The New Classics

What’s this column about?

“When we go into the studio we better come up with something. … I like it that way. I can demo a riff, but the way I look at it is that after you write one thing you’re onto the next thing anyway. I’m always excited about the fresh stuff. Back when I was jamming with Axl and the guys they had boxes of cassettes with song ideas. How do you know which ones you like now when you have that many ideas. With Sabbath we wrote 8 songs and went into the studio and recorded them. We didn’t write 62 songs. By the time you get to the 62nd song you don’t even remember the first one.”

— Zakk Wylde on the recording process

All hail the new guitar god.

Proving his licks for much close to two decades, Zakk Wylde has bounced from project to project, impressing at every turn. From his solo work, to his stint as (what else?) a lead guitarist on the big screen (in the movie “Rock Star”) to his collaborations as muse to the Godfather of the genre, one Mr. Ozzy Osbourne, Wylde has blown millions of fans away with his virtuoso riffs.

But it’s his latest endeavors, with his band Black Label Society, that are most impressive. Since the turn of the millennium, BLS has been on a steady tear releasing an album a year. From “Sonic Brew” through “Alcohol Fueled Brutality,” Wylde and company seemed to be struggling for a footing on the metal scene.

It was “1919 Eternal,” an album dedicated to his father, that really gelled together the various elements the band was pulling from into a cohesive unit. From then on, it’s been homerun after homerun: “The Blessed Hellride” featuring further emulation of Osbourne; “Hangover Music: Vol. IV” showing a “softer” side of the band — an acoustic schmorgesborg of metal-cum-rock anthems; the riff-turgid “Mafia,” filled with plenty of metal mayhem, a tribute to the late Dimebag Darrell and a sick cover of Lynyrd Skynyd’s “I Never Dreamed.”

One thing’s for sure, when tracking down a Zakk Wylde classic there’s no shortage of material to choose from. His work with Osbourne is overshadowed by the Ozzman. His solo work was better-than-average, but had one foot firmly planted in the blues. I tend to lean toward the Black Label Society-area of the back catalogue.

Those first couple of albums saw a band forming a solid direction. It wasn’t too independent or underground, just unfocused. “1919 Eternal” saw the whole picture come into focus. Apart from the departure of form, “Hangover Music,” each subsequent album following “1919” was just a build on that foundation. While the band will have to work really hard to top the brilliance of “Mafia,” the true new classic is clear …

A New Classic

Black Label Society
1919 Eternal
Spitfire Records

“Take a bunch of pissed-off Rottweilers that have been in the cage, a bunch of ravens, some skulls and chains, violence, alcohol, some Sabbath, and you got the new album.”

— Zakk Wylde on “1919 Eternal”

If ever there was an album filled to the breaking point with a completely no-nonsense approach to metal, this would be it. From the opening choke of “Bleed for Me,” it’s clear Black Label Society is interested in taking no prisoners. Wylde has perfected his specific approach to the rock-metal hybrid BLS favors.

“Bleed for Me,” “Lords of Destruction,” “Demise of Sanity” … each song is constructed with a simple, repetitive riff and verse-chorus-verse approach. The band isn’t interested in over-tech-ing its sound. This isn’t rocket science, it simple balls-out metal. However, the monotony is completely destroyed by the insane solos Wylde heaps upon each and every track, and the ease at which each mind-bending twist and riff flows out of the speakers is exactly why Wylde is metal’s new guitar god.

BLS isn’t afraid to take it down a couple of notches either. The melancholic “Bridge to Cross” is a slow-burn affair that oozes with emotion. And forget (the overrated) Jimi Hendrix’s version of the “Star Spangled Banner,” if ever there was to be a new national anthem, how could you not choose Wylde’s unforgiving “America the Beautiful.” Instantly poignant and unforgettably beautiful, Wylde’s guitar work never sounds more crisp and clear.

Wylde is backed up by a competent group, including Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo on a handful of tracks, but this album is really the Zakk Wylde show.

The Test of Time

The beauty of “1919” is that Wylde was still finding his singing voice and thus wasn’t afraid to vary the tempo or cadance from time to time. Over the past couple of years, he’s taken to emulating Osbourne on any of the band’s louder songs. “1919” was that one moment … where the band was just starting to blossom into what it was to become. There’s the hard-hitting anthems, the melancholic moments, the killer cover and one of my personal favorite metal songs of the past 10 years, the bludgeoning “Battering Ram.”

Wylde and BLS took what “1919” was and continued to build and improve upon the formula. “The Blessed Hellride” is killer, “Mafia” is a classic in its own right, but this was where it all started to come together. “1919” isn’t a debut, it isn’t an underground sensation, it’s simply a band finally coming into focus. BLS has now signed with Roadrunner Records, one-time home to all that was metal, and will continue the streak of one album a year toward the end of the summer. I imagine it’ll follow right in the footsteps of its predecessors.

Until Next Time

Some bands are sort of an acquired taste. With Black Label Society, it’s all about the attitude and uncompromised metal. In that regard, anyone can get into the band. The vocals may take a little getting used to, but Zakk Wylde is a maniac on the guitar, a complete riff machine, and any fan of the genre can appreciate what he and Black Label Society has to offer. If you want a solid hit, pick up the band’s latest release, “Mafia.” If you want a new classic, track down “1919 Eternal.”

And that’s that. Until next time, take it easy. Stay tuned and enjoy the ride …

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