Latest release: Grimmest Hits (eOne)Website: www.zakkwylde.com
At first glance, the new Black Label Society album looks like a greatest hits package. But if you look a little more carefully to the right of the Reaper on the minimalist cover, the actual title is something quite different.
“Everyone was asking, ‘Is this a greatest hits record?’” Zakk Wylde says in his familiar, amiable growl. “And I said ‘No, because in order for it to a greatest hits record, it needs to have one magical ingredient: a hit song’. And we don’t have any hit songs, so the record company asked if there was going to be any hit songs on this album and I said ‘No, the future is looking rather bleak and rather grim, so we’ll go with Grimmest Hits’.”
Pity the fool who might still misread – or mis-hear – that album title though: “So anyone who listens to this album who can hear it and go, ‘I don’t hear any hit songs on this album’, I can say, ‘That’s right, jackass, because it’s called Grimmest Hits, not Greatest Hits, you idiot!’.”
The eleventh album under the Black Label Society banner is both instantly identifiable and markedly different from other albums in Wylde’s catalogue. The doom-ridden riffs and foreboding vocals give it that recognisable flavour but the trademark pinched harmonics are virtually absent from his typically rambunctious soloing. It’s enough to have had people ask him if he did it on purpose.
“I’ve been asked ‘Did you plan it this way?’ No,” he declares, “it’s just like any other Black Label album. You go in with nothing and you see what happens.”
Always a busy guy, Wylde has been more prolific than ever in the last few years. Not only is he now back from exile as Ozzy Osbourne’s right hand man but he’s spending huge blocks of time touring with his Black Sabbath tribute band Zakk Sabbath that also features Blasko Nicholson and Joey Castillo. Somehow, he still managed to get Grimmest Hits written in the small window he had available.
“I’m on tour 300 shows a year, we were doing Zakk Sabbath and at the same time I’m writing the Black Label album,” he says of the process. “How much time do I have when I get home from doing the Zakk Sabbath thing? I’ve got about 20 days. I’ve gotta write a record in 20 days! So, I’ll get up and have a cup of Java and then I’ll go out in my garage and get some practice amps and start writing some riffs.”
Riffs are something that seem to come very easy to Zakk Wylde. Lead track “Trampled Down Below” came together during a soundcheck somewhere on tour. Others fell into place just as quickly. For Wylde, the secret is to not allow things to get too complicated. Complexity is all well and good, he reasons, but he always comes back to what he calls the “Mt Rushmore of guitar riffs” – Iommi, Page and Blackmore.
“There’s an art to simplicity,” he says. “When you break down a pentatonic scale everyone can say, ‘Oh, it’s so easy to play!’ But there’s so many different variations of that, so it’s all down to how you want to approach it. I love complex stuff as well, but for me it’s Tony Iommi, Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page – “Iron Man”, “Smoke on the Water” and “Whole Lotta Love” and the simplicity of the riffs.”
At 51 there’s no question of Zakk Wylde hanging up his guitar anytime soon. Even after thirty years on the road, he still gets a thrill “every single night I’m up on stage”. He isn’t even the slightest bit jaded as his voice booms down the line. When he says he’s “living the dream”, he actually means it.
“I’m living the dream and I wouldn’t change my situation for anything. I have all the freedom in the world doing my own thing and now I’m playing with Ozzy again – I just love what I’m doing and I wouldn’t change that for anything. When we do the Zakk Sabbath thing we have a blast with that, and I always have a blast doing Black Label and then I’m out with Ozzy and doing the Generation Axe thing or the Hendrix Experience – celebrating Jimi every night – I wouldn’t change my situation for anything. This is the reason you have posters of Jimmy Page on the walls of your house, all your favourite guitar heroes and everything. This is the reason why you do it.”