[record review] Metal godfathers Black Sabbath defy age, return with ’13’

Black Sabbath 13

Released June 11, 2013, via Universal/Republic

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t is, of course, a common misunderstanding amongst pop culture consumers and professional pontificators that music is meant for the young. Decades of the Music-Industrial Complex’s concerted effort to focus our collective entertainment enthusiasm on the new at all costs has made many an alleged fan forget that music was once both created and consumed by old and new alike. As the Baby Boomer generation ages into their ’60s and ’70s, at the same time as recorded music hits rock bottom in terms of its commodity market value, aged rock and roll bands are forced to actually sit together in a room and play music if they want to earn their daily bread — meaning that our current pop climate is finding room, amidst countless paens to the eternal beauty of youth, for the voices of rock’s aged.

A good example of a rock and roll album created to voice the perspective of the elderly is the new BLACK SABBATH long-player, 13 [Universal/Republic]. When the band first formed in the late-’60s, they developed a sound that parlayed their youthful interests in horror movies, the blues and amphetamines into a bludgeoning wall of sound; now, more than four decades later, with the help of Rick Rubin, the band has attempted to take its signature sound and make convincing elderly metal music. The form is, of course, nothing new: in just the last few years, 90-something year old actor Christopher Lee has put out several metal albums, most thematically tied to the story of Charlemagne. Indeed, with the exception of the brief late-’80s explosion of so-called “hair metal,” heavy metal has never been an especially youthful genre — since the band members feel less pressure to appear “sexy” or look cool, a metal audience will accept all ages, so long as the performer still has it where the rock counts.

Which Sabbath still does; it was moderate controversy last year when it was revealed that the band would not be utilizing the services of original drummer Bill Ward, instead hiring erstwhile Rage Against The Machine stickman Brad Wilk. Many of the band’s faithful followers saw the rebuke of Ward as a sign that the band had lost the plot, but those fans were probably not paying attention the last time that Ward actually held the sticks on a stage — of the three instrumentalists, he was most certainly the least adept at his advanced age, having lived the proverbial nine lives through his youth, snorting up a private jet’s worth of whatever during a life that left him appearing decades older than his actual age. 2012 also saw guitarist and chief songwriter Tony Iommi fight cancer; with the band clearly realizing that there was a finite amount of rocking to be had in this life, they clearly chose to farm out the drumming to a capable (relative) youngster to insure that the riffage would flow dependably.

And so it does, from the opening thud of “End of the Beginning” through to the demonic sludge that fades to thunder and lightning at the conclusion of album closer “Dear Father.” Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler lock horns majestically, and in a way that tips the hat to their 1970s work, from the double-time boogie of “Live Forever” to the battering ram climax of the jawdropping “Age of Reason.” If anything, the band’s greatest nemesis is its own legacy; this year alone, for instance, two of the better metal albums I’ve heard (Mind Control by Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats and Orchid’s The Mouths of Madness) are straight-up Sab rips that should almost send both bands to court. Do we really need a new Sabbath album in the first place, even if it rules? If the band invented heavy metal, can’t they just allow metal to continue without their own old-person fumblings?

Of course, those questions are ludicrous, especially when one considers not only how rad this record is, but just how much nonsense Sabbath had to put up with, as metal progenitors, in order to get to the position of dominance that they now enjoy. It is worth acknowledging just how severely misunderstood the band has been throughout their career; in the early days, and on into their initial era of fame, Black Sabbath were seen as Satanic and evil, creating music that fomented teen mayhem and advocated secret pacts with the devil. The truth, of course, is the total opposite; Black Sabbath’s music was always heavily moral, with a weighted grounding in atonement and torment that was somewhat at odds with the actual cocaine party train that the band was on for most of their career. The mid-to-late-’80s heavy metal witch trial portrayed Ozzy and his former colleagues as miscreant evil-doers; and with some reason, as someone like Ozzy Osbourne was indeed an incredibly irresponsible person in real life, a dolt willing to go along with whatever ridiculousness came with the mantle of heavy metal superstar.

But either despite or because of Ozzy’s incredible doofiness, he also just happened to possess one of rock’s most unique set of pipes, able to power through the Iommi/Butler/Ward Wall of Sab with a style that was never a shouty shriek, or a banshee wail (both approaches popular amongst hard rockers of the time). Instead, Ozzy’s vocal style was both overwhelming and convincingly cool, with enough rugged sass and curled brogue to give a distinct personality to the riffiest riffmeister the band could come up with. The reason that 13 succeeds as a Sabbath album, then, the reason it manages to somehow fit in with the Sab catalog so perfectly, has a lot to do with the way that Ozzy’s voice not only still holds up, but has maintained its unique properties. Listen to the way, for instance, that he spits out a tortured lyrics like “Regeneration of your cybersonic soul/Transforming time and space beyond control” and makes it sound not just tolerable but awesomely moving.

Ozzy, more than any other metal frontman, has always been perfect at portraying a man bewildered with the absurdities of modern life (see “Iron Man,” “Hole In The Sky,” a zillion others) — and that bewilderment has only increased exponentially for Osbourne. And not just because he has gone from being a doddering young to a doddering old man — his journey from teenage roustabout to rock superstar to demonic heavy metal cretin to ridiculous reality television star has clearly left him broken and dazed. And while these might be bad things for most people, they are downright positives for Ozzy on this new record: when he intones, on the slightly Hendrix-goes-Blueshammer epic “Damaged Soul” “Religion won’t save me, the damage is done/The future has ended before it’s begun,” he manages to sound utterly believable without overdoing it or sounding theatrically agonized — it’s just his natural voice, and his natural sentiment.

Nowhere is Ozzy’s elderly torment more eloquently stated than the album centerpiece “Live Forever.” To quote again: “I may be dreaming or whatever, watching my life go by/And I don’t want to live forever, but I don’t want to die.” This type of sentiment may have seemed ponderous coming from his lips when he was a degenerate coke-hoover in his 20s; but as he nears 70, and is clearly in the grips of total senility, hearing this sort of thing so powerfully presented gives one shivers. Of course those that have lived long lives have forceful feelings to share, but it’s so rarely done so eloquently on such a large stage.