Black Label Society truly need no introduction in metal circles. Jeffrey Wielandt, best known by stage name Zakk Wylde, cut his teeth in 1987 replacing Jake E. Lee as Ozzy Osbourne’s axe-man. In 1998, Wylde formed Black Label Society, assuming all songwriting and vocal duties in addition to lead guitar. The result is Sabbathian sludge, blistering lead chops, and southern Skynyrd twang seamlessly melded into a highly potent cocktail, delivered underneath a husky vocal moan often mistakable for the Ozz-man himself.
With nine prior studio releases and two live albums, BLS have become one of the most significant forces in heavy metal, yielding an army of back-patch donning diehard fans (many of whom would undoubtedly make invaluable assets in the event of a physical altercation).
The band’s latest release, Catacombs of the Black Vatican, offers neither surprises nor disappointments. A glance at the album art, a mountain of skulls underneath the group’s own signature cranial logo, leaves little doubt as to the nature of the content within.
The record kicks off with “Fields of Unforgiveness,” a grungy southern groove with a catchy chorus lyrically foreshadowing the brutality to follow: “So you think that it’s over?/So you think that it’s done?/The fields of unforgiveness never die/they’ve just began.”
“My Dying Time” and “I’ve Gone Away” similarly consist of southern-fried riffing into fetching choruses, while “Heart of Darkness” and “Damn the Flood” sideline the catchy for aggression describable only as barroom brawls waiting to happen. “Beyond the Down” features a rather atypical, powerfully uplifting chorus which reads almost like a Hatebreed lyric: “Bridges of doubt shall all be burned/Who you are, it shall be found/Through the darkest light beyond the down.”
“Angel of Mercy,” the album’s first ballad, is a beautiful (mostly) acoustic piece that threatens to be Catacombs’ crown jewel. That is, until “Scars” arrives, a magnificent country piece which decidedly reduces “Angel of Mercy” to a stalemate.
The sludgy verses of “Empty Promises” proceed into the album’s most memorable choruses, an anticipated guitar solo ultimately securing it as the album’s finest heavy track. “Shades of Grey” ends the record on a soothing melancholic note, but not before injecting a final face-melting lead guitar run to balance out the gloom.
As previously mentioned, Catacombs of the Black Vatican is nothing new. Black Label Society have long since crafted a signature sound and proven themselves nine times over. Catacombs is but a reassertion of dominance from one of the most iconic forces in modern metal.
Catacombs of the Black Vatican can best be summarized by Wylde himself, “It’s all… completely the same as the last nine records, except just different song titles.” Catacombs is a standard BLS offering, a continued adherence to their distinctive sound that fans have come to know and love.
Naturally, the solos are all blistering choice cuts, which is nothing less than expected from a living guitar legend. “Beyond the Down,” “Scars,” “I’ve Gone Away,” and “Empty Promises” are the record’s finest moments, thoroughly showcasing both Zakk’s superb songwriting capabilities and 6-string prowess.
While not their strongest record to date, great songwriting, stylistic diversity, and an abundance of catchy choruses make Catacombs of the Black Vatican a comprehensively satisfying listen. Grab your leather vests, a couple 30-racks, and throw this baby on, S.D.M.F.ers.
Zakk and company show no signs of slowing down any time soon. Black Label Society were recently named as headliners of the 2014 U.S. Revolver Golden Gods Tour, which began April 16th in Seattle and concludes June 7th in Los Angeles. Be sure to catch them at a location near you. They are a great live band.
Reviewer: Gavin T. Hairgrove
IRC: Lindsey Riley
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