Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Thinking About Zakk Wylde

I know many of my readers aren't big on "Heavy Metal." I mean, yeah, occasionally a metal band will break out and make an impact on the larger pop culture. Mastodon would be the most recent I can remember. I admit I'm very taken with their latest album, Crack the Skye. Even among those who are fans of metal and hard rock, I feel like things have turned to a much more extreme form of the music than I can really get into. I read about bands on blabbermouth.net, and half the time it's a trip down memory lane to the hair bands that I remember from the 80's. Half the time it's some deathcore band that's all about sludgy guitars and screaming.

I really like heavy metal, but I feel like the genre has kinda passed me by. When I started listening to it, I felt like there were musicians involved who's experience was wider than simply listening to Black Sabbath albums over and over again. The modern crop of metal, it seems like all they've ever listened to is Slayer and Metallica. It makes for a rather limited range of experience about what music is, and how it can be developed in many directions.

Which brings me to Zakk Wylde, the former guitarist with Ozzy Osbourne's band. He first came onto my radar in 1991 with the release of Ozzy's No More Tears, which I really liked. It seemed to me that Ozzy had stopped trying to keep up with everyone else, and simply crafted an album of good songs. Zakk wrote a lot of that material, and it belied a breadth of influence far beyond most metal guitarists at the time. There were country and pop influences all over that record, and I dug it.

Now, today brings the release of Order of the Black, which is the latest release from Wylde's post-Ozzy/side project The Black Label Society.

Now, I'm gonna fess up here. I've never bought or listened to a full Black Label Society album. I heard a couple of tracks from earlier albums, and some preview material, finding them to be kinda standard head-banging material. I'm still very taken with him as a guitarist, but there was no spark that made me think, "gotta get that!"

Which was absolutely not the case in 1994, when I first heard tracks from Zakk's first Ozzy side project, Pride & Glory. The self-titled album was pretty freaking amazing when I first heard it.

Truth is, the album still is exciting to me. It's a record I return to on a regular basis. It's a pure southern-rock album, but with a metal edge. It was very clear that Zakk had not only heard bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, but had a deep appreciation for them. Heck, the first instument you hear on Pride & Glory is not drums or a guitar, but a banjo.

I was also surprised that Wylde could actually sing pretty darn well. He had a rough-edged, somewhat growly voice that felt very suited to this southern metal sound. I head someone compare his voice to Eddie Vedder, but...that guy must've been high.

Two years later, Zakk followed up Pride & Glory with a true solo album, Book of Shadows.

I think I'll always see Book of Shadows as Zakk Wylde's masterpiece. It's a disk of dark numbers, dominated by acoustic guitar and piano. It was impressive to me then, and still is, that a guitarist know for over-the-top shredding and bombastic songwriting with Ozzy would put out such an album. The songs are muscular, yet delicate, it's almost like Wylde is walking a tightrope, and he rarely falters. A completely solid collection of tunes.

I've shard this album with a number of people, and no one has come back to me dissatisfied. I rarely tell people who Zakk Wylde is, I admit, and I think that gets a more open-minded listen than if I said "it's Ozzy's guitarist." I stand behind this as a great record.

I have to admit, I would've rather seen Zakk continue along a Pride & Glory/Book of Shadows style, rather than the somewhat predictable metal of the Black Label Society albums. Although, I've been told that earlier BLS can run toward the Pride & Glory sound. That may be true, but I haven't heard it.

I do respect Zakk a lot, and with Amazon offering a $4.99 download of Order of the Black, I may give BLS another shot. I don't hold much hope for it hitting me the way Wylde's fist two albums did, but that is to be expected. No artist should be the same forever, and shouldn't try to appeal to everyone all the time.

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