If you know anything about me, you know I love metal. As an explorer of the genre and connoisseur of all things heavy, one of the things that truly fascinates me about metal is how location can become associated with genre. Of course, this connection between genre and place is not limited to metal; there’s West and East Coast hip-hop, New York and London punk rock and the nearly universal association of the Netherlands and Sweden with EDM. But metal, more than anything, seems to be associated with local scenes generating massive movements within the genre as a whole. One need only look to the San Francisco Bay Area as a quintessential example. Whereas the UK (specifically Birmingham) is often cited as the birthplace of heavy metal as a whole, some of metal’s biggest bands got their start in the Bay Area in the early ʼ80s, as groups like Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer cut their teeth playing crushingly fast metal and birthed the subgenre known as “thrash.”
But as with all music, various metal subgenres were not limited to one local scene. Again, thrash serves as a great example: while San Francisco undoubtedly spawned the most important thrash scene, New York, Germany and Switzerland all created their own versions of the subgenre. Death metal not only flourished in Tampa Bay, FL, but also Sweden. Even black metal, which has firm roots in Norwegian culture, originated outside its biggest local scene, with bands like Newcastle’s Venom and Brazil’s Sarcófago laying the blueprints for what is often considered one of metal’s most evil genres. However, there is one local metal movement that indisputably created a genre unique to its home city: the New Orleans metal scene.
One of the most interesting aspects of New Orleans metal is that the city is not often associated with metal. When one thinks of New Orleans’ connection to music, one unsurprisingly thinks of jazz, as NOLA is the hometown of Louis Armstrong and the Marsalis family, among others. But New Orleans’ impact on metal is substantial—the city is the breeding ground for the ultra-heavy subgenre known as “sludge metal.”
Now, you’re probably thinking, “Sludge metal? What the hell is that? And also, what is it with these goofy names for metal subgenres?” Well, since I’m not a member of the mythical metal-subgenre-naming-committee, I couldn’t possibly answer your last question. However, a definition of sludge metal is crucial to understand the rest of this article. Whereas other extreme metal subgenres like death, thrash and black metal focus on brutality, speed and lyrical themes of death and destruction, the heaviness of sludge metal is derived from its (mostly) slow, melodic and brooding guitar riffs, creating an atmosphere of extreme depression. Sludge metal itself is an off-shoot of the larger genre of doom metal, a style of metal pioneered by heavy metal forefather Black Sabbath and further developed by bands like Pentagram, Trouble and Saint Vitus. While sludge developed alongside the other main doom-offshoot “stoner metal” (and yes, weed does figure as an important lyrical subject in certain sludge metal songs), instead of aiming to create a cannabis-like haze in music, sludge metal fixated on aggression, depression and frustration, taking significant cues from hardcore punk bands like Black Flag. Whereas stoner metal frequently praises pot, references to marijuana in sludge often contribute to the depression found in the lyrics. A perfect example of this can be found in the ironically titled “Hail the Leaf” by DOWN, in which lead singer Phil Anselmo sings: “And I cower / in reality’s eyes / so I just smoke.” For stoner metal, weed is medicinal, life-giving and practically sacred; for sludge metal, weed is a crutch, a demon that merely distracts from (or worse, exacerbates) the singer’s feelings of despair. In this way, while doom, stoner and sludge metal are all subsumed under the category of extreme metal, I would argue that sludge metal is the doom-subgenre that best fits the “extreme” label.
On the one hand, you might be saying to yourself, “Cool (what a nerd).” If, on the other hand, you are curious, you might be saying, “Why is the genre so unique to New Orleans? What is it about sludge that makes New Orleans so important to metal?” Well, for one, NOLA is regarded as one of the largest epicenters of doom-styled metal in the United States. Stoner and doom bands pop up all over America with local scenes that take some inspiration from sludge metal, but the sheer amount of sludge bands in New Orleans compared to bands playing other styles is unbelievable. Even local bands like Goatwhore and Soilent Green (which play death metal and grindcore, respectively) channel sludge metal in their music, incorporating slower, doomy passages within a barrage of speedy riffs and death growls. Sludge metal is New Orleans metal; the two are so synonymous that, at this point, they mean the same thing.
Additionally, while local scenes will sometimes foster rivalries between bands (Metallica vs. Megadeth, Sepultura vs. Sarcófago, Mayhem vs. Burzum), the collaborative spirit within the New Orleans metal scene is so pervasive that many of the biggest sludge bands share members. Of course, sharing band members is not just restricted to NOLA. The most famous example of this is that Dave Mustaine’s dismissal from Metallica served as the catalyst for his forming Megadeth, and his replacement, Kirk Hammett, was originally the lead guitarist for fellow Bay-Area-thrashers Exodus. But let’s take the New Orleans supergroup DOWN as but one example. Lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Phil Anselmo (whose main claim to fame is having been the lead singer for one of the biggest metal bands of the ’90s, Texas groove metal band Pantera) is a member of a wide variety of NOLA bands, from black metal outfit Viking Crown to sludge/hardcore band Superjoint. Guitarist Pepper Keenan (who also sings and plays guitar for North Carolina metal group Corrosion of Conformity) built up his chops while playing with sludge-originators Graveyard Rodeo. Second guitarist Kirk Windstein continues to be the main creative force behind one of my personal favorites of the NOLA scene, Crowbar. Original bassist Todd Strange was also a founding member of Crowbar, and his two replacements, Pantera’s Rex Brown and Goatwhore’s Pat Bruders, have both recorded and toured with Crowbar as well. Finally, drummer Jimmy Bower not only played drums on two Crowbar albums and every Superjoint release, but also founded and continues to play guitar for Eyehategod, one of the biggest bands to emerge from this scene.
Countless other examples abound. Sammy Pierre Duet, current guitarist for Goatwhore, got his start in Acid Bath (another personal favorite) before playing guitar on three Crowbar records. Goatwhore singer L. Ben Falgoust II also sings for Soilent Green, which features Eyehategod’s Brian Patton on guitars. Phil Anselmo has even filled in for Eyehategod vocalist Mike IX Williams at live shows, and the two collaborated in the crust punk group Arson Anthem as well. My point is that whereas other subgenres of metal developed through (mostly) friendly competition between bands over the title of “heaviest band in town,” New Orleans was able to foster a unique genre unto itself because members of the city’s local bands worked together to create a common sound: sludge metal.
The spirit of collaboration in the New Orleans’ metal scene has been particularly poignant to me recently, now that my time as not only a member of The Miscellany News, but also of the Vassar student body, winds down. As an only child, I was often dismissive of teamwork as a kid. In my mind, it had to be my way or the highway, and group projects were often a nightmare for me. As I got older and entered college, my outlook changed; I became more receptive to working with others and functioning within a larger organization, and boy, am I ever thankful that I did. During my time at Vassar, I have had the immense privilege of working with ultra-talented musicians in my various bands, incredibly intelligent classmates on group projects and of course, my wonderful family at the Misc. Never in a million years did I ever think I would be able to prattle on about my favorite genre of music without someone interrupting me to change the subject, let alone go on to help develop the podcasting branch of the newspaper. Working with others, whether through the Misc or through the Vassar band scene, has allowed me to foster lasting friendships, and for that I am truly grateful. So, if you are a loner and think that collaboration is futile, take a page out of the NOLA metal/my playbook; it might just be the best decision you ever make.