For the uneducated, Down are a metal supergroup comprised of members of Pantera, Corrosion of Conformity and Crowbar. At the time of this album’s release in 1995, Down were:
Phil Anselmo (Pantera): Vocals
Pepper Keenan (Corrosion of Conformity): Guitar
Kirk Windstein (Crowbar): Guitar
Todd Strange (Crowbar? Correct me if I’m wrong): Bass
Jimmy Bower (Eyehategod): Drums
I didn’t get into Down’s music until I saw them open the main stage on the Saturday of this year’s Download festival. Prior to this, I hadn’t heard one note of their music and so just assumed they were another musically-illiterate garage punk band in the vein of Anselmo’s other side project, Superjoint Ritual. Well, I was wrong. During the all-too-brief 25 minutes that they were onstage, they blew me and a whole field of others away with colossal riffs, tight song structures and some pretty impressive musicianship (they now also count ex-Pantera bass ace Rex Brown among their ranks). Upon picking up ‘NOLA’ (which stands for ‘New Orleans Louisiana, where the entire original line-up hails from), their first CD – written and recorded during their ‘down’ time, hence their name – I discovered that they are just as badass on record as they are in the flesh.
Musically, they bear little resemblance to their constituent bands. There are no insane Dimebag-esque lead breaks or angry thrashy axe-heroism. Instead they mine a more classic rock vein, with gritty, almost bluesy riffs and dynamics that show a reverence towards greats like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. In this context, Phil is able to show off his surprisingly expressive vocal range, rather than simply relying on the larynx-shredding screaming that has since become his trademark.
Anyway, on to the CD. Opener ‘Temptation’s Wings’ evolved from the band’s initial garage jam sessions, and you can see that from the start they were on to great things. Over a muscular harmonised motif, Phil unleashes a variety of bellows and roars, culminating in a series of his inimitable blood-curdling shrieks. You’d be hard pressed to find a better introduction to the band and the album …unless it was the track which immediately follows, the mighty lead single ‘Lifer’, which is even leaner, meaner and catchier, as well as boasting a kickass shoutalong chorus.
From here, the band just unleash riff after godlike riff on the rock-solid likes of the thundering ‘Underneath Everything’ and the self-explanatorily titled ‘Hail the Leaf’, while Anselmo vomits self-righteous anger over the top. Even on slightly less inspired moments such as ‘Eyes of the South’, which resembles a bunch of arbitrary blues licks stuck together into something approaching a song, the band’s fierce energy and considerable musical chops keep your ear glued to the speaker.
However, riffs and rage aren’t the only fields in which ‘NOLA’ excels. There are several genuine surprises waiting to trip up the unsuspecting metalhead prepared for nothing but unrelenting heaviness from a band of Down’s none-more-metal pedigree. The first arrives on track eight, ‘Jail’. It’s a skeletal acoustic song, elevated above the usual mid-album chiller-filler by the eerie yet subtle synths and strings. What’s more, Anselmo croons over the top with a surprising tenderness that will be completely alien to anyone familiar with his other work – put it this way, Pantera fans, it makes Vulgar Display closer ‘Hollow’ sound like a nasty metal monster of a song by comparison.
Surprise number two arrives two tracks later with the excellent ‘Stone the Crow’. While containing some riffs that are as heavy as anything else here, the gentle harmonies, soaring chorus and arena-sized guitar solo reveal a hint of (whisper it) stadium rock creeping into Down’s unholy sound. This is soft rock in the hardest sense, obviously, as ‘Stone the Crow’ puts the heaviest offerings of 99% of rock bands to shame.
For me, the biggest novelty on the CD arrives immediately after this track. ‘Pray for the Locust’ is a sweet acoustic instrumental, played by Keenan but written by Anselmo; this shows another side of his musicianship which most fans will be utterly unfamiliar with, as the track is not only haunting, despite its 61 second duration, but fairly complex. In the aftermath of these gentler moments, the closing pairing of the triumphant, swaggering ‘Swan Song’ and the apocalyptic ‘Bury Me in Smoke’ sound twice as crushing. The latter in particular may be the best thing here, with fantastic interweaving guitar lines, impassioned vocals from Anselmo and a stone cold killer of a riff which closes the album in style…
…And what an album. If you’re expecting Pantera mk. II you’ll only be slightly disappointed by this tremendous yet virtually shred-free piece of work. If you’re a metal fan who can appreciate classic acts like Sabbath and Zeppelin, you’ll love ‘NOLA’’s seamless blend of old and new. Whether it’ll make you forgive Phil Anselmo not only for breaking up one of the best metal bands ever but also for his incalculably asshole-ish comments in the press prior to Dimebag’s untimely and tragic death is another matter, but I recommend this album wholeheartedly nonetheless. Thanks for reading my review.
Tracks to download:
’Lifer’, ‘Stone the Crow’, ‘Bury Me in Smoke’. Failing that, buy the damn CD!