In becoming the man to call if you need a Cliff’s Notes representation of B-movie horror homages, Rob Zombie has certainly upped his ante beyond music the past few years in Hollywood, successfully directing his own re-imaginings of the Halloween films while also establishing some original pieces along the way (The Devil’s Rejects > 1,000 Corpses). While Zombie himself has gone through a musical metamorphosis over time also, trading in fright-infused speed for modern rock radio and witchcraft references, it is a widely accepted notion that Zombie’s first solo outing, Hellbilly Deluxe, defined that modern take and made him a mainstay on rock stations since its release in 1998 — much the same way as Antichrist Superstar launched Marilyn Manson into the public mainstream.
Shock rockers for the sake of shock are nothing new (from Alice Cooper to Sutter Kain), but 12 years have passed since Zombie’s solo debut, and with a full permanent studio band behind him, he has set out to best himself horror-wise with a sequel. How does Hellbilly Deluxe 2 stack up in comparison? It is a barely redeemable record on its own two undead feet, but truthfully, in terms of sequels, this could just as well be tied in to sophomore effort The Sinister Urge, or practically anything in Zombie’s repertoire save Educated Horses. It is hype best served decrepit, a connection built on nothing but a “fingers crossed” maneuver notifying fans of Zombie’s supposed return to form when he never really abandoned it. In this case, he just raped it without realizing it.
If you take away The Devil’s Rejects and Halloween, Rob Zombie has two definitive personae — White Zombie front man and Rob Zombie the man. What you get here on Hellbilly Deluxe 2 is an amalgam of these mentalities, straddled by a raw rock attitude and the usual horror sound bites. Under normal circumstances these would be great traits, except three things have bogged its entirety down: a lack of marketable singles for which Zombie as a solo artist has done extremely well (were this a White Zombie album, this would be a moot point), the titling is misleading on multiple levels, and the production, while showcasing a more sporadic soundscape, comes off rushed and impersonal with less regard to lyrics, thereby backpedaling on many signatures of Zombie’s previously reference-laden power songs.
On musicianship there are supremely good highlights, such as the seemingly random alternation between hard rock and acoustic on opener “Jesus Frankenstein” or the properly epic capacity of respective bookend “The Man Who Laughs” (which should totally be Zombie’s theme song). The guitars and drums here do not thud and trudge like a stomping “Iron Head” with mechanical legs; there are a lot of cymbals and crashes meshing into screaming strings, a lot of punk and garage influence that at times outshines our favorite monster maniac. The trouble is, it all feels so counter-productive now — when Zombie fronted his old band, the balance was forged by proper fuzz, relevant lyrical themes, and vocals that made you picture some otherworldly undead creature terrorizing Las Vegas in a vintage black Thunderbird, a walking grind house on however many legs/tentacles/testicles it packed. Hellbilly Deluxe 2 is like that same giant zombified monster, only anorexic and in debt to both Los Angeles hookers and defunct movie studio coke-head execs.
Songs like “Jesus Frankenstein”, “Werewolf, Baby”, or “Mars Needs Women” try at first to pull you in on familiar territory of haunting atmospheres and sound clips before launching into generic rhythms that suit singles without the infectiousness of actually being singles. For a lot of people, the attraction to solo Zombie was founded on pounding bass, marching drums with speeds here and there, film analogies, and vocals people could really sink their karaoke teeth into (“Living Dead Girl”, “Never Gonna Stop”). In contrast, the released singles “Sick Bubblegum” and “What?” are lovingly sinister enough and relatively danceable, particularly the former — the problem here lies in construction, because this is not White Zombie and the emotion behind that outfit has long since dissipated. In its wake is a middle-aged Zombie trying uncertainly to recapture the old, retain the new, and not trip over himself or lose a limb in the post-production process. Even this album’s very release has felt undigested and premature.
Much like everything else on Hellbilly Deluxe 2, songs are either riding on the initial hype factor before getting lost in better back issue albums (“Cease To Exist”), or they aim for epic intros and suddenly become unappealing chaos for its own sake (pretty much everything here). Nothing is forward or obvious, but nothing draws you into its mock originality either — case and point, you cannot listlessly lay a random vocal over haphazard “garage rock” and distortion that tries to imitate past work or appear “artistically abstract” and just wish for a good record because fans will buy whatever you put out. It is tantamount to strumming your guitar in a green cardigan surrounded by candles and peace lilies…you are not Kurt Cobain, you are hipster douches and walking fire hazard wannabes.
If there is one bright side to be had here — the cover art for both this and the “Sick Bubblegum” single release is to die for, and there are at least four good songs to come out of Hellbilly Deluxe 2 if you really want to bother. Rob Zombie, you are an outstanding live performer and a phenomenal horror director…time to retire from music and run your guns and women on a different racket. Maybe you should collaborate with Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez and do a Creepshow installment? I’d pay to see that.