Let me start this review by stating that I am a big Black Label Society fan. I have a good majority of their albums and have seen them live on numerous occasions. Having said all of that, it pains me to say that their newest album Catacombs Of The Black Vatican is just OK. Now, there is certainly not much that I would totally pan on this record. Fans of the band will still surely be happy with some of it, but there is also truly not much that really stands out either. For the most part, we all know that most Black Label Society records sound very similar but there is always enough to keep each one interesting on its own. This time around the band definitely expands more on some of the sludgy and bluesy sounds that they dabbled in on past albums. However, in many instances it still feels like we are getting a rehash of a lot of old material and there is even a fair amount of copy catting of other bands as well.
One thing I have loved about every Black Label Society record is that there are always a few tunes mixed in that have more of a bluesy southern metal and sludge metal feel to them. These songs help to break up the Ozzy Osbourne influenced doom and traditional metal tracks that make up the signature BLS sound. I have always hoped to get an album where we would get more of these southern metal style tracks. Well, my wish was certainly granted this time around as Zakk Wylde has fully embraced southern metal or sludge metal on most of Catacombs Of The Black Vatican. This is certainly an excellent thing on tracks like”My Dying Time”, “Heart of Darkness” and “Damn the Flood” where the band gives off a Pepper Keenan era Corrosion of Conformity southern metal kind of vibe. Where it doesn’t work is on the more sludge metal driven songs like “Beyond the Dawn” and “I’ve Gone Away”. Here the sound is a much more commercial Alice In Chains-like sludge metal. I certainly have nothing against AIC, but this style works for them and them only. For Wylde, it sounds out of place and ripped off. When I got toward the end of the album and heard the more doom influenced “Empty Promises”, I found myself missing the signature BLS tunes that made all their past albums great.
Another thing that has always drawn me to BLS and Zakk Wylde are their acoustic and slower paced songs. For me, acoustic songs and metal never really mixed. However, Wylde was always able to make them work and usually in a pretty big way. Unfortunately on the newest record the acoustic and slow tracks do not work at all. “Angel of Mercy”, “Scars” and “Shades of Gray” are boring, cliched and feel totally like the band mailed it in this time around. These are the only tracks that I would fully pan and tell you to absolutely avoid.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are certainly some positives to be found on the album. The southern metal sounding songs I mentioned above are one of them. Naturally Wylde’s lead guitar work and solos are for the most part awesome and totally on point. The best solos can be found on the tracks “My Dying Time”, “Scars”, “Damn the Flood” and “Shades of Gray”. So while a couple of these are some of the weaker songs that I mentioned, Wylde still manages to give them some epic solos. Although, as I mentioned, many of the arrangements feel like Wylde and the band were just going through the motions, the musicianship on the album remains excellent and near flawless. Once again we get great bass work from John DeServio and great controlled drumming from new comer and former Breaking Benjamin member Chad Szeliga. If you are looking to weed through things and check out the absolute best the album has to offer, check out the songs “My Dying Time”, “Heart of Darkness”, “Damn the Flood” and “Empty Promises”.
The real problem is that these songs are missing the oomph that we have become used to with Black Label Society. Even Wylde’s vocals were lacking some of the intensity that we have all become accustomed to. There were many instances where this felt much more like a hard rock album. There needed to be more passion, aggression and overall loudness behind each song that we just did not get this time around. This was especially noticeable on the sludge and acoustic tracks. BLS always has that extra something to make their acoustic songs stand out and fit in the world of metal. These did not have that. Take a listen to the sludge style songs that we mentioned above and then listen to Crowbar, Eyehategod or some of BLS’ older sludge material and you’ll see what I mean. For the lack of a better term, these songs just lack balls. I know Zakk Wylde is known for being able to write new material quickly. Perhaps this time things were just done too fast. The last thing I will say is that many of the songs are just too short with a vast majority of the songs clocking in under four minutes. Wylde can jam out on one song during a live performance for close to ten minutes. Why not give us a bit more of this length on the album? Ah well. All I ever wanted was a full bluesier southern metal album from Black Label Society. I finally got it, but this time I found myself wishing for more of that traditional BLS intensity and spirit.