Black Sabbath & more by John the Rock Doctor

13 Black Sabbath (Universal) *****Very rarely in the history of music, or at least heavy metal, has the arrival of an album been so fraught with expectation.  This is the first Sabbath record to feature Ozzy Osbourne on vocals since 1978’s Never Say Die!  Does 13 deliver?  Live up to said expectations?  Placate the fears of those who feared a disc sounding more like an Osbourne solo set?  For the most part, yes.As is typical with most things surrounding Black Sabbath, the creation of this album was not without drama.  They had been writing and rehearsing in secret for nearly a year when the (in)famous “11/11/11” press conference announced that a new album was in the works from the original lineup.  Not long after, drummer Bill Ward rather publicly announced he would not play nice unless offered what he deemed ‘a signable contract’- not surprising, given how many times he has let the band down under far less trying circumstances.  In the months following guitarist Tony Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma- not knowing at the time whether he would live or die he sent Bill an email saying “We’ve got to get on with it”, effectively ending Ward’s association with the project, though all involved insist they remain friends.The release of the album was preceded by two unlikely singles- God Is Dead? In mid-April and End Of The Beginning at the end of May.  For the entire week leading up to the album’s release, 13 (the 8 song version- don’t get me started) has been streaming on iTunes.  Reviews so far, in the press and on Iommi’s website, have been positive- though one must consider whether some are the reaction of relieved fans that this record is finally seeing the light of day.  It should be noted here that I have been a Black Sabbath fan since 1971 and it might be a good idea to bear that in mind as we continue.First, the choice of Rick Rubin as producer.  Understandable given the man’s track record- success with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against The Machine, and the career-resurrecting albums he’s produced for Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond, plus recent releases by ZZ Top and Metallica. One of the first things he did with Sabbath was sit them down and play their self-titled debut, saying “Imagine it’s 1969 and you’ve just done that– how do you follow it?”  He was after that looseness, that live feeling the first 3 albums have- and, for the most part I’d have to say mission accomplished.Next up was what to do about Bill Ward.  After throwing around names that included Ginger Baker (yikes!), at Rubin’s suggestion the band gave Rage’s Brad Wilk a try and, after a couple of weeks of jamming with the guys he settled in nicely, giving a decidedly Ward-like swinging performance on the end result. My suggestion would have been Deep Purple’s Ian Paice.And now we come to the album itself, 13… the standard CD is 8 songs at a length of roughly 54 minutes, with several tracks clocking in in the 7 and 8 minute range.  First impression?  I’m pleased but not elated if you get the difference.  Lots of good things going on here, from Iommi’s murderous riffs and bassist Geezer Butler’s frankly inspired playing, the highlights for me.  One thing that Rick Rubin got right was having Osbourne sing in a range that was more natural and comfortable for him, unlike the last 3 or 4 Sabbath sets he was on, where he ended up singing so high in the studio that he was unable to replicate the performances onstage.As for the songs, 16 were recorded and 8 have made it on to the standard album, with 3 more promised for the deluxe edition and 1 more song as a bonus on overseas reissues.  This type of rollout drives me nuts- how many issues of 13 will I have to buy before finally having all the tracks from the sessions?  Thanks to a fellow fan (A.H.) from Australia I’ve heard the 3 bonus cuts, and they’re as good if not better than the songs that made the final edition.  Be that as it may, perhaps a brief comment on each of the 8 ‘regular’ songs is the thing to do here;END OF THE BEGINNING-Typical sludgy Sabbath riff powered doomsmobile with enigmatic lyrics, goes through some tempo shifts and contains a couple of solos from Iommi, always my favorite part of any record he’s involved in. Reminds me of Black Sabbath.GOD IS DEAD?-The first single, and also the longest track, a twist on Nietzche’s ‘God is dead’ philosophy, reminiscent of Fairies Wear Boots. It had me worried. SPOILER ALERT: Ozzy doesn’t believe God is dead.LONER- A nice, meaty riff, a mid-tempo rocker and one of Osbourne’s better vocal performances.ZEITGIEST- It begins with Ozzy laughing, treated with echo- which sounds sophmoric.  I like the song, yet with the acoustic guitars, bongos, processed vocal and spacey lyrics, it’s a kissing cousin to Planet Caravan, and bears a slight resemblance to Alice Cooper’s Welcome To My Nightmare. Still, Iommi’s delicate playing and Butler’s jazzy bass lines are sublime and it’s a nice, welcome change of pace for the middle of the record.AGE OF REASON- Probably my least favorite song on the album, and the closest to sounding like an Osbourne solo track- coincidence?  It doesn’t suck, it’s just not as strong as the others.LIVE FOREVER- I like this- after a plodding start it breaks into a swinging riff, and the theme of mortality has always fascinated me.  