Saturday, July 13, 2013

Live Forever: Black Sabbath's 13

Black Sabbath today
Take one look at the Wiki entry for the subject “heavy metal” and you’ll get almost two dozen sub-genres, including the amusing “traditional” heavy metal genre as if the form has been around long enough to become the cultural equivalent of folk music. A music critic first coined the phrase after seeing Jimi Hendrix perform in a British club in 1966. Chas Chandler, Hendrix’s manager at the time, relates the story in the Robert Palmer TV series about the history of rock'n'roll. As Chandler tells it, Hendrix’s performance sounded like heavy metal falling from the sky. His description certainly put into words the feeling one got when hearing Hendrix's music, but it wasn’t enough to describe the blues-based music Hendrix was really playing.

The same might be said for Black Sabbath, the group from Birmingham, England, who started out playing blues-based rock as a bar band. But due to limited opportunities for gigs at the time, the only way Black Sabbath could distinguish itself was by playing louder and, in effect, harder than their competition. Hard rock, the nomenclature I used when I first heard Sabbath in the early seventies, made more sense and was a fair assessment of their edgy, blues-like sound. Heavy metal was a better description for bands such as Metallica or Judas Priest who dispensed with any musical references to blues.

Black Sabbath (1970)
Nevertheless, many fans insist that Black Sabbath founded heavy metal, so I won’t argue the point because a lot of bands were inspired by Sabbath’s first couple of albums, Black Sabbath and Paranoid (Vertigo), both recorded and released in 1970. Those records, which I heard in my youth, were so far removed from the commercial sound of Top 40 that they really were inspiring. The Black Sabbath sound, driven by Tony Iommi’s guitar licks, made for music that was dark and mysterious yet catchy thanks to his blues-based style. But I didn’t care for the satanic image Sabbath employed because it lacked the humour of Alice Cooper, the other “hard rock” band my friends and I used to listen to. But Black Sabbath was never far from our collective turntables when I was in high school, even though I preferred the progressive rock of Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and King Crimson. Once punk rock moved in, all those records were quietly put back on the shelf. Black Sabbath continued to do their thing for a few more years after Osbourne went solo, but by that time I had lost interest. In a sense, I outgrew their music.

Which brings us to 13 (Universal) by the aforementioned Black Sabbath featuring three of the four original members, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Ozzy Osbourne. Brad Wilk of Rage Against The Machine has, according to reports, temporarily replaced drummer Bill Ward. It’s a record that has everything a metal-head would want: dark lyrics, loud, guitar driven songs and production values that are as theatrical as they are predictable. Producer Rick Rubin has done a marvelous job by recreating the sound of the debut album of some 40 years ago. It’s a sound that Sabbath fans are accustomed to hearing: under-recorded drums, muddy bass lines and distorted guitar driving each and every song in a drone-like rhythm, supplanted by Osbourne’s vocals. But it’s a mix that works because the band is totally committed to what they’re playing without any tricks or, I’m happy to report, clichés. This is a Black Sabbath record, nothing more, nothing less.

13 is a head-bopping rock album from start to finish. The record opens with a droning riff that repeats and repeats as Osbourne carefully articulates, “Is this the end of the beginning? Or the beginning of the end?” (Isn’t he clever?) The song covers a fundamental paradoxical Sabbath subject (i.e. death) perfectly by speaking to teen-age boys who would take their Sabbath records and listen to them all alone in their bedroom. In fact, Osbourne offers hope: “rise up and be the master of your fate, don’t look back, live for today, tomorrow is too late.”

Black Sabbath's 13 (2013)
The track is followed by more of the same, only this time Ozzy goes Gothic as he tries to instill despair as the voice of a vampire. It’s all fantasy, of course, much like the death metal that’s out there for any troubled youth to grab onto. But Sabbath isn’t interested in theatrics like Alice Cooper. At least Cooper knows how to entertain, understands that it’s all camp for the masses who keep coming to see him as the prince of the macabre. Black Sabbath takes the macabre and makes it a way of life. “God is Dead” could be taken as a positive song, as the unidentified character in it exclaims, “with God and Satan at my side, from darkness will come light.” But songs about life and death from Ozzy’s point of view are at best superficial arguments, which is why Sabbath’s music doesn’t have the emotional impact to make it stick. It has the weight but not the complexity. In other words, Black Sabbath’s songs are easy to understand because they lack any sense of poetry, and I suspect the fans prefer it that way.

Consequently, death continues as a popular subject for the band, and fans won’t be disappointed when they hear “Live Forever” in which Ozzy exclaims, “I don’t want to live forever but I don’t want to die,” a paradox I’m sure many teens have wrestled with in their time. It’s one of the shorter, up-tempo cuts on a record whose songs change tempi like a car changing gears: fast to slow to somewhere in between. It’s the patented song styling that many bands, real and imagined, have imitated over the years, including the eponymous band of Rob Reiner’s Spinal Tap (1984) which was heavily inspired by Black Sabbath’s music and flamboyant lifestyle.

The album closes with the slightly lyrical, if I’m permitted to use that word to critique a metal album, on “Dear Father.” This song actually has a bridge in between the verses, something not usually heard in the limited structure of Black Sabbath’s music. But the power of the song is in the lyrics as Osbourne clearly attacks priests who molest children. By taking the victim’s point of view, Osbourne actually spits the anger out effectively. Put that story up against the tough sound of the band and the result is somewhat powerful. I don’t know of many songs over the years on this topic, but Black Sabbath wasn’t afraid to make a political statement, much like they did against the Vietnam War with “War Pigs.”

Hearing Black Sabbath again took me back to my youth, and this album has a lot of appeal, albeit limited appeal. But for the thousands of loyal fans who pushed this record to number one on the Billboard 200 upon its release, what you hear is what you get and they wouldn’t have it any other way. Rock on!

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra.

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