Anyone who knows me at all is well aware that I am a huge Sabbath fan. So naturally, I'm gonna have a pretty strong view of the new album. I've read lots of what people have said about it and I think people have a really hard time hearing it for what it is without comparing it to other Sabbath recordings or just going way overboard on comparisons to something else. I try to judge by quality alone. And if it's quality I'm not gonna let the fact that "Bill's not on it" or "those bongos are a Planet Caravan rip-off" ruin a killer song/album for me. And that's exactly what this is - a KILLER album. Ok, the cover is dumb I will admit!
First - how good did Bill Ward play during the Sabbath reunions of the late 90s/early 2000s? Let's face it - Bill keeps the beat very well. He had like 3 fucking heart attacks since they re-united? It's been a very long time since we saw the god who bashes away on the Paris 1970 TV broadcast. It's been a very long time since we've seen the maniac on the BBC "Never Say Die" video playing like his life was on the line. The playing on the first official studio reunion recordings "Psycho Man" and "Selling my Soul" are not distinguishable from Vinny Appice or even Randy Castillo. No disrespect at all to the guy - he's one of my favorites of all time. But anyone who says he is more than half of what he was in the 70s is saying that "just because it's Bill." Would this album have been better with Bill? No. Bill's chops are not up to speed, and he would have possibly grooved some parts out, but Brad - with what few fills he does, are bursting with the power of a younger Bill Ward. He hits the symbols constantly, and bashes them with all of his might. The only reason it's a little hard to tell is because the drum sound is decidedly dry and somewhat buried here (except on "Pariah," it seems to jump in volume on that one.) My guess, after a few listens, is that Rick Rubin was trying to mimick the drum tone somewhere between "Paranoid" and "Master of Reality." Bone dry, poppy snare, flat, low bass drum, somewhat subdued and even quiet/thin. No, it's not "Mob Rules" or "Devil You Know" wall of thunder sound. I say, "so what?" "Master of Reality" technically has a shitty ass drum tone. Now I love "M.O.R." and have listened to it probably more than most people reading this. It's about as perfect an album as I can think of, front to back. But a "perfect drum sound" is not why.
The Sabbath guitar tone spanning from "Dehumanizer" to "Devil you Know" is actually extremely produced. And I don't mean that in a bad way. "Devil you know" is heavy as shit. BUT...it's too much. I love some of the songs, but I have only listened to it all the way through in one sitting probably twice. It's just too goddamned repetitive and monotone. Now I love the album, but when people say "13" sounds over produced, I gotta laugh. You mean "Devil you know" wasn't? That's Tony and geezer's YEARS of tone sculpting at work, and it's a beautiful thing! But "Devil You Know" just has that "proper" Iommi post-Ozzy presentation that holds no surprise and, while a pleasure to hear, misses the magic and experimentation of the 70s material.
Now I dunno what it is, but Ozzy came back to this more humble than ever. The sassy attitude of his lamer solo albums, and even on later 70s Sabbath, has been flattened out into a very direct and non exaggerated performance. Some have called it dull, lame, over produced, or worn out sounding. I don't get this point of view. It's pretty dry effect wise, in key, and has the uncanny Ozzy-ism that nobody can imitate. No auto-tune effect can mimick Ozzy's style...he has such an amazing voice, he really doesn't have to try. He just needs to shut up and sing. When he "tries" is when we get "momma I'm coming home." Now I like that song, but it's fucking dorky. This is the most direct, non bullshit performance from him since "Paranoid." I mean, compare his singing on "13" to is perfomance on "Psycho Man." The latter is full of sassy Ozzy cheezy attitude "I'm the bloody prince of daahkness" shit. On "13," he's just like "fuck it, I got nothing to prove, I'll die any day, I'm just gonna forget who I am for a minute and deliver." I don't know about you, but for me, it's a pleasure and a complete surprise to hear him sing this way. I never thought he'd sing like this again. So much for getting away from the "doom and gloom" aye Oz???
