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, Ford F350 SuperDuty.
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 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 is heard at the finest of backyard BBQs and has earned the band’s founder accolades from Revolver, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer and every guitar magazine on the planet. The BLS biker kutte is as ubiquitous at hard rock and metal shows as a black t-shirt. 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.
Where has BLS been since Order of the Black entered the Billboard 200 at #4? “Besides bringing world peace, curing cancer, splitting the atom for the third time and cleaning up after the dogs before brunch, we made a new record,” he says. “We were able to squeeze that in before Valhalla Java.” That beverage, of course, is Wylde’s signature pairing with Deathwish coffee, Valhalla Java Odinforce Blend.
Jersey boy Zakk Wylde picked up his first guitar before he’d even left elementary school. Before he was 20, he got a demo tape in front Ozzy Osbourne, beginning his legendary career. His tenure with The Ozzman includes co-writing and recording several studio albums, three live albums, a Grammy for “I Don’t Want to Change the World” and countless world tours and television appearances. Wylde co-wrote the multi-platinum No More Tears, Ozzy’s largest selling solo album (including the classic hit single “Mama, I’m Coming Home”) and the bulk of the double platinum 2002 set, Ozzmosis. In addition to his years of loyal service to the man he affectionately calls “The Boss” and whose wife/manager he calls “Mom,” Wylde had his mitts imprinted on Hollywood’s Rock Walk of Fame; had his signature bullseye Les Paul inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame; guest-starred alongside Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston in the movie “Rockstar”; performed the National Anthem at multiple major sporting events; wrote the 2013 Major League Baseball theme for ESPN and even momentarily joined Axl, Slash and Duff in Guns N’ Roses.
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. “We approach every Black Label Society album like it’s the first one we’ve ever made,” he says. “We just go in there with the most slammin’ songs we can.”
Zakk Wylde is father to four children with his high-school sweetheart, now wife, Barbaranne. Given that his kids’ names are Hayley Rae, Jesse John Michael (named after his Godfather, John Michael “Ozzy” Osbourne), Hendrix Halen (whose godfather is Mike Piazza) and Sabbath Page, 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. To many listeners, Wylde invented pinch harmonics every bit as much as Chuck Berry’s dreamt up the duck walk. When the “Guitar Hero” franchise was all the rage, Wylde was a playable character in the game.
“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 isn’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. 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 torrent thing might put a little dent in that,” he admits. “Maybe by 10 million.”
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 brotherhood. 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.”