Saturday, 28 December 2013

"In our sick society, everyone is sick": Sludge music, pt.1

History lesson

If punk rock is the working class hero and heavy metal is the god of thunder, then sludge is the scab riddled junkie. There's no such majesty to this music, there's no call to arms, no political unrest, no glorious anger and no aggressive righteousness. It's not about missing your girlfriend, hating your government, long Summer days and boozing it up with your pals. It's simply about existence; beautiful, disgusting, bleak and priceless existence. While Punk and Metal celebrate rebellion, hedonism and angst, Sludge celebrates nothing. The term "Sludge" itself can mean anything, the music can sound like anything and the lyrics can be about nothing, the only chemical present that holds the whole operation together is its ugliness. There's something there that can't be found in Crust, Death Metal or anything in between. There's something terrible about Sludge that lurks underneath the drowsy waves of guitar feedback and cancerous vocals, there's something there that cannot be found anywhere else and it's frustrates even attempting to put a finger on it. It's then that you realize that Sludge isn't a musical genre, at least not anymore. It's not a riff or a lyric or a patch on your jacket, it's an atmosphere.

Of course, the above block of text is a heap of generic shit. Just a bunch of skin-deep truths that any drunk teen at a Crowbar gig can tell you. That's another thing about this "Sludge" phenomenon, it's a liar. It's also comically insane. It doesn't mean anything, it has no loyalty whatsoever, it's just a word we've given to bands that simply don't fit in anywhere else. So what is Sludge then? What does the word imply? After five years of devotion to these outlaw bands, those referred to by this label, I still have absolutely no idea what it means. I know I love it, but I can't for the life of me put a face to the name.

Sludge is largely described as "the sound of New Orleans", it was there that this music began to bubble and congeal in the late 80s and early 90s. NOLA bands like EyeHateGod, Crowbar and Acid Bath emerged from the primordial slime left behind by The Melvins' seminal Gluey Porch Treatments, a record which put forward the argument for a "Black Flag played by Black Sabbath", hardcore meets doom and blues marriage. However, the concept is where the influence ends, because these fledgling NOLA bands each invented their own twist on this new sound and none of them ended up as a bad Melvins cover band. Though it can be said that The Melvins invented it, the Sludge "movement" really began in New Orleans with these young bands, each of them sounding different, but each of them as nasty and repulsive as the other.

EyeHateGod (Live 1996)

Of course, a sickness can only be isolated for so long. By 1994, North Carolina had squirted out the influential and infamous Buzzoven, Los Angeles had given us 16 and Corrupted were taking their first steps in Osaka, Japan. Even the mainstream at the time was sodden with music one might describe as something close to Sludge, with bands like Alice In Chains charting globally, and Nirvana dominating those very charts. Crooked spoon angst and apathy were not just realities for many people at this time, they were becoming trendy as well. Grunge was today's special and suddenly dark, swampy music was exposed on a global scale. Of course, there's "sexy dark" and then there's just "dark", and bands like EyeHateGod and Buzzoven were far from the tortured artists making headlines at the time. They were just drunk, fucked-up rockers from outer space, and they toured relentlessly. 

In the same year that Kurt Cobain decided that enough was enough, it seemed like this new, dejected and despondent music was as popular on the underground as ever. Corrupted and Noothgrush had formed, EyeHateGod, Buzzoven and Grief all had two albums under their belts, Pantera's Phil Anselmo was (Another son of NOLA) name-dropping and advertising his hometown bands at sold-out arenas and home printers all over the world were tirelessly spitting out crude, pornographic and colourless gig fliers. It was probably a beautiful time to be a fan of this music, but don't call it the "golden era". These bands, with their growing drug habits, multiple felonies and perpetual financial struggles, probably never experienced such an era. Then again, maybe that's exactly what a Sludge golden era looks like; a young, bloodied Mike Williams smiling ear-to-ear, being bundled into the back of a squad car.

