“What is this that stands before me?” The question forms the first line of “Black Sabbath,” the first song on the legendary metal group’s first album. Released in 1970, Black Sabbath arrived as a fully formed monolith of ominous rock—and with his opening question, singer Ozzy Osbourne, then 21, might as well have been pondering the monstrous forces that Sabbath was about to unleash. That’s always been one of Osbourne’s strengths as the frontman of Black Sabbath: Rather than trying to seem larger than the Brobdingnagian music made by guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward, Osbourne stands apart—often in awe—from the majestically oppressive sounds that surround him. On Sabbath’s run of Osbourne-led albums throughout the ’70s, that disconnect between wailing soul and implacable riff largely works. On 13, it largely doesn’t.
13 is Sabbath’s first album with Osbourne since 1978’s lackluster Never Say Die!, although he’s been performing with the group sporadically since 1997. In that time, Sabbath’s once inscrutable mystique has become cozily familiar, and Osbourne himself has morphed from a stunned observer of the disintegrating cosmos into little more than a jester. Producer Rick Rubin is the master at resetting the defaults of legendary careers, and that’s his clear aim with 13. But instead of pulling a Johnny Cash with Osbourne, Rubin plays it safe. There isn’t an ounce of reinvention on the album. Or an ounce of inspiration. Just as Black Sabbath does, 13 begins with a question: “Is this the end of the beginning?” Osbourne wonders in “End Of The Beginning,” the album’s opening track. 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. Revitalization is one thing, but recycling is another—and as solid as “End Of The Beginning” is, it feels like the latter.
The eight-minute rehash of “End Of The Beginning” gives way to the nine-minute slog of “God Is Dead?”, where Osbourne poses another question, only here he hedges his bets in regard to Sabbath’s signature contradiction: satanic themes coupled with Osbourne’s occasional Christian sentiments. “Faith of my father, my brother, my maker, my savior / Help me make it through the night,” he pleads over one of the corniest, most threadbare riffs Iommi has ever committed to record. Butler’s bass, at least, is as churning as it’s ever been; unfortunately it’s paired not with the drumming of original member Bill Ward, but that of his replacement, Rage Against The Machine’s Brad Wilk. Where Ward would have swung, Wilk thuds—and while he ably keeps time, his drums have all the soul of a punched clock.
From there, the middle of 13 sags. “Loner” spotlights Osbourne’s knack for doggerel as he sketches a forgettable portrait of, well, some kind of loner. Clunky and hookless, the song carries none of the bestial grace or acidic melody that once made Sabbath so much more than mere riff-mongers. Even worse, Iommi sneaks in a squirrelly, halfhearted solo that’s rightfully buried in the mix. Rubin’s production overall is solid and crisp, but it’s also stripped of the curdled murk that enshrouds Sabbath’s prime material. The acoustic cut “Zeitgeist” is more successful, a meditation on an astronomical phenomenon that places Osbourne where he belongs: under the night-black sky, singing about how overwhelming all this shit is. It’s followed, though, by 13’s worst track, “Age Of Reason.” Wilk swipes Dave Grohl’s thudding, stuttering beat from Nirvana’s “Scentless Apprentice,” and instead of breathing fire into the seven-minute song, it deflates it. It’s infuriating how many flashes of decency shoot through “Age Of Reason,” from Iommi’s wicked, stinging solo—his only truly great one on the album—to Butler’s righteous bass work. But these elements don’t coalesce into a coherent song, let alone a good one.
13 pulls itself out of its tailspin before it ends, but only barely. Wilk finally picks up a bit of the old Ward shuffle on “Live Forever,” and it clicks viciously with Iommi’s dark, driving riffage. And Osbourne is in full idiot-savant mode with Butler’s lyrics, which wax philosophical about the choice “to burn in hell or bathe in heaven’s light.” Dwelling morbidly on mortality isn’t new for Osbourne, nor is it a tactic that Rubin hasn’t used before. Here, though, it credibly—and even emotionally—seems as though Osbourne and company are locking gears. The theme is continued on “Damaged Soul,” which more than justifies its eight-minute length with 13’s highest concentration of Iommi’s slinky, sludgy goodness. And when the harmonica matches the guitar lead toward song’s end, it evokes the haunting harp of the vintage Sabbath track “The Wizard” while adding a death-blues aura all its own.
The head of steam 13 builds in its second half flattens with “Dear Father,” which concludes the album with an anticlimactic plop. Twice as long as it needs to be, the track is a jumble of meek, unremarkable riffs and borderline-comical Osbourne couplets such as “There is no exemption / When you seek redemption.” “Dear Father” does have one thing going for it, though: As the song fades out, the sounds of thunder, rain, and chiming bells rise through the gloom. It’s the exact sound that launched the song “Black Sabbath”—and the band Black Sabbath—43 years ago. As contrived as it is, the bookend is chilling. A chapter opened in 1970, and left open since 1979, has been closed; a circuit has been completed, perhaps a little too neatly. And if this is Black Sabbath’s final statement, with Osbourne or otherwise, at least it’s done with reverence for what the band’s music has always been: not an answer, but a devastating question.