This is the twenty-second entry of my blog series ‘First Impressions.’ In each entry of the series I write about discovering an influential or genre-classic album for the first time and then write about that experience in a semi-planned, semi-stream of consciousness manner that is less helpful a traditional album-review, but which does contain more personal flavour.
This is actually a third impression to be honest though. I bought two Black Label Society albums on a whim when I was in a funny mood and hoped retail therapy would make it go away. This, and its follow up The Blessed Hellride. I listened to both of them twice and thought they were utterly characterless, dull records, that were very bland. Yes those are all the same point. The productions seemed flat, the songs repetitive and overly basic. It seemed to be very much designed for newcomers to metal music and the kind of thing you could only like if it was one of the first bands you got into, because everything about it is done better by other people.
But I was in a funny mood you see, too funny a mood even to write a first impressions article. So I’m listening to it again for the first time.
I don’t really know all that much about Zack Wylde musically, apart from the fact that he plays guitar on five Ozzy Osbourne studio albums, of which I’ve heard four, of which I like about half the tracks on, of which I strongly like about half of again. I haven’t heard the much loved Pride And Glory or Book Of Shadows precursor albums to Black Label Society either, and the only two Black Label Society songs I’d heard prior to this are ‘Concrete Jungle’ and ‘In This River’ which I never properly paid attention to but vaguely filed under ‘kinda bad.’
I’d heard and read a lot. I know the vague feeling is that the earlier stuff was faster and heavier but badly produced, and the newer stuff has is too mid paced with too many ballads for a lot of people. I also know his vocals are alleged to sound too much like Ozzy’s on later albums. 1919 Eternal comes before that though, so should hopefully have enough speed and non-ozzy vocals for my theoretical tastes, if it turns out my tastes reflect common opinion.
I stick the album on now, it opens with ‘Bled For You’ which has a fun chuggy upper-mid-paced riff that alternates with a mid paced riff.
The chorus has a grungy feel which I’m not massively sold on, but don’t dislike. The way the song is constructed reminds me a lot of the Nu Metal era, and subsequent music like that of Hell Yeah and Fozzy that gets called things like ‘Wrestle Metal’ or ‘Radio Metal.’ (Sometimes you even hear ‘Biker Metal’ but that usually applies to things with a bit more of a Stoner Rock feel. )
When he’s not doing a grunge voice, Zack’s vocals actually remind me a lot of Clutch’s Neil Fallon, but without the character… which is a bit of a shame. The reason I bought the two Black Label albums to begin with was because I wanted to hear something with a lot of personality.
Even forgetting the vocals, I thought the guitar playing would be a lot more flamboyant since everybody calls Zack a virtuoso. I thought that Zack would take the distinct stuff he uses for Ozzy material, and overdo it in his own material.
Speaking of the Nu Metal era; The second song , ‘Lords Of Destruction’ reminds me hugely of the Nu Metal era. Nu Metal era. era. Shut up.
It sounds like ‘Purity’ by Slipknot and ‘Painting The White To Grey’ by Chimaira (which sound like eachother anyway) in parts, then it sounds like ‘My Own Summer’ by Deftones in another part, and Korn in general in the riff behind the guitar solo. Its absolutely the kind of song you don’t hear anymore.
The song that follows ‘The Demise of Sanity’ has a very fun main riff. It reminds me of Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie, reinforced by how the vocals in the prechorus interact with eachother. If it was played a little more robotically, it would have that Industrial meets Nu Metal feeling of early Static X or premium-era Powerman 5000. Which is pretty funny, considering the beer drinking biker audience that the band is suggested to have, who call Black Label Society things like ‘the only true metal band left’ online would probably hate all of the bands I’ve mentioned so far, and tell me that actually the whole album sounds like Black Sabbath.
The next song is pretty cool. The vocals sound a little like Phil Anselmo at the start, which is nice. It’s a sort of hypnotic song that features a lot of chiming bells and it feels like it has a music video that features really, really heavy rain. It also has one of the longest and best guitar solos on the album so far. Strangely; it feels a bit like a ballad despite in no way meeting any criteria whatsoever for being one.
The next song however, actually is a ballad. So that evens things out. Somehow. Shut up. …Anyway. There’s nothing good or bad about said ballad. It exists. It isn’t really emotional enough to be evocative, or understated enough to be artistically impressive.
Zack, as far as I know is famous for being a very good guitarist. A guitar icon. I know Zack from the cover of many, many guitar magazines and as a guest star on many other band’s songs. His guitar work on Jasta’s ‘The Fearless Must Endure’ is something I really enjoy.
The internet constantly churns the idea that he could play a Pantera tour replacing Dimebag Darrel, a guitar icon. He plays in Ozzy Osbourne, playing lots of material from Randy Rhodes, a guitar icon.
As you can probably can guess from the way I’ve structured that… I’m surprised how little of the album is given to guitar solos, and how short the guitar solos that are there last for. I have to admit, I was expecting two to five guitar solos a song, or at least guitar solos that last a full minute or more.
I’m not really complaining about it, rather surprised. When people go crazy over a guitarist (eg. With Dragonforce) they aren’t usually conservative with the use and duration of solos.
The next song is one of the best on the album. ‘Battering Ram.’ Its brief, its heavier than anything else, its full of flashy guitar. It actually has character.
