Monday, April 4, 2016

Album Review: Zakk Wylde - Book Of Shadows II

Over the course of his two-plus decades in the music business, Zakk Wylde has made a few things abundantly clear to me. First, pinch harmonics are among the most annoying things a guitarist can do. Second, his Black Label Society has driven a singular idea into the ground. And third, when he strips away the artificially inflated metal stereotypes, he's not so bad. This album, being "Book Of Shadows II", is obviously a sequel to the original. That album, among Zakk's entire discography, is the one moment where he has shown himself to be more than an Ozzy clone. His softer material is quite good, probably because it forces him to abandon his usual bag of tricks.

The drawback to any of Zakk's album has always been his vocals, which lack both the tone and power you would expect from someone fronting a major outfit. That is where albums like this work his advantage, because the softer material and more laid-back atmosphere limit his need to stretch beyond his limited comfort zone. His tone is still peculiar, but he sounds comfortable, which is a huge improvement over the usual Black Label Society material.

"Autumn Changes" starts the album off with the now trademark mix of clean electric and acoustic guitars, setting the stage for music that would sound right at home as the ballads of 70s Southern rock albums. Between the harmonized vocals through the choruses, and the bluesy tone of the solo, it's a beautifully somber song that establishes the perfect tone for Zakk's songwriting. Of course, being a guitar hero, Zakk can't resist indulging himself in a few spots. There's a lengthy solo in "Lay Me Down" that is as fiery as anything the album has to offer. I'm not sure if it quite fits the mood of the song, but it certainly stands out.

That word keeps popping up; mood. More than anything, your enjoyment of "Book Of Shadows II" is going to come down to how much you appreciate the tone and tenor of music that is better suited for a night out at a coffee-house rather than a biker bar. I can imagine the people who take offense to any ballad that appears on a rock album being aghast at the almost whispered vocals in "Darkest Hour", but they would be completely missing the point. Music, even rock music, is about so much more than cranking up the guitars and being heavy all the time. Anyone who isn't a two-dimensional cardboard cutout has multiple sides to their personality, and these songs as Zakk showing that he has a way to age gracefully.

He has often mentioned his love of Elton John, and while "Book Of Shadows II" doesn't sound much like any of Elton's classic records, it does have a similar spirit to how Elton was able, later in his career, to reinvent himself as a stripped-down artist who put writing songs above the need to be a character. That's what I feel like Zakk is doing here, writing more from the heart of who he is, freed from the expectations that come along with his main gig.

That doesn't make this a perfect album. While there are some great tracks, and everything here is good, there is also the law of diminishing returns at work. The record's leisurely pace is a benefit, but it begins to drag by the time we hit the hour mark (even longer with the bonus tracks). I hate to say it, but there's too many songs here. At fourteen tracks long, there's too much material in the same vein. It would be a much stronger record if it was cut down to 40-45 minutes.

So what "Book Of Shadows II" is can be summed up thusly; it's a good album that showcases the very best of what Zakk Wylde has to offer. It simply overstays its welcome a bit.

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