Sunday, December 22, 2013

My thoughts on Black Sabbath's comeback album, "13"

As some of you know, I used to be a reviewer on the Metal Archives. I have recently deleted all my reviews there. I am not getting into the whys and whatnots, I just did it and I am not unhappy about it. There is however one review I felt needed to be preserved, my review on the new Black Sabbath album, and so I decided to put it up on this blog. Here's the review:

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Oh boy.

Well, let my start this review by saying that apologise if what I am about to write may be overly melodramatic or whiny. It's just that this band has a special meaning to me as I am sure it does to many others who are reading this. And truth be told, listening to this album just fucking hurts. Not only in the way that it is painful to listen to, but it really fucking hurts on an emotional level. I feel let down, by people I idolise. To say it is disappointing or saddening is an understatement, it just hurts. So I apologise in advance if I am about to sound like an emo kid whose girlfriend just left him and who was just beaten up by Daddy with his trusty ol' belt. It's the way I feel, and there is nothing I can do to change it.

Now where to begin with this atrocity? Well, let's just go for the obvious and look at beloved frontman, solo artist and reality TV superstar Ozzy Osbourne first. He may never have been the best singer in the universe, quite far from it, but say what you will, his performance on the first six Black Sabbath albums have been something special and really enhanced the unique and never-matched atmosphere of these albums. Now I am well-aware that he is a couple decades past his prime, I have seen recent live performances by him and I know that in a live setting he can't seem to hit a single correct note. But naive as I am, I thought a little studio magic could do the trick of rounding his wonky singing attempts into something that carried at least a hint of past glory. Or was at least listenable. "Naive" indeed, no such luck. It seems there was simply not a thing Rick Rubin and his team of engineers could do to save his mess. The usual techniques of taking the best segments of many different performances, or the last resort Autotune, it was all in vain.

So this is the deal we have to suffer through: 1) Ozzy constantly slips off key. Now as I said, he was never the most technically proficient singer, but compared to the band's early recordings he sounds completely off the mark all the time.  Well, not just compared to the old stuff, but in general. This is not the type of performance that belongs on a professional band's professional album. It's amateurish and embarrassing to listen to. 2) Ozzy has a range of about three notes. Again, yes, not the most technically proficient singer even in the early days, but he did have a decent range on albums such as "Sabotage", we all know that. Here he has the range of a vacuum cleaner, monotonous and tedious. 3) Ozzy displays a complete lack of passion or any comparable emotion. His singing is lifeless and - to use a cliché expression kind of overused in reviews - sounds tired. He used to be captivating and really sucked you in, now he just really sucks. It's like a robot singing this, except that a robot probably wouldn't be off key all the fucking time. Droning and insufferable.

But enough about Ozzy. We all knew he would suck. Some of us were naive enough to think that, as I said above, some studio wizardly would salvage his performance, but it didn't. That's just how it is, but it's not even this album's biggest problem. The biggest problem is that the other musicians involved are not an inch better.

The drummer. Yes, they didn't get Bill Ward. There was some drama about an "unsignable contract" but I didn't follow the drama because I am not into that and I never use Blabbermouth, so I can't give you any of the details of why he isn't on this. And in the end it doesn't really matter anyway. So they got a replacement, and you wouldn't believe it if the facts weren't right in front of you, but they picked some guy who plays in Rage Against the Machine. And guess what: His performance on this album sounds like it belongs on a fucking RATM album. It's so painfully simplistic, one-dimensional and unimaginative. Another element that could have been taken over by a robot. A really basic robot a five year old could design and program. He belongs on a Roman slave ship with his droning 4/4 beats and stock and stale fills. Why did they hire him if they could have programmed what he plays in a drum machine in five minutes?

And the drum sound, oh my. The drums suffer from a type of production only someone like Rick Rubin could think is good. On the plus side it isn't as over-the-top as Metallica's Death Magnetic but damn is it stale. I've already said that they could have used a drum machine for the performance, but they could have used one for the drum sound as well. It sounds so lifeless and phoney, fakey, plastic, like a fucking robot could have, you know. Okay, I'll shut up about robots now.

The production in general is just terrible. Sure, you can hear every instrument, everything is crisp and clear, but that's kind of the problem. Rick Rubin, need I say more? It's so overproduced, in lack of a less overused term, and it is completely void of character. It kills any hint it might have had of atmosphere it might have had if the music was any good. It doesn't have any warmth to it, it is cold, clinical, almost surgical and it completely lacks any of the aural mystique of the early albums that so elevated and enhanced their mood. I've heard Guitar Pro songs that sounded more lifelike than this.

Back to the music. You know, Geezer Butler was always kind of underrated in the face of the overwhelming praise that Ozzy and Iommi are usually showered with. But among the die-hard crowd and a little beyond that he is loved dearly for his ever-playful and always imaginative playing that is just about perfect for the music this band used to create. On 13, he is still kind of playful, but not the least bit imaginative, in fact quite predictable, and just about perfect for a turd of an album. I don't know, he *is* kind of the strongest link here, but even that does not save his performance from utter mediocrity to the point of just being saddening. You just feel ashamed for him to play on this level. A legend. A god. Playing stock shit like this? What has the world come to??? He just keeps noodling these little fills that sound like some third-rate school band came up with the day they tried to emulate old Black Sabbath.

