[29 November 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
That Zakk Wylde and his band Black Label Society has put out eight studio albums and one best-of compilation in just eight years is astounding in this day and age, but the more you take into consideration just how increasingly middling each subsequent release is, the more you begin to wonder if the guitarist could use a bit of a time out from recording. Wylde certainly has done well for himself recently, thanks in large part to some shrewd career moves and marketing, his allegiance to the Osbourne family obviously playing a large part in Black Label Society’s annual presence at OzzFest, the band’s perpetually growing discography saturating the market, and Wylde’s constant milking of the whole biker metal gimmick paying off, right down to the band’s logo and 1%er-like tag “S.D.M.F.” (that’s “society dwelling motherfucker”, by the way) as a moniker for the following of devoted fans. The problem is, nobody has had the guts to go up to the imposing, Viking-bearded Mr. Wylde and politely ask the big dude if he could come up with something more invigorating than the turgid, tuned-down, Southern-tinged sludge he comes up with year after year. He might be 20 years younger than Ozzy, but on Black Label Society’s eighth album, he sounds just as burned out as his former boss.
Once regarded as one of the last young metal guitar phenoms to come out of the ‘80s metal era, Wylde’s astonishing fretwork on Ozzy’s No Rest For the Wicked and No More Tears revived the singer’s sagging solo career, but these days, we’re only treated to sporadic flashes of that kind of shredding brilliance from the man. Instead, Wylde has been mired in the grunge-metal chords of Alice in Chains and the plodding riffs of latter-day Pantera, pulling out his tired tricks (talk box, pinch harmonics) to a painfully predictable degree. Vocally, he relies on a marble-mouthed Southern drawl of a singing voice that belies his New Jersey roots, which sounds tolerable for about 10 minutes, and quickly sounds more and more grating over the course of an entire album. Wylde’s instrumental and vocal shtick continues on Shot to Hell, and all it takes is the intro to the first track to compel many listeners to roll their eyes in frustration. That’s right, here we go again.
Despite the staunch (or is it lazy?) reliance on the same old stuff, “Concrete Jungle” is a modestly spirited rocker, moving with the same kind of middle-of-the-road groove of Velvet Revolver. The lumbering stomp of “Black Mass Reverends” is aided by some welcome staccato rhythm picking on the part of Wylde and Nick Catanese, but by the time Wylde drags out the oh-so-trippy talk box and guitar squeals for the third straight song on “Blacked Out World”, we’re ready to cry uncle. “Give Yourself to Me” is the kind of Alice in Chains clone that got old in 1998, and “Hell is High” does try to liven things up, but the muddy mix leaves the guitars devoid of any real punch.
It’s not until the syrupy piano-driven power ballad “The Last Goodbye”, though, that it becomes apparent that the man has clearly run out of ideas. In fact, the ballads keep on coming during the album’s last half hour, crushing any momentum the first three tracks had: there’s “Nothing’s the Same”, the maudlin first half of “New Religion”, the GNR melodrama of “Sick of it All”, the mellotron-laden “Lead Me to Your Door”. It’s complete overkill. Ozzy has always been charismatic enough to sing these kinds of songs convincingly, going all the way back to “Changes” in 1972, and “The Last Goodbye” would work well for him, but when it comes to Black Label Society, the S.D.M.F.s want the riffs, and there’s nowhere near enough on Shot to Hell.
We do get an interesting little twist late in the album, as “Blood Is Thicker Than Water” brings some welcome variety with sumptuous rhythm tracks of acoustic and clean electric guitar and a cooing, E-bowed guitar, as Wylde puts his voice to good use, managing to show some restraint, and sounding sincere in the process. The song cruises along like a smooth Allman Brothers or Santana tune, its three minute length turning out to be tantalizingly short.
Bursting onto the scene in 1988, the 21 year-old Wylde sounded like a world-beater; when we heard that opening riff to “Miracle Man”, and when he blew us away with that performance on “No More Tears” three years later, it was the sound of a extraordinary young talent with as distinctive a style as Randy Rhoads and Jake E. Lee before him. Sadly, Wylde has coasted on that reputation in the last decade, and he reaches a career nadir on Shot to Hell. Black Label Society is still capable of the odd mildly thrilling moment (Kings of Damnation 98-04 is the one disc to own), but based on this woeful effort, Wylde’s hog is in desperate need of an overhaul.