First Listen Review: Black Sabbath ’13’ Track By Track
"I don't wanna live forever / But I don't wanna die," Ozzy Osbourne wails over the galloping, angry power of "Live Forever" – as honest and direct as a 65 year old man can be when attempting to orchestrate one of the most maniacally anticipated albums of all time.
Black Sabbath's new album 13 is due out June 11 on Vertigo/Republic, their original label, and it marks the group's first studio effort together since 1978's Never Say Die! A revitalized backbone with Rage Against The Machine's Brad Wilk on drums and the oversight of a production guru, Rick Rubin, working the knobs brings the pioneers of heavy metal to the modern age with surprising efficiency – and just enough downtuning to accommodate age to be noticeable.
Wednesday in Los Angeles I was invited to a first-listen party for 13, with a making-of documentary and an appearance by the band themselves. Thankfully, this is not old man hyping a tired sound to appease the fans, what I had feared when entering the Ricardo Montalban Theater. Running eight songs, five over seven minutes long, some things never change: Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi still hone in on one another's movement with a brooding, symbiotic excellence, and Ozzy's lyrics (or Geezer's, rather?) still reflect the gloomy color-by-numbers cliches of an eighth grader – but the delivery is as forebodingly dark and excellent as ever. Thankfully, we're reminded once again not of the shuffling, mumbling mess of hair and sweatpants on his reality show, but of the bat-biting Prince of Fucking Darkness that we often consider a relic of the past, a cartoon.
But here he was, in the flesh, on fire once again. The colossal slow stomp opening of "End of the Beginning" teases what's to come with a gentle melody over spacious instrumentation, until after the second verse when the main riff arrives and ushers in the real meat we've been waiting for. Tony and Geezer are immediately in lockstep, with some surprising bass flourishes before an absolutely ripping solo.
"Lost in the Darkness" has a meandering, rising instrumental under a vocal that concludes with Ozzy screaming "God is dead!" over and over, a cauldron of beats arriving from Wilk's eager – and able – pounding. With the first two tracks pushing a total seventeen minutes in length, the first sensations of tedium arrive here, though the powerful finish revitalizes the sensation that holy shit I'm listening to a new Black Sabbath album.
We're not used to taking our time anymore. We're not used to the rising sound anymore. You'd think we'd have to retrain our minds, even our hearts, to remember why these legends were legendary in the first place. But no, this album sets out to kick the shit out of you, and even the most hardened, cynical message-board mercenaries are going to have to concede some solid ground this time around.
"Loner"'s chuggy lead riff is powerfully similar to "N.I.B.," clearly an eager embrace of lean & mean, ending with a delicious abruptness. Its energy is a direct contrast to the excellent "Zeitgeist," which leads with a laugh before an acoustic guitar and tabla frame a ghostly vocal. "I'm falling through the universe again," our narrator laments, "I wonder will my ship be found?" The classically-laced solo is gorgeous, and it's a delightful irony that it seems to end too soon at 4:28.
Wilk's thundering drum intro to "Age of Reason" leads into a head-nodder riff and an epically cascading melody, lamenting "So many lies". It immediately strikes the ear as a winning track, but when it grows fangs and gets goddamned mean in the third act, you know you've hit gold. The return of Ozzy's "Oh yeaaah!" is just icing. And Iommi? The man is possessed – just a reminder, if your parents and friends were terrible people and didn't show you the light of Sabbath growing up. He offers many, many reminders throughout 13 as to why he stands among the greatest of axemen all time.
"Just before you die, they say you see your whole life flash before your eyes," Ozzy warns in "Live Forever," one of the more lyrically honest and poignant songs on 13. To hear these pioneering heroes addressing their inevitable mortality head on, particularly at such a twilight stage in life, is a remarkable thing. "I'll probably forget this next month," Geezer jokes in the making-of documentary we saw before the album screening. It's not that far-fetched a notion, but at the very least he'll have the record to remind him that nearly three quarters of a century into the game he can still rock the shit out of the legions of incredible musicians he directly inspired to pick up an instrument.
The blues overdrive of "Damaged Soul" arrives in a wash of reverse effects and voices, building on giant, pendular beats. This one will serve as the deep-album cut that hits when the joint is on its last legs and the mood gets darker. Wilk is a core component here, as he is on "Dear Father," a high-energy rocker that sends the collection off on a high note. The album ends with the sound of a rainstorm, distant church bells ringing.
Does 13 measure up to the band's first four records? Come on, is it really supposed to? If you're expecting a release with the impact and cultural significance of Paranoid, you're delusional. But with a full-throttle return delivering a great many surprising twists and turns, after 35 years the architects of heavy metal weren't in this for the payload victory-lap. They came to kill it.