Vinyl Review: Black Sabbath – 13
13 is Black Sabbath’s 19th studio album. It’s their first album with Ozzy on vocals in 35 years, and the first in 19 years to feature Geezer Butler on bass. It’s been in development in one way or another for over 10 years, and is the first album of original material from the band to be released under the Black Sabbath name in 18 years.
That’s a lot of history. Thankfully the album stands up to most of it.
In their near-eons of existence, the original Black Sabbath sound has never come off as dated, corny, silly or irrelevant. Down-tuned, dark and gloomy songs about Satan, drug addiction and evil are timeless after all. So thankfully, with 13, the band largely sticks to their tired and true formula, delivering eight (or more, depending on the version you get) sludge-filled tracks of doom that for the most part sound like they could have been outtakes from the band’s Master of Reality-era, with a slight and surprising tinge of the bluesier sound that was present on their very first record.
Since this is Ozzy’s first album with the band in nearly 40 years, most people will no doubt be focusing on his performance, and thankfully he still sounds great. Sure, his voice may be a little deeper than it was during his “Paranoid” days, but on tracks like “End Of The Beginning” and “Loner,” Ozzy shows that he can still deliver his trademark sinister howls and screams like he always could. I would also like to point out that during “End Of The Beginning” Ozzy belts out the lyric “You don’t want to be a robot ghost,” which may be one of my favorite nonsensical lines of all-time, right up there with Bowie’s “I’m an alligator.”
But the real star of 13 is Tony Iommi, who sounds just as devastating with a guitar as he ever has. And with most songs on 13 going seven minutes or longer, he’s really given time to shine and prove that he’s still the greatest living guitarist in heavy metal. He’s simply shredding it to pieces here on nearly every track, culminating with his masterpiece on the album, “Damage Soul,” the previously-mentioned return to Sabbath’s blues roots that features a slowhand, absolutely devastating solo by Iommi that has to rank among his best ever.
There are just two ways in which 13 doesn’t sound like classic Ozzy-era Sabbath. The first is the drums. While Rage Against The Machine’s Brad Wilk is a fantastic drummer, his hard-hitting, rhythmic style of pounding on the skins is just too much a contrast to original drummer Bill Ward’s looser, more jazz-influenced way of playing. Wilk’s work isn’t bad by any means, it just sounds out-of-place for an album that sounds like it was written in 1978.
But Wilk’s technician-like work on the drum kit isn’t the worst problem with the album. No, that dubious honor goes to the horrific production work by Rick Rubin, who seemed to try his damned best to ruin nearly every song on the record. This is thanks to his oft-repeated, never acclaimed, tendency to make his albums sound as needlessly and hopelessly compressed as possible. Even on the vinyl edition of the album, this record is noticeably too damn loud. It sounds flat, like everything was pushed to the front of the mix and forced to fight it out with each other.
This is always an idiotic tactic, but it’s even more asinine here, as most of the tracks on 13 are pretty sparse, at least compared to other metal. Had he allowed the music to breathe a bit, then the drums would have had more punch, the solos would had shredded even harder, and Ozzy’s screams would have sounded even more powerful. By making it all loud all the time it creates the inverse effect of what Rubin most likely intended, and instead it all comes off as muted.
That being said, I still recommend the record for Sabbath fans, who will not be disappointed with the band’s return to their original sound (although I did like the Dio-reunion Heaven & Hell record even more).
Now, to just figure out what version to buy.
There are five versions of 13 currently available. Going in order from cheapest to most expensive:
- Deluxe CD
- LP (two records)
- Super Deluxe Box Set
The single CD and the LP editions of the album are identical, with eight songs total. However, the digital, deluxe CD and super deluxe editions all have 11 songs. That means that the $12 digital version of the album has more tracks than the vinyl version, which retails for about $30.
I get that it wouldn’t be possible to fit the full deluxe version of the record on two LPs, but there’s no reason why the label couldn’t have given fans who dished out the extra cash for the physical copy a download code that would include those bonus cuts (it does include a download code for the core eight tracks, thankfully). Even more annoying is that Best Buy of all places has an alternate version of the deluxe edition with an additional bonus track . That would be a great way to screw over independent retailers if anyone actually went to Best Buy.
If all you care about is the number of songs you get for your buck, then either download the digital version or buy the deluxe CD edition. If you have the dough and want to support the band (but not enough to dole out the $100+ for the Super Deluxe version) then buy the vinyl version, as it sounds better. Then just illegally download the bonus cuts. That way you’re supporting the band and breaking the law at the same time.
And that’s fucking metal.