[Versus pits two of an artist’s classic albums against each other even if they’re stylistically different, because that “you can’t compare apples and oranges” bullshit is for people without balls, spines, or all those other things that separate us from the villainous jellyfish. This week's installment on Black Sabbath is dedicated to two Nicks - Elmer, because I remember him telling me sophomore year of college to explore Black Sabbath’s discography beyond Paranoid and I didn’t heed his advice for another two years or so, and Gregorio, because he’s the only guy I know who prefers Dio-era Sabbath to the Ozzy incarnation.]
A long, long time ago, I thought I was a metalhead. By this, I mean I listened to Kiss and Metallica with some of my friends back in middle school. By freshman year of high school, I was on to Tool and Our Lady Peace. By the following summer, I was a pop-punker for life, and New Found Glory, the Ramones, and the Bouncing Souls dominated my listening habits. But I never entirely forgot my ever-so-brief flirtation with metal. I enjoyed the technicality, but I couldn’t stand a lot of the pretensions – hence my interest in Tool, who always seemed more “serious,” and thus more “real” (although the band has quite a few joke tracks scattered on their albums as well). Fantasy metal of the Rhapsody variety always seemed too goofy to me; anything indebted to Led Zeppelin straight up sucked (especially the dragon pants). But I liked anything sludgy. Maybe it was my childhood roots in grunge/alternative – I am the first generation to grow up in a post-Nirvana age – but the dissonance got to me.
Enter Black Sabbath. The Sabbath I knew wrote songs about Armageddon and sin and plagues. I don’t consider myself Catholic anymore, but those images still get an emotional reaction out of me. Also, guitarist Tony Iommi wrote some sweet-ass riffs. Their most well-known songs include “Paranoid,” “Iron Man,” and “War Pigs,” all of which can be found on Paranoid. It’s not the best Sabbath album with frontman Ozzy Osbourne – I prefer Master of Reality, although I’m sure other folks would go with Sabbath Bloody Sabbath – but it remains the best entry way to the Sabbath canon, if only because most people should already know about half of the album’s 42-minute running time.
Compared to the band’s discography overall, Paranoid is the moment the band’s signature sound began to cohere. Black Sabbath is a downright bluesy affair compared to what came later, and by the time of Reality, the group was into its own sludge-metal world, but Paranoid is the crossroads. It’s funny how much of the band’s sound was defined by accident – Iommi tuned in D because it was easier on his fingers, the supremely awesome “Paranoid” is as fast/brief as it is because the band needed to know out another track for the album as quickly as possible – but these decisions mark the beginning of the Sabbath sound even as the group continues to embrace blues riffs on songs like “Jack the Stripper.”
Paranoid is a good album, but it has its weaknesses. The second half is notably weaker than the first. “Electric Funeral” is a little silly, even by metal standards. “Rat Salad” is all filler, hence the extended drum solo. “Jack the Stripper” is a decent jammed-out closer, but compared to opener “War Pigs/Luke’s Wall,” it will always be second best.
Remember all that stuff I said about hating power metal? Well, I make an exception for Ronnie James Dio. He sings about faeries and dragons and whatever-the-fuck in an operatic singing style, but it’s so got-damned fun and infectious that I can’t deny his ability. Dude wrote “Rainbow in the Dark” and somehow made the title the most awesomest thing ever.
I picked up Mob Rules after I obtained the essential Ozzy-era Sabbath albums (the first six), and it took a while for the songs to sink in. Here’s where I really test the limits of my “fuck apples ‘n’ oranges” approach for this column, because Dio-Sabbath is a very different band from Ozzy-Sabbath. The songs are tighter, the hooks are more obvious, even Iommi’s playing is different. This shift was further aided by new drummer Vinny Appice, who tapped into Dio’s version of metal more by playing on the beat pretty much all of the time, whereas original drummer Bill Ward had a looser style. I should hate this album for erasing everything that Sabbath did during the ’70s. But got-damn is it one fun record.
“Turn Up the Night” is a quick number with squealing guitars and propulsive drumming. “Voodoo” is where Dio’s penchant for shitty lyrics gets the better of him but, again, it’s too hook-laden to ignore. “Sign of the Southern Cross” gets a bit maudlin for my taste, but the band gets things back on track soon after, first with the experimental electronic track “E5150” and then the ridiculously kick-ass fist-pumper “The Mob Rules.” Lyrically, it’s an argument for researching opinions before going along with popular sentiments, hence the lines “If you listen to fools / the mob rules.” The track sums up Dio’s brief original run with Black Sabbath (two studio albums and a live record, although Dio returned for 1992’s Dehumanizer) with its insistent instrumentals and bravado.
Here’s where I soften my conclusion a little bit. The best tracks of these two albums are on Paranoid. There’s a reason why “War Pigs” is so well known. But taken as a whole, I maintain that Mob Rules is the better album. It’s more consistent, makes for better driving music, and, really, that title track is one badass tune. It’s not my favorite Sabbath album – Master of Reality, remember – but when comparing the best of the Dio catalogue with the most classically known Ozzy album, Ronnie proves he deserved his time with one of England’s finest metal bands.