Unless you live under a rock, you've probably heard that Black Sabbath recently released their long awaited comeback album, 13. It's their first with Ozzy Osbourne on vocals since 1978's Never Say Die, and riding high at No. 1 on the UK Charts, their first No. 1 hit since 1970's Paranoid. So: comeback successful, right?
Well, pretty much. The record itself is better written and performed than anyone could have possibly expected from Sabbath at this stage in their career. Their songs still have a lot of the power they once had, and even reality TV hasn't diminished the effectiveness of Ozzy's evil wail. There's really just one big problem with this record: producer Rick Rubin.
Rubin has been in the news a lot lately for his work on Kanye West's new record Yeezus, and he has quite the esteemed reputation in that field. He is, after all, the same guy who produced classic records from the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Run-DMC, the recently reunited Geto Boys, and a little track called ""99 Problems." He's also been an acclaimed metal producer in the past, producing iconic records by Slayer, Danzig, System of a Down, and Rage Against the Machine.
Rubin is even a master of orchestrating comebacks, which Rocks Off praised him for when Sabbath announced they were working with him. But at the same time, he's also taken a ton of heat over the years for some particular production choices, especially ones related to the loudness war. Californication by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of Rubin's most acclaimed records and a huge comeback for the band, has also been deemed "unlistenable" by some publications due to Rubin's production, which maxed out the volume on all the instruments into the red.
That's like the Stooges' Raw Power, a legendarily poorly mixed record, on steroids.
Well, it seems in the case of Sabbath, Rubin is up to all his old tricks again. He's orchestrated yet another massive comeback and also marred yet another great record with the same old production traits that have practically ruined so many. Let's compare it to his last big metal comeback, for instance: Metallica's Death Magnetic.
Death Magnetic was a good record, Metallica's first good one in a while. How long depends on how much you appreciate genres other than metal. Regardless, pretty much everyone agreed that Death Magnetic was a return to form for the boys, bringing them back to a classic sound that they made sense working with. It was vintage Metallica, for the most part.
But that didn't make it a perfect record, like, say, Master of Puppets. For one thing, it had an over-reliance on forced nostalgia. Take closing track "My Apocalypse" and match it up to "Dyers Eve" from ...And Justice for All or "Damage, Inc." from Puppets. It's almost the same song. You can do the same with "The Day That Never Comes" and "One" or "Fade to Black," and "The Unforgiven III" speaks for itself.
Not only that, but the shortest song on the record is 5:01, even though the rest of the songs hardly justify their seven to nine minute lengths and use a lot of repetition and soloing to make that happen. Finally, there's the good old loudness war problem, which came back to bite Metallica in the ass the same way it did with the Chili Peppers almost ten years earlier.
Now let's look at the Sabbath record. What are its flaws? Right off the bat both The New York Times' Ben Ratliff and Consequence of Sound's Jon Hadusek hammer the record for its loudness-war issues. I'm in complete agreement with their assessment: the record is physically exhausting because of its loudness.
Furthermore, a song like "Zeitgeist," which is a quiet song desiring of space and dynamics, is given the exact same treatment as the heaviest track on the record. There's no balance to the instruments. They're all on full blast, louder on this record than they would sound in an arena.
And while on the subject of "Zeitgeist," it suffers from another problem straight out of the Death Magnetic playbook. Compare it with "Planet Caravan" from Paranoid and once again the two songs are almost identical analogues of each other. It's not so much that this makes "Zeitgeist" a bad song, but it does show how clearly inferior "Zeitgeist" is to its original counterpart and makes Sabbath appear somewhat desperate for having written such a blatant copy of themselves.
As for the length issues, those recur as well. Yes, on the deluxe edition of the record there is one track as short as three minutes and 41 seconds. That being said, five songs on an eight-song record (if you're listening to the regular edition) are more than seven minutes here and the record runs just seven minutes shy of an hour. That's a hell of an exhausting length for these songs, and once again they hardly justify it. They're padded out with repetition and soloing to make up for the fact that they're four- or five-minute songs in disguise.
So that's two records from metal gods now marked by Rick Rubin trademarks and suffering from them. Will this make me listen to 13 any less? Probably not. The band saves the record all by themselves, much like Metallica did on Death Magnetic. But please, we need this to stop.
Messing with Metallica was fine. Metallica did enough to hurt themselves over the years that no one was surprised when they put out such a flawed record. But the Black Sabbath reunion had and still has so much potential. Rubin's little quirks are the thing that separates 13 from being a perfect comeback record and being a pretty good comeback record. That's a shame and Sabbath deserved better.
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So I plead: Rick Rubin -- just stop handling legendary metal bands. Either that, or give them your input and then hire them a competent mixer and editor to take on the material.