Review by Scott Harmon
Somethings societies hold as sacrosanct. Like, don’t make jokes about dead babies. Or, don’t make fun of those with physical or mental infirmities. And don’t make jokes about physical differences between people. But, other than that everything is pretty much on the table. Nothing else is so sacrosanct that it cannot be revisited; re-interpreted. And so, if you’re a theater producer you can set Shakespeare’s Hamlet in modern-day China. Or in Mogadishu for that matter. It will play as the original as the conflict is timeless and universal, yet it will play differently. That’s the beauty of great art. And so Zakk Wylde and his two slightly irreverent cohorts operating surreptitiously as Zakk Sabbath have recorded their version of Black Sabbath’s eponymous album. And they recorded this hard-pressed chunk of coal (available only in vinyl) live, in presumably the same 24 hours it took Black Sabbath to record the same back in 1969.
The danger in producing an album of this sort is that often times they come across as either not-as-good karaoke tributes or as misguided attempts to re-imagine what a classic could sound like in the hands of a jazz singer; with vocal melodies that bear no resemblance to the original. These curiosities end up on a slag heap or piled up in the musician’s manager’s closet. Such is not the case here. With Zakk Wylde on guitar and vocals, Rob “Blasko” Nicholson (Ozzy Osbourne, ex-Rob Zombie, Ex Danzig, etc) who plays bass along with Joey Castillo (The Bronx, ex-QOTSA, ex-Eagles of Death Metal, ex-Danzig, etc) on drums, they have put together not only an homage to greatness but a blistering musical journey through one of rock’s most important albums.
One of the things that is fascinating about this album is that where Ozzy sings as a tenor, Zakk is more of a baritone, he sings in a slightly lower register and one might think that Zakk’s handling of the original lyrics may suffer as a result. Au contraire my friend. Zakk’s version has a richness to it and a solid bottom end that really finds a home in the lyrics as evidenced in the opening song “Black Sabbath.” There’s a story of Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers making a solo record and he wanted to share it with his bandmate Tom Petty who upon listening to it was disappointed to hear Benmont’s singing was eerily similar to Petty’s own voice. Upon reflection Tench apparently agreed. I found myself thinking about that story as I listened to Zakk Sabbath’s Vertigo. Zakk’s vocals may be slightly deeper but his phrasing is spot on and one has to think having worked with Ozzy for all those years some technique had to have rubbed off on Zakk. But that’s actually a good thing in this case. Because for those weaned on Black Sabbath during their childhood, Ozzie’s vocal melodies on these early albums are a sort of pledge of allegiance. There’s another reason Zakk was very clever staying true to the vocal melody; it gives the band the opportunity to soar musically.
Now, the original songs recorded by Black Sabbath back in 1969 were groundbreaking. Their heaviness literally shook the ground in concert. Ozzy tells the story in his autobiography that while working on that first album he had the opportunity to hear Led Zeppelin’s first album before it was released and he ran to Tony Iommi concerned whether Black Sabbath’s sound would be as heavy. Iommi placated the anxious Ozzy telling him not to worry, but their music would be even heavier. And of course, with all due respect to Zep, Black Sabbath was heavier; much heavier. But, being the trailblazer doesn’t mean one has mined all of the gold from the mountain. And here on Zakk Sabbath’s Vertigo the musicianship really shines. Song’s on the original album seem a slightly slower tempo, which is not to say Vertigo is some revved up punk version of Sabbath songs. No, the tempo only seems quicker and tighter due to the deft virtuosity of Blasko and Castillo. In particular the drumming propels the band forward to dizzying metal heights setting up Zakk for his ridiculously fast and enviable pentatonic licks. The musical interludes on songs like Wasp Behind the Wall and A Bit of Finger Sleeping are almost jazz like in their ambition, but in the end are sweeping, soaring and bone crushing musical juggernauts.
Vertigo is an essential collection of Black Sabbath songs by Zakk Sabbath that belongs in every rocker and metal-head’s collection. Purists and old guys may be skeptical, but this effort can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the original!