Quick, name the guitarist whose previous albums have sold more than Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and AC/DC combined. Hint: It’s not Zakk Wylde.
“Let’s just tell everyone that anyway,” says the guitarist, before launching into a long conversation about other small white lies he’d like stated as fact (including his bench press and a certain anatomy size).
Zakk’s one funny dude, but take the guy seriously: he’s also a phenomenally successful musician and a certified metal deity (see below). For over 20 years he served as Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist, a collaboration that produced a string of multi-platinum albums, including Osbourne’s biggest selling album No More Tears (Wylde wrote all of the music) and Ozzmosis. His band, Black Label Society, is on the verge of releasing its eighth (and best) studio album, Order of the Black, a cacophony of heavy riffing, heartfelt ballads and thunderous metal. After years as a mainstay on Ozzfest (including this year!), Black Label is about to embark on its own headlining festival tour, entitled The Black Label Berzerkus. And, in the last few months, Wylde was anointed both a Golden God by Metal Hammer and a Best Guitarist Award by Revolver, two metal bibles essentially bestowing their highest honor on a guy who hasn’t released new material in four years. And hey, Wylde’s even got his own custom guitar lines for Gibson and Epiphone, which includes the signature Gibson Les Paul with a bulls-eye graphic that you may have seen used recently by none other than…Justin Bieber guitarist Dan Kanter*.
That’s an impressive resume right there, whether it includes out-selling Zeppelin and the Stones or not (note: it doesn’t). The back story to that is even nuttier – and the stuff of heavy metal legend. Born and raised in New Jersey, Wylde picked up the guitar at 14 and started playing in a few local bands during and after high school, earning his stripes in a group called Zyris and making ends meet in a series of menial jobs (including gas station attendant). A fortuitous run-in with a rock photographer helped land Wylde an audition with Ozzy Osbourne, who was looking for a new guitarist. Wylde couldn’t believe he got the gig; the 20-year old soon found out he was joining the ranks of Tony Iommi, Randy Rhoads and Jake E. Lee as Ozzy’s right hand man.
Several gigantic albums and multiple stadium tours followed. During his off-time, Wylde completed a solo record, an album under the name Pride & Glory, and, in 1999, formed his own group, Black Label Society, which went on to earn its own fervent fanbase (known as the Berzerkers) over the course of eight albums.
This, you pretty much know...but the last twelve months have seen Wylde’s life radically altered. First, doctors discovered blood clots in his leg. “The doc was like, ‘you have, what, a drink a day?’ Six? 12? A case?’ I’m like, ‘It’s a liquid diet,’” says Wylde, laughing. “I mean, I’d drink beer while lifting weights. That’s Black Label Society style for you right there. But the doc told me if I kept this up, I’d be dead by the time I was 50. So I stopped drinking. No big deal.”
Then, the second bomb dropped. Osbourne, Wylde’s boss and mentor since 1988, announced he was looking for a new guitarist. “I heard that, and to me, hey, the glass was half-full,” he says. “It’s like, thanks for letting me be there for 23 years! I’ll always cherish that. What more could Ozzy do for me at this point?” As if to prove a lack of animosity, Wylde and BLS will perform on this summer’s Ozzfest tour before heading out on their own. “I look at it this way: instead of 24-7, Black Label Society is now my life 25-8,” he says.
For the new Black Label Society record, Wylde recorded with his bandmate JD DeServio and new drummer Will Hunt in his home studio, dubbed the Black Label Bunker. “I gutted the whole place, made it state-of-the-art, mixed and recorded there – the whole thing came out slammin’,” he says, adding that he plans to bring in other bands to record there for his own record label, Panworkz.
Order of the Black, the band’s eighth album, isn’t a radical departure from the band’s previous work – it’s simply a refinement. There are brutal riffs (“Crazy Horse”), Southern doom (“Southern Dissolution”), gentle contemplation (the piano ballads “Darkest Days” and “Time Waits for No One”) and epic thrash (“Godspeed Hellbound”). The album’s first single, “Parade of the Dead,” meanwhile, features some vintage shredding from Wylde (or, as one very satisfied Berzerker posted online, “It’s a bit Randy Rhoads-ian. I love it!”)…as well as one wicked, bad-ass groove.
While tracks like “Darkest Days” and “Shallow Grave” may portend a darker, more personal record, Wylde doesn’t necessarily see the album going one particular direction, be it heavier, moodier or lighter. “It’s just whatever the songs are,” says Wylde. “I hate bands who are like ‘This is our heaviest yet’…so it’s just picking and screaming now? Or, ‘this is the fastest guitar playing I’ve ever done.’ Then you’re listening to notes. My favorite artists – Zeppelin, Sabbath, Elton John – the whole thing is songs. Back in Black wasn’t the heaviest or most vulgar AC/DC album – it has the best songs.”
Wylde will head out on the road later this year on the inaugural Berzerkus tour, featuring a number of heavy bands he’s befriended over the years, including Clutch, Children of Bodom and 2cents. “I’m always running into them, and I thought it would be an awesome excuse to get together,” he says. “It’s going to be a tour of insanity, drunkenness (well, not for me) and dysfunction, that’s for sure.”
So with a new album, headlining package tour and two of metal’s biggest accolades, what’s next for the guitarist? “Chinese Democracy 2,” he says. “What Axl did was nothing. I was gone for four years before this album, and suddenly I’m a Golden God and metal’s Best Guitarist. Next time I’m gonna go away for 15 years and come back with a Pulitzer and a Nobel Peace Prize.”
* FYI, Wylde only has admiration for Bieber and his guitarist, Dan Kanter. “Right now, I think a bunch of people see me on stage and think I’m playing a Dan Kanter guitar,” he says, laughing. “All I know is, right after that photo came out of him with that guitar, our Twitter feed went from 20,000 to like 18 million. We’re bringing a lot of young chicks into the dark side.”