Yer Metal is Olde: DOWN – NOLA

Supergroups. That exciting moment when you learn that members of two or more bands you love are coming together to create … well, if we’re honest with ourselves, usually disappointment. It’s rare that supergroups come close to fulfilling that promise and that’s probably because they can’t. That’s not their fault – expectations are always sky high as a new group coalesces but different fans want different aspects of their favorites to be front and center in the new entity. A rare example, however, of a supergroup not just living up to the hype but downright crushing – at least for this fan – is DOWN. Bringing together members of Eyehategod, Crowbar, Corrosion of Conformity and fronted by the controversial-polarizing-but-incredible-vocalist Philip H. Anselmo of Pantera, when these dudes crawled out of a Louisiana swamp and dropped their full-length debut NOLA in 1995, all bets were off.

DOWN’s actual debut was a demo record that dropped in 1992 and featured 10 songs, eight of which would form the backbone of NOLA, three years later.  Combining a sludgy groove with hazy stoner rock riffs and a Deep South blues vibe, NOLA – named after New Orleans, Louisiana – felt like something new, fresh and very dirty. Despite Dr. A.N. Grier’s farcical claim – which he buried in a footnote, hoping no one would notice – that Exhorder introduced the DOWN sound before DOWN, there really wasn’t anything else out there like NOLA when it appeared. As album opener “Temptation’s Wings” kicks into life, the dual guitars of CoC’s Pepper Keenan and Crowbar’s Kirk Windstein have a thick and organic quality to them, as big, meaty riffs are laid one atop another, with the blues melody. The groove-laden bass of Windstein’s Crowbar colleague Todd Strange adds a swagger to proceedings, as Eyehategod’s Jimmy Bower sets up an easy but compelling rhythm behind the kit.

There are many highlights on NOLA but my first memories of listening to DOWN are all about Anselmo’s performance, which for me is up there as one of his career best. At times a rampaging beast, all raw, drawn out screams (“Temptation’s Wings” and “Hail the Leaf”), at others a crooner (“Jail”) or belting out plaintive, smoke-tainted and whiskey-edged cleans (“Rehab” and “Stone the Crow”), Anselmo largely abandons the gruff hardcore barks of the previous year’s Far Beyond Driven but he is simply on fire across NOLA. That Anselmo turned in a huge performance was only a part of what made DOWN so special. The other part of it, the more important part, was that, almost uniquely among supergroups to my knowledge, this five-headed beast managed to blend elements of all the members’ day jobs and come up with something that sounded both familiar and yet all its own.

The dirty, hardcore-tinged sludge of Crowbar and Eyehategod (“Underneath Everything”) are as prominent on NOLA as the groove of Corrosion of Conformity (“Rehab” and “Losing All”) and unmistakable vocal versatility that Anselmo brought to Pantera. Combining this with the languorous blues tones that drench the record as a whole, bubbling over in moments like the glorious Kyuss-esque opening to “Eyes of the South” and instrumental “Pray for the Locust,” DOWN effortlessly guide the listener through a rolling sea of moods across NOLA’s near hour-long runtime. While my personal highlights are the gorgeous “Stone the Crow” and the viciously melancholic “Rehab,” DOWN close out the album with the monstrous anthem “Bury me in Smoke,” creating possibly the most Pantera-like thing on NOLA.

Time to own up. I didn’t discover NOLA when it dropped in 1995. I was 12 at the time and listening to … well, never mind what I was listening to then but it wasn’t this. When I did discover it, sometime around 2000, I did so having fallen in love with Pantera and The Great Southern Trendkill in particular. DOWN opened my eyes to a different way to deliver heaviness and groove, melding it seamlessly with the laid-back vibe of the South and dripping in sludgy overtones. Anselmo’s strutting confidence fronting proceedings made NOLA a stone cold classic and an all too rare instance of a supergroup actually being, dare I say, super. That DOWN’s members have significant blank spots in their memories when it comes to the process of actually making NOLA – due to being, how shall I put this, utterly off their tits – perhaps makes their achievement all the more impressive.

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