Hello, from the top of Billboard! After months of speculation and drama, BLACK SABBATH's "13" is upon us. Happily, it's up to the moment as well as it's up to the pole position of the sales charts. Sure, it carries the dubious dishonor of arriving with only three-fourths of the original lineup following the uncouth square-off against drummer Bill Ward. In the end, however, "13" is a sweltering cauldron of metal magic most fans hoped for but were afraid to expect.
The mojo is pure retro, of course, yet "13" is turned way up by producer Rick Rubin, who has taken his fair share of heat along with praise for the final mix of the album. Of course, what cannot be repressed or tamed is bound to explode and "13" sure as hell explodes. Not to dismiss the stellar "Headless Cross" from 1989 or even the hammering "Dehumanizer" from 1992, but "13" is the best BLACK SABBATH album since "Mob Rules", or for the sake of tying it to Ozzy Osbourne, "Sabotage".
In a way, "13" is a contemporary retooling of the immaculate first six SABBATH albums and it hardly gets past 20 miles an hour. The majority of "13" is set upon a crawling yet severe pace, making it one of the heaviest albums ever to come under the moniker. Suffice it to say, the reunion of Ozzy, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler along with Brad Wilk of RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE and AUDIOSLAVE worked wonders. "13" exudes a hellish, deep-toned metal experience based upon Geezer Butler's themes about dogma and the struggle to believe in a higher being (i.e. "God is Dead?" and "Damaged Soul").
"13" is a restitution of SABBATH's principal ethos, which means the doom-tromping "End of the Beginning" and even "Dear Father" carry shades of "Black Sabbath" the song. "Loner", the most stepped-up track on the album, is a distant cousin to "N.I.B.". The concussion bombs dropped throughout "Age of Reason" are molded by a hodgepodge of "Vol. 4", "Master of Reality" and "Sabotage". The soul-torn "Live Forever" rakes itself over the brilliant embers of both "Sabotage" and "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath", while the stripped-down psychedelics of "Zeitgeist" ride the same peyote-dotted desert trails as "Planet Caravan".
Ozzy Osbourne turns in his most winning vocal performance in years, inducing himself to follow Iommi and Butler note-by-note. Forget the over-the-top theatrics of his first tenure. Only during "Zeitgeist" does he stretch his pipes back to the old yowling Ozzy of yesteryear, but certainly the chemistry with Iommi and Butler hasn't been lost on him. Ozzy's presence lures Butler and Iommi back into a crushing zenith all over "13". The determined closing number "Dear Father" actually sounds like it belongs on Ozzy's early solo catalog as much as it's unmistakably BLACK SABBATH.
Tony Iommi goes all-out on this album chocked full of songs rolling past the seven-minute mark. His malevolent strums on "End of the Beginning" and "God Is Dead?" plus the biting riffs of "Loner" and "Live Forever" are boss. His scorching solos on "Age of Reason", "Live Forever" and "End of the Beginning" will scrape ear wax gone and fling spider web cracks into plaster walls. For kicks, on "Damaged Soul", Iommi throws a Hendrix-esque blues bash in which he goes berserk with his jams and solos, frolicking away from "13"'s prevailing doom measures.
Brad Wilk does a commendable job considering the massive shoes he's asked to fill. His singular rhythm patterns are savage enough to keep up with the rest of the band, while he throws in incremental fills and cymbal rides. Wilk is stoic, yet his relegation as a session player feels largely thus. Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler's massive parts are turned up to the point of detonation, plus Ozzy's coupling with the static deluges around him often makes Wilk an afterthought.
For all the initial cynicism cast towards "13", the final word belongs to Ozzy, Iommi and Butler. Ludicrous that Bill Ward was removed from the band's website, but judging "13" on its musical proficiencies, it often feels much like a vintage BLACK SABBATH record straight down to the epochal rain spatters and church bells from the first album which concludes this one. It could register as SABBATH's bookended finale, one never knows. If that ends up being the case, at least fans can take pride that "13" is a reverential record adding to the band's distinguished legacy.