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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Black Sabbath: 13

BLACK SABBATH: 13 (2013)

1) End Of The Beginning; 2) God Is Dead?; 3) Loner; 4) Zeitgeist; 5) Age Of Reason; 6) Live Forever; 7) Damaged Soul; 8) Dear Father; 9*) Naivete In Black; 10*) Methademic; 11*) Peace Of Mind; 12*) Pariah.

I really don't want to get mad about this album. It is nothing but admirable, how, after all the in­cessant talks and all the innumerable get-togethers, and with Tony's cancer, and with Ozzy's, well, ozzmosis, they still managed to get together one more time, after more than a decade of beating around the bush, and come up with enough songs to fill up an LP and still have some to spare as bonus tracks for special editions. So they lost Bill Ward at the last moment over some financial disagreements, replacing him with session man Brad Wilk, which technically makes the experi­ence incomplete, but still, three out of the original four ain't that bad.

I also admire the decision to make a thoroughly «nostalgic» album. Had they decided that it was time they «caught on», borrowing from nu-metal, rap-metal, Babymetal, or any of the latest trends in heavy music, the results would probably have been catastrophic. As it is, their decision was simple. Nothing whatsoever in heavy music beats the quality of early classic Black Sabbath — so let's just cut the crap and make another early classic Black Sabbath album, as if it were 1970 all over again. In fact, on a hilarious note, the last track of the LP, ʽDear Fatherʼ, ends with the rain and thunder sounds of ʽBlack Sabbathʼ (the song) — which could be interpreted as if 13 were supposed to be the prequel to Black Sabbath! It ain't 1970, it's really 1969.

I also admire Ozzy, to an extent. Never mind how the man let himself become a silly symbol, first of the crazy sensationalist excesses of the «rock and roll lifestyle», then of the crass exploitative machinery of rock journalism and MTV gluttony. In the end, he used them as much as they used him — and retained his integrity along with his madness. It is him, not Tony or Geezer, that comes out as the true hero of 13, singing about individual and collective crises of the 21st century not as the protagonist of The Osbournes, but as somebody who is even more haunted by his de­mons these days than at the start of his career. Maybe he isn't, but he truly sounds like he is, and deep down inside, I do believe that he really is. In any case, if there is one wisp, one tiny strand of mystery in any cell of 13, it is to be sought in Ozzy's performance. When he asks, "is God alive or is God dead?", you have to know it really matters to the guy.

All of this makes up for enough admiration not to condemn the record, and to safely recommend it to veteran fans of the band. Problems should start, though, if you are a youngster who'd only vaguely heard of Black Sabbath and are merely wishing to check the record out because, well, it's fresh and everything. Trying to recapture the old vibe is fine for all if we remember and cherish the old vibe — but should 13 happen to be anybody's introduction to Black Sabbath, this would be a major mistake with consequences that would be very hard to clean up. Likewise, if you are expecting an album of the same quality as the «first six», don't. You probably aren't, but you might still subconsciously hope for a miracle. Kill off your subconscious.

Miracles do not happen, and Tony «the human riff» Iommi is not going to grow himself an extra brain component just because he is suddenly working with his old pals again. Every single melody on this album sounds like a variation on something from his past — an inferior variation — with the exception of cases where the melody sounds like a variation on somebody else's past (for instance, the riff to ʽLonerʼ is closely reminiscent of the stage riff that Pete Townshend would frequently employ circa 1970-72 in the «jam section» of ʽMy Generationʼ). Producer Rick Rubin has unjustly borne the grunt of most of the reviewers' complaints for participating in the «loudness wars» and overcompressing the sound on the record, but it is not the production that is the music's worst enemy here — it is the lack of interesting ideas.

One doesn't need to go any further than the opening DOOM-laden chords of ʽEnd Of The Begin­ningʼ — a brief perusal of memory cells reveals that this is a simplified re-run of the introductory riff from ʽYou Won't Change Meʼ, furthermore played in alternating loud and quiet fashions so as to revive the «feel» of ʽBlack Sabbathʼ. The tradition is loyally obeyed, but the excitement, as you can understand, is minimal. As you go from there, into the different sections of the same song as well as subsequent ones, direct predecessors become a little harder to find, but the feeling rests the same: it's as if Tony is drawing upon his own past for inspiration, and that is the primary difference — when he was coming up with the riffs of ʽIron Manʼ or ʽInto The Voidʼ or ʽSymp­tom Of The Universeʼ, he wasn't browsing for ideas in the «Tony Iommi Handbook of Great Riffs». But now he is — and from that point of view, is no better or no worse than any mildly talented teenager who «hates the crappy music of today» and wants to «write swell music just like those cool guys in Black Sabbath did thirty years ago».

