Whatever you think of him, you have to admit that Zakk Wylde is something of a fighter. Not the sort of fighter who frequently goes into a pub and starts brawling with the nearest vulnerable punter, but the sort of fighter who's taken on quite a lot of problems in life head on. One of these problems has affected the man more than he probably expected, yet three years after a more-or-less life-changing turnaround he's still on his feet, effortlessly reclaiming the well-renowned “Captain Caveman” moniker much of the press refers to him as.
2014 sees the release of Black Label Society's latest album, Catacombs of the black Vatican
, and though the title may suggest otherwise, what you definitely won't hear is a monotonous doom metal sound. Instead, it's practically the same as any other BLS album, but certainly delivers the goods to those who expect them. There are the usual mellow, relaxed acoustic-led songs (“Angel of Mercy”, “Scars” and the first half of closer “Shades of Gray”), solid, groovy and slow-burning rockers (“Fields of Unforgiveness”, “My dying Time” and “I've gone away”) and one or two speedy, heavy anthems which do nothing but show off Wylde's penchant for the heaviest guitar tone there is to offer (“Damn the flood” and “Empty Promises”). As always the guitar work is prominent and enigmatic, bringing an instantly good musical quality to the stereo and wasting no time in laying down predictable albeit headbang-worthy riffs. The solo work is particularly excellent and though on some songs it feels as if the solos are being rushed far too much (“Beyond the Down”, the album's shortest song, suffers from this the most), it's no problem at all for long-time fans of the band to get stuck into. Together with the rest of the rhythm section, it makes for a mostly consistent sound.
What really stands out on BLS's latest record however isn't the guitar work, but how songs like the beautiful “Angel of Mercy” or the harder, heavier likes of “Heart of Darkness” are structured and written. The former is arguably one of the band's best mellow songs to date, where everything neatly ties in together and flows seamlessly. The latter is an excellently groove-laden anthem, instantly letting each instrument breathe for a good while before picking up into a heavier, faster rhythm. It helps that Wylde's vocal delivery is spot on, and it's not just with “Angel of Mercy” that this is evident. There are in fact heavier songs which utilize the same sort of vocal range, such as album opener “Fields of Unforgiveness”. His vocals do quiver slightly on songs such as “Believe” and the filler-based “Beyond the Down”, and because of that the listener will feel frustrated as well as a little disappointed. This is made up for however, with a set of songs which for the most part kick into gear from the very start.
There's nothing more that can be said about Black Label Society's latest album, because what you hear the first time is what you will probably hear the tenth time and beyond. There's no hidden musical secrets here, and musically it is indeed predictable, but that's really the point. What Catacombs of the black Vatican
sets out to do is confirm that Black Label Society still have it in them to produce consistently great music, and it achieves that almost immediately. Fans of the band will be delighted then, newcomers perhaps not.