Thursday, January 18, 2018

Album Review: Black Label Society - Grimmest Hits

Until recently, I had never understood the appeal of Zakk Wylde. He was a player who played on embarrassing Ozzy albums, couldn't refrain from making his guitar sound like strings were breaking, and helped carry on the stereotype that you have to look and sound like an arrested development in order to be metal. Add in the fact that his own band might as well have been a carbon copy of his Ozzy stint, and I could never see why he was regarded as a legend... or funny. But that's another story.

That changed with his last album, the softer "Book Of Shadows II", which finally showed to me that he could write great songs when he wanted to, and was so shocking it became my album of the year for 2016. You would think that would have me excited for his next project, but you would be wrong. Going back to Black Label Society, and everything that entails, means I was expecting the worst as I hit play on "Grimmest Hits".

What I heard over the course of the next nearly full hour was an album that nearly infuriated me. I already knew what Black Label Society was all about, but I thought a bit of that "Book Of Shadows" mentality might have carried through into his main band. I was wrong, as he return to Ozzy's side seems to have been the bigger influence. His down-tuned riffs are the same ones he's been playing for the last twenty-five years, while the songwriting acumen he showed has once again evaporated.

That's what makes this album so frustrated. If he had merely amped up the volume on "Book Of Shadows" style material, we would be telling a very different tale right now. But the melodic edge his softer material has is gone, replaced by the kind of robotic Ozzy singing that is now ingrained in him after so many years of backing up the 'legend' himself. Zakk's voice isn't strong enough to sing over this kind of music. He strains to rise above the band, but he can't, and the lackluster lines he gives himself don't help. The whole thing, much like his schtick in general, sounds forced at every turn.

The title of this record is a fairly bad pun that's barely any better than the bands that name their debut "Greatest Hits". It's not really clever, but it wasn't intended to be so accurate either. This is a grim record, because it shows with clarity the issue at the very heart of Zakk Wylde's career. He's a good guitar player, and can be a good songwriter, but he's not right for the metal he wants to project. The best song on this entire album is "The Only Words", which is the one track that would have worked on "Book Of Shadows II". Zakk's playing, his very guitar tone, and his voice, all point towards searing classic rock. Instead of embracing that, he keeps plodding away at trying to be the epitome of heavy metal.

It only makes it harder to swallow these Black Label Society records. Knowing that he could be making more albums that fit his talents, and would likely be great, makes this all the more disappointing. No, it's not offensively bad, but when mediocre is so far from potential, sometimes that's a greater sin than a bad record from someone who can't do any better.

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