Normally we expect more of the same from Rob Zombie, but his fourth solo album throws us a bit of a curveball.
Having created one of shock rock's most distinctive sounds with White Zombie and on his own with such great albums as La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol. 1, Astro-Creep 2000, and Hellbilly Deluxe, Rob Zombie doesn't have to put out another new album again. His musical legacy is set, plus he's gone on to enjoy a very fruitful new career as a horror movie director with five popular feature films now under his belt, and counting. He could simply return every once in a while and cart out the classic songs and lavish stage show, just as he did in 2007 when he toured arenas with Ozzy Osbourne, and nobody would complain. Of course, that's not like Rob Zombie at all: the dude never seems content to rest on his laurels, even if the best he can manage is constantly re-hashing the same old formula, as he did on 2001's The Sinister Urge and 2006's Educated Horses.
Recorded two years ago and constantly pushed back because of his film commitments, Zombie's fourth solo album turns out to be an interesting change from what we've come to expect. The marriage of simple, primal heavy rock, danceable groove, samples, and electronic enhancements that made White Zombie's and Rob Zombie's music so distinct has been cast aside in favor of a far more stripped down approach. For the first time, Zombie has recorded with his entire backing band, many of the new songs having been written quickly and hammered out in the studio almost just as fast. Clearly going for more of a vintage garage rock feel, and with some crack musicians behind him, that new simplified, organic feel coupled with Zombie's notorious obsession with grindhouse movie shtick fits him like a glove.
Although it's said to be a companion piece to Zombie's 1999 album, Hellbilly Deluxe 2: Noble Jackals, Penny Dreadfuls and the Systematic Dehumanization of Cool bears a lot of musical differences from that of Hellbilly Deluxe. Granted, we still get loads of B-movie shtick, dialogue samples, and Zombie's ubiquitous, "HEY, YEAH!"s, but it all takes a backseat to the band's blunter approach, and for a good chunk of the album, it works very well. "Jesus Frankenstein" might boast the usual shout-along chorus, but it's built around a vicious metal groove created by guitarist John 5, bassist Piggy D, and drummer Tommy Clufetos. "Werewolf, Baby" is highlighted by some wicked slide guitar, turning the track into a raucous Southern rock jam, the directness of "What?" sounds directly inspired by the Stooges, while "Mars Needs Women" shifts abruptly from a stoned-out acoustic jam to a ferocious metal stomp. Meanwhile, "Sick Bubble-Gum" might come off as just another Zombie-by-numbers single, but that formula can be irresistible, right down to Zombie's trademark nonsensical, pop culture-referencing lyrics ("A Parallax View that you can't unscrew"), and the foursome tears through the track with enough enthusiasm to make such a predictable song an unapologetic blast.
The further Hellbilly Deluxe 2 goes on the more it starts to sag, as some tracks feel too much like they're on auto-pilot, unable to prolong the tremendous momentum established by the first six tracks. The garish "Death and Destiny Inside the Dream Factory" clashes with the rest of the album's more workmanlike feel, plus the whole Hollywood parody gimmick has been done to death, while the "Surfin' Bird" reference and brief Zeppelin-esque jam can't save the plodding "Burn". However, the album ends on a very high note with the nine minute "The Man Who Laughs", a monstrous epic that initially combines a nasty groove with an inexplicable yet highly effective orchestral arrangement by 300 and Watchmen composer Tyler Bates, only to pull the rug out from under us with a five minute drum solo by Clufetos. Zombie is at his best when he's at his most audacious, and although Hellbilly Deluxe 2 isn't quite a resounding success, it's still enormously fun at times, proof that he's still capable of a few good ideas in this medium.