History of Metal: Doom Metal, Part 3 of 4

October 7, 2016 — Leave a comment

It’s now the 1990s.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series on doom metal have been largely about traditional doom, or “trad doom” for short. It’s a style still practiced today by many bands, and an important kickoff point for new fans of the genre–assuming they already know and love Black Sabbath (hey–ya’ll know what happens when you assume).

Here in Part 3 though, we’re going to step off the trad track set up by St. Vitus, Pentagram and others. Here, you’re likely to find music that appeals just as much to fans of extreme metal as to fans of 70s hard rock and classic rock. Though still a young subgenre in the early 90s, doom was already evolving, taking on the different shades of darkness from the worlds different regions.

One of those regions is New Orleans.

Every city has a popular image that’s frequently at odds with what it’s like to actually live there. The Crescent City is correctly considered a cultural mecca of food, Mardi Gras, jazz, blues and antebellum history. But like all cities, there’s a darker, seedier side to it. Marilyn Manson devotes a whole chunk of his book to what it was like to record an album there (if you can get through it, that is). He describes the decadence, drugs and seediness of the city’s underworld in filthy detail, and I’m sure he’s far from the only one to experience it. And apart from that, NOLA is often ranked as “the most haunted city in America.”

The atmosphere of this “dark side” of New Orleans was integral to the creation of “sludge metal,” a subgenre of doom that so well captures the searing, muggy heat of the city. Drug addiction, misery and other dark themes are present in spades, and the music uses thick, de-tuned guitars with hardcore-inspired rough vocals. Slow, fast, somewhere in between, it doesn’t matter–this music is described as “Tony Iommi lying in a bathtub full of used hypodermic needles.”

The two bands who had the most influence on sludge’s creation are The Melvins (important also for Nirvana and grunge in the Seattle area), and Exhorder (for sheer heaviness and vitriol, plus the bonus of being New Orleans locals). Buzz Osbourne of the former popularized drop-D guitar tuning, a metal mainstay to this day, and early contemporaries Soundgarden had this vibe too. Art rock, punk rock, metal…the Melvins had it all stewing together, and when they came to town, it seemed every budding musician wanted to check them out.

Though they rehearsed in Aberdeen, WA, the Melvins were no strangers to the hopeless, oppressive atmosphere that many others grew up in and identified with in New Orleans. They were truly your favorite sludge band’s favorite band.

Perhaps the longest-lived and most continuous of the New Orleans sludge bands is Crowbar.

Active since 1989, their guitars were beautifully and seriously de-tuned and thick. Inspired by the supremely heavy guitar of Exhorder and The Melvins, a new battle in the heaviness war began taking place in NOLA. “The most important cassette I ever owned had ‘Trouble’ on side 1 and the first Melvins record on the other,” laughs guitarist Jimmy Bower. He is one of the most respected figures in the city’s metal scene, and his accessible personality and style are an inspiration to the tight-knit community there.

Though it wasn’t exactly trendy to proclaim your love for the old Sabbath stuff in the early 90s, Crowbar and others obvious didn’t care. They made, and still make, heavy, basic, jam-worthy music.

Mike Williams and Eyehategod (EHG for short, if you don’t want to indulge in the shock value) had the drug addiction themes going from very personal experience, and probably captured those themes on tape better than anyone else in the city. With his screeching, vomitlike vocals, Williams had no trouble convincing listeners that he knew what he was talking about. His personal, health, and drug problems meant he often had trouble just making it through tours. The group even named its live album “Ten Years of Abuse (And Still Broke).” But the fans agree…if there’s no Williams, there’s no EHG.

“My house burned down [in Hurricane Katrina],” he says, “Not flooded, it was torched…but you can’t kill a city. You just can’t.”

Turns out you couldn’t kill EHG either. After serving jail time for drug possession in the aftermath of that disastrous storm, Williams and EHG are back together and on the road, cleaning themselves up and inspiring others to do likewise.

And the guy who paid his bail and helped him get back on his feet? Phil Anselmo of Pantera.

