June 11, 2013 4:30pm PT by Austin Siegemund-Broka
Black Sabbath's '13': What the Critics Are Saying
Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward are credited with founding heavy metal via 1970’s Black Sabbath, a debut album critically derided as “bullshit necromancy” and “just like Cream! But worse.” Next came Paranoid, Master of Reality, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and more, each resulting in increasing acclaim, particularly for the band’s dark instrumentals and apocalyptic lyrics.
Enter: 13 (out today), Black Sabbath's first album of new material in 18 years featuring the original trifeca of Osbourne, Iommi and Butler since 1978. Sabbath endured lineup changes for decades, with vocalist Ronnie James Dio leading the band as Osbourne’s solo recording career and MTV reality series The Osbournes took off. 13 brought Osbourne, guitarist Iommi and bassist Butler together with Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk -- Ward dropped out due to contractual disputes -- and legendary producer Rick Rubin.
The record has earned mostly positive, if not enthusiastic, acclaim from critics.
Billboard’s Phil Gallo praises13 for recapturing Sabbath’s classic bombast. He deems “Age of Reason” a favorite track: “Butler, Iommi and Osbourne are all fighting for a larger allocation of space in the sonic spectrum, and they rip through fat hooks as Wilk's drums wander the way Bill Ward used to do, adding a hypnotic element.” It’s “the album's most adventurous and rewarding track” -- but “Zeitgest,” Gallo also notes, is “Sabbath as you have never heard them before,” with “acoustic guitar, hand percussion and Osbourne's voice put through a trippy '70s time machine.”
For Rolling Stone’s Will Hermes, Sabbath’s latest “revisits, and to an extent recaptures, the crushing, awesomely doomy spectacle of their first few records.” It packs stylistic variation: “Zeitgest” features “shimmering acoustic guitars and gentle-Druid hand drums set against restrained jazzbo soloing by Tony Iommi,” while “‘Damaged Soul’ goes from molten blues to a hot boogie jam powered by Osbourne's harp.” Hermes is ambivalent about Wilk’s drumming, writing that he “doesn't have Ward's subtle swing. But he's a powerhouse, and his head-cracking style gives 13 a more modern feel.”
Hermes also maintains the album’s modern-day resonance. Osbourne “takes to his task here with full aesthetic sobriety, as if conscious of his responsibility to teenagers facing existential terrors for the first time,” he writes. “Above all, this reboot shows that the genre Sabbath helped birth remains timeless, insofar as the devil remains gainfully employed on Earth, and heavyweight rock shredding still kicks ass.”
Pitchfork’s Hank Shteamer writes: “Imperfections aside, the record embodies the kernel of the original Sabbath idea. That chilling crawl, that low-slung death-blues groove that seemed to come out of nowhere back in 1970, persists here in all its ominous potency.” He lauds Iommi and Butler’s guitar wizardry and “blood-brother harmony,” but criticizes Wilk as “the odd man out behind the kit” who “sounds like he's trying hard not to mess up. And he doesn't, exactly, but something is lost in the effort.”
The record disappoints The A.V. Club’s Jason Heller. “Reaching backward instead of forward, the music itself mimics the huge, hanging chords and horrifically hushed verses of Black Sabbath, and the nod feels intentional. Too intentional,” he writes. He bashes the first single “God Is Dead?” as featuring “one of the corniest, most threadbare riffs Iommi has ever committed to record” and finds Wilk’s “drums have all the soul of a punched clock.”
Heller also criticizes Rubin’s production: “Instead of pulling a Johnny Cash with Osbourne, Rubin plays it safe. There isn’t an ounce of reinvention on the album,” he writes. “Rubin’s production overall is solid and crisp, but it’s also stripped of the curdled murk that enshrouds Sabbath’s prime material.”
The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis also finds 13 artificial at times. “At its least appealing, as on ‘God Is Dead?,’ 13 sounds like a band struggling to locate their old sense of menace. The scenery's very realistic, but you're always acutely aware you're in the presence of people putting on an act: close, but no metaphorical descent into the bowels of Hades fueled by crushing existential despair.” But at other points, like “Damaged Soul,” he writes, “They seem to have recovered the urgency and edge that originally drove them.”