Revolver Visits Black Sabbath in the Studio and Gets Sneak Preview of New Album, 13
By Dan Epstein
It’s one of those postcard perfect Malibu afternoons: temps in the low 70s, sunshine sparkling intoxicatingly across the smooth surface of the Pacific, seagulls gliding idly overhead, and surfers and bikini babes—literally the only humans in sight—all seemingly moving in gorgeous slow motion.
So why, instead of deepening our collective tan on the Zuma Beach sand, is Revolver sitting in a dark and cramped old bus parked two blocks away? It’s because this rusting vehicle has been retro-fitted as the playback room of Malibu’s Shangri-La Studios — and what’s being played back here today are three new songs from Black Sabbath.
Truthfully, we are a little squeamish about hearing these tracks for the first time. It’s been almost 35 years since Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, and Geezer Butler last made a studio album together—1978’s disjointed Never Say Die—and nearly 38 since they convened to record 1975’s Sabotage, the last great long-player from the original incarnation of Black Sabbath. Subsequent attempts to reunite the original lineup in the studio have resulted only in a couple of forgettable “modern metal” tracks (“Psycho Man” and “Selling My Soul,” included on 1998’s otherwise excellent live album, Reunion) and an aborted 2001 session with über-producer Rick Rubin. So really, what are the odds that this new music will be any good, let alone be worthy of this legendary band’s impossibly influential legacy?
Then, of course, there’s the troubling (and, for many fans, deal-breaking) fact that 13, the Rick Rubin-produced Black Sabbath reunion album that’s tentatively scheduled for a June release, was recorded by only three-fourths of the classic Sabs lineup: drummer Bill Ward opted out of the reunion in early 2012 over some well-publicized contractual disagreements. After much fan speculation regarding Ward’s replacement, it was finally revealed this January that Brad Wilk—best known for his work with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave—had been brought in by Rubin to handle the album’s drum duties. Though Wilk is an undeniably talented player, the news of his involvement was met with more puzzlement than elation from Sabbath diehards.
But whatever trepidation we may have is quickly put to rest by the slab of prime Sabbath sorcery that is “End of the Beginning,” the first track we hear. “Is this the end of the beginning? Or just the beginning of the end?” Ozzy asks mournfully over Iommi’s doomy opening riff, sounding like an older but not necessarily wiser version of the dread-filled oaf who wondered “What is this that stands before me?” at the beginning of 1970’s “Black Sabbath”. Boasting more badass riffs than you can shake a sack of dwarves at, the track only staggers to a close after some eight gloriously demonic minutes, with Iommi’s stump-fingered outro solo leaving a spiral-shaped exclamation point on the proceedings.
Equally impressive is “God Is Dead,” a nine-minute track that moves effortlessly from an ominous opening powered by Wilk’s tribal tom-tom pattern into a swinging groove reminiscent of Sabotage opener “Hole in the Sky.” “Up from the gloom, I rise out of my tomb,” intones a double-tracked Ozzy, and you can practically smell the clouds of crypt dust wafting up with him.
After the sonic feast of “End of the Beginning” and “God Is Dead,” it’s almost impossible to fully digest the seven-minute “Epic,” which could also easily pass for a previously unheard outtake from Sabbath’s highly creative 1972-75 period. And unfortunately, it’s also the last song we get to hear today, in part because there’s apparently still some confusion over which (and how many) of the other tracks recorded during the recent sessions with Rubin will actually make into onto the album—something we learn as soon as we sit down with Butler and Osbourne in Shangri-La’s living room lounge. (Iommi is currently back home in England, putting the final touches on a couple of solos at his studio, and continuing his treatment for the lymphoma he was diagnosed with in early 2012.)
“Rick was saying there’ll be nine songs on the album,” says Osbourne.
“Nine?” responds Butler, clearly somewhat taken aback. “We recorded 15—what’s going to happen with the others?”
“Don’t you fucking worry,” mutters Osbourne. “They’ll be used somewhere.”
“Next album?” Butler laughs.
But track listing aside, Black Sabbath’s frontman and bassist-lyricist seem quite happy with the music they’ve recorded for 13, an album which began to take shape nearly a year before the November 11, 2011 press conference where the original Sabbath members announced their reunion.
“Tony had tons of riffs—like, two or three CDs full of 80 or 90 riffs,” Butler recalls. “We were talking about getting back together and doing an album, instead of doing yet another tour with no new things. Tony played us some of his stuff, and it was like, ‘Oh yeah, there’s more than enough there—we can easily do this!’”
