The reunion of one of most popular metal bands has been fraught with difficulties from the outset. Firstly original drummer Bill Ward dropped out, citing contractual issues, followed by guitarist Tony Iommi’s diagnosis with lymphoma, and Ozzy Osbourne falling off the wagon and returning to his excessive drinking and drug taking habits. But, as shown at last year’s Download Festival, Black Sabbath are still a force to be reckoned with when performing live. The question remains, can a record befitting the history and influence of Black Sabbath come out of such a tumultuous time for the band?
Filling in for Ward behind the kit is Brad Wilk of Rage Against The Machine, whose usual playing style is undeniably different to his predecessor, but Ward’s absence is rarely felt, as Wilk’s playing slots neatly into the Sabbath sound. The other half of the rhythm section is bassist and lyricist on all songs Geezer Butler, whose riffs are given a real chance to sing on this album, unlike so many metal records where the bass guitar drowns in a mire of multi-tracked guitars and gargantuan kick drums. Iommi’s guitar tone has come a long way since the 70s ‘hornet in a jar’ sound that was all the heavy guitarist had in his arsenal, being much smoother and sweeter this time, whilst still retaining the heaviness that made Sabbath famous. Vocally, Osbourne has lost some of the spark from the good ol’ days, but sounds better on 13 than on much of his recent solo material.
So, the band are in fine fettle, but what of the songs themselves? Well, the lyrics are all typical Sabbath, with songs about life, death, God and Satan. Though they may not be as memorable as the band’s tracks, the lyrics still scream classic Sabbath at every turn.
Album opener ‘End of the Beginning’ and lead single ‘God is Dead?’ both follow the format of slow, foreboding opening section, followed by a pacey, chugging second section. It worked in the 70s, and it works today. Other highlights include ‘Zeitgeist’, a jazzier, more ponderous number, complete with a Spanish-style guitar solo and more than a tinge of Pink Floyd, and ‘Age of Reason’, containing a multitude of riff and tempo changes that create a modern prog-metal vibe. Worryingly, album closer ‘Dear Father’ concludes with the rain and tolling bell from the opening track of Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut, possibly hinting that the band have gone full circle and 13 will be the closing chapter in the band’s story.
Often when bands reunite and enter the studio, the result pales greatly in comparison to the back catalogue that made them famous, but this record does not. Surpassing classic material that has had over 30 years to germinate was always going to be a tough step, and while no sole track on the album reaches the highs of Paranoid or Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, the album still has plenty worth listening to. The record easily slots into the better portion of Black Sabbath’s back catalogue and shows that, 44 years since the original tolling bell and rain signalled the birth of heavy metal, they are still able to teach the music world a thing or two about how to be heavy.