By Eleni P. Austin
Hear that sound? Like all the Whos down in Who-ville, Metal-Heads everywhere are rejoicing. Black Sabbath is back with Ozzy Osbourne. After myriad false starts, the band has recorded their first studio effort in 35 years.
Guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Terence “Geezer” Butler, drummer Bill Ward and vocalist John “Ozzy” Osbourne first came together in Birmingham, England back in 1968. First they were the Polka Tulk Blues Band, very briefly they were Earth. Influenced by the Boris Karloff/Mario Brava Italian horror movie, they officially settled on Black Sabbath moniker.
The band’s sound was the antithesis of peace, love and flower power. Theirs was a visceral fusion of Blues, and Psychedelia with a hint of Prog Rock. Somehow, Black Sabbath accidently created the template for Heavy Metal.
Their self-titled debut arrived in 1970. The record was reviled by critics but embraced by the fans. (Led Zeppelin endured the same fate back in the 70s). Black Sabbath shot to number 23 on the Billboard charts. Five classic albums followed in quick succession. Paranoid and Masters Of Reality in 1971, Vol. 4, in 1972, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath in 1973 and Sabotage in 1975.
The relentless schedule of touring and recording, coupled with increased drug consumption was starting to take its toll. Osbourne briefly left the band in 1977, toying with the idea of a solo career. The band lured him back for what would be the last album from the original line-up, Technical Ecstasy. By 1979, the band fired Ozzy Osbourne.
Between biting the heads off bats and doves and ridding the world of cocaine one snort at a time, Ozzy achieved massive success as a solo act. Eventually, even Pat Boone covered Ozzy’s signature tune, “Crazy Train.”
Sabbath soldiered on, first with former Rainbow vocalist, Ronnie James Dio and later with ex- Deep Purple singer, Ian Gillian. By 1986, Black Sabbath was basically Tony Iommi and a rotating cast of British musicians.
In 1997, Ozzy and Black Sabbath reunited and toured, playing to capacity crowds. A live album documented their achievement. In 2001 they reunited again. This time they headlined Ozzfest, (Ozzy’s Metal answer to Lollapalooza). It was announced that the band was working on new material with protean producer, Rick Rubin.
Unfortunately, the project was postponed indefinitely, when Ozzy and his family participated in the MTV reality show, “The Osbournes.” The program was Ozzy’s version of domestic bliss: Ozzy: clueless, high and dithering; his wife Sharon: bossy and sarcastic. The show also featured his teenage kids, Kelly and Jack and an assortment of incontinent family pets.
The profanity laced show lasted three seasons touching on serious issues, like Sharon’s bout with breast cancer. Mostly, it was a showcase for Ozzy’s absentee parenting style. The erstwhile Prince Of Darkness came across like a neutered house cat.
The enormous popularity of the show completely derailed Sabbath’s recording plans with Rubin. Iommi recruited Ronnie James Dio and Vinnie Appice and toured as Heaven & Hell, (named after a Sabbath album recorded during Dio’s tenure with the band). Sadly, Ronnie James Dio lost his battle with stomach cancer and died in 2010.
Finally in 2011, it was announced that the original Black Sabbath line-up would reconvene and record with Rick Rubin. All of Metal-dom exulted! Unfortunately, Bill Ward bowed out due to “contractual disagreements” and Tony Iommi was diagnosed with Lymphoma.
But this time, the boys from Birmingham would not be deterred. Rubin suggested using ex-Rage Against The Machine drummer, Brad Wilk and Iommi began an aggressive program of chemotherapy. After this elongated gestation, the band has released their first studio album since 1978.
13 opens with the one-two punch of “End Of The Beginning” and “God Is Dead.” “End…” is the perfect intro to 21st century Sabbath. Powered by thick slabs of percussion, the track begins at a narcoleptic pace. It’s a full minute before Ozzy’s sepulchral tones kick in.
The lyrics seem to address the band’s hotly anticipated rebirth and the struggle ahead with Iommi’s illness. “Is this the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end/ Be the master of your fate, don’t look back live for today, tomorrow is too late.” Following these philosophical affirmations, Iommi executes not one, but two face-melting solos.
“God Is Dead?” is fittingly foreboding. Wilk pounds out a triple time tattoo that thunders ominously. Ozzy’s vocals sound remarkably youthful and pliant. The question doesn’t seem flippant or facile. Butler’s lyrics sketch out a cogitative search for spirituality.
Midway through, the tempo shifts as Ozzy chants “Rivers of evil run through dying land swimming in sorrow, they kill, steal and borrow/ There is no tomorrow, for the sinners will be damned.” (Somehow, these chord changes mirror the ones used for the Frankie Valli cheese-fest, “Grease Is The Word.” Scary!)
As much as 13 is a showcase for sludge-tastic riffs and macabre melodies, the nicest surprise here is Gezzer Butler’s lyrics. In the 70s, he concerned himself with Black Magic, drugs and fantasy. Presently, Geezer comes across an erudite elder statesman.
Three songs highlight his facility with language, “Loner,” “Age Of Reason” and “Live Forever.” “Loner” is a nuanced character study of a serial killer. The instrumentation grinds and pivots. Piquant guitar notes underscore the speculation… “I wonder if the loner can assimilate, a life less lived alone plays devil’s advocate.”
On “Age Of Reason,” a doomsday scenario is made more urgent by an anxious rhythm and shredding guitar licks. A dour and vaguely Dylanesque world view is presented.. “Mass distraction hides the truth, Prozac days and sleepless hours/ Seeds of change that don’t bear fruit.”
Finally, “Live Forever” is even gloomier, (but in a good way!) A mordant meditation on mortality, the tempo is suitably dirge-like. Ozzy is plaintive and resolute.. “I don’t want to live forever, but I don’t want to die.” Iommi echoes the mood with an epic two minute solo.
Black Sabbath steps out of their comfort zone on a couple of tracks, “Zeitgeist” and “Damaged Soul.” The former opens with Ozzy’s trademark Beelzebub(ba) chortle, but the melody feels uncharacteristically desolate and spacious. Honestly, it’s kinda beautiful, closer to Bowie’s “Space Oddity” or Pink Floyd’s airy reveries. Anchored by jazzy, modal chords, Iommi’s fret work is fleet and flawless.
On the latter, Ozzy filters “harmonica from hell” fills through a ramshackle Blues –Rock ramble. Wilk and Butler lock down a rock solid rhythm, allowing Iommi to unleash a series of tensile solos that are both brutish and hypnotic.
The album closes with “Dear Father,” a withering excoriation of pedophile priests. Who could have guessed that these former bad boys of casual Satanism would offer a trenchant and articulate indictment of these consecrated predators… “Preacher of theocracy, hiding your hypocrisy under a false sanctity/ Holy phony empathy.”
Matching this cogent criticism, the melody and instrumentation are tour de force. Headbanging riffs ride roughshod over a triple time gallop. Howling mortar bursts of guitar alternate with punky verses and Beatlesque choruses.
13 is a triumphant return for Black Sabbath. Brad Wilk lacks the jazzy finesse that was Bill Ward’s trademark, but he provides a fine rhythmic foil for Iommi and Butler. Vocally, Ozzy is at the top of his game. It was definitely worth the wait.
By Eleni P. Austin