Record reviews: Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society.


Ozzy Osbourne, "Scream" (Epic)

Whenever Ozzy makes a record, we gotta listen up, because he doesn't make that many, because he's Ozzy, and because he never sucks. Though "Scream" pealed forth in June, I decided to sit on it till Ozzfest (which kicks off in the San Bernardino desert this Saturday, August 14) and let it marinate. Now I feel as if figuring it out might take another year -- this is the most personal and complex statement that Ozzy, now 61, has ever laid down. Instead I'll pay heed to the man's latest reminder: "Life won't wait for you."

Ever seen Ozzy enraged? Ever? Through all the episodes of "The Osbournes," or his countless interviews and public appearances? Any Mel Gibson moments, where you thought he might actually smack somebody? Hard even to imagine, at least if he's sober. Though Ozzy has mustered some righteous indignation about televangelists ("Miracle Man") or pollution ("Revelation Mother Earth") or war ("Thank God for the Bomb"), moments of personal animus are virtually absent from the 30 years he's been participating heavily in his lyrics. "You won't like me when I'm angry," he sings in "Soul Sucker," and when he devotes the first three songs of "Scream" to vein-popping hostility, we start to doubt that he cares if we like him. Till the end.

It's a journey, this record, from anger to accommodation to transcendence. Sounds like Springsteen or something, huh? We're used to Ozzy the entertainer, the rockin' goofus who puts on metaphorical devil horns and demands that we go crazy. Still, songs such as "See You on the Other Side," "Road to Nowhere," "Facing Hell" and "Trap Door" have found Ozzy staring into the coffin for real, over a period of 20 years. While insisting that he's "Not Going Away," he's obviously obsessed with the reality that we all do.

So, in the wake of his frank & funny autobiography, "I Am Ozzy," the Iron Man seems ready to dump out the full range of his emotions. And hey, it feels good. In "Let It Die," sick of questions about his true identity, he lists every possibility, from coward to fighter, before spitting out the intelligent truth -- "I am you." "Let Me Hear You Scream" lets him play the part of the torturer, taking revenge on the sadists who've tormented him. Similarly, his "patience turns to violence" against the "Soul Sucker" who keeps tearing him down. Later, in "Fearless," he identifies with the renegade soldier who turns against his masters. Whom does Ozzy hate? An open question.

And the bile keeps a-comin'. In back-to-back songs, Ozzy plays with his image as the Prince of Darkness -- praying for the Last Days in "Diggin' Me Down," and threatening to renail the Savior in "Crucify." He doesn't sound a damn bit jolly about it.

To offer a full spectrum of emotion, Ozzy also wants us to glean a hint of his career motivations, and he couldn't follow up 1991's "Desire" more effectively than he does with the album's best track, "I Want It More," a rundown of compulsive competition wherein he emerges the bloody victor -- "Was it everything you wanted?" After all his life mistakes, Osbourne's in a position to offer advice, so when, in "Life Won't Wait" and "Time," he suggests you stop pondering and get off your ass, you might pay attention. He cares, y'know. When he concludes the set with "For all these years you've stood by me/God bless/I love you all," it's no empty kiss-off; he just plain means it.

There are moments ("Let It Die," "Diggin' Me Down," etc.) when the lyrics don't sound like Ozzy -- too rappy, too poetic. The credits provide no breakdown of responsibility, attributing everything to Ozzy and producer Kevin Churko, with keyboardist Adam Wakeman (Rick's son) getting a slice of four cuts. While the sentiments generally sound like Ozzy's own, the form sometimes doesn't play to his strengths, which lean toward long notes and strong melodies.

Oh yeah, the music: Did I spend all that time wordin' about words? Deepest apologies, but I couldn't ignore the reality that Ozzy sounds as if he truly wants to say something this time. Yet while his nonpareil gravedigger singing melds skill and pathos more convincingly than ever, the emphasis on message might've gotten a bit in the way of writing hooks.