Though he was already the popular vocalist and spokesman of one of the 90s’ definitive metal acts, Anselmo always had a fondness for this New Orleans sound. You might say it was in his blood.

To fuel this urge to explore it, Anselmo started Down as a Pantera side project with rotating members from other New Orleans sludge bands, including Crowbar and EHG. Having almost died from a heroin overdose himself, Phil Anselmo was no stranger to sludge metal’s themes, and Down’s 1995 debut record is still the most warmly-received of the band’s output. The intensity and fury of Pantera’s shows were already legendary, and the rough vocals carried over readily and naturally from there to sludge.

These days, Phil is eight years clean–after years of abusing painkillers and muscle relaxants, plus having a number of surgeries for chronic back pain from flinging himself around onstage. With the breakup of Pantera and the death of Dimebag Darrell, the silver lining at least is that Anselmo now has the freedom to make Down a more consistent focus. He also has another project called Superjoint Ritual if you want to check it out.

Though many sludge musicians are lucky to have such long and influential careers and lives, not everyone would survive the journey. One of the bands whose career ended all too soon was Acid Bath, who released two albums of some of the most sonically-diverse sludge metal of the period. So diverse, but still strong and heavy, is the music that you could ask ten fans what their favorite Acid Bath song is and you’ll likely get ten different answers. Heck, even the band members differed on what to call it: the singer called it “death roll” and the guitarist called it “gothic hardcore.”

“We played shows with those guys every week,” Mike Williams reflects. “Even though they weren’t technically from New Orleans, they were from the bayou–but they were still brothers.”

But the band’s promising career came to an abrupt end on January 23rd, 1997, when bassist Audie Pitre and his parents were killed when a drunk driver hit their car after running a Stop sign. Acid Bath quickly disbanded, leaving those two excellent LPs (Pagan Terrorism Tactics and When the Kite String Pops) and those small shows with EHG as its lauded legacy.

However…singer/guitarist Sammy Duet would not let this loss affect his love for and commitment to music. Joining with local friends from other bands like Soilent Green et al, he formed Goatwhore in 1997. They went on to become even more successful than Acid Bath, playing a kind of “blackened death metal” with some more traditional rock and roll and shred elements.

The most important non-musical even to happen to sludge (and by extension, to New Orleans) was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many bands lost everything, from their own homes, to their friends’ homes, to the bars where they hung out and played shows, to their favorite restaurants.

But there was still the desire to bring that which was lost all back: the camaraderie, the family atmosphere, the music…ensuring that the sludge metal scene became a key part of rebuilding its community. It is a desire that continues to drive on sludge metal’s finest to this day. Some even argue that the subgenre’s popularity grew after the storm as a result. Just as Williams said, you couldn’t kill a city. It is another feather in New Orleans’ hat to have these bands as part of its culture. They have become a symbol of the musical rebuilding effort, and there is truly nowhere else like it. It’s very American.

This is only a taste of the Southern sludge metal sound, which goes beyond New Orleans and into other cities across the southern US, including Miami, Florida and Athens, Georgia. If you want to delve even deeper into this scene, there’s a thorough Youtube documentary called “Slow Southern Steel” for your viewing pleasure. Lots of good interviews and background information on there, much more than I could fit into a blog post!

The urban bleakness and despair that manifested itself in metal wasn’t limited to NOLA, though. Dorset County in England is a region on the southern shore with a long history of battles, uprisings, and the occult. It’s an area of diverse natural beauty and the trademark foggy grayness that dominates the British Isles. It is an atmosphere that inspires pure awe.

One day some friends smoked a ton of weed in this magical setting and were inspired to name their new band after a merger of two Black Sabbath songs.

Let’s solve the equation, boys and girls:

“Electric Funeral” + “The Wizard” = ?

Electric Wizard, innovators of “stoner doom” or “stoner metal.”

