When three-quarters of Black Sabbath announced that they were about to record their 19th studio album with producer Rick Rubin – whose modus operandi has always been to get bands back to their peak form – ears pricked up in the metal community. Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler haven’t recorded a full album together in 35 years, and if Bill Ward chose to back out because the contract wasn’t right, well, that’s a shame, but it was assumed that Rage Against The Machine drummer Brad Wilk would do a good job. What was less certain was whether Iommi could come up with the right riffs after so many years of toil, battling cancer as he is.
Well, wonder no more. You’d be within your rights to expect a fair-to-middling comeback album, but 13 is much, much better than that. Rubin’s trademark mind games have worked a treat, with the band playing and singing much as they did in their creative early-to-mid-70s heyday.
Though the aura of nostalgia is palpable, that’s no hindrance to the music. The 11 tracks have a full-fat tone that suits the stripped-down riffing perfectly, and Wilk’s Ward impression is spot-on, dragging the tempo in the expected doomy style while Iommi delivers perfect, melodic solos. Advance single God Is Dead? expresses Sabbath’s world-class grasp of light and shade, combining spooky clean passages with a central cluster of riffs straight from Master Of Reality. It is, however, surpassed by End Of The Beginning, an eight-minute epic with the familiar three-act structure (slow intro, jammed solo, fast galloped outro) that you’ll recall from many Sabbath classics. Meanwhile, Zeitgeist is the best Sabbath song in ages: an unhurried acoustic blues with Ozzy’s vocal treated to an ancient Leslie organ effect; Live Forever, Damaged Soul and Dear Father are breathtaking compositions too, each featuring an unexpected twist somewhere, whether in a sudden tempo change or uplifting chord sequence.
The album sags a bit towards the end, with the final four songs less impressive than the first seven. Possibly this is down to Ozzy’s lyrics, his most innocent and devil-obsessed in decades: though he’s working hard, hitting notes that most of us would never expect him to hit, this isn’t 1975 anymore and lines such as, “I’m losing the war between God and Satan” wear thin quickly. The token drug song, Methademic, feels a bit aimless after its acoustic intro, and Peace Of Mind is a thankfully short filler track.
All this said, Sabbath on average form are better than plenty of others at their best, and there’s not a truly duff track here. Most of the songs are long, with jamming, unrestrained midsections, and there are so many riff changes that it’s obvious how prolific Iommi has been. Rubin’s experiment has paid off handsomely, even though at times you’ll find yourself comparing the new songs to any number of familiar signature tunes from Sabbath’s catalogue.