Album review: Black Sabbath, 13 (Vertigo)

Album of the Week: Doom-laden, sci-fi metal signals Sabs' return to form

Despite the impression given by the eight-foot flaming digits on its cover, 13 is not Black Sabbath's 13th album, but their 19th – though only eight have featured Ozzy Osbourne, the last of them 1978's poorly-received Never Say Die!, which the singer later disparaged as “the worst piece of work I've ever had anything to do with”.

13 is undoubtedly an improvement on that, partly due to the production by Rick Rubin, who has taken the band back to their original proto-metal sound. “End Of The Beginning” opens proceedings with a classic Sabs doom-chord trudge, before slipping into a loping metal boogie; then “God Is Dead?” heralds a typical Sabbath flirtation with the dark side. Bassist Geezer Butler, the band's lyricist, has a sly way with irreverent imagery that tiptoes the line between blasphemy and comedy – here he has Ozzy sing, “Give me more wine, I don't need bread” (which is probably literally true), and describe The Bible as “a holy fairytale” (likewise).

But the band aren't restricted solely to the usual Satanic gloom: 13 includes several sci-fi-themed songs, about a spaceman adrift on “a sinking spaceship”, and a robot ghost seeking regeneration of its “cybersonic soul”, as well as none-more-black excursions into numbness and alienation, notably the “Loner” warned against becoming too suicidal. In expressing all of these without tumbling into absurdity, it helps to have a klaxon whine like Ozzy's delivering them, while Tony Iommi cranks out those trademark slow, molten-lead riffs that trundle through 13 like tank tracks. The best of these is “Damaged Soul”, a graveyard grunge epic that reveals their blues-rock roots, complete with sturdy harmonica break and Iommi's best solo (save perhaps for the elegant jazz-tinged licks of “Zeitgeist”).

And in a nice touch, the closer “Dear Father” brings not just the album but the band's career full-circle, by using the classic “Black Sabbath” chord-change as a motif, before fading away to thunder, rainfall and the tolling bell with which they ushered in the heavy-metal genre back in 1970.

Download: Damaged Soul; Zeitgeist; God Is Dead?; Loner