It is always difficult to follow up masterpieces. Black Sabbath's Heaven and Hell album with their new vocalist Ronnie James Dio at the helm shot them right back into stardom, garnering critical acclaim both musically and sales-wise. However, what everyone was curious about was whether Heaven and Hell was going to be a one-off achievement, and if not, how the band would top it without original drummer Bill Ward who had left due to health problems. He was replaced by Vinnie Appice, who put in an unbelievable performance, making Mob Rules the timeless masterpiece it is.
In many ways, particularly its track-listing, Mob Rules tends to mirror its predecessor, and even though both "Turn Up the Night" and "Voodoo" are excellent cuts, they fall slightly short off the mark in comparison to the one-two punch start of Heaven and Hell. However, contrary to popular opinion, I happen to think this album actually surpasses the first Dio-era record, most notably because of its more in-your-face mix treatment (by the legendary Martin Birch) and rawer musical landscape. New drummer Vinnie Appice proves to be an excellent substitute, and his drum fills on this album are among heavy metal's best. The drumming on "The Sign of the Southern Cross" is stunning. Appice never lets go and supplies a strong rhythmic backbone to Iommi's sledgehammer riffage, accentuated by a fuzzed-out keyboard arrangement courtesy of Geoff Nicholls (now listed as a full-time member in the credits). Dio's vocals are among his most diverse, going from innocent, almost whisper-like sections to rousing high registers. No other metal band had written such a dynamic song before 1981, and Iommi's run-out lead simply tears the roof. "The Sign of the Southern Cross" is the greatest Dio-era Sabbath song ever.
On the whole, Geezer Butler serves to thicken Iommi's rhythm parts on the album, but the predominantly dissonant instrumental "E5150" sees weird collection of sounds built around his screeching bass guitar, smothered by sizzling keyboards and eventually darker-than-black guitar effects -- it is a frightening experience. Also, the remarkable interplay of "Slipping Away" has awesome bass lines coming through its addictive chorus, punctuated by yet another mindblowing drum performance. The title track, while great, fails to leave as strong a lasting effect as that of Heaven and Hell, but "Country Girl" is a fantastic mix of powerful vocals and hook-laden rhythms. The slowed-down middle of the the song with beautifully harmonised guitar tracks (excellent production job!) and backing vocals is sublime. And Dio's voice kills.
Unlike the first two songs, Mob Rules closes on a very high point, with the criminally overlooked "Falling Off the Edge of the World", bridging Sabbath's old, doomy side with their new-found, guitar-driven aesthetic. It kicks off with solid doomy riffery sinking the piece deep into pits of hell before launching into a rocking metal anthem, complete with a crazy solo. However, it is with the final track "Over and Over" that Iommi lays down quite possibly his longest lead solo, amidst crashing cymbals and a powerful snare sound (which would later on be copycatted by hundreds of doom metal acts in the late 80's). The funereal main riff of this song is pure bliss, and worth checking out the album alone. No one - I repeat - no one can emulate Iommi's unique riffing style, which made Black Sabbath one of the most important bands on the planet.
In terms of historical significance, Heaven and Hell is still unmatched and remains the band's renaissance. To me, the band, having toured extensively for almost a year, matured to another level in composition and therefore had a better view of honing their sound. Mob Rules is equally satisfying and overall a more consistent disc to these ears. That said, if you've never heard Dio-period Sabbath, get Heaven and Hell first -- you'll have to pick up Mob Rules after hearing it anyway.
- Turn Up the Night
- The Sign of the Southern Cross
- The Mob Rules
- Country Girl
- Slipping Away
- Falling Off the Edge of the World
- Over and Over