But the sheer prodigiousness of Iommi’s riff surplus was, at least at first, more of an impediment than a catalyst. “There was so much stuff there, it was confusing for us,” Butler chuckles. “We couldn’t really pick out which one to start with.” It took a meeting with Rick Rubin to give the band a sense of focus for the new album; according to Butler, the producer played their malevolently bluesy 1970 debut back to them and announced, “Forget heavy metal—this is what I want the vibe to be. This is the direction. Don’t copy it, but keep it in mind. Play it like a live gig.”
“We originally were a jazz-blues band,” Osbourne explains. “On the first album, it was very bluesy, very jammy, and that’s what Rick wanted. He didn’t want the songs to be verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, bridge—he wanted it to flow.”
Butler, Iommi and Osbourne worked together in England compiling ideas for songs, intending to return to the States and complete the songs with Ward. But after Ward left the band in February 2012, Tommy Clufetos (who’d toured with Osbourne and played on his 2010 solo album Scream) was brought in to keep time during the writing sessions, and play on a handful of Summer 2012 shows. The band then auditioned several drummers for the album gig; once Wilk got the nod—“He’s got that Bill Ward vibe, definitely,” enthuses Butler—Sabbath began recording in earnest with Rubin at Shangri-La.
“Rick wouldn’t ever go, ‘That’s crap!’” Osbourne says of the producer’s involvement. “He’d go, ‘That was good, but just try it once more—you may be able to get it one better.’ For me, I’ve been the captain of my ship for so many years, so it’s kind of humbling in a way to be like, ‘Rick, are you happy with that?’”
Rubin occasionally weighed in on Butler’s lyrics, as well, at one point objecting to the use of the word “fun”. “Rick said, ‘You can’t have that in there—this is Black Sabbath!” laughs Butler, who claims this will be the darkest Sabbath LP yet. “It’s all about death,” he says. “I mean, the old stuff used to be about death, but there was hope in it. Now it’s just…death. [Laughs] Forty years ago, you thought that there was some hope for the world. Now it’s like, you know we don’t have a chance.”
Iommi’s cancer diagnosis obviously contributed to the sense of encroaching mortality that shadows this Sabbath album—though the guitarist behaved like a true “Iron Man” during the recording sessions, refusing to let his illness or treatments get in the way of the album’s progress. “He’s been so inspirational,” says Butler. “You have a headache and don’t feel like recording, and then he comes in from the hospital after doing chemotherapy, and he’s like, ‘Come on, let’s go’!”
Butler and Osbourne are convinced that Iommi will beat the lymphoma and be strong enough to tour this spring and summer, but there’s clearly a lingering sense of sorrow and frustration over Ward’s defection, as well as the way the negotiations with the drummer turned into, in Butler’s words, “a bit of a soap opera on the internet.”
“The only sad thing is that Bill couldn’t keep it together,” reflects Osbourne. “It would have been great to have Bill with us. I’ve never understood the business side of this. I don’t choose to go there. My wife does that for me, and Geezer’s wife is his manager, and Tony’s got his manager. So, I keep my nose out of it. But they couldn’t come to an agreement with him. I mean, I still love him, and I wish him well, but…”
As of this writing, it’s still unclear as to who will be behind the kit for Sabbath’s upcoming tour dates. “We don’t know yet,” laughs Butler. “Maybe we’ll have a different drummer for each track!”
Given how long it took to bring the original Black Sabbath (or at least three-quarters of them) back together in the studio, and the fact that Butler, Iommi, and Osbourne are all in their early 60s, it’s entirely conceivable that 13—or whatever it’s called—will be the final Black Sabbath album. Which brings us to our final question of the day: How would you like Black Sabbath to be remembered?
“Just the fact that we’re remembered, you know,” says Osbourne. “We were just a bunch of guys who had fun making music, and look what happened! One day we had a fucking bag of French fries in in our hands—and the next day, we had champagne!”
“That’s how we should be remembered,” cracks Butler. “The French fries and champagne band!”
“It’s just been an incredible journey,” Osbourne continues. “I never dreamed my life was going to be like this. None of us did. We all burst off into different areas, and then we all came back together. And now we’re a family again.”
“We were told, ‘No, you can’t do this,” so many times when we first started,” Butler reflects. “But we were a band that believed in itself, believed in what we were doing. Like with Tony now—cancer can’t stop him, because he believes in what we’re doing. Regardless of what kind of music you’re doing, you have to have that belief in yourself. And I think that was the main thing with us.”