It's a sunny January day in Los Angeles, but as you'd expect, Black Sabbath's world is looking pretty dark. Guitarist Tony Iommi is back home in England being treated for the lymphoma cancer he was diagnosed with last year. Ozzy Osbourne, padding around Malibu's Shangri-La Studio in a black bowler hat and suit, has his own medical problems to deal with: His arm is in a sling from hand surgery, and four days before, he briefly turned into a human blowtorch. "My wife [Sharon] had left a f...g candle burning downstairs and set the coffee table on fire," Osbourne sputter-mutters, pulling up his hair to reveal a red burn across his forehead. "She threw some water on the wood and suddenly it was like f..g napalm exploded." He shrugs. "Normal day in the Osbourne house."
At least one thing is going Sabbath's way: The band is nearing completion of 13, its first studio album with Osbourne in 35 years. Recorded last fall at the famed L.A. studio with producer Rick Rubin, 13 finds Osbourne, Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and guest drummer Brad Wilk (of Rage Against the Machine) resurrecting the sludgy, ultra-heavy sound of the early Sabbath records. In another nod to their roots, lumbering tracks like "End of the Beginning" and "Age of Reason" stretch out to as long as eight minutes.
Osbourne has toured on and off with Sabbath for the last 15 years, but the road to a studio reunion has been a particularly long and grueling one. They first met with Rubin over a dozen years ago, but according to the producer, "It didn't gel at that time." Iommi says the launch of The Osbournes on MTV soon after complicated matters: "It drew Ozzy off. When he was going to do it, I thought, 'Hmmm, I don't know how this is going to be.' Obviously they did it, and it's too late now."
Even when the project reignited in 2011, it almost derailed. Founding drummer Bill Ward, who had participated in early rehearsals for a new album, announced last February that he wouldn't be participating over what he calls "contractual difficulties." (Ward declined comment for this story.) Iommi says Ward's demands came out of the blue. "I didn't know Bill was having these issues when we got together – he never even mentioned it to us," he says. "It was quite confusing. We wanted him involved, but it was just getting too hard." Adds Osborne: "You can't go, 'Well, I don't like it.' You get off your ass and get your shit together. The life of a bohemian rock star is f..g long over."
Iommi's cancer diagnosis was another setback. "I couldn't believe it," Osbourne says. "After all this time, we're all in the same boat. And bang." The sessions were briefly delayed when Iommi began chemotherapy treatment last year. Then, when the time finally came to cut the album, Rubin threw in a wrench of his own. Sitting the band down in his Los Angeles home, he played them their first album, 1970's brutally primitive Black Sabbath. "I wanted to make an album that stood alongside their first four albums," Rubin says. "The first album wasn't a straightforward heavy metal record. You could hear the jazz influence, so that was the goal, and to capture that live interaction."
For the band, Rubin's challenge to live up to their early sound was initially disorienting. "It was confusing," says Butler. "We had to unlearn everything we'd learned." Sabbath did nix one of Rubin's requests: to fill the drum seat with the ever-volatile Ginger Baker. "I thought, 'Bloody hell?'" Iommi says. "I just couldn't see that." Rubin then suggested Wilk, who visited Osbourne's home and jammed with him, Iommi and Butler on Sabbath classics like "War Pigs." "I'd never heard louder instruments in my life," says the Rage drummer, who ended up playing on the whole album. "And I've played in some pretty loud bands."
After landing the gig, Wilk was subjected to the Sabbath equivalent of hazing. "Tony was constantly fussing with me," Wilk says. "I'd come in and he'd say, 'Did you get the email I sent last night with that new song?' I'm gullible as hell, so I'd say, 'No, I didn't get that,' and then he'd start playing some riff I'd never heard before. And I'd say, 'Uh, no – wow!' He kept doing it until I knew he was just kidding."
When recording began, Iommi could only work for several weeks at a time before taking a week off for additional cancer treatments – a schedule he will be adhering to over the next two years. At press time, the band has only announced a brief spring tour in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, with U.S. dates to follow after Iommi rests up. "Things are fairly good, dare I say, at the moment," Iommi says with a modest chuckle. "I'm still here and it's okay. We had to do this album now. Christ, if it happened in another 10 years, I don't know if we'd be around."
Although Osbourne describes the new album as "Satanic blues," Iommi's illness isn't the only thing that's changed about Sabbath. Osbourne admits he is no longer the "crazy, raging alcoholic drug addict" he was during the making of his last Sabbath record, 1978's Never Say Die. ("It should've been called I Wish I Was Dead," he grumbles.) And even a new Sabbath song like the provocatively titled "God Is Dead" takes an unexpected turn. "It starts off, God is dead, Osbourne says, before adding a bit wistfully, “but at the end it says, 'I don't believe that God is dead.”
David Browne for Rolling Stones, 10 February 2013
Photo Shane Hirschman