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Kind of the titular antithesis to last year's stripped back live release, 'Unblackened', ex-Ozzy axeman Zakk Wylde has returned with his hard rocking, groove metal juggernaut, Black Label Society, and their ninth studio album, 'Catacombs of the Black Vatican'. Aside from a title more akin to that conjured by a band within the black metal fraternity, it's actually business as usual for Wylde and his latest BLS brethren. And the man's on fine songwriting form, once again, with an array of eleven cuts that are exactly what you would expect from a new BLS record - groove-driven riffs, stoner-esque vocals, and bursts of guitar virtuosity. Wylde's fretboard work is as breathtaking as ever - few guitarists can convey so much emotion through shred-fuelled playing. Of course, his soloing is not all shred-based although, when he really lets rip, the profundity of affective expression oozing forth is rather staggering. As is his masterful control over his wah pedal, which fuses naturally within the emotional core inherent in his virtuosic repertoire of widdle-tastic licks and leads.

The flow of heaviness is nicely interposed with a few lighter moments, namely balladic numbers 'Angel of Mercy', 'Scars' and album closer 'Shades of Gray' (the latter, fortunately, is nothing to do with E. L. James' tackily penned erotica). With their lush strings backing, acoustic guitar serenity, and a more heartfelt vocal delivery, this trio of tracks showcase Wylde and BLS' aptitude for capturing and communicating affective intensities through their music within more minimalist soundscapes. And when the heaviness kicks back in subsequent to 'Angel of Mercy' and 'Scars', its impact is somewhat heightened, thus not only creating an album of neat contrasts, but one that ensures its predominantly heavy dynamic in no small way becomes monotonous or abated.

Personnel-wise, 'Catacombs...' was recorded with BLS as just a trio (although Dario Lorina has since been recruited to fulfil rhythm guitar duties). Bassist John DeServio returns once again, although this album marks the first studio appearance of sticksman Jeff Fabb. Aside from sporadic piano and strings, Wylde also doubles up on rhythm and lead, so BLS' overall sound is not as stripped-back as the minimal personnel would imply. And this latest incarnation of BLS are as good as they've ever been, although with Wylde assuming the role as sole composer, it's no surprise their established sonic aesthetic remains intact. To be entirely honest, I've heard better albums this year, thus far, and, as such, 'Catacombs...' is unlikely to make it into my end-of-year best album list. That said, though, it's another solid release in BLS' and Wylde's ever-growing canon of work, and one that perpetuates the high quality people have come to expect from them.
Mascot Records
Review by Mark Holmes
7th April 2014
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
"...another solid release in BLS' and Wylde's ever-growing canon of work..."