Twelve years ago a young, excitable college journalist proclaimed in his college newspaper that Black Label Society’s 1919 Eternal was “the best heavy metal album since White Zombie’s Astrocreep 2000, released in 1995. The album is a hybrid of Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power … and rocks you hard from beginning to end.”
Ah, the hyperbolic exuberance of youth.
Little did that fledgling writer know was that for the next 12 years viking/guitarist/singer Zakk Wylde and Black Label Society would consistently turn out a slew of new, heavy, brutal and amazing albums, each one better than the previous.
History has proven itself correct again with the band’s latest — Catacombs of the Black Vatican, their first full length, electric record since the brilliant 2009 release Order of the Black. This record takes the band further into the realm of heavy metal greatness.
It’s insane how this band uses a very simple formula on each record — guttural howling vocals and epic, soaring, blistering guitar solos from Zakk Wylde, riffs that are absolutely bone crunching and a drum and bass section that subtly builds a thunderous atmosphere. And yet, through all this, keep it tight and never, ever wander into a sea of bloody chaos that’ll shred the ear canals of the listener.
Every single BLS record uses this formula (with slight variations here and there) and yet it never gets tired, monotonous or been-there, done-that feeling. In fact, they get better, exponentially better. It’s mind-blowing.
What Catacombs of the Black Vatican does better than previous BLS efforts is that it does a better job of making the ballads and acoustic pieces work better with the heavier songs. For this reviewer, while some of these pieces throughout the years have been amazing (in particular the band’s tribute to Dimebag Darrell, “In This River”), they just don’t seem to jive with the rest of the record. They’re good stand alone tracks, for sure, but sandwiched between the heavy, heavy stuff, it just doesn’t do much for me.
Yet, here, it works really well. In fact, the best moment on the record is the placement of Track 4 (“Angel of Mercy”) and Track 5 (“Heart of Darkness). “Angel of Mercy” is a beautiful song, emotional and heartfelt, really showcasing the more emotional side of Wylde’s vocals. Now, what makes this song just that much better than a traditional BLS ballad is the inclusion of a jaw-dropping, million mph guitar solo. On paper that sounds totally gratuitous, but on record, it’s amazing. Then once we leave this more emotional ride, we’re hit right in the jaw with muscular, machine gun like riffs of “Heart of Darkness.” Each riff hits like a punch to the mouth, it’s immediate and packed with so much energy and nastiness. The juxtaposition of these two tracks make for such a bad ass moment and for this reviewer, it’s one of the band’s best back-to-back song placements in years.
Simply put, Catacombs of the Black Vatican is the best heavy record released in 2014. It’s the type of music that makes you want to drink whiskey, forge a sword and go battle a barbarian horde. Okay, maybe that’s some youthful hyperbolic exuberance still left over from college, but seriously, this is pure metal awesomeness. Get this record today.