Not the unplugged gig you’re expecting

Zakk is back and this release that reinterprets material and bonus tracks from different territories for the Order of the Black CD in an unplugged format should have some legs to it.

The title is about as subtle as a brick in referencing Led Zep, the cover art promises some retro goodness and the inside booklet has various tongue-in-cheek runic symbols for various band members. Even with a stack of musical instrument manufacturer endorsements he still has a down to earth sense of humour. The main players are of course Zakk on vocals, guitar and piano with John Deservio on bass and backing vocals whilst Will Hunt smacks the drums.

It kicks off with “Overlord” as acoustic guitar melds with distorted electric guitar solo fills and the odd harmonic. Zakk’s low end Ozzy-style vocal drawl gives off a commanding baritone before the guitar solo leads with strong sustain and even dashes of wah pedal over the chorus, filling out the rhythm figure. It’s not the unplugged gig you’re expecting. His electric style has fast pentatonic runs and playful vibrato that overlaps in patterns creating a fluid feel. Taking off the muso hat, he plays bloody good guitar leads.

Second BLS reworking comes with “Parade of the Dead” which uses piano and strings against the not so subtle vocals. The point is, there is a sense of fading up quieter instruments and lowering the paint stripping of the original. There is bass, cymbals and plenty of piano tinkering that leads into a wicked guitar solo with wide vibrato. Still, the way it goes back into a slow piece and ends on bass piano notes takes some adaption.

The following two songs from the Order sessions are interesting. Firstly “Riders of the Damned” has a power ballad feel whilst “Darkest Days” turns up again later in a slightly changed delivery. However, the former uses piano and acoustic guitar to open before a viola or similar instrument with slow drums leads to doubled vocals into the chorus. Okay, the feedback ushers in some guitar solo gold mining for notes with expressive wah but it’s all too brief before the chorus is back again.

As for “Darkest Days”, this is some quality stuff and stripping it back to acoustic guitar and clear vocals brings out the bright vocal melody. Repeating the rhythm enhances that plus the addition of a great plucked acoustic with a mandolin part makes it a winner. Near the end of the album another version of the same song appears but with country singer John Rich on vocals. There is more instrumentation such as piano playing with drums and more reverb on the vocals as opposed to basic acoustic guitar. There is a more slick rock production to it making it interesting to compare with the other versions. The pedal steel remains intact but it comes off slightly as a bit of a showcase. Oh well.

Backtracking to when the cover songs kick in, Sabbath’s “Junior’s Eyes” is very Southern rock to the point where it almost has some Skynyrd to it. The “woohoo” backing vocals and piano against the robust leads might push the overall feel of the song but this is something of a tribute to Ozzy and Sabs-era variety. It shows an appreciation of a wider musicianship, not a dive into obscurity, so hats off for that one.

Whilst covering Neil Young’s “Helpless” has some Dylan-esque vibe to it and the vocals sound mildly strained, Zakk has a keen sense of timing here and it works well. So many bands cover Neil and it sometimes seems a bit trite but in this instance, Zakk reaches for some strong delivery. Look at is this way, a metal guitar god is more likely to decompress to Elton and Neil tunes on a tour bus instead of cranking endless metal. The smoother vocals and piano show Zakk’s aptitude with ballads.

Risking some metalhead wrath is not about to bother Zakk so covering Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” cannot be that much of surprise. A good song is exactly that so deal with it. As an extra on the Australian release of the Order of the Black album, I’m sure the odd metaller didn’t get the point. Zakk shows his varying influences from country to folk classics and good on him. The vocal production is impressive and it adds a change of pace before covering Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”. Upbeat with bouncy strings and vocals spot on the melody line, some more electric guitar is added to wake up anyone drifting off into sleepy territory. A fast outro solo with the stinging tone rolled back lets the beast off the chain before fading out with some piano. Certainly a highlight of the covers sections of the album.

In the true spirit of things, the last track on the album is a rendition of a Christmas standard “The First Noel”. It is flamenco on steroids and as an instrumental piece, romps through as both a tribute to Zakk’s well known guitar legend influences whilst also showing how much his guitar abilities are from seriously well honed hard work. Piano, mandolin, doubling harmonies and with a good chunk of blues to it, Zakk sounds like he’s having fun whilst paying his respects.

The album includes some honest recordings right down to the audible fret buzz. Even if some of it is lifted remixes there is a general sense of creativity. Acoustic releases are probably going to become more regular for Zakk as the style lends itself a new creative outlet that maybe straight up, ball tearing metal, which he’s done better than most, maybe restricts. The contrast between piano ballads and ripping guitar solos is not unique but in the hands of Zakk, this is worth exploring.

1. Overlord
2. Parade of the Dead
3. Riders of the Damned
4. Darkest Days
5. Junior’s Eyes
6. Helpless
7. Bridge Over Troubled Water
8. Can’t Find My Way Home
9. Darkest Days
10. The First Noel