Now up to this point I have written a lot of text containing some of my musings on the various elements of this album, but in the end it is all inconsequential, because in the end, there's only one thing that REALLY matters: The riffs. Sure, vocals, drums and bass are important, but Black Sabbath, in a nutshell, is THE RIFFS! Tony Iommi is the man. I wouldn't go as far as to say he can do no wrong, there have been weaker riffs in his career, but he comes pretty close to perfect, and no matter which musicians he works with you can always count on anything on which Tony Iommi plays to have *at least* solid riffs, with at least a handful of moments of sheer greatness. At least. In the odd case when he doesn't actually deliver an entire album of sheer greatness. He is *the* riff-god in metal, and you can always rely on him for heavy, crunchy, catchy RIFFS! I cannot bestow enough praise upon this man, and I am sure many of you will agree. He is, again, *the man*.

This brings me right back to the first paragraph of this review: This album really fucking hurts. I have listed numerous reasons for why this album is an utter stinker. Ozzy sucks, the drummer sucks, Rick Rubin sucks, even Geezer sucks. But really, in a nutshell, in essence, what really, really hurts about this album is Tony Iommi's performance. Do I dare spell it out? I must. Every fiber of my body resists, but I must say it out loud for all the world to hear: Tony Iommi fucking sucks. There, I said it. Never in my life would I have believed that the point in my life would came at which I would say these words, but now this point arrived. Tony Iommi sucks.

Just what in blazes is it he is doing here? I've heard a lot of shitty music in my life, but rarely have I come across something sounding so fundamentally wrong. I have to think of the third-rate school band again that I mentioned in the Geezer paragraph. The riffing on this album is such shite it's hard to put into words. At times he is trying to go all dark on us, especially in the first two songs, trying to regurgitate the band's eponymous track, but failing miserably by means of droning note progressions that just lack any impact. In other parts he is trying to be all rocking and bouncy but again falling flat by delivering riffs that lack any punch, or hell, even the mandatory substance to even be called a "riff." A few quiet and peaceful moments and again no meat to them, just lifeless plucking that any guitar beginner without artistic vision or talent could have come up with in five minutes. Essentially, the riffing on this albums reminds me of the tired TV show staple of making the last episode of the season a clip show, except in this TV show the stock footage has the audio removed so you won't find any content. I have talked about this problem with other people who have heard the album, and they say that the problem is merely that the riffs sound stock and re-hashed, but I believe the problem runs deeper than this. It isn't just that Iommi listened to an old Sabbath record and said "yeah, I can do this" and starting winging it without any further thought put into it. It's not just that the riffs are "not good" - the riffs are *bad*. They are really actively irritating. I can't listen to any riffs on this album without cringing. You may think I feel this way because it is the "god of riffs" falling from grace, but quite honestly, no matter which one of the millions of guitarists in the world presented this to me, I'd still tell him (or her) to keep this crap. Go rehearse, do proper songwriting, think about what you do, and for fuck's sake, don't put all the first ideas that come to your mind onto an album that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people are probably going to pay money for. Especially if your first ideas are the worst you ever had.

So yeah, fuck you, Tony Iommi. You may get away with a lot due to the immense respect millions of people have for you, but you are not getting away with this album. Not on my watch. You are destroying a band that means so much to millions of people, and you are destroying a core value of the loyal fanbase that you once worked hard to attract: The core value that Tony Fucking Iommi can be trusted to deliver. I feel that the moment I heard this album a hero died, and with him a little or not-so-little part of myself. This just really fucking hurts. I don't want this album to exist. It destroyed so much in such a short playing time.

You thought St Anger was bad? You thought that was the furthest the mighty can fall? Try listening to 13. It will blow your mind how one of the best bands in the history of music can make one of the worst albums to ever have existed. Listen, cringe, but don't buy. Fuck this shit.

3 comments:

  1. Totally disagree. Not a masterpiece, obvious (one who expected so is one out of this world...even Sabbath themselfs have not masterpieces for every album made, it's normal, for every band, the greatest ones too), but a good album overall, good songs, with some peak in some of them.

    Also good Ozzy's performance (live too), he's improved again in the last years, see/listen some of the last lives on YT and compare them with some old ones.

    The album is a quite good sum/synthesis of various songs' style of all the band's '70 albums, not more not less, but it doesn't sound too much "old" IMO.

    The previous one with Dio ("The Devil You Know" under Heaven And Hell monicker) IMO is better, but this is not bad, different approach and style, it's normal, this is a link to their '70-era with Ozzy, the other to the Dio-era (and '80-era in general), so not to be compared directly.

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  2. Can't say I've heard anything from this album that I'd want to hear again. Thanks for an interesting (and blistering) review.

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  3. I think Black Sabbath starts to get interesting around 1974. To me, SBS through NSD is what Black Sabbath sounds like. Heaven and Hell lp with RJD was epic too, but in a different way.

    I don't know why Paranoid and the first one are considered the standard.

    Anyway, TI has kind of had the same tone since Born Again. It gave that record character but maybe he should switch back to Marshalls or whatever he was using before that.

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