Album Review: Black Sabbath’s “13”


Sunday, January 27th was as normal a day as any, but as most who have had anything to do with music knew, it was Grammy Award night. While watching the show, it was noted that Black Sabbath had been nominated and won a Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Performance for the song, “God is Dead?” Knowing that Black Sabbath had reorganized with the original members I really did not give it much thought except for, “I guess Black Sabbath is at it again.” Having seen them in concert in the early 70’s, the only thought that came in my head was the memory of the loudest music I had ever heard in my life, and as a young teenager, antics from the audience that I was not quite ready for. The idea of someone biting the head off a bat was not so bad compared to how uncontrollable many were in attendance. It was definitely two shows I will never forget, one being the band’s and the other the audience’s. A footnote to the bat incident, I read the bat had its day in court, biting Ozzy first, forcing him to get rabies shots. “Oh well, that’s show biz.”

Getting back to the Grammy awards, during the presentation of Black Sabbath’s nomination, something caught my eye with the title song, “God is Dead?” The question mark got my curiosity as to what the song was all about. It was after getting a copy of the entire album, 13, I was quite shocked by what I heard. What seem to be missing was the dark somewhat frightening sounds that many years ago caused conservative Christian groups to label them as evil and Satanic. No doubt, the record label took advantage of that marketing tool, and with all the drug and alcohol abuse the band had it seemed the band was going down a very dark road. But that was then, and this is now, and after listening to 13 in its entirety , I heard something that the very groups that have opposed them might want to take notice. 13 is not your mother’s Black Sabbath. In fact, if I was going to change anything with this album, I might change the album title from 13 to 180. Gone are the controversy and shock and awe from the band. This is in some ways a band resurrected with a message that many might want to take notice. In essence, Black Sabbath may be looking for a new audience while keeping the old.

Before moving any further with this, it needs to be noted that their awesome music is still there, just better than ever with the original musicians reuniting for the first time. Ozzy Osborne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler are some of the best in the business. What can I possibly say that has not been said. They have sold over 70 million albums worldwide, and have influenced countless other musicians in the business. I will say this, they remind me a little of The Beatles. These guys are a very professional class act of individual musicians, but together as a band they are much more than that, almost as if they are a band of one. To add, Brad Wilk who had to replace Bill Ward on drums added nothing but perfection to this all star cast. Bottom line is Black Sabbath has the same sound with something different, at least from this writer’s point of view.

Looking at the album from a holistic viewpoint, there seems to be so much emotion and feeling coming from the band’s writings. They seem to take aim at leaders, followers, and themselves. 13 spoke to me in a way that it might not speak to someone else. Regardless, I have to say this is an album that offers quarter to no one.

The opening track sounds somewhat like a march going nowhere challenging the listener with many questions. “Is this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?” Where are we in our lives? Here, it looks like they might be asking is your life real or is it a fantasy. Do you force yourself into a vacuum, controlling nothing but your fantasy? Do you trust yourself, or are you simply listening to others as they control you? Are you doing something different in the present future, or are you simply repeating the past, practicing insanity as the line says “sequence rewinds the future to the past.” The song continues telling us we have to remodel ourselves, do things differently, and not what feels natural as it says, “to find the source of the solution the system has to be recast.” Finally, we have to forget what we cannot change, live in the present, and be in control of our lives listening to our heart within. “Be the master of your fate. Don’t look back, live for today, tomorrow is too late.” As I listen to this number over and over again, I can’t help but think listening to the last line, “I don’t want to see you.” “I don’t want to see you,” is Black Sabbath sending a message to the very people that have worshiped the earth they have walked on?

The second track is the one that got me interested in the album in the first place, “Is God Dead?” This is a song like nothing I have ever heard in a long time. Again with questions and confusions, this is a question all of us have thought to ourselves. As the song says, it talks about our confusion wondering in the dark, all of us reaching out for help. Our lives and situations in so much pain, constantly praying, please God, stop the hurt, come to my rescue. Are you there, do you care? We all have been there at some point in our lives . As it says, “the rain falls on the just and the unjust.” As we go through the hell, the song continues telling us we’ll be hearing voices saying God is Dead, God is Dead, He doesn’t exist. “the voices in my head, is God alive or is God dead? Is God dead?” To add to the turmoil, “I transfer from reality into a living death. I empathize with enemies until the time is right with God and Satan at my side, from darkness will come light.” It is then we realize it is always darkest before dawn and there is a raging battle going on between God and Satan, and we are the battle ground. The song seems to be telling us in our time of pain we will see “the blood” and it is the very pain that we have experience, we realize He has sustained us, and we realize that God is not dead. I particularly liked the ending of the song, where Ozzy sings, “God is not dead,” but ending with “God is dead, God is dead,” like in spite of everything, there might still be some doubt, the battle is not over. I read Ozzy was a member of the Church of England and prays before every concert. It shows. There is a lot going on with this piece much more than I can write about.