The chorus slows down into the doom-step of the intro and the verses swing.DAMAGED SOUL- My favorite track on the album, a psychedelic blues number that Ozzy has referred to in the press as ‘Satanic blues’.  When Black Sabbath touches on the blues, it feels like home.  Some great harp on this (from Ozzy I presume), and Tony’s best soloing on the record.DEAR FATHER- Inspired by the Catholic priest scandals, home to the most bitter and emotionally violent lyrics on the album; “You preyed upon my flesh, then prayed for my soul”.  Doomy sturm und drang with a galloping midsection, as it should be- VERY satisfying.I like 13 a great deal, but I think Rubin’s ‘back to basics’ production style has squandered a great opportunity.  Yes, the album is very similar in feel and spirit to those first 3 albums from 70/71 but I can’t help feeling that, with a more modern approach, the disc could have been even more powerful. The album has a great energy and that’s what the fans are tapping into in a big way- but a few judicious overdubs and some processing, harmony vocals (like the old days) and tighter arrangements, a nearly great album could have been spectacular.  After the world tour, if the band decides to do another album, I hope they choose another producer.COOL CUTS: Damaged Soul, End Of The Beginning, Loner SUPER COLLIDER Megadeth (T-Boy Records/ Universal) *** ½ It’s Megadeth’s 20th anniversary year and this is their 14th studio album.  They’ve come a long way since Killing Is My Business… And Business is Good in 1985.  Is S-C the sword to finally cut the Gordian knot in Mustaine’s quest for a number #1 album?  No- but it IS a good record that gets better with every spin.I often start writing reviews after a single listen to an album but I’m glad I didn’t do that with Super Collider because I didn’t like it much the first time.  Like many other bands of this vintage, Mustaine realizes that Megadeth must change and grow yet not alienating their fan base.  First time through I thought Super Collider was the late 90’s Cryptic Writings- Risk period all over again, when in a quest for wider acceptance they got too close to the mainstream and got burned in the proves- it took them a while to recover from that.  Flip side of the same coin, they can’t keep making Peace Sells either.It became apparent over repeated listens that Super Collider is one hell of a rock album- not as thrashy as the early stuff, which will no doubt piss off some fans.  Maybe they’ve taken a page from Motorhead’s playbook.  It’s been quite a while since Lemmy has made anything as manic as Ace Of Spades or Iron Fist but the last few albums of their career (particularly Motorizer) are some of my very favorites.  The same can be said for how I feel about Megadeth.Megadeth has learned that you don’t have to be fast to be heavy.  The musicianship here, as it has been on every single release, is superb. Super Collider is melodically strong overall, but does not give up any muscle to accommodate.  As always, Mustaine’s often bleak lyrics (give Dance In The Rain a spin) invite further scrutiny, poking a sharp stick at the soft, white underbelly of life while touching on themes like personal strength and religious hypocrisy.Is this Megadeth’s best record?  No but it’s a damned good one and far better than Metallica’s Death Magnetic.  As long as Dave continues to rage against the dying of the light, I’ll be adding Megadeth albums to my collection.COOL CUTS:  Kingmaker, Dance In The Rain, The Blackest Crow (which even includes banjo!)  THE DEVIL PUT DINOSAURS HERE Alice In Chains (Capitol) ****This is only their 5th studio album since 1990 and 2nd time they`ve attempted (and succeeded at) proving that there is life after Layne Staley.  They make the albums they want, that feel good to them, and hope that others will agree.  We do guys- we do.Oddly, I wasn`t much into the band in their early 90`s heyday… another band of junkies from Seattle with a couple of decent tunes like Rooster and Man In A Box, who gives a shit, right?  Flash forward to 2009, years after the overdose death of singer Layne Staley, out comes Black Gives Way To Blue and knocks me on my big, flabby ass.Which brings us to the new album.  Dinosaurs is easily the equal of its predecessor, powered mainly by Jerry Cantrell’s laconic riffs and his unmistakable vocal harmonies with singer William DuVall.  And that’s not to undervalue bassist Mike Inez (Ozzy, Heart) who plays it low and in the pocket, thickening what Cantrell is playing over top.  And Sean Kinney, next AC/DC’s Phil Rudd, is one of the best groove drummers in rock & roll.  When he is guiding AIC down the tracks they are simply unshakable.Not a whole lot of soloing in these songs, but that’s just Jerry’s style and perhaps one of the reasons his isn’t as celebrated a player as he should be.  There’s a casual groove to these songs- something of an Alice signature- that mesmerizes… no need to rush, kids, we’ll get there when we get there.  I’ve only had this album a couple of days and am still absorbing it, but much like Black Gives Way To Blue in ‘09, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here will certainly become one of my favorite albums of the year.COOL CUTS:  Hollow, Low Ceiling, Pretty Done


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