Twenty years ago, Zakk Wylde showed the music world he wasn't just a he-man axe slinger wielding a bullseye-quivered Gibson Les Paul thunder stick. Wylde already proved himself a veritable songwriter fundamental to the success of Ozzy Osbourne's "No Rest for the Wicked", "No More Tears", "Ozzmosis" and "Black Rain" albums. PRIDE & GLORY being an unofficial springboard for Wylde's first solo album in 1996, "Book of Shadows", the writing was on the wall before BLACK LABEL SOCIETY about what a prolific writer, much less guitarist and pianist the man is.
Surviving a life-threatening bout of blood clots from past music-life excesses, Zakk Wylde has long cleaned up and broadened his horizons to include his own signature hot sauce and coffee blend, along with his recording studio, The Black Vatican. The last BLACK LABEL SOCIETY album, "Catacombs of the Black Vatican", perhaps indicating where Zakk Wylde's musical mind frame is these days, preceded this year's "Book of Shadows II" the bloodletting sequel to his solo career's first album. Neil Young, early-seventies soul, country, and blues figure into the album's game plan, where melancholia and spirituality find a pleasing habitat under Zakk Wylde's masterful arrangements.
Opener "Autumn Changes" sweeps gently, displaying some of Zakk Wylde's most mature songwriting, considering the man has long-evolved as one of the best balladeers on the scene. A song this placid coaxes the invitation to sit somewhere your feet don't touch ground and sway them within the airs of nostalgia. Following is the Neil Young-touched "Tears of December", a mopey if inherently charming roll down a private, quiet path Zakk's seen firsthand and wants his listeners to fully revel in. It drifts into the soulful "Lay Me Down", where Zakk's twanging guitar revolutions and buoyant choruses elevate the mood as the song lyrically serves as a healing stone for anyone coming to it. Though Wylde has kept his electric solos to a minimum on the opening two numbers, here he let's it not only rip, but speak. What that solo has to say is acutely emotive, as do the ones on "Harbors of Pity", "Sorrowed Regret" and "Eyes of Burden".
Keeping his leisurely soul train moving on the splendid "Lost Prayer" with a terrific sprawling melody behind Wylde's poised singing, the song offers a spiritual foundation as does the next number, "Darkest Hour". Despite its sullen, low-tuned slog, "Darkest Hour" is about facing life's challenges with grace. Wylde figuratively opens his wrists on the resonant "Yesterday's Tears", one of the heaviest (heavy in the emotional connotation) numbers of the album.
Wylde drops a fragrant Jimi Hendrix (keeping in mind Wylde performed on the "Experience Hendrix Tour" in 2014 and named one of his children Hendrix) totter into "Forgotten Memory"". He blows country-kissed breezes overtop "The Levee" and "Harbors of Pity", while meshing folk, country and soul into the reverential "Sleeping Dogs".
As with the original "Book of Shadows", substance versus vigor is the operative word. With twenty years between the two albums, the obvious strides the always-talented Zakk Wylde has made as a songwriter gives this one a slight edge. A lot of life and life changes have occurred as well, giving "Book of Shadows II" deeper introspection that even Wylde himself might've thought possible. This is beautiful music derived from a grizzly bear of a man (deserving of a cameo appearance in "The Revenant") who has inherited a special beam from the sky and translated it into a lithe and empathetic musical sit-down with his fans.