Black Sabbath – 13 (Mercury)
CD / DL / LP
When Kerrang ran it’s “Tom Jones to join Black Sabbath” April fools story in 1988, it didn’t seem that far fetched. At the time Sabbath had truly lost the plot, with Tony Iommi dragging a bunch of faceless LA Session musicians around the half-full civic halls of England and the brand name through the mud. At the same time, Ozzy Osbourne’s career hit paydirt with his downright creepy impersonation of Judith Chalmers on crack hitting a nerve with alienated middle American youth. It was all so far away from the trailblazing band who had, in the space of the first three chords of the first track of the first album had invented heavy metal itself.
Fast forward through twenty five years of reconfigurations, reunions, reality TV, hissy fits and hearts attacks and three quarters of the classic lineup have come together to make their first album since 1978’s much maligned (but utterly brilliant) Never Say Die.
So are all the elements in place? The Serial Killer Is Just Behind You Wearing His Mums Skinned Face As A Mask guitar riffs? Check! The I Am Terrified Of My Own Shadow In Fact I’m Scared Of Everything vocals? Yep (sort of). The David Icke via Aston Villa Paranoid Conspiracy Theory Lyrics? Present and correct! The incongruously jazzy drums? There they are, skittering away behind the monolithic slabs of noise, albeit via a different, younger drummer with the same initials, and hey, if that worked for Emerson, Lake and Powell it can work for us too…
The problem with “13” is that, when these elements are combined, the impression is mostly of a loving, respectful, studiously assembled homage to the masters of doom rather than the real thing.
As the first track, “End Of The Beginning” lurches into motion with the momentum of a tank the size of Birmigham rolling slowly through the sludgy inlets of Hades itself, every Sabbath fan should be grinning ear to ear. In the middle section, when the pace suddenly quickens to the kind of elephantine gallop which Iron Maiden have based a whole career on, metal heads all over the world will be shaking those greasy tresses, basking in the fuzzy warm glow of easy recognition. But when the second track, the lead single “God Is Dead” follows exactly the same pattern, as do the majority of tracks, the impression is one of being manipulated rather than moved, of being jerked around on rusty puppet strings by men who know the formula, and to paraphrase George Santayana, are doomed to repeat it.
That’s not to say that there’s not plenty to enjoy here, “Loner” marries the stomp of NIB to the keening melody of NSD’s Airdance and the fantastic “Age Of Reason” pulls in the spooky choral effects of Supertzar (or Seventh Star for you proper Sabbath geeks!) over a churning riff straight from their 70’s heyday.
The centrepiece though is the dark psychedelic blues of “Damaged Soul”, a direct throwback to the swinging slime of the early days as Earth, with Ozzy summoning the spine-tingling, authentic TERROR in his vocals which gave so much of Black Sabbaths early output a genuinely sinister appeal. “13” is worth buying for this track alone, a proper ten ton tune.
I can’t not enjoy a Black Sabbath album, it’s the sound of my youth, but “13” represents a bit of a wasted opportunity. Instead of returning to the devil may care experimentalism of the first few records, or producing the kind of rebelliously moronic joyful racket that had me air-guitaring my way through my teenage years, we’ve instead got a very cautious record. These three grandees of metal seem all too aware of their legacy, and it’s this self-consciousness, and an attendant unwillingness to push the boundaries that prevents the reunion album from being the triumph we all hoped for.
But c’mon… clap your hands…. Let’s go fucking crazy… I can’t hear you… Tony Iommi has recently said that he DOES want to work with Tom Jones! Never say Dai!
All words by Paul Stevens. More writing by Paul on Louder Than War can be found here.