The joy of a black label society album lies in discovering the extent of Zakk Wylde’s muse at any given point in time. Where ‘Sonic Brew’ was a gas guzzling, whiskey soaked, balls-to-the-wall hard rock attack with all the subtlety of a panzer assault, ‘hangover music Vol VI’ was a subtle, rather beautiful album that mixed one part Black Sabbath (think ‘Planet Caravan’) with one part Alice in Chains and one part Procul Harum to deliver a mellow trip that slid down like the finest cask-aged malt money can buy. In short, whilst Black label Society have a distinct identity, it’s an identity that has never stagnated and as the band’s ninth album, ‘Catacombs of the black Vatican’, arrives amidst a blaze of ferocious riffs and carefully crafted melodies it is clear that the demonic muse that has fuelled band leader Zakk Wylde’s rocket-powered career has lost none of its potency.
Kicking the album off is the humungous riff of ‘Fields of unforgiveness’ with its throbbing bass line, southern soul and Alice in Chains referencing melody. From the off Zakk is in fine form, his powerful voice ringing true through the mix as he blazes away on the guitar, tossing off a finger-wrecking solo with causal abandon on the song’s bridge as if anybody could just pick up a guitar and play like that. A short, sharp opener, ‘fields of unforgiveness’ rapidly gives way to the sinister opening riff of ‘my dying time’ which takes but a moment to slither into a crushing, full-bodied riff overlaid with vocal harmonies that are pure ‘dirt’, all of which is underpinned by Chad Szeliga’s rolling thunder on the drums. ‘Believe’ has a nasty groove to it, an example of the ‘greasy sound’ that Metallica so famously tried to procure on ‘Load’ and ‘reload’, neatly complemented by John DeServio’s bass lines and ambitious vocal work. Slowing the pace considerably is the stunning ballad, ‘Angel of mercy’ which sees Zakk heading further down the road of Procul harum, his elegant soloing providing a stunning centrepiece to a subtle, complex piece of music that does much to cement Zakk’s reputation as one of hard rock’s finest and most varied song writers. In devastating contrast, ‘Heart of darkness’ comes storming out of the gates on the back of a nitrous powered riff and there’s no doubt that this hell-blazing, palm-muted beast will slay live.
Having already laid down a brutal challenge on ‘heart of darkness’, Zakk takes it up yet another notch with the Dimebag Darrell Meets Jerry Cantrell riffing of ‘Beyond the down’, a furious slab of gloriously gnarled southern rock with an alternative twist that sinks its grimy talons into your brain and lodges there whilst Zakk unleashes one of the album’s finest solos. Opting for another moment of calm, the acoustic ‘Scars’ pitches up on a Rolling Stones meets Metallica vibe (think ‘Angie’ meets ‘Mama Said’) only for ‘Damn the flood’ to tear straight through the placid veneer of its predecessor with a chrome plated riff and gasoline sneer. It is one of the album’s heaviest tracks and it sees the whole band heads down, tearing their instruments to shreds in a fit of pure rock fury. ‘I’ve gone away’ has an earthen, down tuned riff that just has to be played at high volumes, the chugging power chords offset by Zakk’s haunting vocals. ‘Empty promises’ demonstrates the wide array of influences that fuel Black Label Society’s hellish engine with Chad’s excellent drumming particularly worthy of praise on this unconventional number, and it surely provides the perfect set closer with its near-progressive jamming and unconventional rhythms. Final track (and didn’t that arrive quickly?!) ‘shades of grey’ slips back into the world of acoustic prog that sounds like Procul Harum jamming with The Band and closes the album on a quiet, introspective note, leaving you wanting more from a band who have been absent for far too long.
If you know Black Label Society, then you probably know what to expect from ‘Catacombs of the black Vatican’. As Zakk himself states, it’s not about making this album heavier, harder or faster, it’s about making an album that represents where the band is at now, and in that BLS have admirably succeeded. With plenty of head banger’s delights in evidence, the world of metal is well catered for with tracks like ‘fields of unforgiveness’, ‘I’ve gone away’ and ‘down the flood’, but it’s the moments when Zakk lets his guard down and displays the depths of his influences that the album really cooks. The stunning balladry of ‘Angel of mercy’ and ‘scars’ both highlight Zakk’s ability to assimilate his influences and use them in his own unique way, whilst the epic ‘empty promises’ is a searing, brilliant piece of work that is begging to be unleashed in extended form when the band tour. It’s BLS sounding strong, confident and inspired and, after a five year absence, it’s hard to imagine that the band could have returned with a better, more varied release than the melodic, heavy, inspired ‘catacombs of the black Vatican’. Zakk’s back, and goddam it’s good to see him.