Then its followed by ‘Speedball’ a brief guitar solo in the truest sense (no other instruments at all)
The next song seems like its going to be really cool, and has a great Sabbathy Stoner Rock meets Metal riff like Pepper era C.O.C, but ultimately doesn’t have enough ideas to justify its length and its grungy chorus and production rob it of the power I’d like it to have.
Then the track ‘Genocide Junkies’ comes on, and despite having a silly name in my opinion, is the best thing on the album. The song has the energy and enthusiasm that I felt the band generally lack. It’s the most guitar show-offy track so far too. I’ve heard people online complain about Zack usuing guitar tricks too much, but that’s exactly what I want from him and I’m happy to get it here.
If every song was as characterful and energetic as this and ‘Battering Ram’ then this would be a massively enjoyable album.
The next track is called ‘Lost Heaven’ which is a grungy ballad (with a bit more feeling this time) which reminds me a lot of Sixty Watt Shaman, and I enjoy the tom based verses with the violining. It makes it feel like a song that they wanted to write and not just a cynical radio ballad.
It feels like the logical album closer. But actually there’s four tracks left. Perhaps they should have just kept the best songs, and of those songs deleted any repetition that was unnecessary, and just had a great fourty minute album instead of an OK hour-long album. I say this unashamedly even as a fan of Metallica’s St. Anger, the album which absolutely abuses the songs justifying their length and lasts the entire length of a disc.
Next up, ‘Refuse To Bow Down’ which is fully back in the Nu Metal song structure/riff speed territory (and now bass sound). I bet nothing on the last three BLS albums sounds like this. Its pretty good, just overlong despite having too short a guitar solo for me. Yes I know things can be succinct.
That’s followed by ‘Mass Murder Machine’ which is one of the best songs on the album. Its full-on actual Stoner Rock, no arguments. It reminds me even more of Sixty Watt Shaman. The bit in the middle where Zack sings ‘I Wish I Was Blind Yeah, I Wish I Was Blind Oh No’ is marvelous, and the solo, although short (notice a pattern?) is very nice.
In one of my three various imaginings of what BLS sound like, this was one of them, and I love it. The other one was something in the area of ‘Genocide Junkies’ so its good to have both on the same disc I guess, although I’d prefer a whole disc of each, rather than the weird mixture the whole album ended up being.
Then there’s ‘Berzerkers’ which sounds like Purity/Painting The White’ again but this time its actually produced heavier and the tail of the riff was more Zack-character. The vocals are grungy and rob a bit of the power, but they’re very well done at least. The song has a stop/start feel with menacing sounding cuts-to-bass and a fun interrupting heavy bit. It also has a very doomy middle which actually sounds like Black Sabbath, like all the internet people kept saying the band do but for which I’d heard no evidence until this very second.
It ends with an acoustic cover/interpretation of ‘America The Beautiful’ which is actually not as bad as it sounds.
(Oh, and if you’re wondering what the third imagining was, its just Corrosion Of Conformity’s America’s Volume Dealer album, as a whole career. That’s the one I wanted the most. That album has such character, such fun. I’d love to take the amazing character of Zack on my favourite few Ozzy songs like ‘S.I.N’ and ‘Demon Alcohol’ and have that applied to a set of songs in the same spirit as that C.O.C record, but with a much heavier guitar tone. That’d be amazing. Somebody should make that. Sometimes people like Texas Hippie Coalition and Robot Lords Of Tokyo and Roadsaw do something vaguely similar, but it always lacks the character and the heaviness I need that mythical perfect album to have.)
Anyway. The end of things usually has a summary. I think this album is in the weird position of feeling samey and dull while also feeling inconsistent and more like a disparate collection of songs rather than a complete album. I’d have preferred more shameless, lengthy guitar wanking. More frequent cheesy squeels, bends and slides in the main body of the songs, and a much heavier guitar tone. More double kicks wouldn’t hurt either.
by the way, the writing of this overran and the next album has started. ‘Doomsday Jesus’ has a lot of cheesy Squeals, a heavier guitar tone and lots of double kicks. Pretty cool. The guitar solo is still way too short though. Otherwise however, great song.
Back on topic however; I think this album is probably a grower. I notice way more about it now than I did on my discounted funny mood listens. The notion that it was very, very, very bland has diminished somewhat. That kind of supports my theory that if they’re a band you get into early, you’d like them more easily. It really doesn’t have as much personality in the music as I’d have wanted, but it has some and the first time I listened to it, it felt like there were hardly any guitar solos, but there seems to be at least one in each song, just usually a brief one. I wonder if that’s because guitar solos were uncool in the Nu Metal era? Like St. Anger not having any solos, that sort of reasoning.
I guess the album is OK. I don’t really know why this one is the classic one. Everything else would have to be very bland for this to be the best one. But then what do I even know. I’ve spent the month listening to Coheed and Cambria, Savatage and Gamma Ray so am overdosed on musicianship and personality, and long guitar solos… and the rest of the time I’ve been listening to Parkway Drive so I’ve been enjoying guitar that sounds very heavy too. Maybe its like drinking something after you’ve brushed your teeth – it doesn’t taste right. You’re not getting an accurate impression of what it really sounds like.
PS. ‘Destruction Overdrive’ off the next album has the character I want. I just wish it was played with the production and intensity of Trendkill era Pantera. In fact, I just wish BLS were as heavy as Pantera. In fact, I just wish Pantera had some more albums.
Or. Or. Parkway Drive to use tonnes of Zack style squeals, bends and slides all the time. And have guitar solos that lasted a minute and a half.
Make it happen internet genie.