Black Label Society - Catacombs of the Black Vatican

Though its structures and lyrics become stale, Zakk Wylde's newest album delivers for loyal fans.

Additional Info

6.2

ALBUM: Catacombs of the Black Vatican

ARTIST: Black Label Society

2014

Metal

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?"

1. Fields of Unforgiveness
One of last week's top-10 tracks, this is a great entry point for the album, both for seasoned listeners of Black Label Society and those coming to the band for the first time. It sets the stage for what's to come: riff-heavy rock with echoes of Ozzy and a guitarist who can shred with the best of them. Wylde questions us in the chorus, “So you think that it's over” and continues in the second verse, “You thought you'd lose life's sorrow, emptiness, and grief. The oceans of life's contempt drown the liars and the thieves.” Clearly, listeners don't listen to BLS for incredibly striking and memorable lyrics, but points are lost here for the reliance on the dramatic. This song features Wylde's recognizable solo work, and it does a good job of staying with the head-bobbing riff to keep listeners going.7.7
2. My Dying Time
This one could rock harder. The driving riff has potential to really force the song out of the speakers, but the backing bass and drum work don't add as much to the track as they could, and the overall heaviness of the track suffers as a result. Nowhere in this review will you find a critique of Wylde's solo work, as each is as impressive and captivating as the last.5.7
3. Believe
This track suffers from some of the same issues as the previous, though the main riff and shifts within the song kick it up a notch. One of those shifts—this time into a higher key—coincides with a thrumming guitar solo, and as the solo comes to an end, the bass and guitar align. Wylde sings, “Are you God or just another man that bleeds? Please tell me there's a heaven that awaits. I wanna believe.” These are some of the better lyrics on the album, especially in contrast to the nature of the song itself, but Wylde's singing style may distract listeners from the words themselves.6.5
4. Angel of Mercy
As a sort of response to the closing lines of the third track, the chorus in this, the album's first ballad, repeats, “No angel of mercy is gonna hear my call.” This track is a good example of the band's ability to move from a track like “Believe” to a song that slows down and relies more heavily on Wylde's talents as a vocalist. This quieter track also lends itself to a more prominent bassline, as John DeServio's foundational rhythms are more varied and prominent. This track stands out nicely in the context of what's around it.7.3
5. Heart of Darkness
I was worried in this song we'd get some sort of musical Apocalypse Now remake of Conrad's famous work, but the lyrics aren't that specific: “Heart of darkness, remorse has fallen away. Not of this world, for God is not here today.” That may be a side-eyed take on the story, but it thankfully stays away from overtly bringing it into the foreground. This song features what might be the most familiar-sounding riff on the record, but the song really flourishes during Wylde's solo; here, Jeff Fabb matches Wylde's emotions, rolling wildly over his drums. Before you know it, this song has you rocking.7.0
6. Beyond the Down
It seems like this song could be easily combined with the last, as Fabb's percussion stays in the foreground, and a similar riff drives us along. Wylde's love to attribute abstractions to physical things continues, as he sings, “Bridges of doubt shall be burned.” As always, Wylde's solo is of note, but this track, because of its similarities to “Heart of Darkness,” never quite reaches out fully to listeners.5.0
7. Scars
A return to ballads, “Scars” is a song of resolve: “My will shall never break, though it may bend.” Have you noticed the tendency to use cliché? Given the title, you might expect a song that considers a troubled history but stands up with a determination to continue. You'd be right. John DeServio's bass work here is a little more complex and noticeable than in other places on the album, but this might be the closest thing to a throw-away track.4.7
8. Damn the Flood
As I mentioned in my conclusive review, there's a little monotony creeping into the album. With that said, this is a welcome return to the Metallica-like sound we've come to learn is the band's best. There's an enjoyable change in the song's middle, complete with Wylde's characteristic guitar squeals. There are also some rhythm and melody changes beneath his solo, which adds some new (and welcome) structure to what we'd expected. The band enjoys returning back to the song's main riff after the solo, and they do so again here.6.0
9. I've Gone Away
There's a nice heaviness to this song despite its slower cadence, as notes are left to ring out a little longer and palm-muted notes drop listeners' ears down an octave. Wylde's singing is also teased out a little longer here, as he sustains his singing across lines like “The one you seek is no longer. I've gone away.” The song shifts in its third and fourth minutes—before and after Wylde's solo—to add some variance to its structure. The song ends—as many of these do—with a return to the chorus.5.7
10. Empty Promises
Because of its title, I feel like I know what this song is all about before I even listen to it. I'm expecting an acoustic ballad—perhaps with only Wylde and his guitar—and lyrics about heartbreak. Immediately, my expectations are undercut, as a droning guitar and repeated drum roll introduce listeners to this heavier-than-expected piece. While this may not excuse the clichéd title (or its equally clichéd lyrics: “You gave me empty promises with nothing in return”), it's nice to have a track that foregrounds drum work that's a little more complex than we've come to expect. The song's bridge returns to the sounds of the introduction, and leads into a wah-filled solo that runs up and down the length of the guitar.7.0
11. Shades of Gray
A return to a slower piece, the song begins with a picked melody on the guitar that's buried in chorus effects, and Wylde's characteristically round singing begins: “Where can you run when there's nowhere to hide?” This one pulls a little more from classic rock ballads, especially the noticeable presence of the ride cymbal and its slow progression up and down only a handful of notes. The track gets dangerously cheesy—“Your rivers of joy can't be found anymore”—and returns one too many times to the chorus before Wylde drops us into another solo. While the structure of many of these songs is the same, it's Wylde's playing that forces us to accept it; he's too good not to solo. Even so, there's not quite enough variation for this to be a track that listeners will come back to.5.0
12. Dark Side of the Sun
Take that, Pink Floyd! A song about the dark side of the sun! Its associative relationship to Pink Floyd's classic work might be this song's most memorable quality, as it features a tedious chorus, both in terms of lyrics—repeating “On the dark side of the sun”—and the awkwardly long progression down the guitar-led melody. It shifts in its third minute into a new riff—though, at this point, not that new—and (of course) falls into an impressive solo. After the solo, it re-makes its riff and offers up a harder, more-apt-to-nod-your-head cadence.5.3
13. The Nomad
This track is set on a Stairway-to-Heaven sort of trajectory, as its acoustic beginning becomes understated in the context of the harder-rocking chorus and Wylde's final—and perhaps best—solo on the album. It's a final track that bids us farewell with a look to the future: “I've left the past behind—so much more to see.” You won't find the most original lyrics anywhere on the album, and some are downright cliché, but Wylde knows his bread is buttered on the strings of his guitar. In one last flurry, he solos over a half-cover of Zeppelin's “No Quarter” before the track reverts back to its acoustic roots.8.0
Written by P.J. Williams
P. J. Williams writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Salamander, DIAGRAM, Nashville Review, Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill, Ninth Letter, and others.

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