Black Sabbath “13” (Vertigo/Republic)
After fulfilling his role as one of the most important figures in shaping the sound of East Coast hip-hop, Rick Rubin became rock 'n' roll's foremost restoration artist. Whether he was producing Johnny Cash or Slayer, Rubin always seemed to know his artists better than they knew themselves, and could point them in an artistic direction that felt real and true. For the most part, he achieves this same graceful restoration on Black Sabbath's “13,” the first Sabbath studio album to feature Ozzy Osbourne since 1978's “Never Say Die.” Working closely with original members Osbourne, Tony Iommi, and Geezer Butler, Rubin carefully oversees the recreation of the classic Black Sabbath sound. It is imperfect, but Sabbath fans can play “13” next to the band's first six albums, from 1970s “Black Sabbath” through 1975's “Sabotage,” and not feel much of a stylistic break.
Possibly bolstered by the presence of some classic-sounding Iommi chord progressions on “End of the Beginning” and “God Is Dead?” is the surprisingly ascendant Osbourne — the old bat-biter sings with the clarity of his early days on those tracks, and Rubin steers Sabbath toward meditative territory on the superbly spooky “Zeitgeist,” which evokes the great “Planet Caravan” from “Paranoid.” Butler's lyrics, reportedly all written under extreme deadline in one day, are surprisingly good given their speedy production.
But “13” is not a full reunion, and the absence of original drummer Bill Ward is deeply felt throughout the album. Rubin recruited Brad Wilk, formerly of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, to provide the pummeling, and while Wilk has always been a solid drummer, “13” is missing some of the spontaneity that Ward brought to the mix. Ward was kind of a wild card in Sabbath and was not always the most precise percussionist, but that is what made his work so special — just compare “War Pigs” to almost everything on “13,” and it's the difference between a drummer who covered his imperfections with inspiration and a technically solid journeyman who arrives at Sabbath from a later hard-rock tradition. Ward dropped out of this reunion due to a contract dispute, and while his absence is not fatal, it keeps “13” from being an absolutely essential addition to the classic Sabbath canon. But even without Ward, “13” gets closer to that ideal than most fans could reasonably expect after all these years.