On paper, a new, original-lineup Black Sabbath album makes for something of a snooze: Several contemporary bands the metal pioneers directly inspired — Mastodon, Baroness, et al — have, in recent years, copped Sabbath’s time-tested formula (searing guitars, sludgy bass, chalkboard-scratched vocals) and taken it in new, ever-enticing directions. That Ozzy Osbourne returned to the fold for the first time since 1978′s drug-damaged Never Say Die!, and, perhaps more importantly, that super-producer Rick Rubin, possessing his usual fairy-tale knack for reinvention, was at the helm, however, became reason enough however to take notice.
And for good reason: Sabbath may not have rewritten the script, but in 13 they drum up their most engaging start-to-finish release since their early-70′s heyday. To Rubin goes much of the credit: The producer forces Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler to harken back to their bluesier, pre-Paranoid inclinations. “End of the Beginning,” an eight-minute prog-rock time-shifting tour de force, may be the most traditional metal number here — shifting in time as it gallops from swamp to séance. It’s the album’s more nuanced material, though, (the psychedelic “Damaged Soul”; the acoustic-flecked “Zeitgeist”) that offers the largest return.
Osbourne is dutiful at best, snaking his sinewy screech to suit the mood; largely, he stays out of Iommi’s way. He remains on message lyrically, spilling sermons on alienation (“Pariah”), doubt (“God Is Dead?”) and end-times (“Live Forever”). Iommi, who was battling lymphoma throughout the album’s recording, remains a fascinating musician: his downward-tuned guitar pummels atop Butler’s totemic chug, particularly on “Methademic,” in a manner that simply cannot be duplicated, despite legions of imitators. Bill Ward’s jazzy swing is sorely missed — the original drummer opted out over contractual disputes — but Rage Against the Machine’s Brad Wilk brings a more hard-charging approach that, like 13 on the whole, will appeal most to bedroom brooders forever worshiping at the altar of Oz.