I've spoken before about my great love for BLACK SABBATH, how I discovered them, and why their sixth album, Sabotage, is my favorite album of all time. They are my bedrock, my musical foundation, and directly or indirectly continue to inform all the music I make.
Imagine, if you will, finding a band that you quickly realize is your favorite band of all time... and that they had made their last album 12 years earlier. Their body of work was finite. Yes, I could listen to these albums over and over my entire life... but they would never change. No more surprises. Like an ancient holy tome, you could try finding some previously unnoticed nuance or detail, but The End had already been written and there would be no sequel. As a 16-year-old Sabbath neophyte, I remember gradually acquiring the 8 albums of the original line-up and eagerly popping each one into the cassette player for that irreproducible first listen. Those sirens of "War Pigs" that begin Paranoid; the coughing that abruptly starts "Sweet Leaf" and Master of Reality; the rain, thunder and tolling bells of "Black Sabbath", their signature song that opens their first album... That was 20 years ago. I would never have that "first listen" feeling again.
Interlude: Though the original line-up only lasted 8 albums, Black Sabbath never really broke up. The erratic Ozzy Osbourne was fired after the ironically titled Never Say Die!, but the talented Ronnie James Dio was recruited to replace him on vocals. The original drummer, Bill Ward, had to leave after the first Dio album. Dio himself departed after one more studio album and a live one. Deep Purple's singer replaced him for an album, but that was short-lived. Original bassist Geezer Butler left after that, beginning a long period wherein Tony Iommi, riff master and guitar god, trudged on through a half-dozen albums with a revolving door of singers, bassists and drummers. Generally, the quality of those albums was nowhere near as strong as the original ones. There are some noteworthy exceptions: Dio and Geezer returned for Dehumanizer, and Geezer remained for Cross Purposes (these are actually my two favorite non-Ozzy albums). That said, it took me years to even bother listening to the non-Ozzy Sabbath. Geezer's presence on those subsequent albums always insured it stood out above the rest, but Sabbath lost their distinctive lumbering sound, blending in with the faster-paced metal sound of the 80s and 90s, a sound that was tremendously indebted to early Sabbath but one in which Iommi and company were outpaced and overshadowed. Black Sabbath was no longer relevant, and though the band trudged on in one form or another, the "true" Sabbath was still lost to the ages. The albums of this time period are like methadone to a smack addict.
Well, since the late 90s, there had been sporadic reunions of the original line-up for live shows, even a couple tours. I actually saw them -- all four original members! -- live on the final night of the 2005 Ozzfest tour they headlined. Throughout all of this, the press constantly questioned them about them about the possibility of a new album. Their reaction was always muted: "It might happen," they'd say, "but it would have to be true to the legacy, we don't want to tarnish that." They apparently tentatively tried working on some new material in 2001, but it didn't come to anything. As recently as 2010, Ozzy stated that he didn't think a reunion album would ever happen.
Well, let's cut to the chase. Ozzy put his solo career aside. The band realized that they were in their 60s, and if they were ever going to do a reunion album, it was now or never. Though drummer Bill Ward eventually bowed out, it was still Ozzy, Tony and Geezer, and as far as I was concerned, they were the three that really mattered. Rick Rubin, the super-producer of acts from Slayer to Johnny Cash, sat the band down, played their first album for them, and said, "That. Remember that? That's what I want." Of course, that first album was over 40 years ago. It was not going to be repeated. But...
The new album, titled 13, was officially released yesterday, but I had already heard it a week ago when iTunes started streaming it in its entirety. I sat down in my office, with whiskey and pipe beside me (something I couldn't do when I was 16), and turned my speakers up louder than ever. Although I had already heard God Is Dead?, the 9-minute single they released more than a month earlier, this would be my first listen to the new album.
My. First. Listen. To a new Sabbath album. I never thought this would happen again.
How was it?
It was awesome. I'm not one to give a pass to my favorite artists just because I loved their past work. No, this album spoke to me. The sludge-laden riffs, the galloping bass, the bluesy solos, and Ozzy's insanely catchy vocal melodies all add up to an album I am thrilled to include in my Sabbath collection.
The eight songs culled for this album -- five of which are over 7 minutes long -- are exactly what I wanted to hear. They are very evocative of the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath era, though tinged with the experience they've all lived in the intervening 40 years.
I'm not going to lie: it was pretty emotional for me. I'm not an emotional guy, but... this is my fucking core. This is my base, my foundation. This is BLACK SABBATH.
I'm just so glad they put out one more album. I'm glad I lived long enough to hear it. I'm glad it's worthy of their name and legacy. And as 13 ends with the very same rain, thunder and tolling bells that opened their first album, I love the sense of completion and closure this provides.
God may or may not be dead, but Black Sabbath lives!