Thirteen found me on Twitter and sent me one of those DM’s promoting their latest album “Nightingale”. I decided this would be my next album to review.
Thirteen is a hard rock band based out of DC and formed in 2015. Self-described as a cross between Black Sabbath and Guns n’ Roses, not to mention a plethora of other old school influences, the band formed out of a desire to keep hard rock alive (long live rock!) and bring its legacy to the masses. Part of that quest manifests in their 2016 release “Nightingale”, which I understand is not only their debut album but won Best Hard Rock Album. While I wish they wouldn’t keep describing themselves this way as it did create some bias I feel I can get past it. Let’s dive in…
The album opens up with the eponymous song. While I see why they opened up with this song (more on that later), and it certainly has a strong Black Sabbath influence to bring in listeners, it probably wasn’t the strongest way to open. The vocals capture Ozzy’s voice very well with the way he sweeps his pitches and is atonal and his pitchiness. The rest of Thirteen captured the elements of those part of Ozzy’s solo career with simplistic composition and strong guitars. It certainly brings some atonal aspects that add some great dissonance, but it doesn’t seem to build up to anything. Tension is abound, but what should build up to a fantastic moment putters out. Based on the lyrics that focus on the speaker losing a loved one upon seeing the speaker’s dark side it may be an artistic choice to present it that way.
Leading into “In Her Mind” we get more of the same, only with more 90’s aesthetics. The song opens up with a basic drum line that’s compressed, a popular 90’s motif, along with references to femme fatale figures (Cleopatra, Medusa, etc.) and the Viper Room (while still around, the 90’s are definitely when folks remember it the most), and living fast and dangerously (which is probably why the Viper Room was referenced). I personally feel like the lyrics could have been reworked without sacrificing the rhythm structure. At times the lyrics feel a bit contrived with rhyming in order to fit this and at times the imagery suffers for it. I’ll use the example of the line “eyes like Medusa”. Are they insinuating her gaze turns people into stone? If so, how does that “see through you”? Is that how she “gets people in her mind?” The imagery doesn’t add up. Despite poorly constructed lyrics I found everything came together to provide a strong bass line that compliments the risky aspects of the song along with the rattling noise as if to suggest the “she” in the song is like a rattlesnake. I can only presume the woman in this song is the same one referenced in “Nightingale”, which is certainly an interesting aspect. I could see a different story unfolding, if that’s the case. Regardless I think folks will love this song and play it on their night out.
Next on the track is “Insanity” and it does change up the tracks up to this point. It doesn’t feel completely like 90’s hard rock and the lyrics seem to have a coherency to them to where the verses actually transition smoothly into the chorus. The minor keys add a somber tone to the lyric content of living fast combined with drug abuse. The short length of the song also adds a sense the subject of the song will soon (or is about to) hit a wall with fast lane life, whether intentional or not. One thing that I really enjoy about this is the vocalist is gritty and melodic and not forcing anything. I honestly get the feel this was easier for the vocalist to handle than trying to emulate Ozzy. There is also a great balance of guitars with the drums. The bass doesn’t overpower and the drums provide the structure that was missed in the other songs. The accents synchronize with the vocal accents resulting in stressing where the listener needs to find meaning. This is a song that not only I can foresee getting air time, but I think is more natural for Thirteen as a whole.
The album returns to the 90’s aesthetics with “El Diablo”. Guitar distortions, atonal tones, and ornamental interludes fill the song alongside demonic and dark imagery. One thing this song does which I enjoy is break away from the 90’s aesthetics with Spanish guitar even if it’s just to bookend before breaking into the 90’s theme again. I wish they did more with the Spanish elements instead of cramming it into the beginning. It felt contrived without it being more dispersed. Speaking of dispersed…
I’m not sure “I Let Go” was the right song to follow. It’s a slow, sentimental piece about missing love and possibly placed here as a juxtaposition of the wild nature of “the devil” to sentimental, tame elements of “the angel”. Ultimately it jars the pace of the album and doesn’t seem to contribute to that flow. Regardless, the song has many redeeming attributes. The acoustic aspects are very melodic and, when paired with the atonal vocals, sometime add to internal chaos felt by the speaker. While this is certainly one of the stronger pieces of the album, where one sees it start off as a rather flat piece in composition and then build into something more complex with layers of static sounds and eventually deviating from atonal to more harmonic chords, I feel like it’s missing something. I’m not quite sure what it is, though, as this is certainly another piece where I can discernibly say that is a direction Thirteen should take.
