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Black Label Society - "Catacombs Of The Black Vatican" (CD)

Black Label Society - "Catacombs Of The Black Vatican" CD cover image

"Catacombs Of The Black Vatican" track listing:

1. Fields Of Unforgiveness
2. My Dying Time
3. Believe
4. Angel Of Mercy
5. Heart Of Darkness
6. Beyond The Down
7. Scars
8. Damn The Flood
9. I've Gone Away
10. Empty Promises
11. Shades Of Gray

Reviewed by on April 17, 2014

"This stuff is about as stimulating as a bowl of cereal."

According to Andrew Carnegie, “People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents.” On some levels, it may be unfair to attribute a dearth of motivation to Black Label Society mastermind Zakk Wylde, for the guy has stuck it out through thick and thin. But consider Ambrose Bierce’s definition of perseverance: “a lowly virtue whereby mediocrity achieves an inglorious success.”

Once upon a time, Black Label Society invigorated me. The former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist’s wild, bluesy soloing atop bludgeoning, groovy swamp-sludge riffage made for some classic tunes of “modernized traditional” metal and a series of killer albums. After “Mafia” [2005] however, the song began to sound the same. And remained the same. And the same. And the same.

Each successive effort offered some highlights, to be sure, and “Order Of The Black” [2010] came pretty close to recapturing the excitement and vigor of old. But “Catacombs Of The Black Vatican” reverts to the template “Mafia” established and what we’ve come to expect from Wylde: plodding, long-winded stoner drudgery that ambles through the motions with enough care to merit faint approval but little fanfare. This stuff is about as stimulating as a bowl of cereal.

Blindfold yourself, pin the tail on the “Mafia” tracklist, and you get lead single “My Dying Time.” This holds true for virtually the entire album. As always, the individual merits are many: opener “Fields Of Unforgiveness” brings a cool drone vibe; “Believe” and “Damn The Flood” are solid Southern hard rock entries; “Heart Of Darkness” slings a nice lacerating riff; and “Angel Of Mercy” is one of Wylde’s better ballads. But the ballads pile up, as has become custom, until we’re deep in Sad Ol’ Bastard territory with “Scars” and “Shades Of Gray,” and the album’s auto piloted closing act leaves us too beleaguered to really give a damn about what might’ve otherwise been noteworthy ditties.

The indulgent exuberance – coupled with great songwriting – of early Black Label Society, most notably on the double punch of “1919 Eternal” [2002] and “The Blessed Hellride,” [2003] is now all but extinct. You won’t find a swaggering “Demise Of Sanity,” a speedy “Battering Ram,” a pounding “Doomsday Jesus,” or a soaring “Stillborn” here; just a homogenized slab of passable songwriting and repetitive, stale hooks. No matter how impressive Wylde’s talents, “Catacombs Of The Black Vatican” subsumes them in a burdensome groan of coasting mediocrity.

Highs: "Fields Of Unforgiveness," "Angel Of Mercy," and "Heart Of Darkness"

Lows: All individual merits suffocate beneath the weight of the album's dull repetition.

Bottom line: Zakk Wylde squanders his considerable skills and musicianship on the same worn crutch of a formula he's abused for the past nine years.

Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls
2.5 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)