Album Review: Black Label Society - "Order of the Black"

For what probably amounts to a couple of decades all said and done, Zakk Wylde was a hero of heavy metal, the everyman kid lucky enough to find his way onto the world’s largest metal stages. His was a modern story reminding us all to not forget our musical dreams; that the big break could be just around the corner.

Now, the genre judges Zakk much differently. Following some self-important antics, two uninspired, pedestrian Black Label albums and a split from longtime paycheck Ozzy Osbourne, we now see Wylde back at the drawing board with “Order of the Black.”

The album is a marked improvement over any studio material BLS has put together since at least “Blessed Hellride,” and quite possibly the best since “Stronger Than Death.” Now, that’s not as dramatic as it might sound, since the albums in the interim were pretty lackluster, but it’s a nice change to see Wylde pump out some worthwhile tunes for a change.

There’s good and bad news. The good news is that if you like the old Black Label Society, “Order of the Black” is a fine companion piece to your already burgeoning collection. The bad news is that if you never liked BLS, you won’t like them now. Ironically, that statement seems like exactly the kind of sentiment that Wylde himself would espouse, though he would do it with a smarmy expression and a raised tumbler of brown liquor.

A brief aside that I should mention before going forward. Of all the concerts I have ever seen, I have only ever left three early. Black Label Society is one of those three. I saw Zakk and company at my local club just a few scant months after the untimely death of Dimebag Darrell. Grieving the loss of his departed friend, Wylde saw fit to play for fifteen minutes or so, then lament his friend’s passing for about that same amount of time as the crowd stood and watched. After two cycles of this I began to grow restless, and thought “would Darrell want you to do this, or would he want you to kick these people’s asses?” As Wylde launched the crowd into an acoustic sing along of “Mama, I’m Coming Home,” I found the exit.

So that’s off my chest. What was the point of that anecdote, you ask? Very simple. Since that moment, I have been instantly turned off toward any BLS song that even hints at using a piano. I simply won’t listen to it. As such, “Order of the Black” became about five songs shorter for me. Yes, taking a page from Ozzy’s playbook, Wylde attempts that many ill-advised ballads. I would steer clear of those if I were you.

Anyway, the news isn’t nearly all grim for “Order of the Black.” If you’re interested in a throwback to buzzsaw riffs, back-breaking solos and crunchy guitar lines of the highest order, then this album is a must own. Much to both Wylde’s and the album’s benefit is that Zakk is, for all his tomfoolery, a pretty damn good axe-man. His ability to blend precision playing with improvised squealing runs through all the veins of this latest work. Particulary on “Crazy Horse” and “Godspeed Hell Bound” do Wylde’s talents make the songs fly. “Black Sunday” is a pretty clear homage to Van Halen, at least at the start, and is the album’s other standout star.

Regrettably, many of the other songs feel like filler, as nothing particularly different stands them apart from the three high-quality tracks and the handful of awful piano ones. Songs like “Overlord” and “Southern Dissolution” are good songs, but you could skip them if you were short on time. In truth, “Order of the Black” might have worked better as an EP than a full length studio album.

“Chupacabra” is a short throw away of Spanish-style guitar, but it’s disappointing only because it would have been interesting to see Wylde try and expand on that idea and fold it into a metal tune. Not to be, I suppose.

It’s entirely possible that Wylde saw the figurative writing on the wall and decided to pump out a good album so that the checks kept clearing. It’s also possible that he saw the recent resurgence of many of metal’s “classic” acts and decided to go back to his own roots. Either way, “Order of the Black” despite its warts, is worth at least a chance.

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