The album really deviates from everything it’s presented to the listener with “Dark Star”. Well, they keep the dark themes and tones of their music and that part works out. One sees when listening to this song why it follows the previous song: it’s down tempo and seems to follow the theme of endings. At the same time it’s hard to get behind this song as a music critic even though I personally enjoy it. The transitions are clunky at times, though the clunkiness pays off in lyrics like “to pull the trigger”. It feels like there’s supposed to be a theme and variation led by the drums, especially with the use of high hat, but I’m not sure where it leads. I also have personally a hard time with the pitch here. I’m all for atonal and singing that sounds off but isn’t, but the vocalist was trying to hit notes below his range. I could see where missing the notes could convey the idea of someone on a losing streak, but for me it was distracting.
Next up was “Time”, which was another song I felt was out of place on the album. I can see why it was included, but at the same time it didn’t fit the themes of the rest of the songs. It’s certainly a love song, one with lots of sentimental ideas presented and more major chord progressions than the other songs. It was also slightly more complex than the other songs, albeit subdued, in that the guitar riffs were slightly drowned out but still audible while everything else was simplistic. I appreciated the complex riffs but in trying to mix it with the other phrasing in the other parts made it awkward. This is one of those songs where letting each part shine will really drive the emotions behind the song.
Thirteen goes back to their similar themes and aesthetics with “Romeo’s Kiss”. At times the song reminds me of Mountain and I enjoyed that aspect. I was conflicted about this song in terms of rhythmic composition. On one hand I wanted this song to be more chaotic since we’re hearing about the perspective of a person spiraling out of control. This was encompassed well during the interlude as well. On the other hand I felt the off rhythm attributes didn’t pan out in my mind. It mostly occurred with parts where the end rhyming occurs (there is a reason I have issues with end rhyming. Part of my problem is forcing it to work with an already determined meter, and it ultimately doesn’t mesh. It’s a lose-lose situation). That said, there were some possible production issues with this song. I can’t tell if it’s my headphones but the kick drum’s levels felt like it was turned up too high during recording at times. In general it sounds like there were some difficulties with low ends on this song as it sounds really compressed or like someone hitting a mic. It’s odd as I don’t notice this anywhere else in the album prior.
Other than production deviations “Satin Doll” provides structurally something a little different. It provides no real transition between the different styles, so we get a bookend of driving guitar rhythms paired with a marching tempo then suddenly break into legato, melodious parts. At one point during the interlude these parts sort of combine but it’s still a little awkward without a transition. The lyrics are a bit better, and I personally like how it uses more ways to rhyme, such as slant rhyming and alliteration (“precious pain” followed by “love is just a game” comes to mind). The imagery, however, was still kind of weak. When I think of dolls I don’t think of them “drowning in a sea”. As a hard rock band there’s a lot of fun to be had by subverting the tough veneer with something like a doll. I personally would have tried to work that to something like “sewn up with whips and chains” or something to that effect. It still upholds much of the sexual and dangerous tension permeating the album. It also adds to the idea of the speaker going for more of the same when it comes to the female object of his desire: a figure that is somewhat femme fatale but equally damaged. As for the production I’m starting notice a bit of the same distortion issue with the drums and actually a bit of the vocals. This leads me to believe something wasn’t properly filtered during recording or levels were up too high. I’m not sure if this is some sort of artistic intention, but it comes off more as distracting from the song rather than something that adds to it.
The album ends on something of an ultimate bookend with “The Siren”, compared to the album staring off with “Nightingale”. Where the album starts off with losing a lover who couldn’t stand to see the speaker warts and all, we see something of a finale. We see everything from the album in this one song, from atonal gritty vocals to melodic tones about sexy dangerous women serving as a psychopomp through the underbelly world of the album. This is something that should have been prevalent in the entire album, or at least started off the album. It offers a lot for the listener and it keeps the hard rock influences without letting them overpower the band’s own creative forces. This is the song that delivers a punch to the eardrums that the listener thanks the band for providing.
Overall “Nightingale” is certainly a plethora of some early material. I understand the desire to bring hard rock back into music, but there is so much more for Thirteen to use than 90’s era hard rock. It has a rich history and one that is facing many challenges currently, namely with the demand for more complexity in music. I’m confident Thirteen can and will rise to that challenge. When they quit letting their influences completely dominate such as in songs like “Insanity” and “The Siren”, and possibly a bit in their songs like “Satin Doll” Thirteen delivers powerful chords tempered with melodic, yet biting lyrics. That said, Thirteen’s lyrics and composition do need some work. The composition will work out in time, again, when the band is willing to take the forefront of their own artistic image. I already see that in how they present something of a story of two (former) lovers whether intended or not and other themes of how love and risk can be intertwined. This no-bit critic will love to see how Thirteen develops their artistry and grow from here. Perhaps they’ll even spread their wings to fly like a bird.