DETROIT – Even the most grizzled rock ’n’ roll veterans can still get bowled over once in a while. So it’s been for Black Sabbath founding members Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi, the pioneering English metal musicians who have watched as their new album, “13,” tops sales charts across the globe.
“It’s just amazed us,” said bassist Butler, who turned 64 in July. “We thought there’d be some interest in it. But never in our wildest dreams would we have expected it to go to No. 1. Around the world, all over the place, it’s doing well.”
Perhaps a little more faith was in order: In an era when Sabbath’s four-decade influence is resounding more than ever, permeating the work of bands from Mastodon to Queens of the Stone Age, a new studio album should be a big deal. Throw in the fact that it’s the band’s first in 18 years – and the first with Osbourne in 35 – and “13” was destined to breed big buzz.
Granted, it’s not the most recent album to feature the entirety of Sabbath’s founding lineup: That honor still belongs to 1978’s “Never Say Die,” with drummer Bill Ward, who backed out last year in a contractual dispute.
He was replaced in the studio by Rage Against the Machine’s Brad Wilk and on this summer’s tour by Tommy Clufetos.
But Ward or not, getting Osbourne’s distinctive, ominous voice back atop a Sabbath album is a coup. More than two dozen players, including nine singers, have performed in some incarnation of Sabbath since the group rumbled out of Birmingham, England, in 1969. And Butler – who’s been along for most of that wild ride – knows there’s a special emotional resonance to Osbourne’s name.
“When you mention it to the average person, they’ll know Black Sabbath with Ozzy in the band,” he said. “That was our breakthrough (period) in the ’70s. People so often associate Ozzy with Sabbath and Sabbath with Ozzy. It’s the same thing with a band like Van Halen – people like David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, but the classic lineup would be Dave.”
“13” isn’t some throwaway record, an excuse to spur fresh press and hit the road for a round of dates. It’s a legitimate rock album – a quintessential slab of Sabbath – and has racked up strong notices from critics and fans for its conjuring of a vintage heavy sound.
Butler and his bandmates don’t hesitate to give credit where it’s due: producer Rick Rubin.
“When we tried to do albums in the past, we all had different ideas of what it should be like, and it never ended up being successful. This is what we needed – we needed a producer,” Butler said. “Rick Rubin had always made it known he wanted to be the first-choice producer if we all got back together.”
Once in the studio, Rubin’s creative mandate was clear: Avoid a fussy, fancy approach, he told the band, and instead aim for the raw, primal aesthetic that marked Black Sabbath’s earliest work. The band wrote 14 songs before sessions started, “and just went and played them live in the studio,” Butler said. Two more – “Damaged Souls” and “Zeitgeist” – were born of in-studio jams.
“He wanted to go back to the old, basic sort of Sabbath sound – not a lot of overdubs, just a couple of guitar solos,” Butler said. “You capture the feeling. With a lot of bands these days – and we have in the past – you’ll go put the drums down, the next day you put on the bass, then guitar. It doesn’t have the same feeling as being in the room together with Ozzy singing. That’s how we did the first three albums.”
Out on the road, where the band is still playing a set list dominated by classic Sabbath fare, Butler said he’s adjusting to life with his new rhythm section partner. Clufetos is an in-demand hired gun whose résumé includes tours with Osbourne, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper and Rob Zombie.
“Tommy’s a real nice bloke to get on with as well,” Butler said. “He’s a phenomenal drummer – he picks things up so quickly. It’s incredible the way he works. He’s really dedicated to the stuff he does.”
After flaring up throughout 2012, the war of words between ex-drummer Ward and his bandmates has settled into a low simmer. But you don’t have to stare too hard to read between the lines when Butler confronts the topic.
“It would be great if Bill ever came back, it really would, if all the stars and planets were aligned,” Butler said. “It would be a democratic decision, really. If Bill felt up to it, and played like he used to be able to play, we’d have welcomed him with open arms. But you have to maintain a certain standard. You can’t go on with someone not up to standard, no matter who they are.”
But will that window of opportunity even exist? Osbourne has already proclaimed that he’ll be content if this turns out to be the final Sabbath tour. And while Butler said playing live is still “an incredible adrenaline rush, like a drug,” he seconds that sentiment.
“We made the album we’d been promising for years, and that was great,” he said. Retirement “is not the plan, but it depends on how everyone feels. When we finish just before Christmas, we’ll step back and see.”
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