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Full Throttle Rock

Album Review: Black Label Society - Catacombs Of The Black Vatican

Posted on June 1, 2014 at 10:10 PM

Black Label Society - Catacombs Of The Black Vatican

Written by Antony Scholefield

One problem I have with a lot of metal bands, particularly younger ones, is their obsessive need to play faster than everyone else in order to prove they're hardcore. There's nothing wrong with speed machines in general, but when everyone's trying too hard, the music suffers. Fortunately, last month I picked up the new Black Label Society [BLS] album, Catacombs of the Black Vatican. Frontman Zakk Wylde has been in the biz for 28 years. He doesn't need to satisfy any adolescent need to be hardcore, but he does know how to create grindingly good mid-tempo rock.


The record starts with a trio of straightforward, sludgy rockers. Wylde gives the goods on both rhythm guitar and vocals, driving everything forward with powerful riffs and his nasal, Ozzy-esque bray. There's just one early-onset issue: the guitar breaks. Eddie Van Halen once wrote that the best guitar solos are all hummable. Wylde's breaks are fast, slippery and technically brilliant, but they just don't fit the general groove. They don't slip into your brain and stay there. Still, that's quibbling. The rockers mostly do what they're meant to do - i.e. they rock.


Having built this mountain of rock, BLS proceed to undercut it with the acoustic-led ballad 'Angel of Mercy'. It hangs on a sweet little riff, and its break is actually more naturalistic than the first few tracks. The band do have a heartfelt streak, as proven by their 2013 album Unblackened, and Catacombs packs several other slow numbers, including the excellent 'Shades Of Gray' that closes the CD version. Most digital copies, however, finish with 'Hell And Fire', which comes across as the godchild of Bob Dylan's 'Knocking On Heaven's Door'. Is that good or bad news? I guess that's your choice.


Of course, when they're not plucking at your heartstrings, Zakk Wylde & Co know how to crank it up. Almost every ballad is followed by an amp-buster, such as the rollicking 'Damn The Flood', and the epic 'Empty Promises'. Furthermore, the production values remain consistently high, giving Catacombs a spacious, easy-to-hear style. It's like the grown-up cousin of Avenged Sevenfold's hit album Hail to the King, but with extra dollops of brains and brawn. Maybe it's experience, or maybe it's the beards, but Black Label Society are definitely a cut above.


The success of Black Label Society is certainly owed to Zakk Wylde. Due credit to bassist John DeServio and drummer Chad Szeliga, but Catacombs of the Black Vatican, like all BLS records, is Wylde's baby. Fortunately, he's a man who doesn't need to prove himself by loading up with ridiculously fast rhythms or ear-curling prog-rock weirdness. Catacombs won't turn the world upside down, but that's not the point. Black Label Society have just tried to construct something that's enjoyable, straightforward and absolutely rock-solid. They've definitely succeeded.

Categories: Album Reviews

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