Despite being a massive Black Sabbath AND Dio fan, I’m here to sheepishly admit I rarely if ever listen to the albums the two made together. I usually stick to the first six album for both parties, but when I saw a great condition original pressing of Mob Rules at my shop I couldn’t pass it up and take a chance to dig deeper and see what works, what doesn’t, and how it compares to the discography I tend to stick to. Plus that album art…damn if this isn’t maybe one of the best covers in all of heavy metal.
General impressions? My first thought was how significant a change can be when you replace even one thing in a proven formula, and I’m not talking about Ronnie replacing Ozzy (also that’s also true). You wouldn’t think replacing the drummer would have that big a change, particularly when your primary songwriters are still intact. But while Vinny Appice has proven to be a fantastic drummer in his own right, his feel is so utterly different from Bill Ward that it completely changes the nature of a Black Sabbath song. Over the course of the album I kept coming back to how forward and driving the drums are, and what they would’ve sounded like with the more laid back, jazz-like approach of Ward.
It’s this change in the rhythm almost as much as the vocals that make Mob Rules feel like a proto-Dio album, right down to the kickoff track. “Turn Up The Night” is a fine song, a great opener, even. But it feels so much like a Dio song I would expect to find it pocketed somewhere on The Last In Line. Not a popular opinion, I know, but there you go. I think things get much better with “Voodoo” – I love Iommi’s guitar on it. That’s another thing I noticed listening to the album – there’s a wide variety of tones and mixes to the instruments. Sometimes Iommi is way up front with his solos, sometimes he’s pushed in the back. Martin Birch as always does a hell of a job on the production duties, and if I may be so bold as to skip some tracks the next biggest thought I had listening to Mob Rules is that “Falling Off The Edge Of The World” might be the best Iron Maiden song Iron Maiden never wrote. Killers was released earlier in the year, and I can’t help but think the band’s rising popularity may have had some influence on Sabbath’s song construction. It’s hard to pick between this and “Sign Of The Southern Cross” as my favorite track on the album It’s another epic classic, and it’s also where I really notice Iommi’s ability to craft riffs to fit to his singer. There’s ample evidence that Dio could handle the vocals on the Ozzy-era songs (whether you like her performances or not is another matter) but there’s no way Ozzy could cover a Dio-era song. Iommi wrote to accommodate the extended range and power of Dio’s voice, and when it’s on something as dynamic as “Sign Of The Southern Cross” his range as a writer really comes through.
Do I have some nitpicks? Sure. Outside of my take-or-leave attitude to the opener, I am REALLY not a fan of “Slipping Away”. It feels like the band trying to slip into a more radio friendly format, with its trite lyrics and gang vocal chorus. It’s the complete opposite of the massively heavy “Country Girl” which for my money feels the most like classic-era Black Sabbath than anything else on Mob Rules. And much as I love Geezer Butler I have to raise an eyebrow at those louder than loud bass solos. I’m okay with a little indulgence now and then, so I can leave instrumental “E5150” alone for the most part, but upon re-listening I can imagine a better version where some vocals would really work to bring out the bass work Butler’s bringing to the segue.
Does any of that really detract from Mob Rules? Not at all – the strengths of the album are immense, and the tracks I like I generally love. When a straight up rocker like “The Mob Rules” turns out to be your fourth favorite* track on the album, you know you have a winner. By the time of closer “Over And Over” (a close second for the most Sabbath track IMHO, although again – Ozzy could never sing this song) marches its final notes to the inner groove I know I’ve just added another classic to my Sabbath rotation.
* For the record, my favorite tracks in order:
- Falling Off The Edge of the World
- Sign of the Southern Cross
- Country Girl
- The Mob Rules
- Over and Over
- Turn Up The Night
- Slipping Away