Heavy-metal, as a genre of music, is ripe with cliches.  Its very nature is to be larger-than-life, whether it's being the loudest band, the fastest band, the heaviest band, the most shocking band, the band with the most intricate time-signatures, the band with the killer guitar solos, etc.  Generally speaking, it aims to impress its audience with either brute force or with a uniquely emphatic and uncompromising brand of musicianship, aimed at a specific audience of the disenfranchised, outcasts of society, giving them an outlet and a sense of brotherhood that is unique to the metal community.

And while metal often times loses its appeal with age, there's always certain things you can come back to.  For yours truly, that band is Down and the album is N.O.L.A.  That's probably because Down's first album is more than just your standard heavy-metal album full of aggressive guitar playing, screaming, pounding drums and throbbing basslines (which it has in spades).  No, there's more to the album than that, something inexplicability raw, authentic, and for lack of a better term: spiritual.  It could be said that N.O.L.A. has a soul.

Soul is not a word that is typically associated with metal, and we're certainly not talking about Mo-Town soul or Dr. John-type soul (although these boys are from New Orleans).  We're talking about a darker type of soul, a soul drenched in pain, regret, anguish, and desperately seeking atonement.  A soul that could only be born out of the Southern experience of isolation, loneliness, and depression.

All of these themes are delivered convincingly by frontman Phil Anselmo, who rages with a great sense of anger and passion throughout the album, although not in the same vein as his primary band at the time: Pantera.  There's a genuine sense of torment and penance in his singing and lyrics on N.O.L.A., as opposed to Pantera which reeks of macho-ism and power.  Throw in Down's ability to create a haunting and spiritual mood via some of the more mellow/acoustic moments, and you have a very original and compelling heavy-metal album.

Down comes out guns-blazing with the explosive "Temptation's Wing's" which sounds like the long lost lovechild of Black Sabbath and Pantera, but with a uniquely southern swagger.  That summation is pretty representative of the album as a whole.  Its ferocity and heaviness demands attention, rarely letting up in intensity throughout the album.  However, when it does let up, it often reveals some sublime moments, like the guitar solo on "Temptation's Wings".  It's raw, sweet, slow, and effectively channels the anguish of the song that deals with drug addiction.  Then the band's raw power comes back in full-force inducing an epic head-banging jam to close out the song.

And that's just the first song.  The next track "Lifer" is one of the best songs on the album, incredibly gritty, passionate, and of course: heavy.  Pepper Keenan and Kirk Windstein absolutely blaze through this song with their steady, propulsive twin-guitar attack.  It's an epic jam with an all-conquering sound, custom-made for headbanging and mosh-pits, which again is also a good description of the album as a whole.

"Pillars of Eternity" follows, opening with Jimmy Bower's over-powering drumming, eventually launching into an incredibly swampy death-stomp riff as Phil screams over the punishing and pummeling sound the band creates.  One of the straight-up heaviest tracks on the album, straight-up dirty.  Awesomely powerful.

Up next is "Rehab" which starts out with a borderline funky opening jam, as Phil channels Eddie Vedder with his gritty and grungy singing style.  Any similarities to grunge are soon forgotten as Phil's blows the door off the hinges as he screams "...and I'm DROWNING!!!" as the band shreds a deep and slow, menacing metallic groove behind him.  A lot of funky, slam-dancable twists and turns on this track, another classic.

"Hail the Leaf" follows, in all it's hazy, riff-tastic glory.  An ode to the "sweet leaf" indeed, with a nice water-bong solo thrown in for good measure.  But this track isn't necessarily glorifying the drug, but rather shining a light on the darker side of being dependent on marijuana.  Another gritty jam.

The intensity continues with "Underneath Everything" which features a consistently grinding and headbanging-inducing riff that recalls doom-metal with its low-end heaviness.  The intensity of the track becomes almost overwhelming towards the end of the song, as Phil screams his head off while the band shreds away behind him, when suddenly, something happens. 

