Wednesday, June 11, 2003 @ 12:13 AM
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It’s this way: you have guitar heroes, and then you have Guitar Heroes. The latter like to noodle around, go up and down the scales for five minutes and call it a song. Guitarsturbators, if you will. Duane Eddy may have been the first guitarsturbator. (I did not make that word up. Thanks, Garbageman). And then there are just guitar heroes, minus the capitals. They play a mean guitar, but they can also write real songs, lyrics, and even sing! And Zakk Wylde falls squarely into this category.
The Blessed Hellride is the fourth studio album by Zakk’s lumbering monolith, Black Label Society. Five albums (including a live one) in five years! Now that’s impressive! Tool could learn a thing or two from Zakk, huh? Guns ‘N Roses too, come to think of it. So we know Zakk is as regular as my bowels. (Regular is not the same thing as frequent, mind you.) That doesn’t necessarily mean the records he puts out are good, right? Like last year’s 1919 Eternal, for example. Sure, it was okay, but it left a lot of people scratching their heads and wondering what was missing here.
Well, as your friendly correspondent, I am pleased to report that whatever was missing from albums past, Zakk has found it again on The Blessed Hellride, although you might not be able to tell from the first single, “Stillborn.” I could swear I’ve heard that riff before, in some forgettable, late ’90s modern-rock song or other. And do we really need Ozzy to sing backup? It’ll draw the interest of the kiddies who only know Ozzy as the shambling, sputtering weirdo on MTV, and I guess that was the main object, because he doesn’t lend much to this song. Happily though, his voice is deeper than I’d expected, and he doesn’t use that cutesy inflection that he’s done on his past couple albums.
So picture, if you will, two kids, with buzz-cuts and baggy shorts, watching MTV. Dylan and Derek, let’s call them. They see the video for “Stillborn.” “Hey, Dylan! This is awesome! It’s, like, that guitar player dude from Ozzy Osbourne’s band! He really tore it up on “Crazy Train,” didn’t he?” And Derek, being equally ignorant in the area of rock history, puts down his Game Boy to look. “That’s da bomb!” he shouts! “Blizzack Lizzabel Society, dawg!” So the next day, they pool the money they earned selling fake weed to their little sisters’ friends and head off to buy The Blessed Hellride.
They’re in for quite a surprise, because “Stillborn” is by far the most radio-friendly cut on the album, and, thankfully, it is but a fleeting experiment. The album begins with an ominous freight-train rumble, growing louder and louder before exploding into the first song, the obligatory ode to drinking and smoking, “Stoned and Drunk.” This is the fastest track on the album, and hurtles with neck-wrenching heaviness. And best of all, it features lots of my beloved open-A power-chord! And right then, you know Zakk is back and full of piss and vinegar. No more dabbling in semi-industrial repetitiveness like “Bleed for Me.” This is metal, through and through, and not “metal” like our two young friends, Dylan and Derek, are used to. It’s the kind of metal that we love and have come to expect from Zakk Wylde, however, and he delivers again.
Perhaps the biggest leap is in the area of Mr. Wylde’s vocals. My first experience with BLS came with the band’s 2000 effort Stronger Than Death. My first thought was, “Shit, this guy isn’t a very good singer, is he?” Back then, he sounded like some random big, beefy guy yelling in a deep voice, straining mightily on what for him were high notes as though trying to pass a giant turd. (Here we go again, okay, I promise, no more scatological humor for the rest of the review!) Ol’ Zakk must’ve been taking some lessons on the sly, because his delivery has improved dramatically, even since last year’s release. He still sounds like Zakk, but he appears to be much more comfortable just letting loose and belting. He even manages to sound frighteningly like Ozzy himself on the plodding, slightly dragging “We Live No More,” near the album’s end.
Another marked improvement is in the area of sound quality. While albums like Stronger Than Death boasted crushing heaviness (often at the expense of clarity), The Blessed Hellride sounds crisp and clean and not at all muddy or murky, and without losing any of its inherent heaviness. Zakk seems to have tuned back up a notch or so, which is always a good thing, while retaining his signature thick style of playing. The man seems to be hitting no fewer than three strings at any given time, and he is the master of the chug. Nobody else’s chugging, not even Dimebag Darrell’s, sounds quite as thick and thunderous, and it can be heard all over the album. Of course, we also get the squeals and squawks at every possible opportunity as well. “Doomsday Jesus,” Zakk booms on the song of the same name, “receives you NOW!” while behind him, the guitar gurgles and bubbles behind him, sounding just about to boil over. (Which it does, of course.)
Midway through the album (just after the lurching “Suffering Overdue,” that swings into a double-time boogie rhythm before a blistering solo), we are treated to the first of the ballads, in the form of the title track. It’s a slow-strumming, reflective piece, Zakk singing about life in general and his philosophy in particular. Good song, except the drumming is a bit excessive. The drummer seems to be saying, “Hey, just because it’s a ballad doesn’t mean I can’t overdrum!” The song (and album) might have also benefited from a bigger snare sound, rather than the somewhat cardboard-box-like thwacking we get. A small gripe, though.
Immediately thereafter, we get the two relentless chuggings of “Funeral Bell,” and the slower but nonetheless crushing “Final Solution.” Placed consecutively, the effect is undeniable, and the sound is like a locomotive pounding over the rails, belching smoke and soot, bent on colliding with something big (like a Starbucks full of vegans), and utterly unstoppable. As if in answer, next up comes “Destruction Overdrive,” with frantically mixed chugging and squealing. I have no idea how he can do them both in such rapid succession.
Now here is where the album starts to slow down. We get a semi-ballad “Blackened Waters,” that drones along for a bit too long, with Zakk laying on the ‘yea-ah, yea-ahs’ like nobody’s business. People like to bust on James Hetfield and Sully Erna for ending half their words with “ah” or “aw,” but Zakk is just as bad. Maybe he can work on that in his next batch of singing lessons. Maybe next year. Then after “Waters,” we get the equally slow-paced “We Live No More,” and are you SURE Ozzy wasn’t hiding in a closet with a pilfered microphone on this one? Are you POSITIVE?
And finally, we get the token piano ballad, for three slow songs in a row. “Dead Meadow” is slow and somber and shows off Zakk’s improved range.
So on the good side, we have several absolute steamroller songs, two good ballads, better production, and better singing. On the bad side, we have a boxy snare sound and some misguided pacing as far as song arrangement. Hell, that’s why we have the shuffle button, am I right? All in all, one of the best albums to come out so far this year, and I can only wonder what’s in store for next year.
* * * * ½