Over the years I haven't always done right by Zakk Wylde. Despite the fact that he may be THE guy who has done the most to carry the flag for hard rock since its near-death experience ever since the grunge era, I actually don't own a single Black Label Society album.
I've wanted to make this right for a long time, and last week I finally did.
After catching a TV promo for Zakk's new acoustic album, "The Song Remains Not the Same"during a recent airing of "That Metal Show", I decided to give it a try. This decision was made despite the album's borderline terrible name and an acoustic concept that - in my experience - generally disappoints.
With all of that said, the music featured in the ad showcased a teary-eyed Allmans-esque side of Wilde's music that I'd always felt was just barely beneath the surface of BLS, but was repressed nonetheless. And that excited me.
And then, there's the x-factor of someone so unabashedly ROCK doing an "unplugged" album. Because, let's face it: after the initial success of MTV Unplugged (ahem, 20 years ago), acoustic performances got pretty played out; they turned into a gimmick, often performed with minimal effort and to poor outcome. All of this made me a little uneasy, and very curious. (Say what you want about Zakk, but the dude's a workhorse, and I had a feeling he wouldn't half-ass this).
And, so, I broke down and gave the thing a try.
The song list for the disc can generally be divided into two categories: acoustic renditions of BLS tunes, and covers of tender-hearted classic rock songs from the 60s and 70s. I'm going to address each category separately.
The Black Label Society Songs:
A bit of a mixed bag here. In fact, thirty seconds into the first track, things were not looking good. Album-opener "Overlord' loses all of the funky muscle that makes the original a great rock song, and transforms it into something more akin to a Days of the New outtake. And that's not really a good thing.
Things do pick up from there, however: "Parade of the Dead" provides a downright mournful counterpart to the "stomping off to war" theme of the original, and features an arrangement that I have to admit much better suits the vocal melody; and "Riders of the Damned" is nearly unrecognizable from its source.
But the highlight has to be "Darkest Days". The new version didn't actually require a lot of tinkering (the original being a tear-jerker in its own right), but the more sparse arrangement is still effective; the extra space gives Wylde the freedom to explore his vocals and land on a weary style that owes itself a great deal to the aforementioned Gregg Allman.
(For some reason, there's an unnecessary second version of this tune later in the album, featuring country music star, John Rich, on vocals. I don't really question the decision to have Rich on the disc so much as the decision to include two takes of the song. I hate it when musicians do that).
The Cover Songs:
The second section of the album features a surprisingly diverse group of songs by Black Sabbath, Neil Young, Blind Faith, and (*gasp*) Simon & Garfunkel. And this is noteworthy, because hard rock and heavy metal musicians (and fans) are all too often typecast as completely one-dimensional listeners; to have a band as iconic as Black Label paying homage to roots that might not seem altogether obvious is something that I'm very grateful for.
"Junior's Eyes" kicks things off. Not one of my favorite Sabbath tracks to begin with (how on earth did this one not end up on "Blizzard of Oz"? It certainly never sounded like Sabbath to me...), I'm willing to tell you that its an improvement. But that's not much of an accomplishment in my book, and I can't say I'll be hitting "repeat" on this on anytime soon.
Their take on Young's "Helpless", meanwhile, is a big winner. Perhaps in the same way that I might never be totally pleased with any version of "Junior's Eyes", I suspect that I'd be pleased with almost any artist's take on Mr. Young's bleak and beautiful epic...I'm a sucker at the very first line, and BLS does exceptionally well by the song, patiently negotiating the circular nature of the arrangement.
The cover of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" is a truly noble effort, and a ballsy one at that: There's nothing particularly rock or metal about this classic, and other than a fairly awesomely schmaltzy cover by Vegas-era Elvis, I've never actually heard anyone else attempt the song.
That said, it's a damned high bar for just about anyone, and Zakk doesn't even attempt Art Garfunkel's death-defying vocal crescendo at the end (which I kind of thought was the point of the whole song). As such, I can't say this one isn't a slight disappointment, but I totally respect the attempt nonetheless.
Similarly, Black Label Society doesn't really improve on Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" (primarily because that's basically impossible). But they don't make it *worse* either, which is far too common on these types of projects . So bully for them, I guess.
The disc wraps with an instrumental take of "The First Noel", which will undoubtedly remind listeners of Randy Rhoads' solo classical/baroque track, "Dee", on the "Tribute" album. Its a pretty listen, and like the rest of the album, serves as a reminder that there's more to BLS than rude guitars and awesome facial hair.
And that comment kind of wraps the disc up for me. It's a good effort, and I'm sure it was a difficult one on several levels. Most importantly, its a bit of a gamble, pushing the comfort level of certain types of consumers. Had it been pitched to a major label, I can't imagine Zakk & Co. would have gotten the green light for it.
Do I love it? Not really.
But I sure like Black Label Society an awful lot more for it.