Sabbath Resurrected: Listening to Black Sabbath’s “13” and Remembering Why I’m a Metal Head
The two most influential people in my youth were Ozzy Osbourne and Ronald Reagan- of course, trickle down economics made perfect sense to a knucklehead youngster that smoked too much grass and drank too much Jack Daniels for his age. While my peers were playing with Transformers or trying to be “Like Mike”, I was getting my Ozzy on by biting the head off my toy doves and stealing my Grandma’s crosses and sewing thimbles for my fingers to play Iron Man like Tony Iommi. Although, my politics have changed drastically over the years, my love for the Prince of Darkness and Black Sabbath remain unchanged.
Today, I am generally known by most as a non-profit director of an East LA /Boyle Heights Social Justice Alternative High School for young folks 16 – 24 that have either been pushed out or aged out of the traditional school system. Yet, those who truly know me best know not to be fooled by the coat and tie! Underneath my Banana Republic shirt is usually a Maiden t-shirt and most of my lunches are spent either jamming to Sweet Leaf with my students or destroying a Jump in the Fryer Burg at Grill ‘Em All. According to my students, I’m the most Metal old guy in all of East Los! So, you could imagine how I immediately broke into my best Beavis and Butthead head bang and metal horns combo when my homie, Javier Cabral hooked me up with the opportunity to cover Black Sabbath’s 1st listening party at the Montalban Theater in Hollywood on Wednesday.
35 years have passed since Black Sabbath’s original line-up (featuring Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward) last studio album, 1978’s Never Say Die. The 11/11/11 announcement of the group’s return to the studio with legendary producer Rick Rubin came with great fanfare but ended abruptly with Tony Iommi’s battles with lymphoma and Bill Ward’s contract dispute. It was bittersweet to most hardcore Sabbath fans to learn that the group decided to move forward without Ward, enlisting drummer Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave fame as his replacement; however, with a healthy Iommi and an engaged Ozzy and Geezer, it was really a “now or never” kind of thing. It sucks to think that our Metal Gods have aged and aren’t as immortal as we once thought them to be.
Ditching school (work) on a Wednesday to listen to Sabbath felt very natural to me; however, participating in music industry-type event seemed foreign. I felt as out of place as I did holding up the wall, listening to side two of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath on my Walkman to drown out Stacy Q’s Two of Hearts at my first Jr. High dance. I was surrounded by Clive Davis type older guys and their Housewives of Mulholland Drive; Comic Collecting, Pony Tail and Birkenstocks guy, Dungeon Master with a Queensryche Shirt guy; Long-haired, Black Shirt, Black Jean, Black Vans, with Danzig sideburns guy; and Jack Osbourne. After a few Victorias and Lime Jarritos, I was less reluctant to nod my head in rhythm and sing silently along to the Sabbath standards they were playing on the PA.
Once the doors opened into the theater and I saw the flaming 13 on the movie screen, I was in hesher heaven. After Jack Osbourne’s presentation of his film companies’ 3 short “Making of the Album” videos (which can be found on Sabbath’s website), I had two major questions going into the listening event: (1) Could Rick Rubin, who made a career out of making bands sound like Sabbath, make the 2013 version of Sabbath sound like the 1973 version of Sabbath? And (2) Could Brad Wilk fill Bill Ward’s shoes, keeping time for arguably the best rhythm section in Hard Rock history?
Just when you thought all the great metal riffs had been written……
In walks a Rick Rubin-inspired Tony Iommi and his Gibson SG. It only took one dropped tuned power chord to hear Rubin’s signature– a stripped bare, dry, reverb wall of sound that has all the warmth of a garage but, the power of an IMAX theater. The Devil’s Interval, the flatted fifth chord, a Sabbath staple was alive and well in the opening riffs of the album’s opener, End of the Beginning. Rubin and the band were smart to keep to the original Sabbath blueprint throughout the album. 13 almost sounds like Rick Rubin remixed and remastered, We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll, a 1976 Sabbath greatest hits compilation album in the way that each song is very similar to a Sabbath classic but, just different enough to sound new. To be completely honest, there was a part of me that feared 13 would sound like Iommi and Geezer playing Momma I’m Coming Home, Part II. I’m so glad I was wrong as Sabbath returned to being Hell’s house band. 13 is equally as dark as it is heavy.
Rubin is masterful at getting the musicians he works with to play at the highest level. Iommi, Butler, and Ozzy sound better than ever. Nobody riffs or shreds a pentatonic scale like Iommi. His playing on Damaged Soul had the cats from Soundgarden rolling over in their graves. Geezer Butler, the architect of the Metal “Gallop”, and his walking bass lines on Dear Father, the album’s closer, proves that he is the satanic spawn of James Jamerson. Lastly, just like Rubin resurrected Johnny Cash’s career (reminding the whole world what a bad ass the “Man in Black” was), he quickly made this head banger forget that the Prince of Darkness is a few years removed from being the post-music MTV generation’s medicated Cliff Huxtable. Ozzy’s voice sounds amazing! New stoner anthem, Zeitgeist, ala Planet Caravan, opens with Ozzy’s signature cackle and his shrill tenor serves as the Devil’s mix tape on a journey through hell, making you think that maybe hell ain’t such a bad place after all.
I am a metal elitist/snob. I’m the guy who still hasn’t forgiven Metallica for ever making a video or cutting their hair. And I’m the guy, who as much as I love the late, great, Ronnie James Dio, and his work with Sabbath, there will only be one true Sabbath and Dio’s version will always be Heaven and Hell to me. That said, I really struggled with Brad Wilk replacing Bill Ward. Not that I don’t have respect for Wilk, his work on those great Rage Against the Machine albums was epic. You can argue a Rage and Sabbath correlation in the fact that they are both highly influential heavy bands that freely spoke about social injustice and advocated for the working class. But he’s no Bill Ward. Bill Ward’s drumming is the perfect blend of Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Keith Moon, and John Bonham. Throughout the album, I could not stop thinking about how much Ward was missed. The album lacked his heavy swing feel and his counters off Geezer’s bass fills. Still, Wilk is almost the perfect Rubin drummer. Wilk plays like a human drum machine and is great at laying down straight-forward funky yet heavy beats. He brings, I guess, a sort of Def Jam contemporary feel to parts of the album. Loner,. for example, is a heavy groove tune in the same vein as Sweet Leaf, and a perfect example of how Wilk’s strengths carry out Rubin’s vision of a contemporary Sabbath. Nonetheless, I remain Team Bill. Sorry Brad.
The evening culminated with a short surprise visit from the Ozzy, Tony, and Geezer. Ozzy spoke briefly. I think he thanked the audience for attending- at one time I was fluent in English, Spanish, and Ozzy. The band didn’t make their way into the crowd to chat or sign autographs, but both Ozzy and Tony made a point to recognize a fan in the front row named Gabriel otherwise known as “Green Man”, a Norwalk, CA native representing Hot Rocks Radio. I mention Green Man because the entire audience enjoyed the show vicariously through him. Dressed in an Electric Funeral Hoodie and backwards Jagermeister cap, Green Man air-drummed, head banged and lifted his metal horns proudly in the sky after every album cut in a theater where the whole crowd seemed a bit too cool for school to really let themselves go and rock out.
Being a life-long Angeleño, it’s kind of hard to get star struck in a city full of celebrities but last Wednesday was as close to seeing Jesus as I think I’ll ever get. I don’t mean to offend my religious homies; but Ozzy, Tony, and Geezer are truly Metal Gods. And on June 11, 2013, when 13 is released, they will be resurrected!