With this being the first Black Label Society album to come out since 2010's Order Of The Black, it's hard to tell if the Zakk Wylde vehicle is planning their output more strategically at this point or merely resting on their laurels. They're toured relentlessly, dabbled with some acoustic work, and gone through a flurry of drummers that led to Breaking Benjamin's Chad Szeliga playing on here. Fortunately, on Catacombs Of The Black Vatican, no one would've expected the changes to affect this merry band of berzerkers.
Seeing how Zakk Wylde lovingly described this album as the same set of songs with different titles, it isn't too surprising to see it sharing an identical tone with Order Of The Black. The production has the same spit shine, the songwriting is still done in that Lynyrd Skynyrd through Alice In Chains mode, and it's a little hard to tell if Zakk would rather have his music be defined by his Guitar Center chugs or his Ozzy-esque layering.
But this album is set apart by a more somber execution than compared to the last few efforts. It's not exactly a depressing listen but there aren't any violent tracks and several of the heavier numbers do have a rather world weary outlook as evidenced by lead single "My Dying Time." In addition, the ballads may be their heartfelt since Hangover Music with "Angel of Mercy" bringing a great southern rock flair and "Shades of Gray" closing things out with a sweet blues beat.
Fortunately, the heavier tracks are still enjoyable eevn if there isn't a "Godspeed Hellbound" among them. "Believe" and "Beyond The Down" unleash the album's most memorable grooves in a no-bullshit fashion and "Damn The Flood" may have the loosest spring in its step. But the album's strongest highlight comes in the form of "Empty Promises," a slow track defined by its communion of churning guitars and suspenseful drumming. It's pretty damn epic by Black Label standards and perhaps one of the best they've written to date.
Overall, Catacombs Of The Black Vatican is one of those albums that offers a few neat tracks but ultimately does exactly what you expect. I would still recommend The Blessed Hellride to an unfamiliar listener, but the usual fans will find plenty of enjoyment and naysayers will get more to ignore. Black Label's been on a good roll lately; let's just hope it won't be another four years before the next batch of titles shows up.
"Angel of Mercy"
"Beyond the Down"
"Shades of Gray"