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Back in their heyday, Black Label Society was bigger, more widely recognized, twice as beloved and infinitely more iconic than the trailblazers in One Direction. But then something momentous, diabolical, career altering and earthmoving happened: somebody, somewhere, lent Black Label Society band leader, guitar-squealer and verbose vocalization terminator Zakk Wylde a very, very twisted record collection. (Records, of course, are ancient artifacts from a bygone era of wondrous sound).
As soon as the needle hit the grooves, Wylde was transported to another world by the spellbinding power of Queen of Pop Helen Reddy, the soothing sounds of Barry Manilow, The Velvet Fog himself Mr. Melvin Howard Tormé and obscure, little known British invaders Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Wylde’s formidable beard sprouted instantaneously, his bench press jumped from 50lbs. to 500lbs, and the Vespa beneath him transformed into a mean, gas-guzzling, roaring Harley Davidson.
Catacombs of the Black Vatican will stand as an enduring testament to Black Label Society’s sheer force of will and mastery of each and every musical neighborhood the hard rock titans choose to stomp through. The aggressive bite of the barnstorming BLS banger “Damn the Flood” sits comfortably right alongside the stripped down, emotionally searing “Angel of Mercy,” “Scars” and “Shades of Gray.” The album’s opening tracks, “Fields of Unforgiveness” and lead single “My Dying Time,” drop the throttle into swampy, down-tempo menace that wouldn’t sound out of place neither in a Classic Rock band’s catalog nor at the creative height of the grunge era.
Now over 15 years into their storied saga, Black Label Society’s music powers the finest of backyard BBQs, wins its founder accolades from the likes of Revolver, Kerrang! and Metal Hammer, and has caused the BLS biker kutte to become as ubiquitous at hard rock and metal shows as a black t-shirt or a cup of beer. Long before “Sons of Anarchy” or “Duck Dynasty,” Black Label Society manhandled the wishy-washy status quo and forced brotherhood, machismo and loyalty oath-making back into the culture, across a mountainous catalog, countless international tours and with a variety of players whose resumes include Metallica, Alice In Chains, Megadeth, Crowbar, Type O Negative, Danzig, Breaking Benjamin and Evanescence.
Where has BLS been since Order of the Black cracked the Top 5 on Billboard’s 200, the Black Label Bezerkus tour (featuring support from Children of Bodom and Clutch), The Song Remains Not The Same and Megadeth’s Gigantour, alongside new bands featuring members of Disturbed, Pantera and Metallica? The answer, explains Wylde from his coffee-scented compound somewhere in California, is simple.
“Besides bringing world peace, curing cancer, splitting the atom for the third time and cleaning up after the dog before brunch, we made a new record,” he says. “We were able to squeeze that in before Valhalla Java” – a reference, of course, to the band’s signature pairing with Deathwish coffee, Valhalla Java Odinforce Blend – “before I put in my half and half; fat free, so it doesn’t go to my thighs.”
Irish Catholic New Jersey boy Zakk Wylde picked up his first guitar before he’d even left elementary school. Before he was 21, he got a demo tape in front Ozzy Osbourne, beginning a celebrated career with the Ozzman that includes five studio albums, three live records, countless tours and TV appearances and co-writing enduring Ozzy classics like “Mama, I’m Coming,” “No More Tears” and the bulk of the double platinum 2002 set, Ozzmosis. In addition to his years of loyal service to the man he affectionately called “The Boss” and whose wife/manager he called “Mom,” Wylde has his mitts imprinted on Hollywood’s Rock Walk of Fame; guested with Yngwie Malmsteen, Hatebreed’s Jamey Jasta, Black Veil Brides and on “American Idol”; acted as guitarist for Mark Wahlberg’s fictitious band in “Rock Star”; and soloed with his close friend “Dimebag” Darrell Abbot’s band, Damageplan. BLS staple “In This River” is Wylde’s tribute to the late Pantera cofounder and metal icon. He’s performed the National Anthem at major sporting events and even (very, very briefly) joined Axl, Slash and Duff in embryonic Chinese Democracy era GN’R.
But nothing offers the pure expression of Zakk Wylde’s animalistic “id” like Black Label Society, the stomping, heavy, bluesy, recklessly unhinged hard-rock-metal quartet as quick to rip up a solo as to dip into a piano-fueled anthemic ballad. BLS includes Wylde’s longtime partner-in-crime (from the short-lived, Southern Rock infused Pride & Glory) prodigal son bassist John DeServio, seasoned drummer Chad Szeliga (who first came on in 2011) and newly christened guitarist Dario Lorina, Lizzy Borden’s six-string-slinger for five years. “BLS has always been a brotherhood. Guys can come and go as they please. They come back, they jam, we stay friends,” Wylde says of the group’s lineups, past and present. “There’s no pissing matches, no arguments,
we don’t have any of that. If Celine Dion is going to pay you a king’s ransom to play in Las Vegas for a year and a half? Dude, you gotta go do that.”
