Thursday, June 20, 2013

Black Sabbath: 13

Black Sabbath: 13
Get it here.

     I grew up lower middle class in a mostly white New Jersey suburb in the 1980s. Generally speaking, two musical communities influenced me there. The first was the high school concert band and its various offshoots (marching band, pit band, a weak attempt at a “jazz” band). The second was the high school metal scene. Officially, I belonged to the former group—playing bass clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, and piano. I liked it because it was my first exposure to “serious” and complicated ensemble music—we had a somewhat adventurous bandleader, who programmed pieces by Hindemith, and the overture to Bernstein’s Candide, for instance. But secretly, I wanted to be one of the metal kids. Many of them were great musicians—especially the ones who took it seriously enough to form their own bands, to develop “chops,” to get real gigs, and, presumably, to pick up other trappings of the lifestyle. It felt like we concert band kids were still, to some extent, playing by the rules, no matter how strange the music we made. The metal kids had gone farther in creating their own subculture. When I finally got around to forming my own musical projects, I always felt honored when one of them was involved—I took it as a compliment, proof of the music’s viability.
     All of which may explain the vested interest I feel in the reception of Black Sabbath’s latest album, 13 (possibly their last album, given guitarist Tony Iommi’s cancer). Sabbath was the quintessential metal band in my neighborhood. I say this fully cognizant of how fraught it is for me, a jazz composer—albeit one who shuns genre—to claim an affinity with metal. It can be annoying when “art music” people profess such affections—not because it’s inauthentic, but because it implies an extra-musical agenda, in which one music has deigned to legitimize the other. It reminds me of the impulse to push back against the “jazz was born in the brothels” myth. That’s a valuable counter-narrative, insofar as it responds to a racist stereotype of sexualized black musical creativity. But the same gesture implies a problematic need to rationalize our musical pleasure—as if we couldn’t truly care about the music if it didn’t have the appropriate pedigree.
     What if some early jazz took its cues from the transgressive mores of a culture that permitted brothels—even if it did not literally emerge from within their walls? And what if some metal has precious little relevance for jazz? Would either music be less valuable? Hardly. I don’t have to love 13 because Tony Iommi’s playing is “jazzy.” I love it because of how it helps me come to terms with my own musical history. Indeed, the older I get, the more that effect trumps any question of artistic “greatness.” Does 13 “need to be good?” H. P. Taskmaster asks in a thoughtful critique. Taskmaster is ultimately a little coy about the question, but for me the answer is no. The album doesn’t need to be anything. At this point in my life, having listened to probably tens of thousands of musical works, I can think of no more tedious thing to ask about any one of them than whether it is good or not. I care about music because I care how it makes me feel. What does being “good” have to do with that?
     To me, 13 sounds like high school. And while I don’t miss high school even a little, there are aspects of it that I recall fondly, because I survived. That’s how I excuse the album’s crisp, too-clean digital sheen—very unlike early Sabbath, but not at all unlike the 80s, when the overproduction of pop seemed to trickle down to all genres. And even through that veneer, something about the band still sounds, to quote Ozzy Osbourne, like “a lucky bunch of guys that got together and something magical happened.” (This even though one of the original “bunch of guys,” drummer Bill Ward, is sadly not on the album). I hear echoes of the metal kids I knew, and still know, in this music. I hear their conversations, their taste in clothing and food, their general aesthetic and philosophical interests. It’s not all my cup of tea, but I know it; it’s a real cultural reference point for me, and it’s good to be reminded of that. And there is something endearing about the mix of grandiose and simple—from the parallel fifths of the opening four notes to the psychedelic blues of “Damaged Soul” to the unwieldy song structures to the more-minor-than-thou harmonic sensibility to Osbourne’s nearly punk monotone (I always preferred him for this band) to the heavy lifting done by the monstrously good playing of Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler. 
     I understand how the album might be disappointing to some. Unrealistic expectations being what they are, how could it be otherwise? In their heyday, Black Sabbath gave voice to hopelessness—but they also gave the false impression that doing so was in itself a way out of hopelessness. And 13 may be proof that there is no way out. More than forty years after Sabbath’s debut, and after four decades of their noisy resistance, the world retains its bleakness. How could this new music help but sound less rebellious, and more of a dead end?
     Maybe the seeds of that disappointment were there all along. In my first year of college I had some clean-cut ROTC dorm-mates who locked themselves in their room every Saturday night, watching Headbangers’ Ball loud enough that you could hear it down the hall. (I only know this because I usually didn’t have much to do on Saturday nights either.) It was a little creepy, but metal could seem like that—immature masculine rage locked in a dorm room on a Saturday night. That dumb earnestness has doomed much of it to ironic appreciation now, tossed into the hipster dustbin with trucker hats and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
     Call me naïve, but I say one of the strengths of 13 is that it resists irony, in spite of its bombast—in spite even of the album title, emblazoned in flames on the front cover, just in case you missed the symbolism. Rather, it’s a record that lives defiantly, in the face of its own mortality. And that’s enough. Whether or not it is high art (or even decent metal) hardly matters; all it is, and all it needs to be, is a testament to itself. 

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