So... after endless hints and teases, about a hundred release delays, endless fan rumors and speculations, and an eleventh hour label-jump from Geffen to Roadrunner, Rob Zombie's fourth full-length studio album has finally fallen into my grubby, blood-stained little claws, so that I might better solve the mystery that's been hanging in the air for these many months: is Hellbilly Deluxe 2: Noble Jackals, Penny Dreadfuls and the Systematic Dehumanization of Cool (whatever the hell that means) a worthy sequel to Rob's chartbusting, triple-platinum-selling, career-defining 1998 solo debut that brought us such immortal classics as Living Dead Girl, Dragula and Superbeast? Well jeez, I'm not gonna tell you all that before the jump... flip it over, read on and find out!
Managing to recover some of the evil mojo lost after the decent but much less horror-heavy Educated Horses, Rob opted this time to keep one foot planted in the gritty, roots-rock-meets-alt-metal sound of that 2005 release, while casting back a decidedly evil eye on the heavy-chugging, sample-heavy, danceable pop-metal mayhem he carried over from his White Zombie days – and which powered both the original classic Hellbilly Deluxe and solid follow-up The Sinister Urge. The result of this hybrid creation may not necessarily attain the same legendary status as its “prequel” - it's probably unreasonable to expect that kind of lightning to strike twice – but it's still a solid, mean and rough ride, and recaptures a lot of the first album’s industrial spookhouse vibe.
The engine inside this beast is a rock-solid instrumental unit that began life as Rob's regular touring company over the past couple of years and eventually became his official studio band – namely guitarist John 5, bassist Piggy D, and drummer Tommy Clufetos. The intuitive strength and tightness of that lineup came across during Zombie's last few tours, and it feels like that connectivity continued into the studio for these sessions. The absence of original guitarist Mike Riggs marks Hellbilly 2 as a less direct sequel – don’t expect it to sound as if Rob’s picking up where the original left off – but John 5’s talent is still quite complimentary to the old-school Zombie sound, and his effortless lead work gives the formula plenty of flash without resorting to overcomplicated, show-offy solos.
Although slightly front-loaded with more straightforward and radio-friendly material (countless F-bombs aside, that is), the album still gets off to a nuclear-powered start with the eerie opening soundscape and nasty mega-riffage of Jesus Frankenstein, which perfectly captures the first album’s evil aggression. Unfortunately, the follow-up (and most recent single) Sick Bubblegum, though benefiting from a nicely meaty mid-tempo riff, comes off a bit repetitive and saps some of that corpse-grinding energy. The following track (and first single) What? manages to rock the Zombie groove with greater success, thanks to a solid hook, seriously heavy distortion and some cool organ/guitar interplay.
Mars Needs Women gets off to a colorful acoustic start – one of many examples of John 5’s country & blues influences and amazing versatility – and blasts into one of the band’s deepest, meanest riffs, kicking the album into a sort of violent backwoods midsection that continues with the sleazy Werewolf, Baby! – a swampy cowpunk rocker that feels like a nitrous-injected mod on the Educated Horses engine. The only downside to this pair is their rather simplistic choruses, the same weakness which drags down Sick Bubblegum. Virgin Witch is a standout, though – another good example of technically skilled but lean and refined guitar work, underscored by a dark, mean and ominous undercurrent – and sure to become a fan favorite. Death and Destiny Inside the Dream Factory is a bit of a Horses throwback, and threatens to drag down the middle section, but Burn picks things back up nicely with a solid, boot-stomping grind before the cosmic prog-sounding Cease to Exist enters to create an atmospheric segue to the album's powerful final act.
Taking its name from Rob's memorable faux-trailer from Grindhouse, the seriously fun party track Werewolf Women of the SS is a solid surf-rock-flavored number that’s a reverent nod to the beloved Munsters theme, and another new favorite of mine… but the crown jewel which brings the proceedings to a chilling and apocalyptic close is the ten-minute epic The Man Who Laughs (which takes its title from the creepy 1928 film, alleged inspiration for Batman’s arch-nemesis the Joker). This one stands apart as one of the current RZ lineup's most memorable offerings, thanks to some impressively cinematic string passages and freeform progressive-rock overtones, complete with the requisite self-indulgent (at nearly four minutes) drum solo. Thankfully this magnum opus maintains such a consistently maniacal energy that it never wears out its welcome, and I’d personally rank it pretty high in the Zombie canon.
Note that if you plunk down the extra coin for the Special Edition CD (either with the cool retro-swag and coffin box, or without) or expanded download version, you'll be treated to remixes of What?, Jesus Frankenstein and Sick Bubblegum... none of which is particularly groundbreaking in its own right, but for my money it's generally worthwhile having a “Naughty Cheerleader” mix of just about anything.
Still wondering how Hellbilly Deluxe 2 stacks up to the original? In other words, is this sequel – like Zombie's silver-screen standout The Devil's Rejects – ballsy and clever enough to stand up to, or even surpass, its predecessor? In that context, I'd have to say... not really. If taken as a cross-pollination of that late-'90s Zombie groove and his mid-'00s raunch-rock, then for the most part this project actually works pretty well. But if this is truly Rob's CD swan song – he's gone on record to declare this the last gasp of the plastic era – then he may not be going out with all guns blazing like Rejects' notorious Firefly clan. But with the talent he's assembled on this record, there's still a lingering promise of more good things in the future. It might not be what we're used to, but I'd say it's worth holding out for.