Again, I do not discard, in theory, the possibility that shifting a few old chords around might have resulted in impressive combinations, easily visualized as more metal Godzillas or giant snakes or Satan coming 'round the bend. But in practice, they do not. The spiralling grumble of ʽLive Foreverʼ might possibly come close, but I may simply be enticed by its fast tempo and steady beat rather than real musical essence. At the end of the day, not a single riff from this record has managed to take root in my head, not even after three or four listens — and this is a record that is all about riffs, from start to finish. Where is the goddamn magic? "Is this the end of the begin­ning — or the beginning of the end?"

The vocal melodies are, in fact, more memorable than the riffs — so damn ironic, considering how in the past Ozzy would simply sing the riff, to save himself the extra trouble. As I already mentioned, his performance on ʽGod Is Dead?ʼ is outstanding, as he totally gets into the spirit of the "if there is no God, everything is permitted?" Dostoyevsky vibe. ʽZeitgeistʼ, a moody acoustic ballad that is an oh-so-blatant attempt at re-summoning the vibe of ʽPlanet Caravanʼ (right down to Tony playing a similarly stylized jazz guitar solo), has Ozzy getting into a Major Tom-type character, ruminating about the fate of humanity from above, beyond, and without any other re­presentatives of said race — and enjoying every moment of it. And there is something disarming­ly simple, but convincing about his "don't wanna live forever, but I don't wanna die" that makes me suspect his old friend Geezer, this time around, was writing his lyrics specifically for Ozzy, or maybe even specifically about Ozzy.

This, and nothing else, is 13's saving grace: where Tony is trying to recapture his youth, and largely failing, Geezer as lyricist and Ozzy as singer are trying to come to terms with their old age, and largely succeeding. In fact, as simple and un-enigmatic as these lyrics are, I'd say they con­tain some of the finest verbal imagery Geezer had ever come up with — and they're all about death, death, death. "I don't mind dying, cause I'm already dead". Hey, it's Ozzy singing that, you can believe him all right. Could you believe Taylor Swift?

It's been a fascinating experience, really, listening to 13 — not because I enjoyed any of the songs but just because it opens up so many questions, Sabbath-related and general musical type alike. As in, why are some riffs better than others? When is a riff «impressive» and when is it «boring»? Is «running out of ideas» an inevitable outcome, or may there be exceptions? How come we may be intrigued and fascinated by certain singers who barely know how to sing, yet remain un­touched by certain «professionals»? At what point does a laughable, clichéd piece of lyrical content become hard-hitting? What are the flaws and benefits of aging when it comes to creating art? Why are these songs so goddamn long, and why don't I really see that as a major problem of the album? Why is it that I am asking all these questions here, is it that, at such a terminal stage in their career, Black Sabbath have finally managed to «get to me» with their middle school level philosophy of life, death, and everything in between? And — of course — is God really dead?..

I cannot give the album a thumbs up, of course — my fascination with Ozzy's behavior on it is not strong enough to redeem the toothless music — but I am pretty sure that, years from now, 13 will be regarded as a fairly adequate musical testament from the original band (provided they do not record anything else, which is not highly likely), if one limits oneself to viewing it as a musi­cal testament, emphasis on the T, and accepts that it really only works as a structural element — the completion of the circle, with fairly little independent value. Then again, I suppose the circle had to be completed, didn't it? And in any case, it is at least a bit more cohesive and sensible than Never Say Die! — speaking of which, it might be cooler, and truer, if they decided to name it Just Say Die, Already instead of 13 — what sort of title is that? This isn't even the thirteenth BS album with Ozzy, they just waited until 2013 to release it. Feels like cheating. 

11 comments:

  1. No The Devil You Know review? I know it's technically not Sabbath, but it's still the Mob Rules lineup. Also there were 3 new Black Sabbath songs on The Dio Years compilation.

    About 13, I think it's good but only when you replace some of the songs from the regular version with some of the songs from the best buy version. Pariah, Methademic and Naivete in Black are better than half of the real album. You can thank Rubin for the self plagiarism, he did the same thing with Metallica's Death Magnetic. Good review

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  2. Rick Rubin is a terrible choice of producer for up and coming acts. But, as a suitably reverent Egyptian mummification expert for venerable performers nearing the end of their career (recall his role as high priest at the celebrated "American Recordings" funeral rites of Johnny Cash), he's an appropriate choice.

