Paranoid was the first Black Sabbath album I owned but Mob Rules was first Sab album I ever saw in a record store. Long before covers sported decaying bodies,  Greg Hildebrandt's blood-spattered street thugs were terrifying. There was a glimmer of hope in all of Sabbath’s early covers: Their debut hinted at the promise of occult power; the outline of Ozzy on Volume 4 oozed unbridled rock excess; Technical Ecstasy merged technological horror and wonder in one frame. There was nothing vague about Mob Rules: The message was that the rise of the herd would lead to persecution and the death of individuality.

“Turn Up The Night” is an incongruous opener, almost a party anthem to ease the tension ahead. The remaining songs are almost uniformly dark and pessimistic. The title track -- written during Ronald Reagan’s first term and the 1980s conservative revolution -- was a stern warning to cherish your principles and avoid silver-tongued leaders or risk authoritarianism. The song seems almost prescient in the age of Tea Parties and renewed right-wing radicalism. The narrator of “Falling Off The Edge Of The World” is perilously close to insanity or death, and the accompanying riff makes you feel like you’re being pulled down a chasm. “The Sign Of The Southern Cross” sounds like an embrace of evil rather than a flirtation.

The musicianship, which featured numerous stylistic shifts, is striking. Dio’s voice soars but is also grainier and more aggressive at times, particularly in “Falling”. Iommi’s playing, always celebrated for iconic riffs, is loose and untethered. His solos are uncharacteristically wild here, a stark change from the methodical blues picking of early songs like “Warning”.  Vince Appice is a much more bombastic player than Bill Ward (then on hiatus due to addiction) relying on heavy hits rather than complex fills and dexterity. Geezer’s rhythmic timing is at its peak; his playing provides the template for much of the album.

Dio consistently surprises on Mob Rules, both lyrically and vocally. “Voodoo” might have fit on Heaven and Hell but the vocalist largely jettisoned fantasy. Ronnie wasn’t singing about lost children of the sea; he was singing about madness and despair, anarchy, the seductive power of larger evil forces, country girls that would steal your soul. He’d continue on the same path on the comeback album Dehumanizer with songs like “Computer God”.

We were lucky to have the chance to hear these songs once more before Dio’s untimely passing. Three decades after it was released, Mob Rules remains one of Black Sabbath’s classics, something entirely different from everything that preceded it yet nonetheless a critical piece of the band’s long history.

--Justin M. Norton