Genre Crash Course | Sludge Metal
Urban Dictionary describes Sludge Metal as "Not Doom and Stoner Metal", with a tinge of Hardcore Punk thrown in for colour. That is the most basic description of what Sludge Metal is, but doesn't expand on how it came to be, or (apart from a brief mention of fuzz) what the different components of sound are that make it what it is. I'm going to go more in-depth on the topic to investigate the political, environmental and creative influences that go into making such a sludgy version of Rock 'n' Roll.
Sludge Metal is the slow moving cousin of other sub-genres like Thrash Metal and Stoner Rock, and has its roots firmly embedded in the antiquated southern culture of The United States. The music itself can be described as fuzzy, droney, chuggy or just plain heavy, with songs that tend to favour overdriven guitars and vocals as the main elements of the music. Although Sludge is a musical genre, it's easy to see the groove at the very heart of it... fuelled by sweet tea, gravy and humidity, according to the locals.
The South: History Beatdown
There is a melting pot of ideas, aesthetics and phrases that make the south a hot bed of artistic culture. It's safe to say that most Sludge-Metal musicians have been influenced by a lot of classic rock and underground punk. In saying that, All rock genres have in some way, shape or form evolved from the blues, which was shaped by the spiritual songs of African American slaves in the 1800's, which was responsible for one of the most defining wars in history, and if you haven't been living in a cave for the past two years, is still dividing a nation. All this, mixed with a poverty stricken bible belt, shaped the sounds and lifestyles that we find in the south today. A society that thrives on isolation, and uses big noise to get heard. It doesn't end there however...
Johnny Cash: Inspired by The Man In Black
To see where Sludge Metal is today, we have to look into the not so distant past. A man in black named Johnny Cash, who came and played songs about the humanity of the south started the fire that bridged the genres of country and rock. He struggled with the same living underbelly of those who loved his music. I can see just by looking at how he lived life, that he is no different to the millions of rock and metal musicians he inspired. It was the southern steele in his guitar and his ability to replicate the groove of a train, that turned music into a dangerous career path, which residually inspired all metal genre.
In the Beginning there was Slayer, Black Flag & The Melvins: 'The Swamp Sickness of the South'
Outside influences are always going to help shape a sub-culture, but when genres like thrash metal and hardcore punk come to town and they speak to the myriad of disillusioned youth, you get a lot of angry kids looking for an outlet that will help them expel their rage.
Slayer have been kicking on now for about 34 years and in an interview with Noisy, guitarist Kerry King was asked how Slayer found the right sound, which he answered "it ended up being our 3rd record" "your first one you emulate your heroes, your 2nd one you gotta start finding your direction, and OUR 2nd one is a Mercyful Fate record". The 3rd record Slayer released was the famed 'Reign In Blood' in 1986. This is considered the 6th in the list of 100 greatest metal albums of all time, and was produced by Rick Rubin.
What made this album so unique, was the stripped back punchy sound that was left behind when the reverb and delay were taken away, and because of that we can thank Slayer for helping along the new wave of Southern Californian punk rock, which if you want to be technical, was around before Slayer, and really never needed or had to be stripped back of any sounds. It was just raw, aggressive power in a musical styling that was polished in a studio to sound heavier and louder than punk.
The band Black Flag, who are considered one of the most important punk bands in rock history, released their first 7 inch vinyl 'Nervous Breakdown' in 1979. Their sound was very heavily guitar driven by band leader and guitarist Greg Ginn, while the vocals were screamed or shouted most famously by front man Keith Morris, he was soon replaced by Henry Rollins in 1981, which created a new personality that inspired most Sludge Metal bands of the 90's. Those elements had already laid the foundations for a new scene, but when the heavy slow playing style of The Melvins and rebellion against institutionalised religion into the mix, you have the perfect storm.
It's the things that don't fit into the Sludge Metal aesthetic that make it what it is, and as far as previously mentioned influences, they fit that statement to a T. The Melvins, Black Flag, Slayer, rebelling against religion, racism and the stereotyped labels society gives southern folk, is all part of what makes Sludge Metal Unique, but at the same time have no direct involvement with the genre. It draws from these influences and spits them out into a new overdriven sound that according to its fans, can only come from the south.
In the documentary series, 'Slow Southern Steel' the common theme was "underground". It seems from my perspective, that this slow southern metal, is all about staying true to your roots, and doing music for the love of it, not for image or money. It is a niche genre for most, but for those living in it, it is perpetual stuck in the underground.
Sludge Metal Bands
A direct bi-product of those influencing factors are band's like EYEHATEGOD, Mastodon and Bongzilla. All hugely influential bands in their own right, that have gone on to become the masters of the metal universe that continues to grow all the time. In their hands, the genre has become slightly more high quality with the production side of things, however, it has still kept the underground feel, by using band names and images to shock and awe audiences.
What band's like Mastodon bring to the genre, is a more rounded approach to production, making them more accessible to larger audiences. In a way it's harder to hear the hardcore punk influences in their music, but they still keep the same groove that has made many a Sludge fan swoon over the years. For other band's they have kept some of the lo-fi elements in the music, to stay true to the genre. Some examples are of course Bongzilla and EYEHATEGOD. Band's that are heavy on the guitars, scream the vocals, and don't seem to have a need for any type of editing or heavy mixing.
The documentary below, gives clarity and face value to the words i'm attempting to write, although, you can't help but wonder after watching it, that you can never know what it's like because you're not there.
To put all this information into perspective is a mammoth task, and I simply don't have the words to do a job that gives Sludge Metal bands the credit they deserve. What I will say however, is that I have tried to give insight into the life and stories we sometimes don't think about when listening to this music. It's easy to get caught up in the emotion of how powerful a sound is, but think about where it came from. Country and Blues music colliding with Hardcore Punk and Thrash. In any other world, those things would not make sense, but in the south they made Sludge Metal.
10 Songs - Melvins | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.allmusic.com/album/10-songs-mw0000105472
An introduction to Black Flag, the band that defined American hardcore. (2018). Retrieved from https://thevinylfactory.com/features/the-essential-black-flag/
Black Flag (band). (2018). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Flag_%28band%29
Bongzilla. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.discogs.com/artist/75314-Bongzilla
EyeHateGod. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.discogs.com/artist/263565-Eyehategod
God, Guns, and Freedom: Noisey Shreds with Slayer. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49YDsf8hswk&list=RD49YDsf8hswk&t=163
Johnny Cash Biography. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/johnny-cash/biography
MASTODON - "Blood and Thunder" (Official Music Video). (2018). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=labytsb3gfI
Mercyful Fate | Biography, Albums, Streaming Links | AllMusic. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.allmusic.com/artist/mercyful-fate-mn0000343954
SLAYER The First Show Ever Filmed! 28-03-1983 Anaheim Full Concert. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjBoQ0TERFg
Slow Southern Steel (Documentary). (2018). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDK6ECp-6Zc
The 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/the-100-greatest-metal-albums-of-all-time-w486923/slayer-reign-in-blood-1986-w487119
Urban Dictionary: sludge metal. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=sludge%20metal
Urban Dictionary: Sweet-Tea. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Sweet-Tea