Live Review – Black Label Society @ Hammersmith Apollo 21/02/11

Have you ever entered a room, and realised you’re not exactly one of the crowd?  Well, this was sort of like that.

Although  Zakk Wylde’s Black Label Society can fill a room with a local chapter of their loyal ‘doom crew’,  that’s pretty  much all they can fill it with.

BUT, the crew is LARGE, and the crew is LOUD.  That’s what you get for asking your following to wear denim and leather with skulls and Iron crosses.

It’s a similar feeling to walking into a Slayer show – there’s a large group of fanatics here for one band and one band only.

Woe betide the support act.

In this instance, that would be ‘Godsized’.

Who took fuck-all prisoners.

It may have helped with this crowd that they took to the stage under a massive iron cross whilst blowing the uninitiated away with, well, ‘metallic-grunge’ I guess: If you took the dynamics of Alice in Chains and welded them to Vedder or Cornell’s vocal stylings and you’d have something close, but sounding nowhere near as good.  Or fun.

Opening salvo ‘Fight and Survive’ and ‘Brothers in Arms’ DO have an early 90’s feel,  and since early 90’s rock did kinda rule, that’s actually a good thing.

By the time they’ve dedicated ‘The Last Goodbye’ to recently departed Gary Moore, and ‘Bleed on the Inside’ to the ‘Moshpit mother-fuckers’, they pretty much own the (previously agreed to be) tough crowd. As Aerosmith-esque strains of set closer ‘Head-Heavy’ wash over us, ‘pretty much’ turns to ‘totally’ and they exit to one of the biggest roars I’ve seen a support band get.

Apparently Soundgarden are reforming this summer:

FUCK. THAT.  Go see Godsized instead.

Once Godsized have gone a MASSIVE skull banner drops from the roof. And a mental countdown begins in the heads of the several thousand faithful.

Which gave me quite a while to reflect on exactly where I was.

While this would be the third time I’d seen BLS it would be the first headline show I’d see them do. The first two times were ‘Ozzfest’ shows: back in those days he was really much better known as Ozzy’s hired hand, and my guess is that this left Zakk  feeling like he had something to prove. It can’t be easy having to constantly prove yourself, and must be harder still to make your own music stand out against your ‘day-job’, when your day job involves playing ‘Mr Crowley’ or ‘Crazy Train ‘.

Back then Zakk’s way of coping seemed to be by being the heaviest band on the bill – tracks like ‘Superterrorizer’ and ‘Stronger than Death’ blew away all-comers.

But, it’s not 2002 anymore – Ozzy’s decided that his band needs less of a Black Label sound; Dimebag, Zakk’s partner in six-stringed mischief, has been taken from us; and Zakk’s been forced into tee-totality.

Any of those will mess with you. All three together could crush you.

If nothing else, this should be an interesting lesson in how group support can help us can overcome adversity. Being part of the BLS clan will see you through any and all ill:

SDMF – Strength & Determination, Mother-Fucker.

The riff will heal you, and your brother will carry you when you trip, because he knows you will do the same for him.

Opening with, kinda obviously, ‘The Beginning… At Last’ it seems that this healing process is gonna involves a LOT of noise.

And flames.

And a strange choice in hats.

Zakk still looks like a bear dressed up as a Viking, but he seems to have swapped the roar of old with a voice that’s somehow approaching both Axl and Layne Staley. In this context, it works pretty well, but DOES take a song or two to get used to.

It ALSO resembles Ozzy a bit too. From what I gather, Zakk penned a few tunes that the Ozzman felt were ‘too BLS’ for an Ozzy album. Some of these ended up on ‘1919 Eternal’. Now, although none of those tracks got an airing tonight, their influence seems to have snowballed: less bear, more soul.

And while there is less obvious brutality behind the newer material (nothing all that old got played) the sheer power behind it is deafening.

Actually, that last bit’s also literal: the only group with a louder PA would be Manowar, and their crowds loyalty is matched only by Zakk’s. While I’m not exactly getting on in years, I’ve NEVER been so grateful to have remembered to bring earplugs. Even then, the bass is pummelling, and felt rather than heard.

It wasn’t just the sound though: the pyro also took some beating. While it was pretty much only one style of volley, we were roasted into submission through sheer repetition. From where I was stood, halfway to the back, it was a bit too toasty: the feel from the front row must have been insane.

All in all, I guess that’s what get for calling your tour the ‘Berzerkus’.

One thing I’ve noticed in the run up to this tour, is the moniker the band go by: This is ‘The Black Label Society’. We ALL know Zakk’s there, but the need to emblazon his (scrabble winning score of a) name over anything and everything has passed.  Not only that, but the band themselves are introduced as equals rather than hired hands – at what point over the last decade this changed isn’t clear, but it has, and it feels pretty fucking important.

Now, this is where it gets a bit awkward.  See, up until VERY recently, the BLS drummer was Will Hunt. Pretty much Animal from the muppets given human form.  A man scarily close to being the best drummer I’ve seen live. Well, sadly he’s now no longer playing the rest of the tour.  Something about ‘another project’ that needed his commitment. But, if you’re gonna lose a great drummer, it’d be best if you replace him with an amazing one.  Apparently Johnny Kelly’s (Seventh Void/Danzig/Ex-Type O Neg) since  taken the drumstool. He’ll probably do.

By ‘probably do’, I mean ‘fucking nail it’.

But, back to what DID happen, as opposed to what will, or may or might go on later on in the tour.

As the ‘Parade of the Dead’ dies in roars of feedback, approval, and the feeling that hearing loss will be due to most, a piano is wheeled on stage. A piano with an iron cross and a skull on it. Images of Dime unfurl from the ceiling, and we get ‘In this River’, the second dedication of the night.

I’ve been to enough gigs to know the ‘eye of the storm’ effect when it happens-

enter, LOUD, LOUD , LOUD, quiet, LOUD, LOUD, LOUD, exit.

It’s a winning formula, so it doesn’t need any fixing.

However, I AM genuinely surprised at Zakk’s live piano work – how you play the thing, and riff it, but not sound like you’re riffing it is beyond me. Again though, it works.

Which is more than can be said for the guitar solo which precedes ‘Godspeed Hell-Bound’. I’m not sure how long it lasted, but it really did drag on. In fairness, I tend to get bored during most soloing, but looking around, I got the impression that I wasn’t the only on thinking  it went on too long. Again, since I’ve got no idea how long it DID last, I’ve got no idea how long ‘too long’ was.  BUT, roused by bursts of flame and a glorious closing trio of ‘Suicide Messiah’, ‘Concrete Jungle’ and ‘Stillborn’, it was clear that no one bore a grudge.

And the flame wasn’t exactly in ‘bursts’ by this point:

It looked, and felt, like the back of the stage had caught fire.  Which combined with the wall of bass to create a sonic juggernaut. Which left you breathless. As Zakk stood for a final time on top of the monitors beating his chest, the flames finally relented and the Apollo filled with a cloud of black and white confetti.

So, nothing old got aired and a guitar solo went on too long?  I’ve had bigger and worse complaints for bands I’ve followed religiously.

It was a metal show, for a rapt crowd, with fire, skulls and more Marshall’s than really feel comfortable: You might have seen BLS do better shows, but if you didn’t leave grinning, you don’t like metal.

Photos by Lucy Isdale (of Aperture Angels. Go check out some more of her stuff, she’s frickin’ awesome)

Thanks to Kirsten at Roadrunner for getting us in and being really nice about me calling all the time.

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