Personnel: Zakk Wylde (vocals, guitar, strings, piano); Chad Szeliga (drums).
Audio Mixers: Adam Klumpp; John "JD" DeServio; Zakk Wylde.
Recording information: The Black Vatican, Los Angeles, California.
Photographers: Justin Reich; Zakk Wylde.
On their previous release, 2013's live and mostly acoustic Unblackened, Black Label Society showed a different side of themselves, turning down the volume to expose the soul of their work. While fans might have worried that this would be a harbinger of a kinder, gentler Black Label Society, Zakk Wylde and company return to their grizzled, hard-rocking ways on the band's ninth studio album, Catacombs of the Black Vatican. If the album proves anything, it's that while times and trends might change, Wylde will always be a beacon of good old-fashioned, no-frills hard rock. Although the album does have some lighter moments, with acoustic ballads like "Angel of Mercy" and "Scars" providing some shelter from the storm of searing guitar heroics, it's clear the album's real comfort zone is considerably crunchier. Catacombs of the Black Vatican is at its best when Wylde is able to let his outlaw swagger loose. It would be hard to mistake the opening riff of "Beyond the Down," full of leather-clad confidence and pinch harmonics, for anything but Black Label Society. And though the lighter moments on the album aren't its strongest, the role they play here is a necessary one, grounding the album from time to time to make killer solos, like the insane one toward the end of "Damn the Flood," seem even more impressive. More importantly, they show that Wylde is confident enough in his inherent badassness that he doesn't need to make every single track a punishing crunchfest. Fortunately for fans of Black Label Society, however, the bulk of the album lives (and thrives) in that aggressive space, making Catacombs of the Black Vatican another solid album from one of the few true hard rock bands still out there. ~ Gregory Heaney