Black Sabbath, "13" (Vertigo/Universal)
Hey, it's not easy being Beelzebub's sidekick. Just ask Ozzy Osbourne. Though he will always be best known for his work in Black Sabbath, he hasn't recorded a new studio album with fellow founding members Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler since the '70s — until now.
In between, Ozzy's solo career has been mostly about self-parody, aside from his collaborations with the late guitarist Randy Rhoades. Now back where he belongs, Ozzy is showing the effects of drug abuse, his once-cutting voice reduced in range and power. Iommi also has had his share of health problems, undergoing cancer treatment in recent years. More bad news: Sabbath drummer Bill Ward is sitting this one out due to a contractual dispute. His replacement, Rage Against the Machine's Brad Wilk, hits with appropriate authority, but lacks Ward's swing.
And yet, that dark backdrop may have contributed to this album's brooding authority. The early Sabbath was steeped in blues and jazz, and with the encouragement of producer Rick Rubin, the quartet tries to reinvigorate that spirit on "13," with five of the eight tracks stretching past seven minutes. Iommi on guitar and Butler on bass that impresses. They evoke the band's classic sound on "End of Beginning," "Live Forever," "Dear Father," "God Is Dead?" and the blues-saturated "Damaged Soul," which could've been lifted from Sabbath's sludge-metal tar pit, circa 1970-71. Iommi reconfigures his classic "N.I.B." riff on "Loner," stretches out with a menacing solo on "Age of Reason" and provides a jazzy, acoustic change-of-pace on "Zeitgeist."
As for Ozzy, he goes for numbed-out desolation rather than the mighty, double-tracked roar of old, singing like a medieval hunchback locked in a dungeon. "When will this nightmare be over?" he moans, perhaps flashing back to his reality-TV show. Butler's lyrics find their perfect match in Osbourne. In these songs, the singer wrestles with demons — psychosis, self-abuse, existential dread — with which he's had considerable personal experience. It makes "13" something a bit more credible than just a souvenir for a reunion tour.
GREG KOT, Chicago Tribune