There is simply no argument between this and and previous CD remasters, let alone the original vinyl and single-disc edited CD release. This is simply superior by any criteria you wish to apply to it. Remixing can be an expensive luxury when done too safely, or too drastically for the sake of it. Here it’s simply done right. This is the album as it should have sounded in 1983. It might have taken 40 years, but embrace it.
Remix. It’s often a word which fails to ignite excitement in all but the the keenest audiophiles, and while many of the Steven Wilson remixes in recent years have been pored over endlessly by his army of acolytes, all too often a much-vaunted ‘new remix’ turns out to be scarcely different to the naked ear on middling equipment, or occasionally even derided by fans as worse. Mind you, on the other hand it isn’t often that the original mixing of an album proves so confrontational and fractious that the resulting band fall-out leads to all intents and purposes to a complete break-up. This scenario is exactly what happened with Black Sabbath’s first ‘official’ live album (following on from the excellent if dreadfully packaged cash-in Live At Last). Recorded on the Mob Rules tour of the USA in 1982, the band were already beginning to split into two camps, with originals Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler travelling separately to the other half, Ronnie James Dio and drummer Vinnie Appice. This split would only get worse once they entered the studio to mix the resulting tapes. Much worse.
The story (related in some detail in the sumptuous hardback book included here) has it that Iommi and Butler would go home from a day working on the music, only to return the next morning to find that the levels had all changed, and they would have to try to undo what had happened. The rumour, confirmed by an admittedly brain-fried and on-the-edge engineer, was that Dio had taken to sneaking back in after the others had gone and remixing his vocals to his own liking overnight! The general consensus now appears to be that this was either exaggeration or outright fabrication, originating from acid-fuelled delusions on the part of said technician, but the musicians – themselves overwrought and not exactly gaining their own sobriety chips every month – believed it, and furiously faced down their already unsettled singer. The arguments which ensued were ugly enough to effectively split the band right down the middle, Dio walking to take up the offer of his own solo band, and Appice going with him. A dispirited Brummie pair were left to finish up the mixing and promote an album which suddenly had no band to go with it. The results, sonically, were as muddled and unimpressive as one might expect, and hence there can hardly ever have been an album so overdue for a complete, top-down remix, 40 years on. And this, when stripped of the bells and whistles, is what we have here.
So, in the absence of any bonus or unreleased material, unlike the previous deluxe versions in this reissue series, can a remix really be worth taking the plunge for a hefty package such as this? You bet your iron boots it can!
There are four CDs here – the first two being the original album, remastered but otherwise the same, in its original replica mini-gatefold sleeve. And it’s a little better, beefed up a bit and slightly clearer. It still has all the dynamics of a box of tissues in a flood in many places, however, and the improvement over previous reissues is negligible or minimal at best. So, other than for comparison (which is essential), go straight to discs Three and Four. Do not pass Go. Do not collect £200. Housed in a new, differently designed mini-gatefold sleeve, this is the real deal. As soon as the intro of E5150 (EVIL in Roman numerals, incidentally) gives way to the crashing four-horsemen gallop of Neon Knights, the difference is clear, and it is night and day. Firstly, it is more powerful and infinitely heavier. The bass and guitar leap from the speakers with a heft that is as heavy as Wile E Coyote plunging into a canyon tied to a one ton weight. But it’s not just that, as the separation and clarity are an absolute revelation. Vinnie Appice’s drums have a separation such as they have never had before, allowing different elements of the kit to be easily distinguished, as if he is playing in the room alongside you. Small details smack you around the head constantly, such as in the song Black Sabbath itself, in which echo and delay-treated vocals reveal a stunning layer which has previously been hard to the point of impossibility to pick out. It’s a cliche to say that it’s like a new album, but it really is.
Another change is that significant inter-song banter and chat from Dio which had been cut out previously is reinstated, which makes the recording flow much more like a real show than the simple procession of live tracks it previously was. Even the notoriously low audience mix has been improved – still not exactly making them sound like a baying throng, but certainly giving things a whole new dynamic and character. Reviewing the actual material in detail is largely superfluous – if you’re thinking of getting this, you almost certainly know it. Suffice it to say that, having seen the band on the first Dio outing, promoting Heaven And Hell, my initial thoughts then, and not dispelled by the original album, were that Dio could simply not pull off the Ozzy material – this is an opinion I have since revised in part. While tracks such as War Pigs and Children Of The Grave sorely miss Ozzy’s wailing edginess, NIB and even Paranoid are done very well, with the signature track Black Sabbath completely redeeming itself on this showing. Iommi and Butler are as impressive as you’d expect throughout, while Appice has impressed me more this time out than ever before. I still think that, with Dio’s vocal range available to them, the band missed something of a trick by not putting, say, Symptom Of The Universe or something from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath into the set, but they did play things extremely safe (two tracks from the first album, three from the second and one from the third, with nothing beyond Master Of Reality at all).
Apart from the revelatory remix, what do you get here? Well, it’s as impressive a package as the others in this deluxe series have been. The CD version contains the two mini-gatefold sleeves housing the discs in protective individual plastic covers, there’s a reproduction of the tour programme (tricky to read, but bigger in the vinyl edition), and a poster. The accompanying hardback book runs to an impressive 60 pages, and it’s packed not only with great visuals but a lot of reading. Overall, it’s going to sit very nicely on any shelf.
It’s easy to say ‘you can dispose of your old copy’ when presented with a shiny new alternative, but in this case you really can. In a situation which cried out for a complete sonic overhaul, that’s exactly what it has got. There is simply no argument between this and and previous CD remasters, let alone the original vinyl and single-disc edited CD release. This is simply superior by any criteria you wish to apply to it. Remixing can be an expensive luxury when done too safely, or too drastically for the sake of it. Here it’s simply done right. This is the album as it should have sounded in 1983. It might have taken 40 years, but embrace it. If you liked the album before, there’s no way you won’t love this.