Lou Barlow (Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr) Talks Black Sabbath’s 13

On my first listen to 13, I'm in France with Dinosaur Jr while the opening band, Mars Red Sky, is thundering above me in the hall.

People often ask, “Are there ever negative pieces in the Talkhouse?” There sure are, and we figured it was time for a week’s worth of outstanding pans. It does take a little gumption to knock the work of one of your peers in such a high-profile forum, but plenty of Talkhouse writers have registered their displeasure. As ever, though, they do so from a musician’s perspective, a rare and very valuable point of view. Best of all, the pieces come from a place of respect… usually. But we’ll let you decide.
— The editors of Talkhouse Music

On my first listen to 13, I’m in France with Dinosaur Jr while the opening band, Mars Red Sky, is thundering above me in the hall. They sound Sabbathy, as in like Black Sabbath, which is an oft-used adjective in my world — if anything is Sabbathy it is, in general, a good thing. I’ve written many a song where, in an effort to explain a part or instrumental break, I will say to my bandmates, “Make it Sabbathy.” Or, literally on the paper I have written the parts of the song on, there will be “verse-chorus-Sabbath-verse” etc.

The first track off this new Sabbath record, “The End of the Beginning,” is most definitely Sabbathy. Although rhythmically, it’s stilted. Is this because Bill Ward (the band’s original drummer, who is very much alive, somewhere) is conspicuously absent from the record? Would the producer of the record have just made ol’ Bill sound this way anyway, with rhythm-correcting software? I bet the answer is yes. Although, wait, Rick Rubin produced this record — so actually the question is, would one of Rubin’s recording-tech grunt-workers have doctored the drums? The drums, argh… They got Brad Wilk from Rage Against the Machine, and he certainly is precise. But being precise — is that Sabbathy? No. Bill Ward’s loose ’60s-style, jazz-influenced drumming was a defining part of the band. (One of the many things that makes Black Sabbath a life-long listen for me is spotting the drum mistakes on my 2,345th listen to Master of Reality.) It would’ve been interesting to put someone behind the kit who slavishly copied Bill’s style. Or better yet, they could have just put Bill Ward behind the kit.

There are very self-conscious references to many classic Sabbath moments throughout this record.  But it would also have been interesting if Rick Rubin had paid tribute to the overall sound of the first five Sabbath albums instead of just paying tribute to some of the riffs. How hard would that have been? Retro sounds are in — and if they can make Adele sound like Dusty Springfield, why not make Black Sabbath sound like, oh, I don’t know, Black Sabbath? Did they bring the cheeseballs from VH1’s That Metal Show as consultants? Why not put flat-wound strings on the guitars and bass? (Flat-wounds deliver a darker sound with less sustain, the standard in the ’60s/early ’70s, and long believed by me and my circle of Sabbath fans — i.e., everyone I know — to be the secret of Sabbath’s early sound.) What would Mark Ronson do? He nailed the perfect retro-modern sound for Amy Winehouse and the Black Lips. But he’s English and most English people think Sabbath are really, really stupid. I’ve had some heated debates with people over there who simply do not understand.

OK, so I’m obviously completely biased and opinionated. I have my own reunited bands, Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh, and I don’t think it’s possible to recreate the feeling of discovery or the textures of an original “breakthrough” record. But as a fan you expect it. And yet as a band, you move on, you take the plunge and make the dreaded reunion album.

The first song off  13, “End of the Beginning,” has echoes of “Living for Today” (from 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath) and a nod to “Black Sabbath” (the song). It’s not bad. It sounds a whole lot better than Ozzy solo stuff — less produced, more up-front, less tainted by the polish of nu-metal. But it’s 2013 and “metal,” the genre that Black Sabbath has been encumbered with inventing (and now must emulate forever) now sounds, ironically, metallic — i.e., steel-bright and robotic. But the early, defining Sabbath records are warm and rounded — and they “swing,” they don’t move in that blockish, pseudo-macho swagger that has forever tainted heavy metal. (What happened to the term “acid rock,” anyway? That was more evocative of the music Sabbath made.) Why’d dudes have to get so attached to this “heavy metal” concept?  There are some familiar tones going on here, maybe attributable to Rick Rubin and his ability to remind a band of what they actually sound like, but ultimately, it has only a hint of the rhythmic genius and low fuzz of classic Sabbath.

