One of my earliest childhood memories was not of learning to ride a bike or my first day of school or the first time I walked into a professional baseball park. It involved something much less childlike in nature. It was my discovery of Black Sabbath. In particular, the opening notes of the song “Iron Man.”
My brothers and I shared one of those every-school-had-one old school tape recorders. It was the portable audio device of its time. Built-in tape deck, built-in speaker, a little handle to carry it around with. The original boom box. One day, in it, I discovered one of my brothers tapes. Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. I had no clue who this band was, what they sounded like, or why my brother even owned the tape. I brought it into my room, sat it down on the floor, put myself next to it, and hit the play button.
I AM IRON MAN!
Holy fuckin shit I was floored! I mean, my mind was literally blown. I wish I had a photo of the expression on my face when I first heard Ozzy’s techo-fuzzed voice. I immediately rewound the tape and listened again.
I AM IRON MAN!
Repeat 13,736 times.
I had never heard anything like it before in my life, and my life was forever changed by it. I couldn’t care less about the rest of the song. That fuckin’ intro was so amazing to my adolescent mind. It’s still amazing to my adult mind. What does that say about my mind?
Over the coming decades I would fall in-and-out of love with Sabbath. My heyday was the post-Ozzy days of dragonslayer Ronnie James Dio. And while Ronnie certainly had the pipes and class of a great singer, he was never Ozzy. Sabbath lost the attitude of the first six albums and basically became a run of the mill metal band by the 80’s. Mob Rules and Heaven and Hell were very good albums, but they weren’t Volume 4 and Paranoid. The blues-inspired psychedelic riffs were replaced by thunderous drums and standardized metal production. The grit was gone. Of course, it was Sabbath who invented those riffs in the first place, so they got a pass.
I had practically eliminated Sabbath from my musical radar once I left for college, but a few years later some early Sabbath-inspired music started creeping it’s way back into the musical landscape. “Stoner rock” (horrible term, I know) started taking off. Bands like Rage Against The Machine, Soundgarden, Clutch, and Kyuss entered the arena to embracing arms of those of us that missed our hard rock played by guys that knew how to add a certain groove, or dare I say, funk into the mix. It was becoming hip again to like Black Sabbath. Of course, as long as it was “early Sabbath with Ozzy.”
Black Sabbath have always teetered between being a really cool band and a ridiculous band. At their best, they are the best at what they do. Zeppelin aside, no other hard rock band in history will ever write a song as good as “War Pigs” or play with such a voracious groove that is both heavy as fuck and easy to nod your head to at the same time. At their worst, well, they could be Spinal Tap-esque and the poster child for every “it’s just devil music” comment ever made or fodder for any ultra-hipster dismissing their music because they only know Ozzy from his spacey cameos on TV over the past dozen years. Mind you, during their peak years, no band was heavier, scarier, or riskier than Sabbath was. Not many bands can match the first six Sabbath albums in terms of extended greatness and influence. Zeppelin might have invented the rock star 101 lifestyle guide, but Sabbath invented a genre of music that has splintered into dozens of sub genres. Every single one of them owing some level of debt to the originators. Girls wanted to fuck Led Zeppelin. They wanted to run away from Black Sabbath (or have their demon child).
Of course, now into their golden years, Sabbath’s image has softened quite a bit. Ozzy, the loveable, loopy dad who once snorted ants, is on the cover of People magazine and an answer to Jeopardy questions. Tony Iommi wrote a book about his life that after I read I realized: I would never ever fuck with this guy. His attitude goes right along with his riffs: tough. Geezer Butler looks like he could write or act on Downton Abby and Bill Ward–sad Bill Ward–doesn’t even play on the new album due to “contract disputes” or the fact that he still hasn’t come down from his last acid trip in 1978.
Which brings us to 2013 and the release of the first Ozzy-lead Black Sabbath album in a shit load of years. I got and listened to 13 this week. My initial impression was: this is Black Sabbath trying to sound like the Black Sabbath of the early 70’s and achieving it about 80% of the time (Thankfully, producer Rick Rubin didn’t shove them into a room and make them listen to Born Again before writing it). I’ve only listened to 13 a couple of times at the time of writing this and I don’t want this post to necessarily be a “review” of the album. Did I really think it was going to sound like Black Sabbath? Can it be both predictable and interesting at the same time?
There is nothing on 13 that doesn’t sound like good Black Sabbath music and there are definitely some moments that bring a smile to my face. Those moments are mostly when I think, “oh, yea, that sounds like the ‘Hole In The Sky’ riff sans two notes” or “there’s that classic mid-song tempo/riff change Sabbath is known for.” I mean, if I’m going to listen to yet another band bite off Sabbath’s sludgy riffs, at least this time it’s Sabbath themselves.
In the end, even if 13 never came out or was absolutely horrible (it isn’t), I would still maintain my lifelong love of Black Sabbath. They are without a doubt one of the most important rock bands in history and if the worst they can do is record an album 30 years after their peak that sounds like themselves from 40 years ago, well, there are certainly worse things out there than sounding like Black Sabbath.