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The idealistic intention behind any solo album (in the case of this review, specifically of a solo effort from a member of an established band) is to create songs unique to the individual’s particular muse, rather than emulate the sound of the group from which they’ve received their notoriety, proceeding to merely add their own spin to things. It is in this sense that Ozzy Osbourne’s solo material is a success (idealistically) because he created material that did not sound like Black Sabbath rehashed. Inversely, Rob Halford’s solo material is not because his songs sound more like an extension of Judas Priest’s Painkiller album than his own personal direction (though one could of course argue that perhaps that sound was indeed his own expression, I find that rather unlikely considering the similarities between the two projects). Though the departure might not always be accepted by fans (a number of which would probably prefer a release that doesn’t challenge their viewpoint on a given artist’s creative potential i.e. Halford’s unadventurous solo outings), I retain my notion that a solo album that defies expectations based on an artist’s previous output has lived up to the ideals of what a solo album is supposed to be, regardless of whether I actually enjoy the material or not. If there’s clear integrity behind the music, the least it deserves is respect.
This brings me to the topic at hand: Zakk Wylde’s only solo album Book of Shadows. As the previous reviews have stated, it sounds nothing like his material from Black Label Society or Ozzy Osbourne. In fact, the best label I can apply to Book of Shadows is “alternative southern rock.” The first impression I got upon listening to album opener “Between Heaven and Hell” was of classic American folk rockers like Neil Young and Tom Petty (the song is acoustic and features a nice harmonica hook), but with a modern sheen to it that calls to mind groups like Counting Crows or Days of the New. Most of the album is acoustic, with piano and violin accompaniments from time to time, while Zakk swoons overtop (the Counting Crows comparison definitely applies to his voice; he sounds just like that guy) in a manner that’s surprisingly emotive for the singer of BLS. And why shouldn’t he? This is a sad album, consisting of mellow songs composed from loneliness and heartbreak, and Zakk proves he’s just the man to provide the soundtrack to your depression. Fuck that emo bullshit that plagues the radio these days, THIS is emotional music done properly.
Now while most of the album is acoustic rock, there are still distorted guitars that arise from time to time, enabling Zakk to add a little edge to the balladry and wrench tears from passerby with his outstanding solo work. This is where the alternative label comes into play, as the occasional distortion elevates this out of Counting Crows territory and into the realm of grunge/alternative rock (this album did come out in ’95 after all). Tracks like “1,000,000 Miles Away” work a vibe that channels Our Lady Peace and Pearl Jam, even calling to mind Oleander at points (though they existed later and probably never heard of this). And the super heavy palm-muted chords in “I Thank You Child” literally come out of nowhere, as the song is only acoustic, piano and vox up to that point.
Now I’m generally open-minded, have a soft spot for certain quality 90’s alternative bands, and love Tom Petty, so this album is not just listenable for me, but fairly enjoyable. I’m not inflating its score any higher because it’s not that great; there are plenty of better albums in this style floating around out there, including some from the artists mentioned above. But Zakk Wylde gets a newfound respect from me that he has duly earned. He put out material that he wanted to put out without giving a shit whether his fans would enjoy it or not. That is artistic integrity and I declare it good.
Recommended for the open-minded listener with the fair warning for any uninitiated Wylde fanboys expecting 78 minutes of pretentious wankery and sludgy down-tuned metal not to get their hopes up and limit the man’s potential to guitar hero clichés and monotonous riff recycling.