The second song is called “God Is Dead?” Back in the day, God was alive and well in a Sabbath song — the whole satanic aspect of the band was a misunderstanding. Their third masterpiece, 1971’s Master of Reality, is practically a born-again Christian record, a proclamation of love for the Guy in the Sky. But then the satanic marketing crept in. (On 1983’s Born Again, my favorite post-Ozzy Sabbath record, which features Ian Gillan of Deep Purple in full bloat, God was most definitely dead. It’s a monstrous, murky piece of negativity and yet it’s still more Sabbathy than 13.) In theory, 13 echoes Master of Reality, but there’s not much love in the delivery and, to me, Sabbath were always about the love, despite the demonic-sounding chords and Ozzy’s lamenting, sneering vocals. When I saw the band during the first round of original line-up shows in 1999, it was a little depressing to see the audience throwing devil horns when they should have been making peace signs.

Anyway, “God is Dead?” has one of those cheesy two-minor-chord intros and themes, deliberate guitar picking with cheesy effects on it; it sounds like the brain of a 14-year-old boy, like James Hetfield’s first songwriting attempt. I dunno, it’s… kinda lame.

“Loner” just reminds me that Black Sabbath was a band who, at their core, were massive fans of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, but they’ve lost their identity as an avant-garde pop band, which is what they are to me. (Even in their later days, the original line-up could turn out a power-pop gem like “Never Say Die.”)  I don’t think it’s their fault — they’re still stacking riff upon non-sequitur riff, Ozzy still has his hypnotic delivery, guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler (the band’s creative core) still seem inspired. But I wonder: what do they listen to in their respective castles? Mastodon? Nah. I’m not sure why 13 has to be so stereotypically heavy metal. Perhaps to cater to the fanbase they’ve been maintaining in the 30-odd years since Never Say Die (the last original line-up album).

OK, here’s “Zeitgeist,” just when I was hankering for some sort of acoustic interlude — and assuming that it wouldn’t happen — it’s Ozzy through a Leslie cabinet (the watery effect employed on classic Sabbath mellow numbers like “Planet Caravan”) and, yes, acoustic guitars. I can only imagine that Rick coaxed this out of them. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during the pre-production of this record, which, I assume, involved Rubin playing old Sabbath records (on vinyl, no doubt)  and pinpointing the elements that make them distinctive, talking it out with Tony, Geezer and Ozzy.

Maybe I’ve been a little premature… “Damaged Soul” has a riff that sways — and a harmonica! Yes!  It harkens back to the debut LP’s “The Wizard.”

“Age of Reason’ has a riff reminiscent of “Driver 8” by R.E.M. That’s kinda cool. I’d say this is more like “stoner rock,” the metal sub-genre that Sabbath created. (And while we’re at it, might as well mention that the simplification of the easy-to-learn, hard-to-master “Paranoid” birthed punk and hardcore). There’s heaps of bands (Sleep, the Sword, etc.) who’ve devoted themselves to subtly inverting classic mid-tempo Sabbath runs, so it’s nice to hear Ozzy singing some stoner rock in 2013 — and with no hipster irony! Yay!

I could blow on (and on) self-righteously about the meaning of Sabbath, their contribution to music, etc., but I’ll end with “Live Forever” because it does seem to reveal the concept of 13. Sabbath has always been obsessed with mortality and personal freedom. In this song we get the aged take on it: the chorus goes, “I don’t wanna live forever/but I don’t wanna die.” These guys could drop dead at any moment, and for that reason I’m glad they made another record. And y’know what? I might even put “Damaged Soul” or “Age of Reason” alongside “Supernaut” or “Hole in the Sky”‘ on a mix of classic Sabbath tunes.  Honestly, nothing can sound any more Sabbathy than Ozzy’s still-intact vocal chords and Tony Iommi’s ageless guitar sound. And despite everything, both are in full effect on 13. I’ll shut up now.


Lou Barlow is a member of Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. You can follow him on Twitter here.