Review: Black Label Society ‘Unblackened’ is a Gift to Diehard Fans

For twenty years, Zakk Wylde has been the axe-man’s axe-man. After the departure (firing) of Jake E Lee in 1987, Wylde became Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist, collaborating with the Black Sabbath frontman on some of his biggest selling albums. Outside of that, Wylde accrued legions of fans with Black Label Society, a blues based, guitar driven rock band that adopted the imagery of an outlaw biker gang. Their hellion nature, and good time rock, made them a staple at Ozzfest, and allowed them to put out nine albums over the last fifteen years.

This brings us to Unblackened, an experimental record, in as much as a band like BLS would attempt one. Don’t fret fans, Wylde hasn’t suddenly gone German Dance Pop or mathematical prog metal, he’s just taken songs from the band’s lengthy career, and approached them from a different angle. Unblackened is a live album. Recorded at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles, the record finds BLS stripping down their songs, and replacing huge rock for something a bit more nuanced.

Helping Wylde on this endeavor is longtime bassist/vocalist John DeServio, plus new drummer Chad Szeliga, Nick Catanase also on guitar, and Derek Sherinian on keyboard. The double disc album, which is also available with a live DVD, could be a BLS lover’s dream. All their favorite jams, including “The Blessed Hellride”, “In This River”, “Stillborn”, and about twenty four others, are all present and accounted for.

What makes Unblackened a nice surprise for the faithful is the way the tunes are rearranged. “”Stillborn”, which is a smash mouth rocker, is nearly unrecognizable here. Wylde and crew turn it into a ballad. Not a cheesy ballad, but one along the lines of, say, Bob Seeger’s “Turn The Page” or something of that ilk. “Machine Gun Man”, while not as stunningly redirected as “Stillborn”, is still different. Not quite as saturated with dirty guitars, the riff is cleaner, the vibe of the song more intimate than the original. Whether changing the songs immensely, or simply giving them a small club feel, BLS strives to express something different with each new incarnation.

The draw of Unblackened is powerful. I enjoyed both discs and I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Black Label Society fan. Bluesy bar rock, no matter how well played, holds no interest for me, and I find most of BLS’s work to be boring, while their live presence, at times, comes dangerously close to self-parody. Going into Unblackened feeling that way, but still enjoying the record, convinces me the die-hard fan will be salivating over the whole project. Even if don’t care for BLS on a whole, I applaud their intentions here, and give Unblackened a thumbs up.

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