After a decade of mediocrity, Zakk Wylde and Black Label Society has come through with an honest-to-goodness good album.
No matter what you think of Black Label Society's music, you have to admire just how brilliantly the band has been able to build a fanbase. Led by the towering, bearded guitar ace Zakk Wylde, the band benefited immensely from his 20-odd-year gig as Ozzy Osbourne's sideman by continually being given prime spots on the OzzFest bill over the years, but that was one of several key factors. The music, while nothing really to write home about, was nevertheless a swaggering blend of Southern rock, the shred-tastic heavy metal of the 1980s, and the tuned-down sludge of 1990s acts like Alice in Chains, Down, and Crowbar, a perfect backdrop for the Viking-esque virtuoso to let loose with his fleet-fingered fretwork and trademark pinch squeals.
Better yet, though, was the image. Drawing heavily from the aesthetics of the Hell's Angels, Wylde played up the biker shtick masterfully, from the leather jackets, to the iconic insignia, to the camaraderie amongst fans, who consider themselves to be very much the metal equivalent of the "1%-ers" that the Angels proudly claim to be. Safe, middle of the road heavy music, the backing of one of the most powerful management teams in all of rock music, savvy marketing have steadily built Black Label Society to the point where they are now an undeniable force. They sell records, they draw big crowds, and they do bang-up merchandise sales wherever they go. It's a position that any other metal/hard rock band would kill to be in.
But what about the actual music, you might ask? Ever since 1999's energetic, booze-fueled debut Sonic Brew, Black Label's albums have not exactly sounded like the work of a band that deserves to be so huge. Over the course of six subsequent albums we've gotten brief glimpses of how good a band they can be, but the huge majority of songs have ranged from autopilot songwriting, to unbearably maudlin, awkward-sounding power ballads, to a reliance on Wylde's gimmickry (from his marble-mouthed singing to those damned pinch squeals) that often feels overbearing. It got to the point where albums like 2005's otherwise well-meaning Mafia and 2006's terrible Shot to Hell flirted with self-parody, seemingly proving that Wylde had absolutely no good ideas left.
Since then, though, Wylde's career path has changed, awkwardly replaced as Osbourne's lead guitarist by young Firewind phenom Gus G in 2009. Though deprived of one of the best meal tickets a musician will ever get, there was the notion among some, yours truly included, that this might do Wylde some good. No longer saddled with the task of co-writing new material for Ozzy as well as Black Label Society, he can now focus on his own band 100 percent. Looking at the glass as being half full, it's a perfect opportunity for Wylde, longtime rhythm guitarist Nick Catanese, bassist John DeServio, and new drummer Will Hunt to make a real statement on the band's eighth album. And, as it turns out, that's just what they do, serving up a shockingly good record that's guaranteed to go over huge with the fans and even win over some skeptics.
Order of the Black wastes no time in letting everyone know that this isn't going to be yet another half-assed effort, its first three songs among the best the band has ever come up with. Wylde is in terrific vocal form on the churning opening cut "Crazy Horse", howling away in his distinct, nasal drawl, the stoner groove and string-bends of "Overlord" bring to mind the later work of the great Corrosion of Conformity, while the furious staccato riffing of "Parade of the Dead" will remind many of when a 21-year-old Wylde made a huge splash on Ozzy's No Rest for the Wicked in 1988. Elsewhere, "Godspeed Hell Bound" is the kind of stomping Wylde riffery that Ozzy has been sorely missing for the past 19 years, while "Riders of the Damned" is short and sweet, a total cliché of a tune, but one performed with joy rather than complacency.
There are the usual sappy ballads, but incredibly, when Wylde ditches the guitar for some ivory-tinkling, he actually sounds convincing. "Darkest Days" and "Time Waits for No One" is pure Elton John schmaltz, but the sensitive-tough-guy hamming is actually charming (in fact you can picture Ozzy taking a song like this and nailing it). The acoustic guitar-based "January" goes for a more Lynyrd Skynyrd-style level of mellowness, while the cinematic "Shallow Grave" is the strongest slow tune of the lot, bearing a bizarre resemblance to the likes of Muse or, brace yourselves, Coldplay. This is all part and parcel with the Black Label Society gimmick, as every card in the deck is played, but whether pandering ballads or burly heavy rock ragers, there's a sense of passion on Order of the Black that we honestly haven't heard since the band's first album. Few of us saw that coming, but we'll welcome it.