“With the image that Black Sabbath had created for itself, you couldn’t really do an I Left My Heart in San Francisco kind of song,” Ozzy Osbourne once joked. Ominous from its title down, 13 ends just as the band’s eponymous 1970 debut album began: with the sound of rain, thunderclaps and the eerie tolling of a lone church bell. It’s a Hammer Horror-esque soundscape that should come across as rather jocular, but long-term fans of these founding fathers of monolithic metal may actually find it oddly poignant.
Ozzy’s first album with the band since 1978’s Never Say Die! has the valiant air of a hugely influential act trying to put its house in order and it’s been produced by Rick Rubin in a manner that pays informed homage to Sabbath’s illustrious past. Factor in the guitarist Tony Iommi being diagnosed with lymphoma blood cancer in 2011, moreover, and the distinctive intervals of Sabbath’s heavy, foreboding riffs cast an even darker shadow than usual.
Ironically, Iommi’s illness has galvanised the band to make good on a collaboration with Rubin that goes back to 2001. Then, he and Sabbath recorded tracks that were later abandoned, but 13, largely a success, packs more dynamism than one might reasonably expect from Osbourne, Iommi and the bassist/lyricist Geezer Butler, three men whose collective age is now 192. It’s a shame, though, that unresolved legal wrangles led Sabbath’s other founding member, the drummer Bill Ward, to opt out at the last minute. He’s replaced here by Rage Against the Machine’s Brad Wilk – an able anchor, certainly, but not, alas, the snug-fitting jigsaw piece that Ward would had been.
Though the openers End of the Beginning and God Is Dead? take almost 17 minutes to trace their menacing, largely slow-moving trajectories, they please because they are textbook Sabbath. Ozzy’s distinctive double-tracked vocals – still light-years away from his stumbling, excess-ravaged speaking voice – are fluid and melodic, and it’s clear that Iommi’s sack of memorable guitar hooks is far from empty.
The standout track, though, is Zeitgeist. Despite its title, the song turns back time to draw inspiration from Planet Caravan, an ace psychedelic outing from Sabbath’s second album of 1970, Paranoid. Once again, there’s something valedictory in the air, the band reminding us of past glories and trying to use them as a lightning rod for the muse. That’s always risky, but if 13 is a goodbye, it’s a considered and pleasingly heartfelt one.
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