Black Label Society
Doom Crew Inc. (2LP)
Funny thing about the bands and/or projects launched by guitarists, they tend to focus heavily on guitar. It is not uncommon, for example, for songs on such albums to feature extended examinations of the guitar as the central thematic and sonic element of every composition; the instrument functions more as the spine of the songs than the drums or bass or piano do. One needn’t look further than albums by acts like Coverdale Page, Van Halen, Pink Floyd or Black Sabbath to find evidence of the guitar as a driving creative force in composition, and that could easily be said of most of the albums released by Black Label Society – the project helmed by Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde – except that, on their eleventh studio album, Doom Crew Inc., Wylde and company are clearly trying to re-frame their sound and push the music in directions which actually feel more songwriterly than instrumentally focused.
Granted, there is still a hell of a lot of guitar on Doom Crew Inc., but the twelve cuts which comprise Doom Crew Inc. seek to clearly firm up form instead of just “making art” by extending solos.
There’s no question that Doom Crew Inc. will have snagged listeners’ undivided attention from the moment “Set You Free” opens the A-side of the album. There, a startlingly lush and sonically dense acoustic guitar opens the running with some penitent arpeggios before absolutely smashing them over the head with a wave of electric guitar tones which may actually make listeners do a double-take; the assault is unbelievable, but that it was preceded by such beauty and delicacy is a great foil which will win listeners’ undivided attention, easily. From there, Wilde illustrates that he obviously learned the technique with which he delivers vocals from Ozzy (utilizing doubled vocals for depth, and then split with a slightly higher third part which slices through the mix like a scalpel), but vocals are undeniably a breed apart; lines like “The passage of time/ For I have always been/ through shadows of doubt/ / Agin and again/ All that you wished/ All that you’d need/ Abandon your regrets/ And then you’ll see” betray a level of craft and care that Black Label Society has simply never exhibited before. Not only that but the combination of those lyrics coupled with a slightly deeper instrumental tone (Wilde has always been a premier purveyor of crunchy guitars, but the contrast against an acoustic performance feels really fresh) present a sound capable of taking and holding listeners in a way from which there is no escape.
With that first impression made, Black Label Society treads a little closer to Black Sabbath’s tonal territory with the far more manic-feeling rhythm guitar figure found in “Destroy & Conquer,” and its accompanying frenetic lead guitar before touching onto what feels like a cold-as-ice phaser part on “You Made Me Want To Live” which gets backed with some crushing distortion to great effect, similar to how Soundgarden used to contrast similar sounds. Such moments as those are certainly not to be missed, and will have listeners waiting by their turntables in order to flip the record to its B-side in hopes of keeping the vibe up, seamlessly.
…Except that isn’t exactly how it works out. “Forever and a Day” opens the B-side of Doom Crew Inc. with some surprisingly poetic lyrics (check out “You say you’ve found all that you’ve lost/ Just like a stone that sits upon the gathered moss” – seriously, these lyrics are an inventive exercise in trite) as well as a startlingly articulate piano performance before touching on some other Soundgarden-esque terrain with “End of Days” and then closing out LP1 with “Ruins” – easily one of the best songs the band has recorded to date. Throughout “Ruins,” five-and-a-half-minute running, Zakk Wilde questions where he is and what more the world may have done for him (see “Have I lost myself/ Have I lost my soul/ As I drift so far/ So far from home”) in a very existential way that it would be impossible to expect the guitarist to sustain. Again – as was the case with the flip between A- and B-sides, listeners will find their expectations even further heightened as they change platters to find the C-side of Doom Crew Inc.
The C-side of the album is the one which opens with a crotch-grabbing standard from Black Label Society, entitled “Forsaken,” in this case. There, BLS touch all the bases for a sure, fan-pleasin’ hard rockin’ hit, and will leave listeners in fits of (very vocal) appreciation when they ride through it; on an album characterized by really solid songs, “Forsaken” is the standout gem. After that, “Love Reign Down” feels like a bit of a lull in the action as Wylde puts his guitar down and sits at a piano for a ballad – not a power ballad but a genuinely heartfelt song – and then “Gospel of Lies” stamps in and out again like a dinosaur to close out the side. Very much (again) what fans expect of Black Label Society, “Gospel of Lies” plats fan service very, very well to close out the side and ensures that listeners will be onboard to flip the proverbial disc, one more time.
…And, on the D-side, Black Label Society keeps the fan service flowing with the rock colors flying through “Shelter Me” before burning the house they’ve built to the ground with “Gather All My Sins” and then finally closing Doom Crew Inc.down with the aptly entitled “Farewell Ballad” – except Wylde and the band don’t make it easy on fans to get away from them; assembled in a manner which could fit easily on a mixtape between cuts by Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Pantera, “Farewell Ballad” weaves a beautiful song together that has Wilde making believers out of listeners when he confides that he’ll be waiting, and doesn’t want to say goodbye to anyone, anymore.
When “Farewell Ballad” closes and the needle lifts, some listeners may find that they have to remember to blink pretty hard to shake themselves out of the places that Black Label Society has taken them through, on Doom Crew Inc. Without intending to downplay anything the band has done or accomplish to this point in their career, the conglomerated result of what Black Label Society has done on Doom Crew Inc. finds the band standing atop a new peak, peerlessly. It’ll be interesting to see what that new stature might yield next. [Bill Adams]
Black Label Society – Doom Crew Inc. – “Set You Free” – [Video]
Doom Crew Inc. is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.