Nevertheless, the album sounds great -- big & powerful. It throws some nice changes around, beginning with the way "Let It Die" moves from drummer Tommy Clufetos' cookin' Bo Diddley rhythms into gigantor stomp, and continuing, for instance, with "Life Won't Wait" and its improbably successful marriage of Black Sabbath and the Beatles. (Ozzy's fave Fabs get a number of acknowledgments, such as the pretty second bridge on "Diggin' Me Down" and the Mellotron pumps on "I Love You All.") Although, aside from the bludgeoning title track, depth rather than commerciality claims the tenor of "Scream," you may find yourself returning to it more often than you think.

Considering Ozzy's guitar-employment situation, it's worth noting that the standout "I Want It More" combines a chordally creative, unforgettable chorus with a riff straight outa the bible of the fired Zakk Wylde. The question on every lip is whether the new Greek axman, Firewind's Gus G., shoulders the load. The answer is that for this particular record, he works out fine.

Does Gus belch less fire & personality than Zakk? Who doesn't? Still, he's versatile enough to milk the beauty of a lyrical line on the one hand, or shred with incredible speed and precision on the other. His lead playing may lack a certain rock attitude, but when it comes to the monumental riffs, he dials in a mess of delightfully nasty guitar tones that call down the doom. I guess we'll find out down the line if he can write good tunes for Ozzy; that's priority number 1.

Meanwhile, Osbourne has crafted another distinctive record, more consistent than 2007's "Black Rain." There still ain't anybody doing this melodic-metal thing any better.


Black Label Society, "Order of the Black" (Panworkz/E1)

Maybe it makes sense that the two best songs on Zakk Wylde's very first sober album, the only studio record he's made since 2006, would be ballads. The dude was in a reflective mood: His beloved badass father died in January 2009, inspiring the sad & pretty "January," which contains the most centered and inflected singing he's ever done. Then, suffering from dangerous blood clots, Wylde nearly died himself. Also, Zakk's alternate "old man," Ozzy Osbourne, canned him from the Ozzy band, saying he couldn't stand to have a plastered Wylde around when he was trying to stay straight himself. So lo and behold, Ozzy's new album has a ballad called "Time," containing the line "Time waits for no one." And the new album by Zakk's Black Label Society has a ballad called "Time Waits for No One," a soulful number with wonderful Elton John-style chord changes and dynamics. Adversity makes art. It also makes ballads (with strings!). "Order of the Black" stocks four.

Mainly, of course, it stocks rock -- hard, evil, squealing, bashing, riproaring rock, in the classic Wylde mode. If I gotta choose from the nine rockers, I'll take three. "Overlord" has a twisty Hendrix-style wah intro, a righteous bluesy riff, sexdown drumming from new recruit Will Hunt, and not one but two bridges, the second peeling out like a dirt bike into a heady, fluttering solo. It's also got a side-splitting coda wherein Zakk puts on Al Jolson blackface and megaphone-croons (to the ragtime melody of "Hello My Baby"), "She is my over, she is my over, she is my overlord!" Sharon Osbourne, or his wife? Flip a coin. Also worthy of BLS hit status: the dirty drunk's lament "Southern Dissolution," with its Alice in Chains snapback bridge and its crazy-ass solo; and the bucking "Riders of the Damned," which sports the record's catchiest riffs.

Wordwise, Zakk moans more mournfully than ever, begging for one moment of personal peace and vomiting invective against the agents of destruction who rule the world. Nothing new there, and you could say he's sticking to the overall musical formula he's maintained for eight BLS albums. But it's a damned good formula, and the pacing on "Order of the Black" is particularly effective. (Especially striking cover and booklet art from John Irwin, too.)

Word is that Zakk's quite content these days; good for him. I wonder what a happy Black Label album would sound like?

"Order of the Black" can be purchased in boxed and LP editions. Black Label Society headlines the Second Stage and Ozzy Osbourne the Main Stage of Ozzfest at the San Manuel Amphitheater in Devore this Saturday, August 14.