At over six feet tall, the bearded, blond muscleman Zakk Wylde might be the most foreboding jokester in music. It's a demeanor that doesn't totally fit the image of his band, Black Label Society, with whom he has played his own brand of sludgy, straightforward heavy metal since 1998. But in a way, Wylde's callous cackles show that there is more to his gruff, intimidating, North Jersey accent than maledictions. If someone asks him about being sober for five years, he laughs and says, "I don't really miss the drinking now that I sniff a couple gallons of glue." And even the offer of "Happy birthday," which Rolling Stone noted on the appropriate day, gets a retort like, "I got up and I was breathing, which is always a plus." Wylde punctuates all of these quips with hearty belly laughs, but, it seems he's saved all his best one-liners for discussion of Black Label Society's forthcoming ninth LP, Catacombs of the Black Vatican, which is due out April 8th.
When Rolling Stone asks him how the new record sounds, he says, scoffing, "Everybody always says their new record is the most fabulous, stupendous record of their life." So he decided to kick it up a notch. "When I heard this record, I looked at myself in the mirror and started making out with myself," he says with a deep laugh. "It's that good. The second time I listened to it, not only did I make out with myself, I groped myself. It's that good."
Joking somewhat aside, Wylde reports that fans of Black Label's burly riffs and gnarly vocals won't be disappointed by Catacombs of the Black Vatican. "Obviously, it's not a departure where we're making a jazz record," he says. "It's like when Sabbath or Zeppelin put out new records – it's just a batch of ass-kickin' Sabbath riffs or Zeppelin stuff.
"I tell people, 'It's kind of like the last eight records, except we have different titles on this one," he continues. "That's like any of the bands we love, whether it's Zeppelin or Sabbath or the Stones."
The one Black Vatican track Black Label's record label was able to share, "My Dying Time," starts off with a murky guitar line before kicking into a heavy groove. On the track, Wylde yowls, "In my dying time, you're all that is real." He sings the line with a snarl that make the lyric seem less complimentary and more threatening – then he kicks into the vicious sort of guitar solo that earned him the gig as Ozzy Osbourne's guitarist for a number of years.
Recalling his state of mind when he wrote the song – one of the last he finished for the record – Wylde finally gets serious. "It was about a friend of mine who OD'd," he says, not wanting to get specific about his pal's identity. "I was just thinking about buddies I had in my past." When asked about his dark mood, he lets go of his seriousness. "For as much as I love listening to songs like, 'I'm gonna pick up my chick on a Saturday night/ We're gonna rock all night and it's rockin' all night,' I just can't sing it." He laughs again.
One thing Wylde absolutely refuses to be serious about is the "Black Vatican" in the album title and the various contents of its catacombs. "Now that I'm not drinking, I guess the catacombs would contain a ton of glue, steroids, 'Kimmy Kardashian QuickTrim' and a whole batch of Viagra," he says with a laugh.
And just what is the Black Vatican anyway? "It's my studio," he says. "We named it that because I painted it black. I remember [my wife] Barbaranne, she goes, 'Oh, great. You're not gonna paint that thing black . . . what are you, 12 years old?' I go, 'I take that very insulting – I'm 13.'" Wylde laughs. "I go, 'Look at it this way: If you were married to Jimi Hendrix, the thing would be painted purple, OK?'"