzy’s intonation of the phrase “God is Dead” was done in his inimitable fashion, a phrasing that only he could get away with. You notice how no one, no right wing group, or moral majority union ever complains or makes a big deal media-wise about the things Ozzy does or says? There’s good reason for that: he somehow transcends all of that, he becomes a sort of metaphysical demon when he sings; it would be like putting the devil himself on the stand and I don’t think there’s a soul alive who would have the balls to do that. And it’s because of that kind of metaphoric stance Osbourne takes in the Sabbath oeuvre of the glory years, that seemed to let him get away with sonic murder. Although the lyrics of the Sabbath records for the most part (and on this one included) were written by bassist Geezer Butler, when Osbourne sings them, he makes it devilishly his own, he melds and skin grafts it onto the recordings. It’s done here as well on the record.
[Ozzy Osbourne at the Opening reception for Black Sabbath Resurrection.
Black Sabbath Resurrection, Los Angeles, California. November 17, 2006.
Image used with permission, courtesy of s_bukley/Shutterstock.com.]
But, all told, there’s also a flipside to what’s going on with this new album. There’s a tendency to rely too much on the dead black flowery laurels Ozzy rests on, and borrows heavily and liberally from the Sabbath-by-numbers-songbook for a lot of what is evident here. There’s a lot of “oh yeahs” and “all right nows” even, which when first uttered, you go, cool, and you smile, because it’s like 1972 all over again with Volume 4 blaring through the speakers. But when it’s done a little indulgently, suddenly, it can flirt in the self-parody department. Luckily, it doesn’t cross that hurdle, but there are moments where it comes close.
The same with Tony Iommi’s solos. On the aforementioned tracks and the subsequent ones, like “Loner” (which has sort of a vocal line and melody like the obscure “Air Dance” which originally appeared on Never Say Die); “Zeitgeist,” which sounded like the juvenile brother of their classic song “Planet Caravan” (which was even replete with the same sublime bongo percussion and flange-laden vocals from Ozzy); “Age of Reason,” and “Damaged Soul,” Iommi has moments where he burns and sizzles with his axe. He plays those arpeggios, single-note bends, sustains, and triplets that are expected of him, the combination of the tasteful yet rapid and influential style and unique sound which put him in the top ten of all time hard rock guitarists, but as the record played on, there was a kind of sameness to these solos, as if the inspiration and passion were like a balloon which started to slowly leak air.
Of course, Iommi can play this kind of stuff in his sleep, and there were a lot of times where he was showing us exactly how he does it that way indeed. As great as each solo was, there was nothing terribly memorable about them; his riffs, however, were still A-list. Many of the songs sported the adventurous and complex arrangements that solidified that band as the progenitors of heavy metal, but Iommi’s soloing over them in bridges or codas sometimes almost sounded dialed in. Make no mistake, the power of the playing was there; there were many of us headbanging and metallically grooving along as one does to some of their finest recorded hours, but surely, there’s an unconscious free pass that of course a band like Black Sabbath gets, bonus points that get administered by its hardcore fans, and especially when three quarters of the band have finally gotten back in the studio.
[Percussionist Brad Wilk of the rock band Audioslave performs
in concert February 21, 2003 at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, CO.
Image used with permission, courtesy of TDC Photography/Shutterstock.com]
And on all tracks, newcomer Brad Wilk, weaned on many like sounds and the influence Sabbath gave him and his bandmates in his old stomping grounds with Rage Against the Machine, plays with a hard edged, self-assurance throughout. Bassist Geezer Butler lays down that heavy duty bottom end that made him one of the greatest of that instrument to ever come out of England. He helps Wilk achieve the monumental task at hand, but, listeners will undoubtedly hear every note Wilk is playing and wonder what Bill Ward would have done there. He plays it mostly straight, not a lot of spontaneity, more like the concreted-super tight way Ward played on the later Sabbath records; on the first few, Ward played all over the place, by Sabotage arguably, he became a more tighter player, with a four on the floor kind of thunder attack. Only on the last track of 13, called “Dear Father,” did Wilk even start to really play with more of a hungry looseness found on Sabbath records like Paranoid and Master of Reality, by way of Ward. It may be unfair to make the Bill Ward comparisons/detriments, but there’s no way not to. Like it or not, this is akin to the Led Zeppelin reunions with Jason Bonham, or if there had ever been a Beatles reunion with Julian Lennon playing with the other three in the 1980s when rumors of that ran rampant. There’s no escaping it. It probably gave Ozzy even some comfort deep down to know that the microscope wasn’t even on HIM regarding his finally reconciling with the band, but more that the pressures laid on Wilk. But again, Wilk is a competent hardnosed drummer who does more than his share to make these songs work in some respect.
And of course, Rubin’s production makes it sound like the great, lost record from the original lineup, something that was laying in a time capsule for all these decades and somehow magically, here it is, Black Sabbath, as you know and love them, 2013 style, but sounding like 1973 style.
So the final analysis in terms of a grading system is this, 13 gets a B overall, an A for effort, however, and maybe a (dare I say it?) a C in terms of the band relying and falling back on the old playbook sometimes too often. But the fact that this finally happened at all, the fact that Ozzy is part of some new music again, and the fact that something like 13 exists in a sea of some of the most mediocre, excrementally sonic music released in quite some time, lifts any detriments that 13 may have just on that reason alone.
Fans should be pleased with 13, but will any one of them honestly say it stands up to some of those classic, great hard rock records of all time the band effortlessly and amazingly churned out during the early to mid 1970s? That’s a question that might be best answered by the response Ozzy, the man himself, got. After the record was finished, Jack Osbourne introduced live on stage, the Ozz man himself, Geezer, and Tony. Osbourne strolled over to the microphone, looking sharp, dressed in his inimitable black, with a Clockwork Orange-style bowler hat on his noggin. And when he asked all of us, “So did you like it?,” he got a rather lukewarm but respectful response, and certainly not of the variety that he would have received if asked about Volume 4 or Master of Reality in the same manner.
And with that, the party ended and everyone got their cellphones returned to them, (we weren’t allowed to have them in the theater, we had to literally check them in, like checking in a hat or a coat, for fear of someone recording the record) and we all went back out into the early evening of the day in Tinseltown.