Back in the late 1980s, Zakk Wylde burst onto the scene barely out of his teenage years as the replacement for Jake E. Lee in Ozzy Osbourne’s band. Famous for cultivating the best in six string talent, the opportunity not only launched his now legendary career but also established him as practically another member of the Osbourne family. His subsequent legacy has been forged through the decades by hard work and a never-ending pursuit to killer riffs and face-melting solos. In all seriousness, though, Zakk Sabbath is a tribute to the band that paved the way for us all. What Wylde and crew have managed to do is release an album to celebrate the timeless legacy of the debut self-titled album from Black Sabbath. In fact, the album will release on the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark record, this coming Friday, September 4, 2020. It is no easy task to accurately pay tribute to the most iconic, seminal album in Heavy Metal history but Wylde and crew rise to the occasion.
After the obligatory sound of rain and the solemn ringing of that ominous bell, the band explodes onto the scene over half a minute later with the title track of the album. It is a chilling moment in the faithful recreation of the song that kicked off an entire genre of music with its vanguard use of the flatted fifth, or the devil’s interval labeled as “diabolos in musica” by the church for centuries. What is perhaps the most sacred of Metal tunes is in the safest of hands. When Wylde questions “what is this that stands before me,” he is performing the invocation to a reverential yet no less powerful and spirited ceremony. What is most noticeable is the wide expanse of sound afforded in this recording. Five decades later and the concept of high fidelity is in full effect. There is no better way to learn than by experience and certainly all those years spent hanging around Ozzy Osbourne have left an indelible mark. At the 2:17 mark, Wylde’s “oh no!” echoes the oblivion of the original yet hearing Ozzy’s chosen one sing it is rewarding in and of itself. It is a jarring ride to say the least as the original vibe is retained yet the later heavy encore grants the band a chance for creative freedom. Gradually, a crescendo of desperation and dystopia sets the world spinning. Zakk does manage to stamp the tail end of the song with some of his signature pentatonic noodling and overall, it is the most promising of starts to a noble venture to pay tribute to such a landmark release.
What sells the album is the convincing yet still daring production. While some bands would be bogged down with assortments of boutique authentic amps and effects, the band approaches the situation by playing to its strengths. Zakk Sabbath is boldly unafraid to present its true face in the mix. Wylde’s guitar sound is largely the same as his usual tone, but the way it was recorded brings about a glossier version. Boosted by a penetrating mid-range, the sound of his guitar is perhaps as aggressive as it has ever been. It snarls, growls, bites, and claws its way through the album as the Viking warrior dedicates his might to the preservation of this album’s legacy. Joey Castillo proves why both the mighty Danzig and Queens of the Stone Age both tapped him to play the skins. He is a driving force that doesn’t try to clutter the sound but rather, like Bill Ward before him, creates a noticeable swing that is defined as much by the beats not played as those that are.
The performance that really steals the show here, though, is that of Rob “Blasko” Nicholson on bass. To step into the shoes of Geezer Butler is no less daunting a task than those of Iommi, Ward, or Osbourne. Butler always had a unique style heavy on runs and a larger than life sound. This performance is captured best toward the middle of the third track when he tackles the bass intro to “N.I.B.” Unlike Butler, he does not use a way pedal to enhance his performance managing to let his gargantuan tone do the talking. Personally, being a bass player caused me to pay a bit closer attention but what is achieved is universally undeniable. This achievement is more than a faithful recreation for Blasko has sculpted one of the most pristine yet biting sounds ever. The clarity is there and the growl of just the right amount of distortion grants a unique sound without overdoing it. As the swell of feedback beckons the rest of band to join in, the excitement is palpable and exhilarating. It is on this track where the vocals really soar as Wylde channels the original yet still adding his own emotive mark. As I listen intently to this moment while chronicling these impressions, the hairs on my arm stand straight up seemingly saluting the valiant effort put into the historic recreation of this masterpiece. This is beyond these guys playing in some sort of comfort zone; rather, the trio prove why they are uniquely qualified to land their talent to such a sacred offering.
Having been a longtime fan of Wylde over the years, I’ve paid close attention to the many projects he has worked on. When he released Pride and Glory back in ’94, he expanded his repertoire eventually leading to the formation of Black Label Society and their debut five years later. The unbridled fun gleaned from a return to his roots is evident in the performance captured. It is beyond the result of a professional music career, an achievement in and of itself being his longevity. This instead is a labor of love, a way to further honor the heroic band that invented Heavy Metal. Not only is this the most exciting release Wylde has had in quite some time, it is also a testament to the impact those four lads from Birmingham’s smog-filled nowhere-land had as they emphatically kicked peace, love, and flowers to the curb in favor of a sound as terrifying and revolutionary as the social atmosphere of the time. The combination of the unique qualification behind the band along with the pristine recording help make this venture a true success and a stark reminder to all where things began, the spark that started the Heavy Metal revolution.