After a steady decline in both inspiration, mental stability, and commercial appeal throughout the second half of the '70s, metal icons Black Sabbath were reborn with 1980's Heaven and Hell. The album would be their first with new vocalist Ronnie James Dio, whose passionate, controlled wail broke new ground for the band and helped drive a comeback. 1981's Mob Rules was a quick follow-up to Heaven and Hell, continuing the momentum of that record's energy as well as its shift away from dark metal to more commercial hard rock. Tony Iommi's signature guitar playing takes on new forms throughout the album, with Zeppelin-esque riffing on "Slipping Away," slithering bluesy rock playing on "Voodoo," and a strikingly different approach to soloing, shifting from the laser-focused slow burn of early Sabbath albums to a more frenetic, technically showy style on some tracks. Speedy album opener "Turn Up the Night" is one of the more spirited and pop-friendly moments of any Sabbath record, with a hooky and melodic chorus and Iommi running through fast-paced leads and trills that were no doubt taking notes from Eddie Van Halen, who was perhaps the most celebrated guitarist in the world in 1981. Mob Rules delved more into experimentation with keyboards and synthesizers, with auxiliary player Geoff Nicholls adding cinematic synth bedding to the epic churn of "The Sign of the Southern Cross" and spacy atmosphere to "Falling Off the Edge of the World," among other synth contributions. New drummer Vinny Appice replaced original Sabbath drummer Bill Ward, pushing the sound even further from the band's original sludgy approach. These changes, along with Dio's fantasy-based lyrics and a red-lined mix by producer Martin Birch put Mob Rules closer in line with the emerging New Wave of British Heavy Metal than the druggy devil-worshiping doom metal Black Sabbath first built their name on. While it was a solid album, Mob Rules might have followed the template established on Heaven and Hell a little too closely. The pacing and flow of the record was almost identical to its predecessor, from the chuggy opener of "Turn Up the Night" mirroring Heaven and Hell's "Neon Nights" straight through to final track "Over and Over" feeling like a continuation of "Lonely Is the Word," the searching, midtempo finale of the previous album. It didn't sell quite as well as Heaven and Hell, and Dio and Appice left the band soon afterward, (though Dio's relationship with Sabbath would be complex and sprawling) leaving Black Sabbath to reconfigure throughout the '80s with mixed results. Mob Rules and Heaven and Hell work well as each other's companion pieces, making the first round of Dio-fronted Sabbath material a bright spot surrounded by relatively grim efforts on either side.
Mob Rules Review
by Fred Thomas