For a ginormous, guitar-wielding sequoia of a man, Zakk Wylde nimbly straddles the thin line between knowing heavy metal god and unwitting heavy metal parodist. As Ozzy Osbourne’s lead guitarist for the past 18 years (give or take), he’s already a legend, co-writing hits on Ozzy’s solos albums No Rest For the Wicked, No More Tears, and Ozzmosis; too, he’s one of the best heavy metal guitarists of all time. He also fronts his own band, Black Label Society, which dropped its seventh album, Mafia, earlier this spring. Here’s where that thin line comes into play.
Wylde, throughout his work with Black Label Society, has always (consciously or otherwise) trafficked in cheesy metal clichés: his album covers are populated with skulls and Olde English fonts; he loves beer and claims his music is “alcohol-fueled brewtality”; his song titles are seemingly crafted by a heavy-metal song title generator computer program (“Stronger Than Death”, “Genocide Junkies”, “Life, Birth, Blood, Doom” “Destruction Overdrive”, etc….); his fan club members are known as SDMFs (“Society Dwelling Mother Fuckers”), with SDMFs serving in the armed forces known as “Berserkers”. It would all be laughable if Wylde weren’t so fiercely committed to his pursuit of metal purity. And that’s the thing: Somehow, in 2005, in a music scene (hell, culture) fueled by knowing winks, Zakk Wylde makes honest-to-god, irony-free heavy metal work.
Fans, both SDMFs and others, are buying into Wylde’s ethos: Mafia debuted at #15 on the Billboard charts earlier this year, an unheard-of slot for a heavy metal album with little radio airplay. And while Mafia may not be BLS’s definitive masterwork (for my money, that’d be 2000’s Stronger Than Death), it’s a consistent album, and oh yeah, it rocks. Hard. Opener “Fire It Up” takes a few seconds to do just that, building dread with a menacing rumble, before exploding into a riff-fest that’s as funky as it is heavy. “What’s In You” is another shredder, though Wylde’s vocals on these two tracks are less growly and more pinched than in album’s past; his voice is pushed to the front of the mix, as well. It’s not a big deal, but it’s distracting if you’re used to hearing Wylde bellow out of the speakers in a certain way.
Wylde and company (bassist/longtime Wylde cohort James LoMenzo, drummer Craig Nunenmacher and mini-Moog player Barry Conley) switch gears momentarily with the heartfelt piano ballad “In This River”, dedicated in the liner notes to Pantera guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, who was shot onstage by a crazed fan in December 2004. While the tune was not originally penned for Dimebag, Wylde’s bleak lyrics (“In this river all shall fade to black”) sum up the senselessness of his good friend’s murder. And, as Wylde has said in numerous outlets, Mafia‘s theme is “protecting friends and family”—“In This River” may not be a typical Black Label Society tune, but it fits perfectly on the album.
Side A finishes up with “You Must Be Blind”, a Sabbath-y slice of cartoony evil (“Pure Psychosis in this madhouse / Which I call my home”) with a strange techno sound lurking around the tune’s edges, and the sinister “Death March”, which sounds exactly like it’s title suggests; Wylde’s guitar dips and buzzes like the Angel of Death hovering over the “spiral of darkness”. Again, these songs are on the good side of the self-parody line. But just barely.
Side B opens with the guitar workout “Dr. Octavia”; at 50 seconds long, it’s far too short to get a true idea of Wylde’s jaw-droppping chops, but it’s too good to go unmentioned. Here’s hoping Wylde builds on the riff and unveils an extended version this summer at Ozzfest. The rest of the back half of the album follows the same sonic blueprint as the front half, but finds Wylde wrestling with religion in a way that he hasn’t done since his (much quieter) 1996 solo album, Book of Shadows. When was the last time a heavy metaller promised “You’re gonna meet Jesus if you’re messing with me” as Wylde does on “Electric Hellfire”? Usually guys like Wylde send people much further south. I’m only half-kidding, but genuine heartfelt lyrics do pepper Mafia‘s B-side: “Oh yeah, spread your wings now child / Never return hell before heaven”, on the slow-building “Spread Your Wings”; “I was down but now I see / The pain, the hurt, the misery / Oh Lord, it’s been a long time / Doing my best I’ll try and get it next time” on “Been A Long Time”. Wylde’s delivery system—monster guitar solos, punishing riffs, “alcohol-fueled brewtality”—may not be the most conventional for his message, but he’s a genuine soul-searcher of an artist struggling to rise above the genre’s nihilism. Plus, it’s, like, totally awesome to head-bang to.