In 1998 White Zombie was riding high after the success of Astro-Creep 2000. When frontman and main creative force Rob Zombie picked that moment to go solo, he surprised a lot of people, not least of all his own bandmates. But go solo he did with Hellbilly Deluxe, an album that went three times platinum and from that point on White Zombie was no more.
There wasn't a bad song on the album, and anthems like "Dragula", "Superbeast," and "Living Dead Girl" have become modern metal classics. Now, twelve years and four albums into his solo career, six if you count a live, Zombie Live, and greatest hits album, Past, Present & Future, both of which usually signal an artist running out of ideas, Zombie went back to the studio and gave us a successor to his debut, Hellbilly Deluxe 2. A shame then that it not only fails to live up to its famous predecessor, but to Zombie's other solo efforts as well.
The album starter "Jesus Frankenstein" feels dreary and repetitious, suffering from the same issues that plagued the opening tracks on his previous album, Educated Horses. After what seems like an eternity of hearing "All hail Jesus Frankenstein" you pine for an undead Pontius Pilate to nail him up and be done with it. No one expects Zombie to be a wordsmith, read the lyric sheet to any of his albums and you could laugh yourself into a coma, but shouting "Rock, motherfucker!" into your ear 78 times is a bit much even for him and all but sinks "Sick Bubblegum". Some great guitar work by John 5 buoys things towards the end but by then it's too little too late. The next song, "What?" has the album's best riff and explores the "ghoulish beach party" sound Zombie began experimenting with on "The Scorpion Sleeps", from Educated Horses. It's the most fun you'll have on the album and ends all too quickly.
"Mars Needs Women" starts out with promise, a menacing acoustic intro reminiscent of Down's "Landing at the Mountains of Megiddo", then descends into a disappointing grind that sounds like something Marilyn Manson would have cut from his Golden Age of Grotesque album. That intro represents something common to Zombie's recent film and music work, a flash of brilliant potential that reminds you he's an artist of promise that can't seem to get past his preoccupations. The horror-movie, honky-tonk stomp of "Werewolf Baby" is tight and catchy and proves that Zombie collaborated with long-time bandmates this time out rather than session musicians; if these guys wanted to, they could easily pull off history's most frightening country album. "Virgin Witch" is a slow, chugging mess that can't even be saved by John 5's guitar pyrotechnics. "Death and Destiny Inside the Dream Factory," inspired by Zombie's forays into Hollywood, is about as appealing as a dentist brandishing his drill right next to your ear. The energy is there, a change from the album's first couple songs, but it's driving a tune so abysmal you wish Zombie had phoned this one in too.
"Burn" is another good track, more down to the combined ability of John 5, Tom Clufetos & Piggy D. rather than Zombie himself – it's actually better when there's no vocal and the music is left to its own devices. The song marks a turning point for Zombie, he's gone from raiding old horror movies to old commercials, with his "Poppa ooo-mow-mow" hook straight out of a Pringles advertisement. I look forward to seeing this progress on his next album, where he'll write a song about a lesbian, vampire, motorcycle gang incorporating the phrase "plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is".
The gothic swagger of "Cease to Exist" is another standout track with a spooky "transmissions from the end of the world" sound. Like some of Zombie's recent darker experimentation, "House of 1000 Corpses" and "Death of it All," it benefits from a slow-tempo and dark, minimalist sound. This is a Rob Zombie production of course, so we do get audio clips and voice effects but they enhance rather than distract. After "What?" it's the album's second best track and it's followed by what is arguably the worst. "Werewolf Women of the S.S.," inspired by the faux trailer he directed for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's film Grindhouse, with its funhouse dance beat, is about as throwaway a track as Zombie has ever produced. It's the kind of track that might benefit from a remix, if anyone cared enough to bother, but for the time being it's another example of Zombie's schtick wearing thin. The final track, "The Man Who Laughed" is 9-minute free-for-all, not really a song as such, just a collection of riffs, strings and the most egregious of all rock 'n' roll excesses: the drum solo.
It's probably redundant to say that the director of Halloween 2 is out of ideas. When you take it upon yourself to remake one of the best-regarded horror films of all time, then sequel that remake you're either mainlaining hubris, trapped in a permanent state of semi-adolescence, or desperately treading water. Following these films up with a sequel to your hit album of twelve years past doesn't provide an answer but it certainly underlines the question a few times. In interviews Zombie has said that this album won't be his last musical effort but will be his last CD, as he feels discs have been made obsolete by digital downloads. As a devoted fan and collector of CDs I'm sad to hear that, but part of me hopes that the switch in formats reignites the spark that made Rob Zombie's earlier work so much fun – the last thing the world needs is Hellbilly Deluxe 3.