Saturday, July 23, 2016

Zakk Wylde – Book Of Shadows II [album review]

Released on April 8th

Few metal musicians have the impressive range of Zakk Wylde. His ability to bludgeon listeners with meaty guitar riffs, shredding solos, and a booming singing voice has been well-established during his 18 years as Black Label Society’s frontman and some lengthy stretches as Ozzy Osbourne’s sideman. What makes Wylde unique and an ongoing source of intrigue for me is his ability to deliver both the heavy and mellow sides of himself so adeptly. The latter side is showcased beautifully on Book Of Shadows II, a sequel to his 20 year old Book Of Shadows album, which has aged nicely over the years.

With the 20th anniversary of Book Of Shadows’ release approaching, Wylde considered the best way to honour one of the most beloved albums in his catalog by fans. Instead of going the tired reissue route where a few bland demos and live tracks from that era get tacked onto the album’s back end, Wylde instead decided to revisit Book Of Shadows’ laid back sound and vibe with a collection of new music.

Wylde’s singing voice had a compelling, lived-in quality 20 years ago and it’s only gotten better and developed more character over the years. It definitely suits the predominantly melancholy nature of Book Of Shadows II’s material. In fact, one look at many of the song titles (“Tears Of December”, “Lost Prayer”, “Darkest Hour”, “Eyes Of Burden”, “Yesterday’s Tears”, “Harbors Of Pity”, and “Sorrowed Regrets”) is enough to approach the album extra cautiously, wondering if we’re in for 66 minutes of oppressive, wrist-cutting music. While there is a sombre lyrical narrative and musical tone running throughout the album, there’s also a healthy dose of optimism, emotional depth, and outstanding songcraft and musical performances to make Book Of Shadows II well worth your time.

The easy lilt, warm Hammond organ, and strong melodies on “Tears Of December” bely its downer lyrics and it’s the same case on “Useless Apologies”, “Sorrowed Regrets”, and “Darkest Hour”. “Harbours Of Pity” and the bitter-filled “Sleeping Dogs” (the rare example of a first single that sits at #13 on the album’s running order) just straight up own their gloominess, both musically and lyrically. All of them have plenty more to offer than just a mournful tone, however. 

Balancing out the cheerlessness are a number of relatively sunnier cuts like “Autumn Changes”, “Eyes Of Burden”, and “Lost Prayer” that make up some of Book Of Shadows II’s best material. Album closer “The King” may well be Wylde’s finest composition yet, though. Its bare structure features only piano, organ, strings, and a beautiful guitar solo, along with lyrics that display a more vulnerable and romantic side to Wylde that’s quite welcoming. The bluesy “Forgotten Memory” also demonstrates a more sensitive side of someone whose imposing exterior suggests he’s more likely a member of the Hell’s Angels (he’s not) than an  Elton John fanatic (he is).

John, The Eagles, 70s Neil Young, southern rock, the blues, and soul music comprise the essence of Book Of Shadows II’s musical influences, making for an intriguing sonic stew. You can actually also add in metal, because Wylde lets ’er rip more than a few times with some incredible guitar solos. The distortion may be dialled way back for many of them (or turned off altogether), but the guitarist still injects many of them with the ferocity we’ve come to expect from him. Wylde also shows tasteful restraint at times, too, such as the bluesy fretwork on “Forgotten Memory”.

As the sole writer of all 14 songs, producer, and having contributed all guitars, piano, organ, and vocals to the album, Book Of Shadows II represents an extremely impressive achievement for Wylde. The musician lays bare his soul and returns to the stripped down musical direction that he has consistently shown himself to be so comfortable with over the course of his career. Improving on its predecessor’s best attributes, the mellow Book Of Shadows II makes for a great collection of songs to unwind your day to.

Rating: A-

Related posts: my October 2010 review of Black Label Society’s Order Of The Black album