Noothgrush - Crawl

The mid 90s were abundant with dark sarcasm, dry humour, plaid shirts and bowl cuts. Teenage angst had found its way to the television with Grunge, adult cartoons like Daria and movies like The Doom Generation. MTV was selling suicide like the latest must-have accessory and day time talk shows were engaged in an all-out arms race to find and exhibit the most disturbed punk rock kids and rock stars around. GG Allin was already in the ground, Marilyn Manson was frying on acid and reciting The Cat in The Hat to thousands and Norwegian teenagers were being arrested for murder and arson. Music was already in a strange place, and though the emergence of Sludge fell under the radar considerably, it still couldn't have happened at any other time. Satan never really goes out of fashion, but during the early and mid 90s; he was definitely being used as a fashion statement. 

Then a little three-piece from Dorset, England, showed up to the party.

It is in 1995, in my undoubtedly retarded opinion, that we begin to see the building blocks for modern heavy music. Electric Wizard had just released their first, self-titled album, and this can be seen as the rebirth of Doom metal. Where The Melvins' Gluey Porch Treatments had introduced slow music to a hardcore punk and death metal audience, it had no doubt reintroduced many to Doom. Black Sabbath, Witchfinder General and Pentegram were once again hot topics among tape traders and record collectors and this is, I believe, why Doom came back in a big way during this period. 

Throw this revived genre into the mix with Sludge and you've got a partnership forged in Satan's toilet. We can hardly divorce Doom from Sludge in 2013 because they are so irreversibly connected, and this connection, though inherent, could no doubt have been strengthened during this period when the UK was churning out bands like Electric Wizard, Orange Goblin and Iron Monkey. There was a pick n' mix of "heavy" that began in 1995 and one that is only becoming more and more considerable as time goes on. The snowball started rolling from there. Though that's a story for another day.

Iron Monkey - Web Of Piss

Though the ball had certainly started rolling by 1996 and Sludge had definitely become a widespread term, so too had the rotting process. By 2001, EyeHateGod had released their last studio album and their long history with drugs had started to take its toll on the band, Grief, Buzzoven, Iron Monkey and Noothgrush had all disbanded and all but a few of the trail-blazing groups remained. It may have seemed like these Sludge groups were coming down after a ten year binge, and they probably were. Electric Wizard, however, were enjoying massive success with their third album, Dopethrone, which had been released a year before and now had them hailed as "the heaviest band in the world", and young Sludge and Doom bands were still popping up from all corners of the earth. Though the stems had been cut, there was still something growing, but the "golden era" was most definitely dead and gone, and so were the bands that kicked it off. But just as Sludge was birthed in New Orleans, so too would it come back from the dead.

On August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Louisiana, killing 1,464 people.

While Katrina threatened The Big Easy, EyeHateGod's then estranged vocalist, Mike Williams, was arrested on a narcotics charge in Morgan City, Louisiana. It was during 91 days in a dreary state prison and on a diet of bread and water, that Mike Williams successfully kicked his heroin habit. With the support of long-time friend Phil Anselmo, Williams made bail and was released from prison. Seeing Mike kicking this habit is what inspired EyeHateGod guitarist, Jimmy Bower, to follow suit and soon enough; EyeHateGod were starting to become a band again.

Since 2006, the band have toured restlessly and are on the cusp of releasing a new album. Though the death of drummer, Joey LaCaze, this year has shaken the band and left fans devastated, they have vowed to continue on with new drummer Aaron Hill (Mountain Of Wizard, Missing Monuments).

Noothgrush reformed in 2011 and have since released two splits and a live CD.

16 reformed after a brief hiatus in 2007 and have released two studio albums since.

Whatever you make of the term "Sludge", whether it means anything or not, it is one of the most used and widespread terms in underground music today. There are more bands playing highly distorted, sluggish blues and punk tinged metal now than ever and there doesn't seem to be any let up. You cannot turn a page in a magazine, listen to a mix tape or browse your favourite music blog without hearing it or seeing it mentioned. The music founded on teenage alcoholism, petty crime and street-living is now as infectious as ever. Is it popular to call yourself "Sludge"? Probably. However, whatever you make of labels, there is a legacy behind that term that can't be denied. It might be a legacy with a pistol down its throat or a needle in its arm, but it's a legacy. If you don't "get it" by now, you probably never will. Don't start writing up a definitive history of it though, because this movement has only just begun.

Buzzoven - Shove

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