The bluesy, immersive new album from legendary metal viking Zakk Wylde is reminiscent of the old story about Robert Johnson, who disappeared and then returned to his home town playing fiendishly great guitar. People thought that he’d been touched by the devil. The parallel is striking. I chatted to Wylde recently about his latest offering Book of Shadows II, Black Sabbath and Magpies. The Johnson story often makes me wonder whether the that kind of mythology in blues music is the thing that connects blues with heavy metal? Is the intrinsic link between blues and metal actually Satan?
“I would say definitely, especially with smooth jazz and, you know, black metal.”
Wylde’s sound and aesthetic is intrinsically heavy metal. But I wanted to know whether multi-instrumentalist purist was always drawn towards the hard rock and metal sound, or were there other potent memories of music from childhood that impacted his career later on.
“I think everyone is a bi-product of all the music that they listen to, and the music that they love, the music that moves them. As a kid, my first childhood music that that really touched me was Elton John. The first time I heard Elton John playing Lucy in the ‘Sky with Diamonds’. That was huge for me. that was really the first moment in my life where I actually got chills and actually realised the power of music. I became a huge Elton John fan after that, and I still am. The music on Book of Shadows II is just a reflection of all the music that I just love listening to, the music that inspired me.”
There is a deep melancholy to the songwriting on Book of Shadows II. It is a pensive meditation on transition, on seasons changing – “Like the fallen leaves/and the memory of what you’ve become.” It’s a musing on being submerged in your own thoughts and biting self-reflection.
But there are also parts that are really uplifting. I asked Zakk whether he feels it is possible to express both these things in one song, or whether a song either can only encompass one feeling of sadness or one feeling of joy.
“I think that’s the beautiful thing about music. Watching the world go by, solving the problems of the world. Awesome metal stuff that you’re just chilling out, listening to. So Book of Shadows [II} that’s what it kind of is, a compilation of a bunch of favourite songs together, and you just put ‘em on, and listen. That’s what the record is. You want to listen to mellow stuff, put this record on and just chill out.
A deeply-felt theme in Book of Shadows II, especially in tracks like ‘Sleeping Dogs’, is around reflecting on loss. So much wonderful music is about coming to terms with loss. I wondered whether making this album and dealing with those kinds of themes was a cathartic process for Wylde, or just an inherently sad one.
“I base life on strength, and how tough you are. It’s the truth. Everyone gets kicked in a hole, it’s just a matter of whether you get back up. Everybody gets knocked down, but it’s when you get knocked on your arse, now we’re gonna see how fucking tough you really are. Life’s about conquering and moving on.”
Both Wylde and Black Label Society have a knack for doing covers. There are some really powerful metal covers, Pantera doing ‘Planet Caravan’ by Sabbath coming to mind immediately as I write this. I asked Wylde when he chooses to do a cover, does the original song have to really speak to him and stand alone, or is it possible to grab a fairly average song and re-invent it as a cover?
“I think there’s no right way and no wrong way. The two ways you just described it are both doable. I could ask you to do a cover of something and you could be like I don’t know, that song really doesn’t do anything for me, but I could give it to you and you could just turn it into something amazing.”
Does it follow then that all of Wylde’s covers were of original songs that were powerful and loved by him?
“Oh yeah, without a doubt. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, ‘Heart of Gold’…”
In my opinion Black Label Society’s cover of Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ is definitely up there. They recently toured Australia, and I wanted to know if their impression of our moshpits is similar to those I’ve heard expressed by other metal musicians. Do Australian crowds behave a lot worse in the pit compared to crowds internationally, is it a different vibe?
“No not at all, I’ve always had a great time. The first time I came down there with Ozzy, and then when we went back there with Black Label Society, we’ve always had a great time. Everybody’s super cool so the only experience I’ve had is of a great night and a lot of laughs.”
In the metal documentary ‘Metal: A Headbangers Journey,’ an anthropologist has done an amazing map which lays out all the genres and subgenres of metal, and groups the bands together in clusters. In that map everything starts with Black Sabbath. Having been Ozzy Osbourne’s long-time guitarist Wylde is in a good position to discuss their significance.
“Without a doubt, that’s where it starts for sure, the whole genre. I always say that the Mozart of hard rock riffs, of the whole genre of music is Tony Iommi, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore. If you learn classical music you learn something of Beethoven and Mozart. In your musical education, you either learn a piece of theirs or you learn their music…whether you have a Model T Ford or a Formula One racecar, it’s based off a Model T Ford. So I think those three can be compared to Mozart and helped shape the genre.”
I have a baby bird I’ve been looking after, a magpie, (had to ask him whether magpies are even a thing in America). I named him Osbourne and I’ve been playing him Sabbath and he seems to really like it. He likes Bach, and Black Sabbath.
“Well there you go. He’s a very smart bird.”
Book of Shadows II is available now via Spinefarm Records
Read Wall of Sound’s review of the album, here
Interview By Claire Antagonym