Albums of the Decade: Black Sabbath – 13

With Heaven & Hell’s The Devil You Know, Messrs Iommi and Butler were able to reunite with Ronnie James Dio for the legendary vocalist’s triumphant final album, but one thing still remained before The End tour could finally close the book on the Godfathers of Heavy Metal – they had to make an album with Ozzy. In 2013, we got just that, and the results were surprisingly good.

Indeed, you could be forgiven for expecting a lacklustre end result. Though producer Rick Rubin is said to have told the band to pretend this was their second album, perhaps trying to get them to act as if they had something to prove, the band simply weren’t the same people anymore. They were no longer working class underdogs singing with a palpable desperation. Ozzy was long since past his best, now known more as a reality TV star than a musician, and drummer Bill Ward, a key cog in the band’s rise in the ‘70s, was not involved in the album’s creation. 

What we did get, however, was so unexpectedly brilliant that the pessimists were surely left wondering how they could ever have doubted the genius of Tony Iommi. The guitarist’s ability to craft stellar riffs remains second to absolutely fucking none and 13 demonstrated this, even if Rubin’s production left a lot to be desired. Hearing Iommi on top form once again, accompanied of course by Butler’s dynamic basslines, made the album truly feel like Sabbath. Ward’s absence was prominent, with the hard-hitting style of replacement Brad Wilk (Rage Against The Machine, Audioslave) differing noticeably from Ward’s jazzier swing, but elsewhere this was the sound of Sabbath, and that’s all it needed to be.

Single ‘God Is Dead?’ utilised one of the band’s enduring strengths by building a sense of menace, but it’s to the band’s credit that they did not misunderstand this as their only defining trait. On ‘Damaged Soul’, the band returned to their bluesy and psychedelic roots, whilst ‘Zeitgeist’ saw them semi-successfully recreating the submerged atmospherics of ‘Planet Caravan’. On ‘Dear Father’, Sabbath returned to their religion-baiting lyrics of old as they referenced the child abuse scandal plaguing the Catholic Church. Elsewhere, the doom and gloom of ‘Age Of Reason’ surprised in its ability to come across as authentic – it’s easy to think of the band as rich rockstars with no vulnerability or relatability, but this was an album that came after Iommi’s lymphoma diagnosis, Osbourne’s struggles with addiction and a clash with former bandmate and friend Ward.

And the standard version of the album ended there, with the thunderstorm and tolling bell that kickstarted their debut slowing fading in – once a prelude to the start of something exciting, here it was marking the end. 13 was far from flawless, but it was much better than it had any right to be. Ahead of its release, the band spoke of ending things the right way, the implication being that years of distance had been preceded by two below-par albums back in the mid ‘70s. In this regard, 13 achieved what it set out to do. But even regardless of quality, it was a landmark moment purely because it gave an entirely new generation of metal fans the once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience a Black Sabbath album with the original singer for the first time.

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Words: George Parr

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