He might be one of the finest, most inimitable frontmen in heavy metal history, still enjoying massive worldwide success some 40 years after Black Sabbath’s seminal debut album, but as charismatic and entertaining he is, Ozzy Osbourne is only as good as the people he surrounds himself with. Luckily for him, he’s always been flanked on stage right by exceptionally talented guitar players, from Tony Iommi, to Randy Rhoads, to Jake E. Lee, to Zakk Wylde, not to mention aided greatly by co-songwriters such as Geezer Butler and Bob Daisley. If his collaborators and hired hands come up with ace material, Ozzy can sell it better than anyone. When everyone is on autopilot, though, it can sound utterly disastrous. The man has endured his share of high-profile misfires over the years, from Technical Ecstasy to Bark at the Moon, but those records cannot compare to the disappointing run of subpar albums that have come out after 1991’s inspired No More Tears. Ever since then, he’s been dragged out by his wife and manager, dusted off, wound up, and sent out to flog a shoddy product that tries to veil its mediocre songwriting with a grating, overproduced sound.
Ozzmosis (1995), Down to Earth (2001), and Black Rain (2007) got progressively worse, Wylde sounding like he was saving his best riffs for his band Black Label Society, the production getting slicker and slicker, Ozzy simply going through the motions. In fact, one of the only songs of any worth from that 12-year period is “Dreamer”, the kind of saccharine ballad in the vein of “Changes” and “Goodbye to Romance” that Ozzy’s always been able to sound charming on. Although his teleprompter-aided live shows remain fun, seeing him play “I Don’t Wanna Stop” alongside classics like “Suicide Solution” and “Paranoid” is uncomfortable to witness. While his former Sabbath bandmates Iommi and Butler have sounded ageless touring as Heaven and Hell, Ozzy has been reduced to a cartoon figure, a two-dimensional representation of what was once a superb lead singer.
If there ever was a time to take a stab at restoring some credibility, it’s now, and Ozzy’s tenth solo album attempts just that. Wylde has been scuttled in favor of young Greek shredder Gus G, producer Kevin Churko has now taken the reins as co-songwriter, and the new record goes for a much broodier tone than the last two. And indeed, there are times where the new approach works. Double-kick drums and serpentine guitar leads accentuate the brooding opener “Let it Die” as Ozzy sounds more dynamic than he’s been in ages, tossing in the odd snarl rather than relying heavily on his nasal singing. The churning “Crucify” makes terrific use of atmospherics as Ozzy has fun with a first-person parody in the vein of 1988’s “Miracle Man”, while the otherwise bland, Rob Zombie-esque toss-off “Let Me Hear You Scream” works solely because of Ozzy’s fiery delivery. The best of the lot is the six-minute “Diggin’ Me Down”, a theatrical little epic that builds from an innocuous acoustic intro to a towering riff, Ozzy’s impassioned vocals pushed right up front of the mix instead of processed to death. That one track is a stirring return to form, but as fun as it is, the rest of the album can’t sustain that positive momentum.
The rest of Scream coasts along complacently; “Soul Sucker” recycling tired nu-metal riffs, the forgettable"I Want it More” plodding along. Churko, a longtime disciple of Mutt Lange, brings a similar sheen to his own work, and his production on Scream is so garish it often sucks the life out of the music. In addition, Ozzy continues to rely heavily on Autotune, and his unique voice continues to be transformed into something completely artificial, most distracting on the acoustic number “Life Won’t Wait” and the ballad “Time”. The biggest disappointment, however, is just how underutilized Gus G is. Known by many as the leader of the excellent power metal band Firewind, when he was hired by the Ozzy camp many thought he’d bring a similar European flair to the new material. Instead, he’s strictly playing the role as supporting musician instead of collaborator, playing whatever guitar parts are handed his way, and for those guitar geeks familiar with his work, to hear him churn out those drab American active rock riffs instead of letting loose the scorching riffs and solos we’ve heard from Firewind these past five years is disheartening.
Scream might be a near-miss, but it’s still a huge improvement over the embarrassing Black Rain, and that alone is reason for optimism. The penultimate “Latimer’s Mercy” is a pleasant surprise, as Ozzy tackles the controversial true story of a Western Canadian farmer’s mercy killing of his daughter (clearly written by the Canadian Churko) and instead of going for his usual schmaltz, he takes things in a decidedly murkier, sinister direction. There are times where underneath all those processed vocals, Ozzy sounds like he’s enjoying himself, and if he and Churko can take some more chances like “Latimer’s Mercy” and “Diggin’ Me Down”, not to mention take full advantage of the talents of his great new guitarist, then there just might be another good album in him yet.