Sonic Brew (1999), Stronger Than Death (2000) and 1919 Eternal (2002) developed and refined what would become much beloved sound for the BLS crew. “If you look at your favorite artists, whether it’s Sabbath, Zeppelin, Neil Young or Elton John, or if you look at your favorite TV shows like ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Family Guy’ or ‘The Simpsons’ – if you look at where they began vs. where they went, they didn’t quite have it dialed in at first. And I dig that. We approach every Black Label Society album like it’s the first one we’ve ever made. We just go in there with the most slammin’ songs we can.” Wylde stresses that it’s not about being “heavier” than the last one, or “more melodic,” or more this or that. It’s just about being great. The key to that? Diversity.
“If I’m on a cross country road trip listening to Sabbath, maybe I’ll start to get burned out on ‘Paranoid’ and ‘Iron Man’ and the Greatest Hits album,” he reasons. “I’ll want to put on one of the darker or different records. I’ll put on Technical Ecstasy or something, ‘cause to me, they’re all great. What are you in the mood to hear? And that’s how it should be with the records from your favorite artists.”
Zakk Wylde is father to four children with is wife, Barbaranne. Given that their names are Hayley Rae, Hendrix (whose Godfather is Mike Piazza), Sabbath Page and Jesse (whose godfather is The Ozzman), it’s clear that despite his comedic gifts, he takes his study of rock n’ roll’s greats very seriously. He’s boiled down the essential elements necessary to make his own contribution to hard rock’s rich legacy. After all, Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” can be played on two guitar strings. Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”? Sabbath’s “Iron Man”? One string. “Stillborn,” the BLS anthem from The Blessed Hellride (2003)? Another one-string headbanger.
There’s a beauty in caveman like simplicity, in the break-bottles-and-break-necks gusto of a loud power chord. Legend (?) has it that Wylde invented the freaking squeal every bit as much as Chuck Berry’s dreamt up the duck walk and the Bronx blessed the world with rap. When the “Guitar Hero” franchise was all the rage, our boy wasn’t just making music for the game; he was a dadgum playable character.
“Every time you’re going to make a new record, it’s exciting,” he says of the run-up to the creation of Catacombs of the Black Vatican. “When you’re in the studio you can approach it like Salvador Dali where you’ve got a blank canvas in front of you. You can paint a little bit, sit
back and look at it and go, ‘Oh man, let’s add a little more red over here, let’s make this darker over there.’ Because live? It’s a free-for-all. People are bleeding. There’s fire going on. You’re getting attacked by grizzly bears...”
Each album is another opportunity to top the last one, in terms of production value. But like all the great bands from AC/DC to The Rolling Stones, BLS ain’t here to reinvent the wheel. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The BLS brand is a brand you can trust. “We approach it like lifting weights. You want to see if you can beat your bench from last time. It’s about beating what you did last time, sonically. Because songwriting wise? Like, with Dime and Pantera, were they supposed to say, ‘It’s heavier than last time?’ The last BLS album was beyond heavy. All you want to hear The Stones or Guns N’ Roses is another batch of killer new songs. That’s it. If you ask me the difference between this album and the last eight or nine? It’s the song titles.”
With another Black Label Society banger in the can, the rest of the work is for the marketing flacks. Wylde fully expects the eOne family (and folks like VP of Metal “Father” Scott Givens) to use payola, cocaine, ice sculptures, strippers and hookers to make sure Catacombs of the Black Vatican is bigger than Eagles’ Greatest Hits (37 million), Thriller (66 million) and Back in Black (36 million) combined. “Mind you, this Napster thing might put a little dent in that,” he admits. “Maybe by 10 million.”
Zakk Wylde has other business to get to, like re-recoding Chinese Democracy by himself, at least twice. He’s going to get into his jazzercise outfit, record two more Chinese Democracy albums (but over 30 years, instead of 15), then have his manager and fellow Ozzy acolyte Rob “Blasko” Nicholson make a deal with J.C. Penny to put them in stores at $12 per unit and retire to Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo.
Meanwhile, it can’t be forgotten nor overstated that Zakk Wylde and his Black Label Society equates to more than one man, more than a band, more than a motorcycle club. In truth, BLS is the Illuminati. At the end of the day, Black Label Society is sure to be remembered as a fine Irish-Catholic bowling fraternity. “They were good Catholics,” the history books will write. “But they couldn’t bowl very good.”