Images: Justin Reich
Heavy metal and the acoustic guitar don’t cross paths very often, apart from the occasional MTV power ballad delivered with a fan blowing through the player’s lustrous mane and spotlights glinting off his spandex – but sometimes, just sometimes, the two work in combination. Zakk Wylde of Black Label Society, a band which is both ‘heavy’ and ‘metal’ in much the same way that the surface of the sun is a bit warm, is one of the few guitarists of the headbanging persuasion who can pull this acoustic trick off. Just see his new album, Book Of Shadows II, for confirmation.
“It’s been 20 years since the first Book Of Shadows album,” sniggers Wylde, an intimidating but affable chap largely made up of beard and muscles, “and so my whole thing was that Chinese Democracy took Guns N’ Roses 15 years to make. I figured ‘Let’s see if we can beat 15 years and go 20!’ Once we got to the 20-year mark I said ‘We can go make the record now’…”
Demand has been high for a follow-up to the original acoustic album, recorded in 1996 during a break from Wylde’s day job with Ozzy Osbourne, the rock icon in whose band he played a key role from 1987 to 1995 and again from 2001 to 2009.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” says the great man, “because all the years that we’ve been touring since the first album came out, all the Black Label chapters – whether it’s in London, Boston, or Canada or South America or wherever – have been asking me, ‘Dude, are you ever gonna get around to making another one of those Book Of Shadows records?’ and I’d be like, ‘Well, in between cleaning the dog run, changing diapers, ensuring world peace and all that other stuff I have to do, maybe we can fit one of those albums in before brunch.’”
It’s been worth the wait. Book Of Shadows II is a subtle, nuanced set of tunes, on which Wylde plays the rhythm tracks on acoustic guitar, plays solos on electric and adds orchestration too. The opening song, ‘Autumn Changes’, is a genuine earworm: hear it once and you’ll be humming all day. He chuckles when I tell him this, explaining: “To me, songs always have to have some depth and weight to them. As long as you’re living and breathing, new bullshit happens in your life, and you can always write about it in a song. Lyrics either come from that, or something that’s happened to me, or to friends, or something that I read about in someone’s autobiography or something.”
Wylde is dismissive of the effort that went into the album, perhaps because he’s been so prolific across his career so far (eight live and studio albums with Ozzy, no fewer than 13 with Black Label Society, two solo albums and God knows how many DVDs, compilations and guest appearances along the way) and so he finds songwriting easy. But there’s a lot of songwriting, arranging and performing skill in these songs, a good example being ‘The King’, where Wylde arranged a string ensemble for keyboards.
“The way I do the strings on my Korg,” he explains, “is I just write out the cello parts, then I add the viola bit and then I do the violins: they all have their own space. It’s just like writing charts. It’s a lot of fun. I love the whole process. I tried using real string musicians on our Unblackened album (2013) but it was a total disaster. The string players didn’t have any sheet music, and they were like ‘What do we do here? It doesn’t say how many bars we play for’ and I said ‘We improvise. The jam might be four minutes long, it might be eight minutes long. Just keep playing the same thing.’
“They said ‘We don’t understand’ and I said ‘Just keep playing A minor, G and F!’ and they said ‘We still don’t understand. How many times do we play it?’ and I said ‘Just keep playing it until we look at you!’ It was a fuckin’ nightmare so, in the end we got Derek Sherinian, who used to be in Dream Theater, to do it on a keyboard.”
To read the full interview pick up a copy of Acoustic 117 in stores now, or at www.virtualnewsagent.com