Every year for the past three years my wife takes our boys to see family in New Jersey and New York. I’m tasked with various projects: painting, fixing up stuff — things I can get kind of lost in. The sound track for the work is almost invariably Black Sabbath, cranked loud. Of the bands I loved when I was a teenage metalhead, Sabbath is one of the very few that I can still listen to regularly and never tire of. My boys often request “Iron Man” on the way to school, oblivious to the fact it has nothing to do with Tony Stark, or “The Wizard,” believing it to be straight out of Harry Potter land. I oblige, for it is Art, and it is good.
There is a grayscale of Black Sabbaths. The original band responsible for inventing heavy metal in the early 70s: Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward (it’s important to note this same incarnation was responsible for then dragging that reputation through the murk); the band lifted from its Ozzy-less decline by the horns-flashing Ronnie James Dio, who led them through two classic albums of pop metal renaissance in the early 80s (as well as a stunning modern metal record recorded under the name Heaven and Hell — the title of the first Dio-led Sab record — released shortly before Dio passed away at the age of, yes, 67). Then there are the one-offs, like the Sabbath of Born Again, which, while it may have afforded the oddly too-dedicated fan moments of pleasure, never really could come close to the considerably prolific glory days of the Sabbath of the 70s. And of course, the countless reunion tours and shows that, while cool in their own way, haven’t much new to say.
So it’s with some interest that we see, in the last week, the release of the first Black Sabbath album with Ozzy Osbourne — of all original material — since 1978. This was a much-hyped record, complete with some major drama. It’s remarkable that all the original band members are still with us, and had the original band actually made this record, I would have pre-ordered the complete deluxe whatzit with vinyl and booklets and stickers and all that jazz. But, for whatever (probably lawyerly) reason, drummer Bill Ward declined to participate, after initially agreeing. His replacement is Brad Wilk, of Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine. Not a bad choice, but not making things right with Ward reflects poorly on the band and its legacy. While Ozzy and Iommi got most of the attention, Ward and bassist Geezer Butler were the heart of the original band, creating the rhythmic punch that propelled Iommi’s epic riffs and Ozzy’s wail. Imagine John Bonham living and Led Zeppelin doing its reunion show a few years back without him, and you get an idea of the scale of Sabbath’s mistake. (Seriously, revisit “The Wizard” from Sabbath’s first record, for an idea how important Ward’s drumming was to this band.) Drama number two, an even more serious problem: Tony Iommi battled lymphoma during the making of the record, and without Iommi there is no Sabbath.
That the king of the metal riff was laid low, though, doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference, nor would I expect it to: of the small handful of British rock guitarists who have wielded real and lasting influence over the years, only Iommi is still creating the quality of work he first hammered out in the youth of his career. And, in Iommi’s hands, this semi-reunion works. Aided by Butler’s big bass, which has always been able fill the holes for the band live and thicken the sludge in the studio, 13 manages a number of feats. It is sonically the successor to Iommi/Butler’s last record, the aforementioned excellent album they made in 2009 with Dio, The Devil You Know. 13 is also a welcome reminder that Black Sabbath started out as heavy blues band that knew how to swing, something not many of their metal peers take terribly seriously anymore, much to the detriment of the genre. While Wilk has come under criticism for not having Bill Ward’s loose and woolly approach, his roots are in bands that borrowed heavily, heavily from Sabbath and Zeppelin, and to these ears he holds up his end admirably. Lastly, I’m probably not alone in thinking Ozzy would be the ruin of this project. His bandmates rarely coasted, as he has been known to do over the years (reaching a cartoonish nadir with his reality show several years ago). I’d even argue that Ozzy was really sapped artistically after the tragic death of Randy Rhoads, the esteemed guitarist of his first two solo records. He lost his voice, or rather, since his intonation is notoriously iffy, the character of his delivery. At its best a frightened and frightening illustration of Geezer Butler’s lyrics — which tend towards ruminations on existential anxieties, and which, for rock song lyrics, were truly revolutionary when Sabbath debuted in 1970 — Ozzy’s voice has the ability to deliver the perspective of an innocent man observing a nightmare. His voice is back on 13: if Butler and Iommi threw down the gauntlet, Ozzy picked it up with energy to spare.
The songs are long, they take as long as they need to unfold, and riffs and themes from other albums revisited (a stock-in-trade of the band’s since its beginning). I get the sense producer Rick Rubin knew that the band’s fans don’t care, never cared, about hits or brevity (“Paranoid” notwithstanding) but about dynamics, tension and release, being trapped with Ozzy inside the riffs. Being in the middle of a classic Sabbath record is to be far from the fringes of pop fashion or postmodern punk irony: that this version of Sabbath has again achieved its hallmark effect when its players are in their 60s further demonstrates that to be metal is to be a true believer in music’s transportive powers.