The shock-therapy sound slowly fades out, and in its place is a beautiful, almost haunting acoustic guitar to close out the song.  This is where the soul of the album starts to show its face, creeping in at the end of an incredibly brutal song to offer a sense of relief and calm amidst the barrage of heaviness that proceeded it.

This brief lull in the storm provides the perfect transition to one of the best songs on the album: "Eyes of the South".  This song absolutely has it all, starting out slow with some fantastic classic-rock inspired, bluesy guitar, slowly building up in intensity until the band fully explodes into an epic mosh-pit inducing stomp riff, ignited by Phil's righteous shout of "god-damn!".  I get chills just thinking about it.  It's one of the best intros/build-ups to a metal song ever.  After the epic intro, Down gives us a break in the middle of the song with a brief melodic guitar-solo, only to close out the song with one of the best stomp-heavy jam sessions on the album.  The entire song is epic from start to finish, and really takes the album to a new level of riff-tastic glory.

After that monster of a song, Down takes us down (no pun intended) to a deeper, trippier level on the next track "Jail".  An incredibly mellow, acoustic-based track filled with beautiful melodies, echoic vocals, and light tribal drumming, listening to "Jail" can be a transcendent experience.  As relaxing and trippy as the song is, it also has a haunting and meditative quality to it that truly makes it a special piece.  It's beautiful, but it's dark too, somewhat somber in tone, with an undeniable spiritual quality.  One of the most beautifully haunting songs ever made.  Very compelling.

Out of the mist comes the blazing "Losing All" as Down fully launches the listener back into the metallic frey once again.  A fantastic song from start to finish, "Losing All" features all the trademarks that add up to a great Down song, namely blazing guitar solos, swampy riffs, intense vocals and lots of rhythm.  Righteous song.

The next track "Stone the Crow" is probably the most accessible song on the album, and sounds like it would be at home on any quality heavy radio station.  But in this case, that's not a bad thing, as "Stone the Crow" manages to keep its dignity while still being accessible at the same time.  It's simply a great song, no way around it, and easily one of the best on the album.

Down revisits acoustic territory with the all too-brief "Pray for the Locusts".  It's a really beautiful and haunting piece that again shows the spiritual and soulful vibe that adds a special quality to the music throughout the album.

After the somewhat underwhelming (compared to the rest of the album) "Swan Song" the band gears up for the epic closer "Bury Me In Smoke".  Simply put, one of the best heavy-metal songs of all time.  Its main riff sounds like a slow, steady death-march, as it methodically slays the listener into submission.  The song eventually culminates in perhaps the greatest metal jam of all time to close out the song.  It's gritty, it's slow, it's dirty, and it rocks hard in all it's righteous, hazy-smoke filled headbanger glory.  An epic way to end an epic album.

N.O.L.A. is easily of one the best metal albums of the 90s, but also one of the greatest heavy-metal albums of all-time.  What makes it even better is the fact that is was recorded by 5 friends, with zero pretentions, jamming together with no expectations other than to make a badass metal record they would like to listen to.

In the end, they made something much more than that.  They made an album full of heart, grit, integrity, passion, soul, and spirit, all amounting to my personal favorite heavy-metal album of all time.


Down II: A Bustle In Your Hedgerow



At the beginning of Down II's 1st track "Lysergik Funeral Procession", Phil Anselmo and company sound like zombies rising from the dead, as if they're slowly waking up from a long, eternal sleep.  In a since, it's a fitting way to start the album, considering that it had been 7 years since Down had recorded their epic debut (N.O.L.A.)  As the album progresses though, it sounds like it had been more like 70 years instead of 7, as Down II certainly lacks the ferocity, intensity, and energy that made their debut album a bonafide classic.  The band sounds older here, slower, less focused, and somewhat less enthusiastic in their performances.  But what Down II lacks in intensity, it makes up for with variety and different musical styles, namely the blues ("Lies..." "Learn From This Mistake" for example).  This is essentially a southern blues-metal record with a heavy Zeppelin/Sabbath influence.  The guitar-work here has more in common with classic-rock riffs than heavy-metal riffs ("Stained Glass Cross", "Beautifully Depressed"), although the boys still bring the heavy on several songs ("There's Something On My Side", "The Seed", etc).  The best tunes are those in which they marry the two ideas together like on "Ghosts Along The Mississippi" for example.  Oddly enough, my favorite song on the album has always been the contemplative "Where I'm Going", which is probably the quietest, most stripped-down song on the album. 