Another track, a sequel or possibly a prequel to “God is Dead?” is “Damaged Soul.” Once again, there seems to be a internal battle going on with someone who is losing hope and is giving up. As the lyrics say “Religion won’t save me, the damage is done.” “The future has ended before it’s begun.” Now for the character, he senses despair and defeat, as he feels “possessed by a demon that had full control.” It is interesting how that last phrase is written where he sings the demon “had”, not “has” “full control.” I can’t help but think the demon here might be drug abuse. If it is, regardless of someone’s faith , it seems to “take no prisoners.” Anyone who has battled addictions, knows this battle is enormous and never ending. Clearly, the battle is a battle from within. You really can feel the despair as Ozzy sings, “I don’t mind dying cause I’m already dead.” “Dying is easy its living that’s hard.” “ I’m losing the battle between God and Satan.” Basically, it does not look good. However, in reading between the lines, the battle is not over, as the last phrase admits, “I’m losing the battle.” It is here the song has acknowledged God, his higher power, is still in this, He can still win. There is still hope.

Finally looking at one more piece, “Pariah.” I have to admit this is probably my favorite piece. Its very hard to tell when three very talented songwriters are writing, is it an anthem to others, or just writing another song, or a little of both? Clearly, on speaking behalf of Black Sabbath, and especially with Ozzy, they surely fell into the same trap with others like Bob Dylan and John Lennon. It is here with “Pariah” I have to believe is more of an anthem to many Black Sabbath fans, and they are hitting them right between the eyes. Remember, no quarter. The opening lines states, “another God on Earth, Yes that is your fantasy.” Basically it is here, the band seems tired of being made into something they’re not, and they convey this message throughout the song. “Get out of my way,” leave us alone, we are not the answer to your problems. “Do you believe every word I say, make up your own truth, and get out of my way.” “You think you can be like me,” “But you’re no friend of mine.”

Here, it sounds like they might still be having problems accepting themselves, while dealing with others trying to emulate them. Basically, the song is saying we are not your golden calf, not your prophet, and not your “messiah”. “I’m your Pariah,” an outcast, disliked by others. It is very clear the band is tired of the idol worshiping, people making decisions based upon their music, looking to them as some kind of “savior.” Their message is that people need to guide themselves, start “making their own truth,” and stop looking for hidden answers from them. Oh for the days of backward masking. You just can’t do it with a CD. Re-framing this together in one idea, I feel what the band is saying more than anything, Black Sabbath is no different from you or me. They just happen to be singer/songwriter musicians trying to sort out their own lives like everyone else. Even if you take a step back and look at “Peace Of Mind,” it is more like an intro to “Pariah”, as stepping forward to Naivete In Black”, being the conclusion. “So live your own life and let me live mine.” Point well taken.

Time and space will not permit me to keep going, trust me, all of the tracks are very well done in music and lyrics. In “Methademic,” the band looks like they are looking more within themselves than with others, as well as “Dear Father,” taking aim at the Catholic Church and the priest who stripped children of their dignity, spirit, and their esteem. Clearly, this is an album that has stepped out of its comfort zone.

Listening to Black Sabbath, they have something to say and they have said it loud and clear in 13. It is always somewhat dangerous trying to interpret someone’s writings, but for this writer it seems to be a powerful message of reality and possibly a kind of spiritual awakening, much different from The Black Sabbath I saw and heard in ‘71. However, this album could be the same song they have sung for years, it’s just no one was listening. They were too wrapped up in the image. In 13 the words can be terribly brutal and the truth can hurt. One message I heard in this album as a whole was that Ozzy, Toni, and Geezer are singer/songwriters, musicians, actors, husbands, family men, siblings, parents, grandparents, and most of all human beings. So if you are looking for “the Alpha and the Omega,” you are looking in the wrong place. But if you are looking for some good music with a different spin, this is an album worth adding to your collection. Just ask Barbara Bush. I read she is a big fan. How could Barbara be wrong?

This is Black Sabbath, and they are 13.

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