It’s only a slight exaggeration to state that reunion albums are inherently doomed to failure. Reunion albums are always weighed down with burden of being compared to bands’ past accomplishments. Very few bands manage to come even close to those lofty expectations. The pressure is even greater when the band is as iconic as Black Sabbath—the band most responsible for the genesis of heavy metal. The expectations and hype has been compounded by decades of speculation about a reunion album between the band’s four original members. Over the last fifteen years Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward have sporadically performed together live; in 2001 they even started recording an album, only to abandon it when side projects got in the way.
Thus, when the four legends from Birmingham announced in 2011 that a new Black Sabbath album was in the works, it looked like the world would receive the first studio recording from the original Black Sabbath lineup since 1978. However, it wasn’t meant to be; drummer Bill Ward was unhappy with the offered financial compensation and was swiftly replaced by Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk. Still, 13 marks the first Black Sabbath album since 1996 and the first with Ozzy since 1978.
13 kicks off with a dark, distorted riff set to a drum beat fit for a funeral dirge. After a few bars, the distortion drops outs, leaving a spooky melody and devious drum beat, setting the stage for the introduction of Ozzy, whose first line is a question: “Is this the end of the beginning?” Sound familiar? Yes, that’s exactly how Sabbath’s self-titled debut opens (“What is this that stands before me?”). Like most reunion albums, 13 doesn’t muddy the waters with innovation; instead it regurgitates the sound of Sabbath’s glory days. 13 is predominately comprised of slow, doomy cuts of heavy metal that recall the first four Sabbath records. There are occasional touches of psychedelia that hint at the group’s next two albums, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Sabotage.
So how does Sabbath do at replicating its classic sound? In a word: adequate. Everything about this album is just good enough. With regards to Ozzy, “just good enough” is more than anyone who listened to his last few solo albums could have expected. His vocals have become increasingly laughable over the last decade, marked by poor delivery and an overdose of tasteless studio effects. Producer Rick Rubin leaves the production gimmicks at a minimum, allowing Ozzy’s rickety cackle to be what it is. Ozzy isn’t able to add as much color to his delivery as he did in the 70’s, but his performance is sufficient.
On the other hand, “just good enough” from Tony Iommi is a disappointment. In 2009 Tony Iommi delivered a barrage of devilish riffs on Heaven and Hell’s The Devil You Know. (Heaven and Hell was essentially a reunion of Black Sabbath’s 1981lineup: Iommi, Butler, drummer Vinny Appice and the late Ronnie James Dio). In contrast to the fire and venom Iommi displayed on The Devil You Know, here he just seems to be going through the motions. The riffs are sufficiently dark and doomy, but by and large, they lack spirit and inspiration. One can’t point to any flat out bad riffs but most of the riffs are about on par with what one finds on your typical retro stoner metal album. There are two exceptions. First, there is the clean psychedelic ballad “Zeitgest,” which ends with ends with an absolutely exquisite jazzy guitar solo. Then, there is “Damaged Soul,” which taps back into the Sabbath’s blues roots with a thick, groovy riff and some slow, bluesy soloing. Ozzy even pulls out the harmonica, which hadn’t made its mark on a Sabbath record since the 1970 debut.
Rick Rubin’s production job is a mixed bag. On one hand, he does manage to make Ozzy sound like a competent vocalist—no small feat in 2013—but on the other hand, he also puts Ozzy’s vocals upfront in the mix. Why put the weakest link in the forefront? The other instruments just aren’t muscular enough. The drums are especially in need of a little more power.
People will be quick to compare 13 to Sabbath’s classic records, but it isn’t fair to expect a band to match records that literally reshaped the landscape of popular music. A fairer comparison would be the reunion albums of other heavy metal icons such as Iron Maiden (2000’s Brave New World) and Judas Priest (2005’s Angel of Retribution). Like Sabbath, both bands mostly stuck to the formula that earned them devoted fan bases in the first place. However, both Priest and Maiden managed to provide more memorable moments and offer more impressive musical and vocal performances than Sabbath has on 13. Thus, even when measured against other reunion albums, 13 is a cut below par. Again, 13 isn’t a bad album, just an album that rarely manages to rise above the genre’s median and even the most pragmatic metal fans had to be hoping for a least a little more than “just good enough.”