Reviews of Ozzy guitarists Part 1: Black Label Society, "Catacombs of the Black Vatican" (E One).


Watta blizzard of Ozz. In the wake of "13," the much-panted-over Black Sabbath reunion album, the last three months have seen product from no fewer than FOUR Ozzy Osbourne guitarists: Jake E. Lee (Red Dragon Cartel), Joe Holmes (Farmikos), Zakk Wylde (Black Label Society) and current Ozzy axologist Gus G. (his first solo recording). Short-term 1982 Randy Rhoads replacement Brad Gillis even has a Night Ranger record chalked in for June. I'm starting with BLS, cuz it's the one I've listened to most.

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Booze or Bible? Hard to know how to track Zakk in the midst of his multiple personal conflicts. In 2009, his crucial war-hero father died; his subtitute dad, Ozzy, fired him for distracting from the singer's teetering sobriety; and he landed in the hospital with blood clots, advised that he should revise his status as rock's proudest drunk. His latent Christianity undermining his hellbent proclivities, Zakk canned the bottle and began to cross himself every time he turned around.

The music followed suit. After his mighty 2010 comeback, "Order of the Black," Zakk deposited 2011's "The Song Remains Not the Same," a collection of covers ("Bridge Over Troubled Water," anyone?) and acoustic self-revisitations. Last year's "Unblackened" concert DVD found him singin' & pluckin' from an onstage chair and dialing back the metal. In his mid-40s, he was sounding not inappropriately middle-aged.

Whatever family/spiritual crises have transpired meanwhile, the Zakk of "Catacombs" comes off as one torn-up dude. He's both doubting disciple and Crucified One -- "the poisoned crown, a falllen king"; "not of this world, for God is not here today" (John 18:36); "The one you seek is no longer" (Mark 16:6). He's isolated -- "I woke up alone today, for all the birds had flown." "I wanna believe," the abandoned desperado howls, much as Ozzy recently did in "God Is Dead?" He may call himself a soldier of Christ, but wanting to believe ain't believing.

Since we don't listen to Zakk Wylde mainly for the lyrics, you want to know how his mental state has affected his fretboard, and the answer is that he burns like he's in the Fiery Furnace. Always a technical avatar, Zakk has often expended more energy than emotion, but not here -- every goddamned song has a solo ripped from his very entrails. Ferocious, anguished, apocalyptic, furious and purgative according to each song's mood, he speaks through his guitar as never before, meaning every measure and constructing his improvisations with a dynamic drama that complements his soulful bellow.

Wylde never blushes about the simplicity of his riffs, which he tends to employ as launching pads rather than ends in themselves. Still, he's best when he pushes the extra yard, as in the slippery badass figure of "I Want To Believe" and the Sabbatical chromatic tension of "Empty Promises," which leads in with a clever rumble-&-tink rhythm pattern from new drummer Chad Szeliga, who rocks with natural force throughout. (Bassist John DeServio gets an especially rich tone here, too, probably because he helped Zakk and Adam Klumpp produce the deep, organic soundscape.)

What about Alice in Chains? Their mournful vocal harmonies continue to influence Wylde on at least four songs, the way they influence many artists of Zakk's generation. Not a bad thing.

Fine work, one of Zakk's toppermost. Still, we're left with the dilemma of how best to appreciate a sober & biblicized Black Label Society. I used to take Zakk with beer and cheap tequila, but I've reached a compromise. First I read some Job: "Let me alone, that I may recover a little before I go whence I shall not return, to the land of darkness and of gloom, the black, disordered land where darkness is the only light." Then I line up the shots.

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Read part 2 here.