April 27, 2014 by Dan Swinhoe
It’s been four years since Zakk Wylde and his Black Label Society released their last proper studio album, Order of the Black. We’ve had two acoustic albums, Lizzy Borden’s Dario Lorena has joined on guitars, and Zakk’s gone sober, but does that create a recipie for a good BLS album?
Wylde joked in an interview that Catacombs Of The Black Vatican, named after Zakk’s home studio, will be “all completely the same as the last nine records, except just different songtitles.” But this isn’t pinch harmonics by numbers. This is a decent release with plenty of musicality that BLS have lacked in some of their more recent releases. There’s still plenty of pinches, mind, and the odd Ozzy-esque wail, but some real quality song writing to go with it.
The opening ‘Fields of Unforgiveness’ is a mid paced number with echos of Led Zeppelin before big choruses make way for a classic Wylde solo, while lead single ‘My Dying Time’ has a real Alice In Chains feel about it. The opening trio is completed by the excellent ‘Believe’, a southern-metal styled number with lashings of groove. Whether it’s the introduction of Lorena, or the space of time since Zakk last released a non-acoustic album, the band sound more fired up than they have in a decade.
However, despite releasing an album of acoustic numbers and a live unplugged effort, old Zakk can’t resist including some mellow numbers. ‘Angel Of Mercy’ brings the album to a dead standstill; it’s a decent song, but it’s so at odds with the tracks before that it ruins the flow of the whole album.
Even when the band crank it back up, it’s not quite the same. ‘Heart Of Darkness’ and ‘Beyond The Down’ are solid but never really ever get going, and then we’re treated to another soft ballad. We know BLS are good at these kinds of songs, but they are so at odds with the rest of the tracklist they just serve as an unwelcome distraction which is a shame. ‘Damn The Flood,’ ‘I’ve Gone Away,’ ‘Empty Promises’ bring the second half back to life with a series of crunching riffs, varied song structures and plenty of singalong moments.
Depending on which version you get, there’s also a bunch of bonus tracks; ‘Dark Side of the Sun‘ – is a solid BLS track that has certain Sabbath groove about it, while ‘Nomad‘ is an excellent Led Zep style song strongly reminiscent of their classic track, ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’ with its blending of acoustic and electric in a way that would have made it highlight on Hangover Music Vol. VI. ‘Blind Man‘ is the weakest of the three, another middle of the road ballad that leaves little impression.
Overall Catacombs Of The Black Vatican doesn’t feel as heavy as previous releases, but has more quality song writing which makes up for it. If the acoustic tracks had been left off, this would be a great album. As it is, there’s too many stop start moments and the flow never really returns after such a bright start, despite a good finish. All in all, another solid Black Label album.