Talking About Black Sabbath in a Time of Feckless Vulgarity

Zachary Lipez is the singer for Publicist UK. He is the co-...

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This is not a music review. If you like Black Sabbath, you have already bought or are going to buy their new album, 13. If you don’t like Black Sabbath, you haven’t and you’re not. If you like or don’t like Black Sabbath but enjoy the cover of the X album Los Angeles, you should consider buying the new Black Sabbath album on vinyl and putting the two covers next to each other on your wall. I bet they’d look neat next to each other.

Black Sabbath are more than an argument, more than an airbrushed cloaked demon—they’re also a band. Weird, I know, but it’s true. Three-quarters of Black Sabbath and Black Session Dude (who, while technically a union scab, at least has half the facial hair you’d hope for) on drums have recorded a new Black Sabbath Album©. So, is their new album a “return to form”? My post-Norse mythology is a bit shaky, but does a Wendigo with a million D&D message boards suckling at its furry teats ever lose its form?

Why are people surprised that the new album is so good, anyway? I know the narrative of, “holy shit, Ozzy should be dead or talentless, maaaan” is attractive because it’s both moralistic and allows critics and fans to feel superior to the man, but don’t. While Ozzy is, self-admittedly, a bit of a fuck-up, he doesn’t need your pity. He never did. He’s got an enjoyably challenging gig, being a singer and an addict, and he’s alarmingly good at it. Now, singing isn’t hard, and neither is doing hard drugs for years on end—if either were at all difficult, there’d be far fewer lead singers on drugs—but being really good at it? That takes a skill set you either work to develop or you’re born with. Otherwise, you’re a merely good singer and/or you die sooner rather than later, so well done, Ozzy. But there was never really any reason why he wouldn’t be able to make terrific albums until he was eventually stuffed and entombed, preferably in his Bark at the Moon pose. Being in a reality show doesn’t kill your talent, after all—it just means we’re allowed to not give a shit about you until you’re ready to be useful again.

Of course, there are always those people who think any discussion of anything other than the music itself is just a component of the mindless vulgarity that comes along with this feckless age of ours. To them I say, “Yep.” I live in that vulgar, feckless age, and thus I like a bit of context. Music is swell, but it exists within the culture that surrounds it—a more banal sentence I hope to never write, but for some it must to be repeated. Look, I too wish the music of Black Sabbath were hoof delivered to Tony Iommi by daemon steeds snorting crimson flame, but it’s not. It’s music made by men—men who live in this world—so we discuss it accordingly. Part of the pleasure of not being badgers or rocks is that we can argue about a bunch of shit that “doesn’t matter” (ugh), so if you want to have a three-hour debate about the shifting sands of Dio vs. Ozzy favoritism equaling varying degrees of poseurdom, I’m with you, kid. But you have to let me care about Mr. Osbourne’s predilection towards sunglasses and slurring, too.

One thing I will say about the music is, right off the bat, thank god this album isn’t atmospheric. There’s no atmosphere. Fuck an atmosphere. Doom in the last few years has been so far removed from the concept of, you know, actual doom it’s been essentially agnostic. I’d rather listen to Stryper than open-minded dudes who don’t at least dabble in Satan and/or methamphetamines. Just smoking enough grass that playing slowly seems like an existentially necessary idea isn’t the same as knowing perdition is real, and we’re all going. This is music that isn’t interested in just being the background noise on your headphones while you’re working on your Hentai Tumblr (full disclosure: I’m listening to 13 on my headphones while typing this, but I’m a professional).

This is also music that, thank god and professionalism, has a constant groove. You know how a lot of metal reviews talk about how “lovely” or “shimmering” the guitars are? That’s code for “boring plus pedals.” There’s nothing lovely or enveloping or warm—or whatever other horseshit people mistake for compliments in these degraded days—about Sabbath’s playing. It’s all gas pedal, bong lighting, guitar solo, end of song, and then we all get to move on with our lives just like the Sphinx riddled us to. Occasionally there’s acoustic guitar and bongos, but they’re handled with the good taste and reserve you’d hope for from a bunch of speed-addled reprobates who don’t believe in paying their drummer his due. The world of Black Sabbath is a world of dickhead uncles. That’s not an insult; you still call shotgun every time they pull up in the driveway. I’m just saying our little brains can handle the opposing impulses of loving this album and holding the members in contempt for their handling of Bill Ward. (The studio drummer—let’s call him “Leftist Mustache”—is totally good, by the way. But good ain’t right.)

So what do we do with a new three-quarters-of-Black-Sabbath album in 2013? Do we care? Do we only focus on the acrimony, the hundred-odd years of self-destruction and hackdom, the sheer volume of references to questionable label and managerial decisions on the band’s Wiki page? Of course not. While I certainly dig all the detritus, it is the art that counts—if we agree that art does in fact count, that is. I have to believe we do. So, 13 is a fine piece of art. I prefer it to other pieces of art I have listened to. I intend to revisit it and drink alcohol while it plays in the background. It is extremely sufficient for my needs and wants. Like the New Bomb Turks say, “Art is just a job.” Three-quarters of Black Sabbath have done a very nice job.

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