Two discs too many...
As far as compilations go, Prince of Darkness is a generous four-CD offering spanning Ozzy’s often-hit-and-sometimes-miss solo career. Although the 52 tracks offer sufficient value in terms of sheer song volume (much of the material affords listeners the opportunity to revisit some classic moments), there is significant space allocated to marginal recordings, enough to elicit shrugs and winces, and an occasional “What the hell was that?!” At its best, the quad-disc package captures several fine instances of the Oz man on stage and in the studio; at its worst, the set resembles a musical yard sale with sonic treasures mixed in with forgettable junk.
Not surprisingly, Disc 1 is the strongest of the group as it primarily represents the Randy Rhoads era. Live versions of “I Don’t Know” and “Suicide Solution” resonate through Rhoads’ virtuoso lead work as beautifully now as a quarter century ago, and the signature “Crazy Train” is simply stunning. Listen closely to the undercurrents of Rhoads’ playing awash with classical influences and realize that it was he (not soulless fret board gymnast Eddie Van Halen) who became the preeminent model for substantive metal guitar excellence in the 1980s and beyond. The four tracks that feature Rhoads’ successor (the unheralded Jake E. Lee) are solid inclusions with the live “Bark at the Moon” of particular note.
Disc 2 opens with a flourish from Ozzy’s mid ‘80s heyday, showcasing a trio of stellar live 1986 performances. “Ultimate Sin”, “Never Know Why”, and “Thank God for the Bomb” capture the singer at his vocal and lyrical peak, with Lee providing ample lead support. The bludgeoning metal tempo continues with studio takes of “Breakin’ All the Rules” and demo versions of “I Don’t Want to Change the World” and “Mama, I’m Coming Home”, although by this point in the Oz saga Lee had been supplanted by Zakk Wylde. The remaining tracks encompass work from the ‘90s into the new millennium; while “No More Tears” and two previously unreleased tracks (“See You on the Other Side” and “Walk on Water”) are unspectacular, the outtake version of “Facing Hell” (here titled “Bang Bang”) is as heavy and brooding as any vintage Sabbath song, and is the most impressive selection on the disc.
Had the decision been made to leave this set as a twin disc package, fans and consumers would have been saved the trouble of combing through an additional two CDs worth of oddities and throwaways. Unfortunately the choice was made to include a Baker’s Dozen of collaborations (Disc 3) and covers (Disc 4), most of which are quite forgettable. The 23 combined tracks offer minimal value in terms of accurately representing Ozzy’s notable achievements, and more closely resemble the musical equivalent of his sometimes-hilarious-sometimes-embarrassing reality television persona.
If any lesson can be learned from Ozzy’s collaborative experiments it is that rap and metal do not a successful partnership make. “Nowhere to Run” (with Crystal Method and others) and “For Heaven’s Sake 2000” (with Wu-Tang Clan) are nothing short of abominations, despite Tony Iommi’s cameo appearance on the latter. If these tracks were not a harbinger of things to come, the techno-metal pairing with Was Not Was, “Shake Your Head (Let’s Go to Bed)”, is equally horrific, as is the crown jewel of Ozzy’s most egregious sins, the “Born To Be Wild” duet with Miss Piggy of Muppet Show fame. Other tracks are merely pedestrian efforts (an industrial version of “Iron Man” with Therapy and the Type-O-Negative psychedelic-metal soiree “Pictures of Matchstick Men” fall flat after showing initial promise), although the disco anthem “Stayin’ Alive” is given new life via the Oz treatment alongside Dweezil Zappa. If it weren’t for the surprisingly impressive acoustic duet with Motorhead’s Lemmy (“I Ain’t No Nice Guy”) and classic doom of the reconstituted Black Sabbath’s “Psycho Man”, Disc 3 would suffice as a decorative drink coaster and nothing more.
Disc 4 travels further into the land of all things ordinary and unspectacular with Ozzy covering ten strangely incongruous songs. Some work (Arthur Brown’s “Fire” and the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”), others tread water (Eric Burdon’s “Good Times” and Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen”), and several sink (Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”, Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” and the Beatles’ “In My Life”). As for the father-daughter version of Sabbath’s “Changes”, suffice it to say that Ozzy’s vocal pedigree did not get passed down to Kelly, irrespective of what record sales and chart position statistics might indicate.
Although Prince of Darkness is augmented by an impressively detailed booklet of comments, notes, and photos, the set is best suited for curiosity seekers rather than hardcore Oz fans looking to add to their respective libraries. Having contributed so much to the metal genre over the past three-and-a-half decades, Mr. Osbourne deserved a much better representative package of quality material from the vault. And yes, so did we.