ALBUM: Catacombs of the Black Vatican
ARTIST: Black Label Society
I approached Catacombs of the Black Vatican as a listener whose experience with Black Label Society is confined almost entirely to their sixth studio album, Mafia. Released in 2005, that album's best song, “Fire It Up,” was featured on one of the installments of Guitar Hero (which means that it was one of many songs that contributed to my skipping classes as an undergraduate student). While that album had some good songs and, compared to this newest effort, has many of the same characteristics, Catacombs of the Black Vatican is a more complete, well-rounded effort. There aren't many tracks on this one that seem like obvious throw-aways or ones that are a result of boredom (see “Dr. Octavia” on Mafia).
Led by guitar virtuoso Zakk Wylde, Black Label Society is clearly comfortable in their own skin. They are an alt metal band that offers up the genre's most tried and true attractions: heavily-distorted riffs, some occasionally complex percussion work, and guitar solos that demand to be listened to several times. On this album, and throughout the band's discography, you'll hear obvious nods to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath alongside subtler echoes of Rage Against the Machine, Buckethead, and any number of 80's and 90's hair metal bands.
There is something unique, however, to the work that Wylde does. His singing voice, while it certainly pulls from Ozzy Osbourne, is his own—its vowels pulled out and rounded, sung with mouth half shut. A friend of mine in Tuscaloosa often mocks this style of singing, which stems a little from Eddie Vedder with Pearl Jam or Scott Weiland with Stone Temple Pilots. In this mocking context, it sounds funny and ridiculous. But here, with Wylde stretching out his vocals over every track, it becomes a thing that just is in the way a singer like Geddy Lee “gets away with it.” I imagine there's a pretty clear split between those who like Wylde's voice and those who don't, just as there are those who firmly don't like Rush because of Lee's high-pitched vocals.
Black Label Society also has the unique (and highly sought-after) ability to fluctuate from a power metal track that pounds its bluesy riff for all its worth to a slow ballad. Most of the time, listeners won't be turned off in these transitions, even if at first it's a jarring change of pace. The album begins, for example, with three typical tracks: each has its heavy riff and quicker pace. The fourth track, “Angel of Mercy,” slows us down—just in time to undercut our expectations—and showcases the band's ability to make these shifts in mode. Naturally, these ebbs and flows highlight their counterparts: the ballads stand out because of what's around them, and vice versa. Even the solos within the ballads themselves take on new qualities because of the unique foundation beneath them.
Above all else, it's Wylde's guitar playing that brings listeners into any BLS album. Although he certainly makes his claim as one of the best guitarists of this generation and never shies away from laying down some seriously impressive solos, he equally knows the value of restraint and rhythm in order to make his solos and more complex flourishes shine. The album's book-ends are good examples of such a style, as each track is solidly grounded on rhythms that sustain through verses and provide a foundation over which he stretches his quick, squealing solos. “The Nomad” in particular provides a snapshot of the band's range, as it moves from power ballad into a harder, “No Quarter”-esque jam, over which Wylde wails and wahs his way to the album's conclusion.
While there aren't any truly weak tracks on the album, it loses some of its power in its middle due to its trend toward monotony. It doesn't fully bog down due to the band's adeptness in what it does, but there are times—in “I've Gone Away,” for example—when listeners might wonder if what they're listening to is more of a re-make of a previous song rather than an offering of something new. Similarly, most of the songs are structured the same: the progression from riff-based verse, to chorus, to solo, and back to the chorus. Across this structure are some really forgettable lyrics. Clichés are prominent throughout the album, though I imagine that's not a huge concern for fans of the band.
My biggest problem with Phantogram's latest album stemmed from the same concerns about monotony, but the difference on Catacombs of the Black Vatican is that Black Label Society is consistently good with their sound and add subtle structural changes throughout rather than just re-hash the same sounds over and over again. This album is a complete one, and while it's never spectacular, it's a valuable contribution to a rock-lover's library, particularly long-time fans of Black Label Society.
"Are you God or just another man that bleeds?"