Black Label Society has hopes to break out big

Zakk Wylde has never been one to fly under the proverbial radar screen.

After all, it appeared to be a nearly impossible task for Wylde to escape the notice of metal-heads worldwide when in 1988, at 19, he seemed to emerge from nowhere as the personally selected axeman of metal god Ozzy Osbourne.

Fans were quick to sense greatness from the burly, whirling dervish of hair shredding away on stage next to the Prince of Darkness. And soon the New Jersey native's propensity for delivering explosive, mind-bending power guitar licks had him being hailed as metal's next can't-miss talent.

In regards to the radar screen, Wylde simply smashed it for good measure as he skyrocketed to fame and acclaim.

Despite all the early attention, Wylde wasn't content with merely lending his distinct, pentatonic riff-laden guitar tone to Osbourne. In 1998, after a string of successful albums with Osbourne, including 1991's No More Tears, Wylde branched out. He formed Black Label Society and released Sonic Brew the following year.

Though BLS is billed as a band, Wylde handles songwriting, vocal and lead guitar duties and has been the one constant member throughout its history, making it essentially his project. While maintaining his membership in Osbourne's band, Wylde has managed to keep fans of his baby pleased thanks to the prolific pace of Black Label Society releases. He has pumped out six studio albums and one live disc since BLS's inception.

Artemis Records noticed the louder-than-usual buzz surrounding BLS in recent years — no doubt partly due to the band's appearances at Ozzfest and the popularity of MTV's Ozzy-based reality show, "The Osbournes" — and recently signed the band to a multi-album contract. Artemis released BLS's label debut, Mafia, earlier this month, and Wylde looks poised to break out big thanks to his newfound major-label support.

However, BLS — which should overcome the Rave's Eagles Club with sonic "brewtality" Wednesday — doesn't look to be making the move to the big time with its strongest material.

Unlike 2003's The Blessed Hellride and April's Hangover Music Vol. VI, which produced rock radio standouts "Stillborn" and "House of Doom," respectively, none of Mafia's 14 tracks manage to rise to the same unforgettable level of the band's most recent hits.

The album's first single, "Suicide Messiah," finds Wylde layering his menacing growl over pummeling, time-tested riffs and solos — much as he's done before.

The song will no doubt become a hit — it's become the most added track at U.S. rock radio stations and has already seen play on MTV2's "Headbanger's Ball" — but there's little to distinguish it from other middle-of-the road fare that comprises the meat of Mafia.

The album, of course, isn't without merit. "In This River," a slow-paced piano-driven number that finds Wylde singing — not growling or screaming — stands as Mafia's best thanks to Wylde fully exposing his often underutilized talent as a heart-wrenching vocalist. "Dirt on the Grave" comes in a close second for the same reason, and both tracks stand as refreshing changes of pace from Mafia's track-to-track repetitiveness.

Reservations aside, Mafia and the current tour represent a turn back toward unabashed metal after last April's Hangover Music, a mellower, heavily acoustic CD meant to give metal-heads something to listen to while they fight through the remnants of last night's alcohol binge. Though he misfired a bit with Mafia, Wylde's live show is one to behold for any fan of metal or guitar pyrotechnics.

With that said, let the headbanging begin.

Black Label Society performs with opener Meldrum at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Rave, 2401 W. Wisconsin Ave. Tickets are $18.

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Mar. 17 2005.