Phil Anselmo – Vocals
Pepper Keenan – Guitar
Kirk Windstein – Guitar
Rex Brown – Bass
Jimmy Bower – Drums
Following on from the unexpected worldwide success of their 1995 debut ‘NOLA’, Down reconvened seven years later, in an isolated recording studio in the swamps of Louisiana, to lay down their sophomore effort, ‘Down II: A Bustle in Your Hedgerow’. The band barricaded themselves in the studio with only their instruments and, in the words of bassist Rex, ’50 crates of Ramen Noodle and $7000 worth of liquor’. Presumably they also had some herbal refreshment, given that ‘NOLA’ contained a song called ‘Hail The Leaf’. I’m not advocating drug use, but you’ll probably be best off listening to ‘Down II’ in the company of Mary Jane. Partly because it is, in many ways, a quintessential stoner album; mainly, however, because you’ll have to be in an altered state of mind to be able to overlook how disappointing this record is compared to the unimpeachable ‘NOLA’.
The grinding intro riff to ‘Lysergik Funeral Procession’ kicks things off in decent fashion, briefly creating an interesting, doomy ambience. However, it’s soon evident that this isn’t the same Down who created ‘NOLA’. The pervading mood as ‘Lysergik’ unfolds is much darker, but this darkness is more akin to that of a rainy October morning than the darkness of a lacerated, putrefying soul. It lacks any real punch and doesn’t grab the listener’s attention like it should. At just over three minutes in length, the song is over as quickly as it started. Its mediocrity as an opener is a worrying sign of things to come.
Lyrically, the album is also much more downbeat, which only adds to the innately depressing experience of listening to ‘II’. Anselmo’s widely acknowledged battle with heroin forms the lyrical basis of ‘Learn from This Mistake’, a gripping, introspective number that would be the undisputed highlight of the album…if it was only a few minutes shorter. Instead, it trudges on seemingly endlessly, with a sudden explosion of heavy-for-heavy’s-sake riffs and shouting drawing it out to over seven minutes in length. You’ll probably be ready to skip it by then, as these riffs aren’t really that good.
This brings me to the main problem preventing ‘II’ from soaring to anywhere near the stratospheric heights of its predecessor: a severe lack of the consistently fantastic riffage that made ‘NOLA’ tunes like ‘Lifer’ and ‘Bury Me in Smoke’ such essential listening. The riffs here, for the most part, are either incredibly simple two- or three-chord progressions, as exemplified by ‘There’s Something on My Side’, or are too convoluted and messy to make much of any impact, as with the squalling yet impotent riffs of ‘Man That Follows Hell’ and ‘The Seed’. There’s no problem with simplicity, obviously, but some of Keenan and Windstein’s guitar lines are more basic than a little kid’s building blocks. This is mighty disappointing from a band of Down’s proven talent.
The presence of two short, inconsequential interludes – the fuzzy, dubbed-out ‘Doobinterlude’ and the comical messaround ‘Flambeaux’ – does nothing to help matters. They’re throwaway fare and add nothing to the overall experience, where ‘NOLA’’s ‘Pray for the Locust’ was of a similar length but genuinely outstanding.
I know this is shaping up to be a pretty negative review, but this is NOT a bad album. There are frequent flashes of almost-greatness to be found among the distorted sludge and cod-jazz guitar noodling. ‘Ghosts Along the Mississippi’ contains one of the few truly memorable, catchy riffs on the disc, and the chorus manages not to fall completely flat. ‘Learn From This Mistake’, with its haunting guitar line and sober, soul-bearing vocals from Phil, is fantastic for a good four minutes. Why the band saw fit to needlessly draw the song out past its logical conclusion is unclear – if they were trying to make it ‘epic’ then, frankly, they failed.
‘New Orleans is a Dying Whore’ is one of the few straightforward rockers here that actually works – a solid, if unspectacular, four minutes of ol’ fashioned headbanging fun, with Phil’s lyrical venom firing on all cylinders. ‘Stained Glass Cross’ is initially an utterly ridiculous tune, carried by a strange, staccato riff, and is only made more bizarre by the clipped delivery of Anselmo’s verse lines. Give it a few listens, however, and it will worm its way into your consciousness and reveal itself to be one of the unlikely highlights of this set.
‘Landing on the Mountains of Meggido’ should be a big pretentious mess. The ludicrous title, the acoustic guitar flourishes, the smoky female backing vocals, the tympani drums for God’s sake…the band have gone too far with this one, right? Wrong. These elements actually gel quite well, and as an outro to a CD that contains far too many instances of mediocrity, it’s a towering, solid statement for the band to conclude upon.
Had Down released this set of songs first, it would have been a pretty damn fine debut effort, but ultimately it can’t step out from the shadow cast by its effortlessly brilliant predecessor. It contains numerous good moments, and can be commended for the frequent risks that the band take in exploring a broader range of styles, from dusty country to Creole jazz, even when they don’t quite manage to pull it off.
Overall, it isn’t a lack of talent which hamstrings ‘II’, but a lack of quality control. It seems odd that the band’s website boasts that they churned out these fifteen tracks in just under a month. If they had invested some more time to refine and streamline their sonic gumbo, the album could have been something truly special, rather than just another quite good rock album.
PS. If you think I’ve been unfair in judging ‘II’ by the standards set by ‘NOLA’, I can understand your point. Taken on its own, this album is way above average. If I had heard it before I heard ‘NOLA’, I would definitely have rated it higher. As it is, I just can’t write about it without mentioning what I feel is a major point. Feel free to flame/comment as you see fit.