    One thing, though: He's an Angel of Death. Moving to Florida and getting the last album on your contract produced by Rick Rubin are ominous and synonymous signs that the end is surely near.

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    1. The thing about Rubin is that, regardless of his skill in coaching revitalized (if supremely conservative) performances out of old acts, he's been tremendously awful as an actual producer for at least the past decade and a half. I mean, aside from the Johnny Cash stuff (which hardly counts), the last really good sounding Rubin production that I can think of is that Deconstruction thing with Dave Navarro in the mid-'90s. After that, you basically get overmixed "hard"/"tough"/"punchy" stuff in the late '90s and then compressed-into-a-slab-of-white-noise bullshit like Death Magnetic after that. You'd think that he'd have realized how fucking awful that stuff sounds by 2013, but nope!

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    2. So what about "Radio" by LL Cool J, "Raising Hell" by Run-DMC, "Reign in Hell" by Slayer, "Licensed to Ill" by Beastie Boys, the first two Public Enemy albums, and "Toxicity" by System of a Down? All of these albums are classics produced by (at the time) up and coming artists.

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    3. "Rick Rubin is a terrible choice" - that's in the present tense. Nobody thinks that he was never good.

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  3. So no review of Past Lives from 2002, a compilation of live performances from 1970-1975. I am only interested in the 1970 stuff, just before the breakthrough. And small the band was:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6l0Co3EE6k

    They are taken from a concert in Paris, the Olympia Theatre, December 20th 1970. Not all tracks of that concert made it to Past Lives and that's a shame. Fortunately we have You Tube to compensate. It was a TV-show, apparently broadcasted in two episodes. Tracklist:
    1. Paranoid; 2. Hand of Doom; 3. Iron Man; 4. Black Sabbath; 5. NIB; 6. Behind the Wall of Sleep; 7. War Pigs; 8. Fairies wear Boots.

    The cons first. Butler is mixed pretty low. That's a pity, because the few times we can hear him clearly and the times the camera focuses on him he appears a fine player. Iommi is rather inexperienced, which especially shows at the pseudo-acoustic intro of Black Sabbath.
    But these inconveniences are only minor ones, more than compensated by sheer effort. The guys play as if they just escaped from the nearest asylum. Especially Ward seems to be convinced that his kit is possessed and needs exorcism. Osbourne has the same mental issues, but back then he didn't really know yet how to cope with them, especially how to squeeze money out of it. His interaction with the audience is very shy - only when the songs began he goes mad. Iommi is the cool guy of course, but it's a coolness that aims to stimulate the insanity of the others. As a result the band in kind of scary indeed - this is not cartoonish, this is inflicting fear to be drawn into unfathomable depths. Of course that had been done before (Syd Barrett), but to use hardrock/heavy metal for this is new. This concert exposes all the imitators - death metal, black metal, goth metal, whatever - as the phoneys they are.
    The classics are well done; rawer and more energetic than the originals. But especially the three non-classics are surprising. They are every second as convincingly dark as the other songs.
    Every fan of course already know this. Every casual listener, like me, will be convinced by this concert that at some point they were a firstclass act indeed. For instance I'm not aware of any Led Zep concert that maintained such a high level continuously.

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    1. Since it's an archive release I figured that George would be tackling that after the core discography was finished -- same goes for "The Devil You Know".

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  4. Please, please, please...
    Don't forget to write about "The Devil you know"!
    It's practically a Sabbath album after all...

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  5. Rubin apparently approached the band with the question, "It's 1970 and you recorded your 1st LP, what do you do next?".
    I'd preferred, "It's the end of 1975, how do you one up yourself?" A reasonable question? No, but I can dream.
    Everything about this is so thrown together to seem like early Sabbath. Designed for vinyl pre-orders and promises things coming full circle, hence the 'thunderstorm' (besides, circles and wheels are in Dio's realm, Ozzy's is strictly linear and binary). The title '13' represent nothing, it may as well be 'Break a Mirror' or 'Black Cat'.
    The riff well is dry, the only emotion stirred was annoyance when Budgie's 'In For The Kill' pokes it's head out and says "Hey! Remember 1974? Dontcha wish it was Nineteen-seventeee-fooooor?"
    And to top it, the whole thing tries to be both seventies and compressed to fit our devices at the same time.
    This thing makes me appreciate "Technical Ecstasy" in it's flawed but un-counterfeitable 4 program tape seventies-ness.

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  6. I.m.o. not bad at all.
    Not even a word about "Age of reason" or "Damaged soul"?

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    1. ...maybe because "Age of reason" would be the answer to "not a single riff from this record has managed to take root in my head..."

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