It seems like when older artists try to recapture the glory of their youth through a comeback record, they often leave out one of the most important things that made their old records sound the way they did: Technology. These records are too numerous to mention, although Rick Rubin has probably produced half of them. I’m going to focus on one, which I actually quite like, that is a good place to start.
The new Black Sabbath album 13 was an attempt by the group to recapture the gloomy stoner metal of their first few releases. It’s actually quite good. As far as songs, singing, and playing go I have no complaints. It’s clear that Rubin was trying to steer them towards making a classic Sabbath album in the vein of Paranoid or Masters of Reality. Some fans and critics complained about Bill Ward being replaced by Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine. I understand why Bill Ward is great drummer and I can see how people would miss his drumming. However, Brad Wilk actually does a great job and after listening to the album on headphones I realized all of the little subtleties that he brings to the record. I don’t believe that his contributions are what keep the record from not sounding exactly like the original Sabbath recordings.
It’s really the mix and the mastering that made this new album sound drastically different. Again, this does not make it a bad album, but it is different sounding than those classic recordings. The early Sabbath records, especially their debut, were recorded quickly and cheaply and were done to analog tape. Although to be honest I have no idea if tape was used in the early stages of 13, it’s clear that at some point a computer became involved. Because of the analog sound of the early Sabbath records, they have a dark mysterious murky quality to them. This is not to take away anything from what the band did at that time, only to note that the technology on which those records were made had an impact on the overall sound.
The new album is highly compressed using modern mastering and this greatly differentiates the sound. It has a much heavier, louder, and modern sound then the old Sabbath recordings. If you listen to Sabbath’s debut next to a modern heavy metal recording you will be surprised, given their reputation, at how “heaviness” of the record comes from the playing, and not from the production. Their early records are quite thin by modern comparison. Again what this analog sound does for them is help create a sense of mystery to the proceedings.
Now I understand why any band would not want to look backwards. Most artists want to move forward and do something that they have never done before. So on one hand I can’t blame any band for not attempting to make a record exactly like they did in the past.
But with this release, and many others that have been released in modern times, it seems bands are trying to recapture what made them great in the first place. Rick Rubin clearly wanted to produce a “classic” Sabbath record. If you have gone far enough to write songs that sound somewhat like your old material, use effects that were used on old records, why would you ignore the technological side of recording that plays such a large role in how the records actually sound?
Again, I actually really like 13. It does give you a large does of what you are looking for in a Black Sabbath record. This is just the record I am thinking of now and the modern production techniques actually don’t get in the way of me enjoying this particular record. However, there are some records, which escape me at the moment, where I can’t help but think that if they had really gotten back to basics, they would have been better off.
No matter what form an artist is working in, technology shapes the end product of what they are doing. This should let out a collective “duh”. If you are looking to make a retro record, remember that the sound is every bit as important as the performances.