Zakk Wylde is a postmodern metal god. Or perhaps a modern post-metal god. With his long, flowing hair and beard, bulging muscles, and Les Paul wielded like a battle ax, he is a figure straight out of mythology. His story mines Joseph Campbell territory as well: A working-class kid from Jersey one day receives the call from God (Ozzy Osbourne — well, Sharon, actually) and his life is changed forever.
From odd jobs in gas stations and supermarkets to sold-out stadiums around the world, Osbourne’s musical right-hand man and the heir apparent to Randy Rhoads’s throne (the most coveted position in the metal guitar pantheon), Wylde became a minor deity overnight, anointed by the Prince of Darkness himself. Since that day the figure of Oz has loomed large in Wylde’s career: the vocalist playing Jehovah to the guitarist’s Noah, Ozzy the Allfather to Zakk’s Thor, the Godfather to his Sonny. Literally — Osbourne is the godfather of Wylde’s son.
But Wylde’s newfound glory was threatened by history. His call had come in the late 1980s, just as metal’s star was dimming in the mass market. Within a few years it was totally eclipsed by the poppy neo-punk of Nirvana and their legions of imitators. Wylde, rather than cutting his hair and going flannel (as so many metal apologists did in those dark years), retained his locks and Samson-like strength in an era of cultivated weakness and whiny shoe-gazing, and kept the faith.
He didn’t retreat into the metal ghetto, however — he wasn’t content to preach to the converted. Instead, he embraced his unique position at the crossroads of generations of popular heavy rock music. Both his songwriting and playing style reflect this, and he freely incorporates the past and present of the oeuvre, from before metal’s heyday through its zenith, and after. He has an uncanny ability to invoke the swagger of southern rock, as on “Lowdown,�? from Black Label Society’s Alcohol Fueled Brewtality Live (Spitfire, 2001); the sentimental mush of the power ballad, displayed on “In This River,” from BLS’s Mafia (Artemis, 2005); acoustic neo-folk earthiness, as heard on “Spoke in the Wheel,” from his solo Sonic Brew (Spitfire, 1999); and good old-fashioned chunk-a-chunk (see “Suicide Messiah,” also from Mafia). But his music is more melting-pot than balkanized, more stew than pastiche, and he never loses the spirit of metal.
In addition, for many Osbourne fans, Wylde is the most worthy replacement yet for the late, great guitarist Rhoads. Rhoads helped launch Osbourne’s solo career in the early 1980s and in the process redefined heavy metal guitar playing and songwriting by incorporating classically inspired harmonies and virtuosity with strong pop songwriting instincts. His tragic death in 1982 left a void that has never really been filled, though Osbourne would continue to perform and record with various other guitar players. With Wylde, Osbourne finally found one who could serve as a worthy long-term collaborator and their musical relationship, though on-and-off over the years for assorted reasons, has produced some of the strongest and most consistent work Osbourne has made since his first two records with Rhoads.
The guitarists’ playing styles vary: Wylde’s huge sound and rhythmic feel are his main weapons — as opposed to Rhoads’s awesome technique and interesting scale choices — yet he can shred when he needs to and is clearly influenced by his legendary predecessor. Their writing styles differ as well; Wylde’s is more riff-based and bluesy than that of Rhoads, who tended to employ more gothic chord changes than static riffs (compare “No More Tears” with, say, “Mr. Crowley”). Yet in his collaborations with Wylde, Osbourne finally seemed to find the chemistry and energy that had been missing since Rhoads’s untimely passing.
Throughout his career, Wylde has maintained his perspective while high in heavy metal Valhalla. He has accepted his role in history and moved beyond the stylistic camps and divisions of hard rock, tracing the historic threads that tie Hendrix to Rhoads to Dimebag, redefining metal as the sum of its various fractions, fluid and constantly in play, and finding its unifying truth in its many separate and antagonistic truths. Call him the postmodernist’s metal hero, the mythologist’s new immortal, the modern headbanger’s best hope for salvation. Remember his role when he plays guitar with Osbourne on the main stage at this year’s Ozzfest and fronts with his own band, Black Label Society, on the second stage. Expect him to embody his metal warrior’s creed: “Strength. Determination. Merciless. Forever.” SFBG
Sat/1, 10:30 a.m.
1 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View