I was initially quite dissappointed in Down II when it was released in 2002, but when not compared next to N.O.L.A. and not held up to that standard, you quickly find that this is a more than solid album on it's own accord.  Down II has more colour and variety on it, and over the years I've come to appreciate it more.  It has a unique personality.  It's Down, so obviously it has grit, passion, heart and heaviness.  The boys had just gotten older by the time they had got around to recording their follow-up.  At the end of the day, Down II sounds like putting most of my favorite genres of music into a blender, namely: metal, the blues, and classic-rock.  Ultimately, it all adds up to one hell of an album, one that I've grown to enjoy more and more with each passing year.


Down III: Over The Under



Down's 3rd album was a bit of a return to form for the band, as it is a consistently more heavy affair than 2002's A Bustle In Your Hedgerow.  That said, this is a weighty album, literally and figuratively.  The production sounds big, thick, and heavy, giving the album a large, dense sound.  But the real weight here is the emotional toll the band was dealing with.  The combination of Hurricane Katrina and the tragic death of Dimebag Darryl coat the atmosphere of the album with a somewhat mournful vibe.  That said, this is still a very kick-ass album with a strong spirit of perseverance.  It features all the classic Down trademarks, such as epic southern-fried riffs, grit, and heart.  A more than solid effort from NOLA's finest.


Down IV Part I - The Purple EP



Just 6 songs that are for the most part pretty satisfying.  Sounds like a stripped-down version of Down III with less weighty production/atmosphere (thankfully)…a tad underwhelming overall, as it's becoming more and more clear Down will never pump out anything close to the quality of N.O.L.A., but most of these songs are definitely good, but not great, although "Misfortune Teller" certainly flirts with greatness...a quality release, looking forward to more EPs.


Down IV - Part II

Down Down IV Part Two



It's probably not a good thing that with each successive Down release, I find myself appreciating the album that immediately proceeds it more.  Such is the case with Down IV - Part II.  Firstly, this is not a bad album, but it once again feels a tad underwhelming.  This was the same sensation I had with their prior EP (Down IV - Part I), most likely because the EP format is not meant to feel like a fully realized album.  Naturally Down IV - Part II certainly has most in common with IV - Part I, as they are structured similarly and also have the same general stripped-down vibe.  That said, what stands out about IV - Part II is just how Black Sabbathy it actually is.  Some of these songs sound exactly like old-school Sabbath.  Phil even channels Ozzy on a couple of songs.  That should sound like a compliment, but in Down's case, it's not really.  While they have always had a huge Sabbath influence, Down has always been distinctly their own thing.  On this EP, they too often sound like a blatant Sabbath clone.  It's well done, but Down quite frankly could do better than to merely rehash Masters of Reality-era Sabbath.

I blame this on the fact that the guys are simply getting pretty old at this point.  Aside from the opening 2 songs, the rest of the album is devoid of any real intensity or fire.  Granted, they haven't really had any real fire in their music in quite a while, and while I have essentially given up on them ever doing anything remotely close to the quality of N.O.L.A., it would be nice to see them up the ante every once in a while produce something infectiously nasty and heavy.  They seem way too comfortable, but I guess they can't be blamed for that at this stage in their career.

The ending of the album is quite sublime, and seems to hint at a change in direction on their next EP into more moody/trippy territory.  If that's the case, so be it.  Should be interesting.  Until then, we're left with another pretty average EP, one that has it's moments, but similar to their last EP, they are too few and far between.


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