Crowbar's first album in six years has been well worth the wait.
Guitarist Kirk Windstein always manages to stay busy, and as of late it seems the bulk of his energy has been focused on the massively popular sludge supergroup Down, as well as Kingdom of Sorrow, his likeable band with Hatebreed frontman Jamey Jasta. However, for all the work he does with his various projects, the big dude with the even bigger beard will always be synonymous with Crowbar. Along with Acid Bath and the legendary Eyehategod, Crowbar helped spawn Southern sludge, which combined the classic tritone riffs of Black Sabbath and the monstrously heavy arrangements of the Melvins with an unmistakable sense of groove that perfectly echoed the hot, muggy environs of their native Louisiana. With riffs as thick as kudzu, ride cymbals slowly keeping time, and deep basslines rumbling in your gut, it was a perfect mix, especially when considering where the music was coming from. Why bother playing fast? It's too damn hot in bayou country.
Although not much has changed at all in Crowbar's sound since their landmark albums Obedience Thru Suffering and Crowbar nearly two decades ago, few bands do it as well as this band has over the years. Even with a lineup that has been anything but consistent, it has never mattered. With Windstein as the main mastermind, that's all you need. You know what you're going to get. So it comes as no surprise that Crowbar circa 2011 hasn't lost a step despite it being six long years since their last full-length, Lifesblood for the Downtrodden. The riffs are there, the grooves are there, the heaviness is there, Windstein's burly roar is ever-present. What's different about Sever the Wicked Hand, though, is how Windstein has been able to make his band's ninth album sound so fresh while sounding so comfortably familiar at the same time.
The strength of Sever the Wicked Hand is revealed slowly to the listener, too. Opening track "Isolation (Desperation)" is somewhat rote, Windstein spitting hostile lyrics atop a rather simple arrangement, the repeated refrain, "You're never coming back!" dangerously approaching to the intolerable angst of cookie-cutter nu-metal. The swift-moving title track and the dirge-like "Liquid Sky and Cold Black Earth" are substantial improvements, but it's the fourth track that truly commands our attention. Built around a nasty, down-tuned riff that sounds equal parts Jerry Cantrell, Zakk Wylde, and Down, "Let Me Mourn" is a real breakthrough for Windstein, his layered vocal melody proving to be just as hooky as that mighty riff. It's as good as anything off Down's last album, and sets the stage for what becomes a surprisingly elegiac album at times.
Propelled by a hard-driving d-beat by Tommy Buckley, "The Cemetery Angels" tackles the self-empowerment angle with eloquence ("You've seduced me and tangled with my mind / But now I control you I'm leaving scars behind"), only to be one-upped by the swaggering "As I Become One", which thunders along with a massive 6/8 swing and boasts Windstein's declaration, "I'm reinventing the man / That you all thought was gone". Whoever "Echo an Eternity" was written for was given a sublime tribute by Windstein, as the song reaches an emotional level you'd not normally expect on a sludge record ("Innocence - beauty and innocence make me whole / A ray of light to save this dying world"). Top marks, though, go to the closing track "Symbiosis" and the mid-album instrumental "A Farewell to Misery", as Windstein and his band masterfully show us all that it's indeed possible to deliver upper-tier heavy music and manage to show a little soul as well. Rather than setting Crowbar on creative cruise control, it's encouraging to see an artist like Windstein approaching a long-running project with as much passion, perhaps even more, as he's ever done.