Friday, 22 November 2013

Why I Don't Think "13" By Black Sabbath Is As Good As It Could Have Been...

...You read the title. You know what's coming.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of heavy metal music knows that Black Sabbath, the legendary band who most consider to be one of the grandfathers of heavy metal, released an album back in June this year. It had a HUGE legacy to live up to: their last album with Ozzy was released about 35 years ago (and that was the commonly ignored album "Never Say Die") and their last album (if you only count albums under the Sabbath name) was released about 18 years ago (and that was the commonly ignored album "Forbidden": spotting a slight pattern here?). There was some life in the Sabbath camp with the Heaven & Hell release "The Devil You Know" in 2010, but, for the most part, Black Sabbath had been relatively quiet until their reunion back in November, which also promised a new album.

I'll admit, I was curious to hear the new album. Not because I worshiped Black Sabbath (I'm probably one of the few metal fans who doesn't), but because I wanted to see what the guys who brought us "Paranoid" could deliver now. Bill Ward's departure didn't put me off too much, as I'd never been particularly interested in his drumming anyway (sorry, Sabbath fans...): all I was hoping for was a good album. Not a genre defining one (be honest: how many musicians can you honestly say are/were putting out their best music in their 60's?), just one that wasn't embarrassing. I didn't like "God Is Dead?" much, so I was quietly expecting the worst.

And you know what? It isn't a bad album. But it could have been SO much better.

To explain why I don't think this album works on the level it should do, I'm going to have to compare it to their original albums, Orchid's second album (which I honestly think is closer to what "13" should have been than Black Sabbath did, but I'm getting ahead of myself here...) and "The Devil You Know".

So I'm going to say this now: if you like "13", you are entitled to do so. Like I said, it's not a bad album. I just don't necessarily think that it's a good album BECAUSE it's not a bad album. So, with that said, let me look at the main things which harm this album so much that I cannot get swept up with the hype so many have about it.

The first issue is Ozzy. Now, don't get me wrong: the guy does a good job when you consider his age and just how long he's been singing. I wasn't expecting a lot from him on this album and he met my expectations, so I can't complain too much about that. However, the issue is that he just doesn't sound that energetic in his performance. Take Dio on "The Devil You Know" (and I'm probably going to piss off a lot of Sabbath fans with this): on that album, you could hear that age had caught up with him, as his voice wasn't that great. But, on that album, he sang with so much energy that I could forgive that flaw and love the album. You could tell he was having a lot of fun making the album and that helped make the album fun to listen to. Ozzy, however, just sounds like he's going through the motions on "13". He does have a few moments of energy, I'll admit, but, for a good amount of the run time, he doesn't sound like he's having fun making the album. He almost sounds bored at points. And that drags the whole thing down, as it's tough to really enjoy something when even the people making it sound like it's a chore for them to put it together.

The second issue is that the band seem to have forgotten their blues roots with this album. Some people will immediately wonder what I'm talking about, so I will put it like this: when you listen to Black Sabbath's early stuff, you can hear a strong blues influence underneath the heavily downtuned guitar riffs. Part of the reason Ozzy-era Sabbath sounds so interesting is because they didn't only write heavy stuff designed to crush the opposition: they had their moments when what they were playing just sounded like blues stuff that was heavily downtuned. And that's what is missing on this album, for the most part: the songs that aren't just trying to outdo everyone else in distortion. Do you want to know what made me realise this little detail? Orchid's second album, "The Mouths Of Madness". I'm guessing this first detail, but I believe Orchid originally started out as a Black Sabbath cover band (because...come on, they picked their name after a Black Sabbath track most people aren't likely to recognise!), so it's fair to say that they know their stuff pretty well. The second track on their album is "Marching Dogs Of War", which I'll let you listen to before I continue (you might need to be on a computer to see the video):

Do you hear what I'm on about now? And here's the thing: that album was released about two months before "13" was and, to me, it sounds more like Black Sabbath than "13" does. Let that sink in...

The third issue is that a lot of the songs on "13" just sound like rewritten versions of Ozzy-era Black Sabbath songs. Now, this one isn't as big an issue for me as it is for some people, as I accept that it's very hard to be completely original in music these days and Sabbath couldn't exactly afford to risk releasing an album that experimented too much with their usual sound. People knew what to expect of this period from the band and they got just what they expected, so I can't complain about that. What I CAN complain about, however, is the fact that they're not very subtle about the rewriting. I'm usually not too picky about this kind of thing, but "Zeitgeist" is such a clear rip off of "Planet Caravan" that the only reason I'm not saying "Sabbath should call their lawyers" is because it's Sabbath doing it. Rick Rubin (who has been on my hit list of producers from the moment I heard "Death Magnetic". Trust me, we'll get to him in a minute...) reportedly made the band listen to their first four albums and told them to write an album like them and, frankly, I can believe it. The thing is, Black Sabbath had moved on from that sound even while Ozzy was in the band ("Technical Ecstasy" and "Never Say Die", anyone?), so doing this is effectively regression on a scale that is almost insulting to fans of the post-Ozzy material. It's even (possibly unintentionally) acknowledged in the title, for goodness sake! If you count only the Ozzy and Dio eras of Black Sabbath (and the Heaven & Hell album), you get 13 albums. Yet, if you actually count how many albums have been released by Black Sabbath (and, again, count the Heaven & Hell album), you actually get 20 albums. So, nobody wants to remember the album Ian Gillian made with them, "Born Again" (admittedly, the art work is horrible, so I wouldn't entirely blame them for wanting to forget it...)? Nobody wants to remember Glenn Hughes singing with the band for "Seventh Star" (admittedly, that was intended to be a solo album by Tony Iommi...)? Nobody wants to remember the five albums Tony Martin did with Sabbath? OK...that's a bit of a middle finger to the fans who support Sabbath during those difficult times, isn't it? Seven albums effectively being treated as if they don't exist just to win over the casual fans who ignored the band during their times without Ozzy or Dio. A wonderful decision, I'm sure...

The fourth (and this is the thing that pisses me off the most and is the real nail in the coffin for me regarding this album) is the production. Yeah, you guys knew this one was coming even when it was announced he would be producing the album. Rick Rubin is a fine example of how not to produce an album, so I'm astonished that he still gets work with high profile bands like Metallica, Slayer, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Black Sabbath (just to name a few). I'm going by what people say involving the loudness war phenomenon here (if you don't know what it is, go look it up), but most of what Rick Rubin has done since the 2000's hit has been overly compressed, headache inducing and sounds like shit. Even if it's not his fault that everything ends up the way it does, it's his name on the producer credit, which means that he is responsible for the final result being approved for release. If it sounds the way it does with everything he's done, I can only conclude that either he or someone connected to him (and a lot of fingers point to mastering engineer Vlado Meller, although I know he's not responsible this time, as he wasn't involved in this album) is doing a terrible job at making sure the final result sounds good. I can barely make myself want to listen to this album, which is a mark of just how badly Rick Rubin did with this. The guitars are far too loud as well (although, admittedly, with Tony Ionni on guitars, are you really going to make him too quiet?).

So, with all of this in mind, why did I say that this isn't a bad album before I started all of this? Because, if you can ignore all of the flaws, it really isn't that bad! It's just not the Black Sabbath album it could have been. That is the thing that breaks my heart whenever I listen to this album more than anything else and is the only reason why I've written this article. Not to tell people to not listen to this album, because I don't want to tell anyone to do that (plus, it's a bit late to want to do that now). It's because I wanted this to be better than it is. The potential for an amazing album was there and, due to the things I've pointed out, it isn't.

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