Zakk Wylde’s Black Label Society: Kings of Damnation

At some point before Zakk Wylde booked a studio to record the new songs on this retrospective, he agreed to appear on Cartoon Network’s hit cult series Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The episode’s plot had the vain, anthropomorphic beverage Master Shake hiring Wylde to jam on an atrocious metal birthday song. There wasn’t any danger of the episode crashing into reality, but it got stranger when Wylde showed up to collect his check for the session. Under the cover of snow, he rode in a chariot drawn by white horses, wielding a guitar carved out of a Viking’s axe. An obvious joke about heavy metal, sure. But Wylde is one of the few metal stars to come out of the 1980s for whom the joke doesn’t fit.

Wylde made his name in 1987, eleven years before this collection picks up. He was 19 years old, working at gas stations and playing in local New Jersey bands, when he got a demo tape into the hands of an Ozzy Osbourne who just then was looking for a new guitarist. It was the start of the longest alliance Osbourne ever had with a guitarist, and it gave Wylde the fame and clout to do anything he wanted. As the 19 songs collected on Kings of Damnation demonstrate, Wylde wanted to do plenty.

Picking and choosing from six years of Wylde’s work with his band Black Label Society, it’s a terrifically diverse collection. The first track here, “Losing Your Mind”, illustrates just how careful Wylde is when he sidesteps metal clichés. It starts with a single banjo plucking out a catchy melody, and after the first few bars, Wylde’s guitar arrives to riff out the same tune. The arrival of a steel pedal guitar should make it crystal clear: This is a country song.

There are a few more recognizably country songs on this collection (“Between Heaven and Hell” even features a harmonica), and they do plenty to set a tone. Wylde has no problem showcasing the tricks he uses to buck up Ozzy Osbourne, occasionally carving out a light-speed solo or throttling his strings to make them squeal. But left to his own devices, he can be a little more innovative and a lot more fun. The country influences flow all the way to Wylde’s surprisingly strong, earthy vocals. Imagine a Gregg Allman who wore an Iron Maiden T-shirt and beat up the geeks in gym class.

When Wylde and his band ditch the country sound for more typical metal — the case for around half of the songs here — they meet with only a little less success. “Horse Called War” builds from a bunch of noisy tuning and rattling into a Deep Purple-style juggernaut, Wylde and fellow guitarist Nick Catanese trading off locomotive riffs while drummer Craig Nunenmacher brutalizes his hi-hat. “Bored to Tears”, based on a propulsive stair-climbing riff, sounds like a great, unearthed Alice in Chains song. Ozzy Osbourne was roped in to sing a duet on “Stillborn”, and the result rocks harder than anything he’s recorded since the arrival of Grunge. Yes, even harder than his umpteen Beatles covers.

Not all of the straight-up metal songs are this interesting, and the collection suffers a little as a result. But the sequencing, which stacks the occasional clunker between a country-tinged dirge or an acoustic instrumental, smoothes over those kinds of problems. The two new songs, “Doomsday Inc” and “SDMF”, are the best metal offerings on the whole disc. When it stops spinning, you’re left to contemplate what a serious talent Zakk Wylde really is. When he lets himself get mocked as a pompous hair metal cartoon, he’s clearly in on the joke.

RATING 8 / 10