Now geezer, well geezer is god. And the guitars have been stripped a few layers to give way for the bass on this recording. Listen for it and you can hear everything geezer does on this. That wasn't the case on "Devil you Know" and this is because Rick Rubin told Tony to pull the guitar back a bit so geezer's tone can come up the way it was in the 70s. Now I dunno if that's exactly how it went down, but my ears don't lie. Tony backed the fuck off and up came geezer. Again, people who say this is over produced? If anything, this is UNDER produced! And I'm glad because like I said - I loved Heaven and Hell (the band) but their sound was not without flaw. Rubin steered the band backwards a bit and that's why this album sounds different than recent Sabbath albums. Sabbath NEEDED to sound different for this album. Because "Dehumazer III" with Ozzy on vox was not the way to go. Rick Rubin did right here, and I salute him.
Now as for Tony Iommi - well his riffs /solos have never been better. And there is certainly a desperation here no doubt a result of his cancer looming over the recording. Listen closely, and you can hear the cries and the desperation in the riffs and solos and why Zeppelin was never as heavy. And what is real DOOM metal without a bit of genuine desperation? Dio brought hope, and at his darkest hour, a scary tale. Ozzy with Tony/geezer bring REAL darkness. Masters of Reality. It hasn't gone away with time. And here Ozzy throws in the towel and admits that ONLY DOOM IS REAL.
We have every era of Sabbath revisited here, but with a modern power. Pick a song. "Peace of Mind" - christ, does it get better? It's a "bonus" song and contains EVERYHINg classic about a Sabbath song. "End of the Beginning?" Yeah it is reminiscent of "Black Sabbath" but the musicians here are too good to be a carbon copy of themselves. It's a long, doomy, killer song. That's all. Oh, except Ozzy is singing and Iommi and geezer are on it. Let's see do I pick it apart to death or do I get fucked up and turn it up to 11? Well duh! I suggest the latter. "Loner" keeps getting knocked for sounding like "N.I.B." Well, kind of like "End of the Beginning," it follows a similar rhythm to another song at times, but goes into completely different directions, but never is a riff out-right lifted from the past. Come on, this is Tony Iommi, would e stoop to that? If any real criticism could be made, I would say it's "NIB part 2" But again, do you pick this shit apart or??? I mean, it sounds kinda like "Country girl" too a times. And so does "Peace of Mind" (godly song btw.) Well duh, this is Tony Iommi, the god of riffs and that's his fucking style! You don't like it, go listen to overrated doom that relies on tone because they cannot write a classic Iommi riff!
"Age of Reason" is an amazing tune. It's got those magic jam moments that Metallica WISHES they coulda conjured up I dunno how many times in the studio...again...Brad Wilk, bless the dude, he is in the ring of fire with these guys, right there providing the power and the chops where needed, without interfering. Could Bill have done what he did on this song. A big MAYBE. Like it or not, the old Bill is gone.
"Live Forever" is an instant classic. Anyone who claims they are into Doom is a liar if they say anything less.
"Damaged Soul?" well, this tune was dedicated directly to fans of original bluesy Sabbath, and a beautiful dedication it is. Ozzy, Rick, Tony, whoever's idea this was? Thank you.
To sum up - it's really just a killer album which revisits pretty much every era of Sabbath, but in a very stripped down, respectful, somber kind of way. At times something totally new and unexpected hits you, at others you hear a perfect momemt that could easily have been on one of the first 3 albums, which I'm still in shock of. It's got depth and dynamics. Unlike Sabbath's recent output, it can't be summed up by a song or 2. And in this respect, it honors the original 70s Sabbath experimental/no rules approach. A near perfect "reunion" album, flaws included. I think people totally take for granted how flawed the original 4 or 5 Sab albums actually were. Don't forget - those albums were NOT loved by most. It took many years to be called works of perfection. And in time, I predict this album's perceived flaws will later be seen as classic trademarks. Here's to the next album.