Someone once said that “‘stoner rock’ is just a name that people who don’t smoke pot call the music.” It’s very similar to the sludge previously under discussion: it still has the big, powerful riffs, still the abrasive vocals. What makes it stoner doom is a noisy, spacious production that captures the atmosphere of cannabis, old horror movies, and H.P. Lovecraft (Electric Wizard’s favorite things). It goes all the way back to the mind-expanding psychedelia of the 1960s, but often is even more sinister.

Frontman Jus Osborn has famously said that he doesn’t watch any horror movies that are over 20-30 years old. I’ve never touched a joint myself, but I have no trouble believing that “Funeralopolis” was written under the influence. Do you?

But Electric Wizard would also fit right in in the U.S state of California, where people believe there’s something wrong with you if you DON’T smoke weed. Stoner rock and metal flourished there beginning in the late 80s and early 90s, and at least one world-class band was to be found in each half of the state: Sleep, from San Jose in the north, and Kyuss from Palm Desert in the south.

Living in the desert, during the last pre-Internet time period when you could be truly isolated from broader musical trends, Kyuss and their fellow “desert rock” bands like Fu Manchu, Fatso Jetso and others collaborated and jammed in this vast, unique landscape. Kyuss was the only group who really “broke out” as the interest in all things alternative peaked in the mid-1990s, but they split soon afterwards.

The latter is now better known for guitarist Josh Homme, who has a more famous band called Queens of the Stone Age. And Al Cisneros of Sleep is an indomitable force in American doom.

Sleep has had a solid career too that could have been even more successful. They had an excellent album out already called Holy Mountain, but what they really wanted to do was record an hour-long suite about a hashish-smoking caravan from the Middle Ages on its way to Jerusalem. Who doesn’t want to record something like that, right?

So passionate were they about this project and about getting it perfect, that Sleep wouldn’t even play parts of the song at shows–they just kept on adding to it and adding to it at rehearsals. Understandably, after signing with a major label, management wasn’t exactly keen on releasing such a project. Sleep recorded it anyway and used the advance money for recording and production expenses. And by “recording and production expenses” we of course mean weed.

The recording process was very tough, representing almost four years of songwriting, and due to record label wrangling Dopesmoker wasn’t released until 1999. Small problem, though: Sleep had already broken up. But as Matt Pike said recently, “We did all the work, so why leave it sitting around?”

Bake yourself some brownies and enjoy the flavor:

Back on the East Coast in Maryland (close to Wino’s stomping grounds!), Clutch embraced a wider variety of styles than any other doom rock band since Acid Bath. They still record and practice in the town of Frederick before each tour and album, and have had some mainstream success for general rock audiences in addition to metal audiences.

Fun fact: In Flames singer Anders Friden has also been known to rock a Clutch trucker hat onstage.

For the third and final sub-subgenre in this part, we’ll turn briefly to “funeral doom.”

Remember Cathedral’s Forest of Equilibrium back in part 2? If you thought THAT was slow and painful, wait until you hear funeral doom. The style takes its inspiration from traditional dirge music and tries harder than any other music to create an aura of total despair and loss. So it’s probably not a good idea to listen to this stuff if you’re depressed (seriously). The pacing is appropriate only for a team of coffinbearers in a rainstorm.

It was developed by two bands from Finland: Skepticism and Thergothon. Norwegian band Funeral is responsible for the nomenclature, while Evoken is perhaps the most highly regarded modern group in the genre. They are from the U.S state of New Jersey (insert comment about how depressing New Jersey is here).

“It’s because the music is so cruelly, brutally slow–it just bleeds the energy out of you,” writes a fan online.

All three of these doom subgenres are still going strong today, finding ways to express darkness in ways other than just asking “how slow can we go?” It also asks, “Where are we from?” and “What are our lives like?” Indeed, all those approaches ultimately lead towards, “What do we love?” And the bands all have different answers.

For our finale in part 4, we’ll push our timeline forward again. We’ll check out some of the new bands and sounds taking place in doom and catch up with the original veterans of old as well. Then we shall close this darkened crypt with somber solemnity before fading into the deepening mist…

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