Black Sabbath’s ‘God Is Dead?’ an instant classic

On April 19 the original line-up of Black Sabbath digitally released “God Is Dead?” on iTunes and Amazon, their first proper single in 35 years and the first since 1978’s Never Say Die album. Well, perhaps it’s a bit misleading to say “original line-up”, since drummer Bill Ward is nowhere to be found. But still, pretty darn close. Surprisingly the drummer on the single is not Tommy Clufetos, who has been touring with the band since May of 2012. Instead, the upcoming 13 album was recorded with Rage Against The Machine drummer Brad Wilk. Reportedly, producer Rick Rubin was unhappy with Clufetos’ drumming technique and wanted a drummer with more “swing” to capture the feel of the 1970s era Black Sabbath albums. But enough background, it’s time to take a listen to the new single and see how it all turned out! If you haven’t yet heard the single be sure to check out the YouTube clip at the end of this article.

Black Sabbath 'God Is Dead?' cover art

Black Sabbath ‘God Is Dead?’ cover art

“God Is Dead?” opens much like the self-titled song that started it all in 1970, with a dirge-like sense of danger and mystery. Almost immediately we are hit with a sense of what is yet to come, as Geezer Butler’s thundering bass collides with Brad Wilk’s powerful drumming and Tony Iommi’s frantic riffing. It’s immediately clear that this is NOT a hard-rock continuation of the band’s ’70s output, but something else entirely. As if there was any doubt, it becomes even clearer when Ozzy’s lines are made known. Much of the song sounds like Ozzy solo material, for example from the Ozzmosis era. If this sounds like a turn-off, just imagine the very best of solo-era Ozzy, the best melodies with no filler. Then imagine it combined with the unmistakable doomy heaviness of vintage Sabbath. The result is magic.

Iommi is content to lie in the background and sling twisted yet simple riffs. His presence is hardly felt on much of the song, instead sharing the spotlight with Wilk and Butler. Wilk for his part delivers with a shuffling, stuttering beat, sometimes reminiscent of Bill Ward’s blues-influenced output, but perhaps even hinting at a dubstep influence. Butler’s crushing basslines dominate throughout and his presence is pushed heavily to the forefront, not unlike how bass tends to dominate gangster rap.

The bass-heavy production seems almost out of place. True, Butler’s bass parts are impressive, but it seems unnecessary to dominate the entire production with them. It was a risky production choice, one that could have failed miserably, but Rick Rubin managed to pull it off. Butler’s bass lines mesh intriguingly with the rest of the music, creating an almost trance-like hold over the listener for the duration of this nearly 9-minute song. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, at around 7:20 the song’s last thrust becomes known. In fact, there is no real guitar solo but instead a simply amazing bass lead. Iommi chimes in with a 15-second solo that is neither bluesy nor especially heavy, but beautiful in its simplicity.

In the end, though, “God Is Dead?” belongs to Ozzy. His vocals performance-wise are what you would expect. His range is more limited than in the past, and his vocals are clearly weaker than they were in the ‘70s. However, each line is sung with such dedication and honest emotion it brings the song to another level. It sounds as if Rick Rubin really pushed Ozzy to deliver on each and every line. Ozzy came up with the song’s concept and then worked with Butler to craft the final lyrics. Ozzy described the song’s inspiration in a recent radio interview on the BBC’s Zane Lowe show:

How I got that title was I was in somebody’s office and there was a magazine on a table and it just said, ‘God Is Dead,’ and I suddenly thought about 9/11 and all these terrorist things and religion and how many people have died in the name of religion. When you think about the tragedy that’s happened throughout time, it just came in my head. You’d think by now that their God would have stopped people dying in the name of, so I just starting thinking that people must be thinking, ‘Where is God? God is dead’ and it just hit me.” – Ozzy Osbourne

Ironically, “God Is Dead” was released the very same day Boston police frantically turned their city upside down in search of terror suspect Dzhokar Tsarnaev. The Boston parade bombing almost seems a perfect accompaniment to the song’s questioning lyrics. If God does exist, why would he allow the terror attack in Boston and what purpose could it possibly serve?

The question on everyone’s mind, of course, is whether or not this new album will equal the band’s original output. Iommi himself has been saying in interviews that this album will fit neatly in line with the first three (Black SabbathParanoidMaster of Reality). While such phrases may just be clever marketing jargon, or perhaps taken out of context, in this case it’s completely false. “God Is Dead?” sounds nothing like the first three albums, and we shouldn’t expect it to.

Mainly, Black Sabbath has been a heavy metal band since around the time Ozzy left. They largely gave up on their hard rock roots (think Cream, Led Zeppelin) and instead adopted an entirely different set of influences and production values. Around the same time, Ozzy Osbourne himself became a solo heavy metal musician. It is pure fantasy to think that the band would travel back to Birmingham and record a richly textured blues-based album on analog equipment, complete with an Ozzy harmonica solo or a Tony Iommi flute solo. Such an effort would have been dishonest to fans and would also have negated the last 35 years of their heavy metal sound.

Instead the band seems to have created something entirely new. If “God Is Dead?” is any indication the band is hungry, hungry to create memorable music and hungry for one last successful album. Much to everyone’s surprise, Black Sabbath really delivered on this single. We won’t know until June 11 if the rest of 13 will deliver, but at this time it seems as if the band has created yet another classic, to be played for generations to come.

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