Can Black Sabbath recreate their 70s magic? We’ll find out on June 11th, when the band, comprising ¾ of their original members, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and perhaps most famously vocalist John “Ozzy” Osbourne, along with former Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave drummer Brad Wilke, release their first studio album together in 35 years, and their first studio recordings of any kind since 1992’s live album Reunion’s bonus tracks.
Osbourne’s split with his bandmates is well documented, his solo career in some ways eclipsing his Sabbath years. Sabbath soldiered on with a variety of band members, and also reached new heights of success, most notably with Ronnie James Dio as frontman. Though Osbourne and Sabbath flirted with full blown reunions over the last 25 years, they never quite sealed the deal. In 1985 the band took the stage together to perform at the Live Aid benefit concert. At several points in the 90s and 00s Black Sabbath reformed and toured as the headliner of Osbourne’s eponymous Ozzfest. The closest the band came to getting back in the studio for a full blown album were the 2 poorly received bonus tracks from the aforementioned Reunion album. Tacked on at the end of a massive live set that includes fan favorites War Pigs, Iron Man, and Paranoid along with other gems such as Behind the Wall of Sleep and Snowblind, the songs felt out of place and unworthy of the mighty Black Sabbath name. Perhaps the band was trapped by its own previous successes, unable to equal them and forced to exist as a greatest hits band, the godfathers of Heavy Metal but no longer viable as a recording artist.
Of course, the band has in fact recorded a new studio album, entitled simply “13”, along with acclaimed producer Rick Rubin (Metallica, Slayer, Beasti Boys). Song titles include Dear Father, End of the Beginning, God is Dead, and Epic. As for how it sounds, presently there is a 27 second youtube clip that gives a brief glimpse of what is in store. At this point there basically two types* of Black Sabbath fans – those that are eagerly anticipating 13’s release, and those that are content to enjoy the band’s 70s output and occasional live gig. The former are excited by the chance that Sabbath can give them an album that transports them back to the first time they heard Sabbath Bloody Sabbath or Masters of Reality and deliver a new classic. This group believes that it would be a fitting capstone to the band’s 44 year history and would help to wash away the current final Osbourne-era album, 1978’s Never Say Die!, considered by most to be that incarnation of the band’s low water mark. The latter feels there is little to no chance that Sabbath can scale the heights they did with Osbourne in the 70s and would rather not see them tarnish the group’s legacy.
*One could argue that there are actually 4 groups, in addition to the two discussed, the group that feels the Dio fronted Sabbath is superior to the Ozzy incarnation and thus is uninterested in the current reunion, and the group that wishes the band would just stop and let their legacy rest.
By way of this overly long introduction I now arrive at the reason I am writing any of this – curiosity. I can’t help but be pulling for Black Sabbath to release an album that captures the spirit of their great 70s work while somehow incorporating elements that make it sound fresh and vital, but I’m left wondering, can a band go back again? With athletes, skills erode over time. With musicians it is the inverse, typically the playing matures significantly. This group has had decades to mature as artists, their lifestyles have changed, and they likely find motivation in different ways than when in their formative years. When fans say they want Sabbath to release something in league with their original lineup recordings, they are saying they want men 4 decades removed from that time period to create something that has the feel and spirit created in their youth. It is not just about the thundering rhythms or the blues fueled metallic soloing and heavy metal blueprint riffing propelling the vocal melodies forward in a familiar way. Fans want 13 to make them feel the way Paranoid did.
And that’s the trick, isn’t it? Fans, many in the same age bracket as the band themselves, want something that simultaneously sounds fresh and new and alive yet at the same time is familiar and warm and comforting. It’s really a tall order, to at once feel like you’ve heard something before, yet still be amazed and blown away by its newness. That’s a tall order for any band, let alone one that is credited with unintentionally inventing a new genre of music. And so I wonder, is this even possible? How can three men now in their 60s create music as raw and primitive as they did when largely in their 20s? In that time they’ve all had ups and downs, toured the world, become rich beyond most musician’s wildest dreams, battled addictions, had families and arrived at a point where they are in some ways healthier than they’ve ever been, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Sabbath is expected to produce something that appeals to fans in their teens right up to those who were there in the beginning. I’d suspect if I were able to ask them, they’d say they are only concerned with making something that satisfies them. Black Sabbath has made some excellent music without Ozzy Osbourne, and Osbourne, though more commercial sounding, has made a string of hits since his departure. The talent is certainly there to create a masterpiece, but it is just not that simple. If talent were the only prerequisite for great music, supergroups would have a much higher success rate.
It almost seems if Black Sabbath were to create a new masterpiece it would be in spite of itself. Maybe while they were in the studio recording 13 they were able to let go of all the trappings of the modern day musician and put themselves in a place where nothing mattered but the music. It would seem in many ways that the odds are not in the favor, but as a fan I have to hold out a margin of hope that they can overcome the obstacles in their path. Truth be told, as much as I would love Sabbath to release a future classic, I’d be immensely satisfied just to see them release something dignified and good. And really at the end of the day I am pleased knowing there are still experts in their craft that choose to create new art, not for money or glory, because it brings them enjoyment and feels like the right thing to do.