A certain amount of fanfare trumpets the return of the regal beast that is Black Sabbath: neither a comically castrating reality show nor endless amounts of ill will generated by Sharon Osborne's diva shenanigans can dampen the enthusiasm for a reunion of Ozzy, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler… with all due respects to semi-involuntary sit out Bill Ward.
There was never any guarantee that a new studio album would ever materialize. We'd heard promises of such before; following a series of well-received tours in the late 90's (documented on the 1998 double-LP Reunion) Sabbath reconvened in the studio and began working on material for a new studio album. Unfortunately, the record label felt a new Ozzy solo album was more important, and Osbourne was spirited away to work on what would become 2001's Down to Earth (either the last Ozzy record worth giving a shit about or the actual start of his decline, depending on who you ask).
The Reunion live document did provide the world two new studio tracks in the form of "Psycho Man" and "Selling My Soul", and frankly anyone who has heard those songs has every reason to question whether the millennial Sabbath was in any shape to craft an album befitting their bulletproof legacy. Coupled with Ozzy's subsequent solo career slide, expectations for 13 were mixed, with many fans focusing more on the promise of touring on the band's back catalog than in actually looking forward to a new album.
13 now being upon us, it's with gratitude we find that the quality control is much more in keeping with the Dio-led Heaven & Hell reunion than anything resembling Ozzy's recent product. By now everyone has heard "God Is Dead?", at the very least, which ironically is the track most resembling an Ozzy solo tune to be found here, though the 9-minute running time carries an epic sweep that Osbourne is unlikely to have attempted on his own. Ozzy sounds great here, as he does throughout, time wearing kindly on the man's pipes… to whatever extent he was an accomplished singer to begin with, of course.
Elsewhere, the spacey, bongo & acoustic guitar gem "Zeitgeist" strongly resembles "Planet Caravan" sans the underwater vocal effects. Similarly, the foreboding whole notes ringing through the verses of "End of the Beginning" cleverly mirror the prototype doom of "Black Sabbath", side one track one of the very first album.
In fact, if there's one knock to be found here it's that, as well written and satisfying a nostalgic artifact as 13 is, the songwriting suffers considerably from retread fatigue… not in the sense that the music is in the same general style of the old Sabbath material, but more like individual riffs and melodies sound strikingly familiar. It's not something that weighs too heavily on initial listens, but as one gets more and more intimate with the album through repeat listens the freshness wears off fairly quickly, exposing an endearing if ultimately disposable set of new tunes.
On another note, much has been made already of the overly compressed sound quality, which will be a legitimate hindrance to those with decent hi-fi systems, but Rick Rubin and the band were most likely predicting – probably correctly – that most people would be listening to the album on cheap earbuds through their smartphones. Even on a set of shitty earbuds, though, Rage Against the Machine fill in Brad Wilk's drumming sounds clipped and neutered. It's not quite a St. Anger-level debacle, but no one could object if you were to compare it to the tarnish Fleming Rasmussen inflicted on …And Justice for All. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening moments of "Age of Reason", where Wilk gets a brief solo spotlight but might as well be playing on a drum pad for all the dynamic nuance Rubin has afforded him. Even Iommi, whose guitar sounds lush and full at points, is rendered flat where his riffs need to soar the most.
Some will say that all of the above is nitpicking, and that the world should just be happy to have a new Sabbath album in the first place. There's a lot of truth in that sentiment, but at the same time the band's legacy as the founders of and, some would argue, reigning kings of heavy metal almost demand that any new entries to the catalog be subjected to the same rigors as the rest of the canon. At any rate, in spite of some very legitimate quibbles 13 is far better an album than any of us had reason to expect. If anything the warm up lap with Dio seems to have reinvigorated Iommi and Geezer Butler's creative pulse, for there's no "Psycho Man Pt. 2" to be found here, and God knows the world is a better fucking place for that.