Black Sabbath’s history, like their mightiest songs, is long and complicated. Formed in Birmingham in 1968 by guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, drummer Bill Ward and singer Ozzy Osbourne, the metal pioneers have undergone numerous transformations. The first, and most significant, came in 1979. After the band had finished touring eighth album ‘Never Say Die!’, Iommi kicked Osbourne out of the band because of his alcohol problems, replacing him with Ronnie James Dio. For years, apart from one-off shows and 1998 live album ‘Reunion’, that was that for the original line-up responsible for classic albums like ‘Paranoid’ and ‘Master Of Reality’. ‘13’ marks the first time Osbourne, Iommi and Butler have released new material together since the late ’70s. It’s big news.
But the road to reunion has been rocky, and Bill Ward has been left out of this exercise in heavy metal make-up sex. He claimed he was never offered a “signable contract”, leading Ozzy to suggest his former bandmate was simply not up to the job. Plus, deservedly or not, Ozzy can no longer be seen outside the prism of The Osbournes (which ran from 2002 to 2005), and the rumours that his marriage to Sharon is on the rocks after another relapse casts a shadow over the record. In a moment of real-life – and indeed possible death – drama, Iommi was last year diagnosed with lymphoma cancer.
The good news is that ‘13’ is an amalgam of everything you’d want from a new Black Sabbath album featuring three of the original members. This is Sabbath of the melodramatic ‘Iron Man’ variety, and Ozzy is in shockingly decent voice, amping up the drama with couplets worthy of Noel Gallagher. Witness: “Out of gloom/I rise from my tomb/Into impending doom”. Anyone who’s heard the energetic bombast of the single ‘God Is Dead?’ will realise the addition of Rage Against The Machine drummer Brad Wilk has not dampened this band’s very British flame. But there is gentleness too, with ‘Zeitgeist’ coming across sombre with its occult melancholy and wood-block drumming.
‘Age Of Reason’ amps up the doom metal, a classic ‘War Pigs’ tour de force, while ‘Damaged Soul’ pushes things the furthest, as serpentine riffs unfurl all over and Ozzy roars, “I don’t mind dying/’Cos I’m already dead/Pray not for the living/ Cos I live inside your head”. To criticise Sabbath for a lack of subtlety is pointless, and as things career to a close with revenge tragedy ‘Dear Father’ (“the cataclysm of an evil messiah!”) the record is elevated once more, this time into a metal gallop that finally collapses under a storm of thunderclaps and chiming. How much sense can Black Sabbath possibly make in 2013? Precisely the amount they did in 1978.