It has been four years since Black Label Society charged into the Billboard top ten with the well-received ‘Catacombs of the black Vatican’, and much has changed around the world in their absence. Now, Zakk Wylde has gathered his troops of doom once more for the confusingly-titled ‘Grimmest Hits’, the band’s tenth studio album, rather than a hits collection as the title implies. With John DeServio once more offering up a subsonic bass rumble, Zakk is also joined by Dario Lorina on guitar (a member since 2013) and Jeff Fabb on drums (a member since 2012), and it’s a fearsome racket the four-piece make. Featuring twelve tracks, ‘Grimmest Hits’ follows neatly on from its thunderous predecessor, arguably even eclipsing it in many places.
‘Grimmest Hits’ captures the attention from the off with the eerie intro to ‘Trampled down below’ offsetting expectations of a ferocious wall of guitar and offering, instead, cinematic strings and John DeServio’s smooth, ominous bass work. When the guitars do come crashing in, it feels like a moment earned and the band quickly settle into a suitably crushing, Sabbath-esque groove. It’s a dark track with which to open, the closely harmonised vocals underscoring an Alice in Chains vibe that permeates both the song and the album, Zakk plunging into a solo in the latter half that feels more Cantrell than Iommi. The Ozzy-esque ‘Seasons of falter’ sees a taut, tightly-wrapped riff give way to a surprisingly airy verse, although a blistering solo awaits in the wings lest anyone doubt Zakk’s willingness to crush the opposition. Cruising in on the back of a monstrous riff, ‘the betrayal’ is a hard-driving song ably propelled forward by the stadium-sized drums of Jeff Fabb. Heading back into the doom-laden territory inhabited by Alice in Chains, ‘all that once shined’ once again emphasizes closely harmonized vocals, although the band do throw in a nice, Sabbath-sized tempo change that pushes the track into a different gear altogether. After its predecessor comes to an abrupt halt, ‘the only words’ is the first track that shows signs of slowing down. A sedate and shimmering ballad, it is a sweetly bluesy track that harks back to the likes of Procul Harum before the punishing, and aptly-titled ‘room of nightmares’ brings the first half of the album to a suitably apocalyptic close.
Opening up the second half, ‘a love unreal’ emerges from a quiet, picked guitar part only to explode into life when the listener is at their most disarmed. It’s a neat piece of musical sleight of hand and it gets the adrenalin flowing nicely before the brutal, mid-tempo monster that is ‘disbelief’ hulks into view. The sort of dark yet effortlessly melodic metal that has always been a mainstay of Black Label Society, ‘Disbelief’ is a highlight and guaranteed to be a live killer. The album slows down considerably with the stripped-down ballad ‘the day that heaven had gone away’. It’s not a bad song, but its placement is off so that it effectively kills the dark, heavy vibe the band have set up across the album and it’s not without some relief when the crunchy riff of ‘illusions of peace’ once again sets the place alight. We’re into full-blown Sabbath worship with the hard-riffing ‘bury your sorrow’, a menacing, chugging beast of a song that somehow hits all the right points along the way thanks to the heavy, herbally-enhanced vibe that Zakk weaves into the gnarled guitar work. It’s another highlight and one that will certainly damage a few necks along the way. The album concludes with the acoustic, Beatles-esque ‘nothing left to say’, a quiet moment that feels like a natural coda to the mighty, metallic bluster that has gone before.
Like AC/DC or Iron Maiden, Black Label Society have spent years honing their sound without ever really deviating from the template that they laid down with their very first outing. This is in no way a criticism, rather it is the case that you probably know whether you like this album or not without hearing a note. To these ears, the album is better than the rather schizophrenic ‘order of the black’ and at least on a par, if not better than, ‘Catacombs of the Black Vatican’. It has a consistency that works very much in its favour, with Zakk and his cohorts favouring the riff for the majority of the record. Of the quieter numbers on offer, both ‘the only words’ and ‘nothing left to say’ feel natural and unhurried, with only ‘the day that heaven had gone away’ feeling out of place. It’s another good album, then, from Black Label Society and if you’ve enjoyed what has gone before, then there’s no question that this record, with its doom meets Alice in Chains vibe hits the spot. 8