Review Summary: The band continue to build and expand upon their long-established sound... slowly but surely.
Let me begin this write-up with sort of an analogy (don't worry, it won't be long). Imagine getting your daily exercise walking down a familiar road; you have lots of friends here, and it's pleasant to watch your surroundings as you get your cardio workout in with the walk. However, with each day, some things are bound to change. Some toys will be in a different location, kids will be playing in a different area than before, etc. Basically, little changes based around a familiar path... and that's exactly the situation that Black Label Society have found themselves in. Zakk Wylde and co. have retained their sound - that is, classic metal with numerous touches of blues, southern rock, and sludge metal influences - for years and rarely break away from their comfort zone. On the flip side, the positive aspect of this resistance to change has been quality consistency; with the possible exception of Shot to Hell, the band have never released a truly bad album because they know exactly which mold they fit in. However, seeing as 2010's Order of the Black was one of the group's best records in years and perhaps a comeback of sorts, Catacombs of the Black Vatican has some pretty high expectations to meet as the successor.
Luckily, while the band don't break a ton of new ground here, they're continuing to refine the direction that Order of the Black set them in. First things first, however: one of the biggest things that fans were anticipating up to this album's release was how ex-Breaking Benjamin drummer Chad Szeliga would fare as the band's newest member to the position. Luckily (and a bit surprisingly), his grooves and overall technique fit perfectly with the band's numerous tempo changes and occasional stylistic shifts. Lead single "My Dying Time" wasn't exactly the best initial representation of the Chad's inception, given the slow and sludgy nature of the song, but a tune like the rhythmically-varied "Damn the Flood" displays things much better. As it constantly alternates between a fast swing-like rhythm and a slow Pantera-esque southern groove, it becomes more apparent how comfortable the man is behind the kit. Speaking of variation, that ends up being one of this record's greatest qualities in the long run. In particular, the ballads are much improved from the last effort. "Angel of Mercy" and "Shades of Gray" are both very solid and heartfelt songs, although in dramatically different ways. The latter in particular is pretty damn interesting for a Black Label Society song, using a clean guitar sound to give off a haunting approach as Zakk's multi-tracked vocal harmonies sound weathered and worn. The whole thing makes for a beautiful atmosphere not usually heard in a song by these guys. The instrumental work is in its usual rock-solid form, the band members adapting to each change with ease and always pounding out solid grooves to the heavier tracks. Of course Zack Wylde is still a great shredder, but he shows quite a bit of restraint as well here. His blues licks are much more fleshed out here with the ballads, and his solos generally sound as though he's making every note count in the grand scheme of things.
That isn't to say that the band have gone soft, however. The sludgy moments from songs like "My Dying Time" and "Empty Promises" are even more apparent than on Order of the Black, making for truly dirty-sounding pieces of music. The former even has a hint of Alice in Chains with the more grungy vocal harmony in the chorus, despite the distortion being way thicker. As instantly revealed by the more doomy opener "Fields of Unforgiveness," a good chunk of this album is quite slow and atmospheric as well, despite said opener having Zakk's signature shredding in the solo (and throughout many of the songs). Basically, when you get down to it, Catacombs of the Black Vatican is caught between a retread of old ideas and hints toward exciting new things. By now people should know what to expect from a Black Label Society record; if you didn't like them before, you probably won't now either. But just give this album a chance... it finally showcases some much-needed variety and diversity despite occasionally sounding more like a refined edition of the previous release.