It’s been five years since the last release of any material from Down. The fans' black Levis have long since faded to a dull grey but the anticipation has only grown.
There’s a certain amount of peer pressure involved with being a metalhead. When a music genre boasts its own subculture, there are a few pervasive names any self-respecting ‘banger must at least feign reverence for. I think that Phil Anselmo of Pantera and most recently Down, is one of these. It’s not that you have to like the guy, his ideas, or the questionable things he says. You don’t even have to own records from any of the numerous projects he’s been involved with. But if anyone sporting a black concert t-shirt asks you to list some of your favourite albums, Down’s Nola would certainly be a good place to start. In some cases, you’ll illicit a respectful nod of approval, but in others a smile so bright that you’ll realize you’ve just opened the door to an exclusive club. It’s also surprising how many times people will have never heard it but will pretend to love it anyway because they know they should.
“Of course!... Nola... sick record.”
Part of the reason is that the word "supergroup" appears more often in relation to Down than it does in comic books. The members are made up of Crowbar, Corrosion of Conformity, Eyehategod, and of course Anselmo, who brings the Pantera pedigree. The strange thing is that -- with the possible exception of Corrosion of Conformity -- I wouldn’t say that any of these bands have a legacy or legendary status. But allow me to apply some flame retardant -- they may be great bands. My point is that you generally won’t find masses of people enshrining them along with Black Sabbath or Judas Priest. Yet the fact that their members constitute Down somehow creates this image of a metal monster summoned from the depths of a New Orleans, smoldering horns raised high and blazing through fire-soaked guitar riffage.
Nola lived up to this image, and they consequently sell out shows.
It’s been five years since Down released any new material. The fans' black Levis have long since faded to a dull grey but the anticipation has only grown. They’ve decided to release four EPs rather than a single record. The complete set is called simply Down IV. The first of those is a six song release known as The Purple EP and/or EP One. The album cover features the silhouette of a cross in what appears to be a graveyard bathed in purple light that’s more concert stage spotlight than sun. I’ll let you speculate as to any meaning contained therein.
I have to say right off the top that instead of listening to the record through download or CD, I was offered a link to a stream website. Presumably this is to prevent piracy and leaks and might be OK except that the sound quality sucks -- that’s my technical analysis. It’s low volume, murky, the highs are unbalanced, and once I jack up my volume enough to hear it, it sounds like Down is playing from the bottom of my bathtub. I say this not because I want to call out the label for the inconvenience but rather because I can’t accurately comment on the production quality of the record. It’s not clear whether what I am hearing is due to an intentionally crippled low-bitrate or whether this is actually a representation of the sound of the EP as you might grab it off the shelf. I am going to give Phil and the boys the benefit of the doubt. I tend to like the way a record is engineered, and I like to talk about how it sounds, but in this case, I will have to simply ignore all that. Down did move into Phil’s own new home studio for this round of recording. Take that as you will.
“Levitation” fades in like you’ve been late for the concert. This was the first point where I noticed it didn’t seem to fade in quiet enough. There’s a lot of cymbal going on, and the bass gurgles so low-tuned that the strings are practically bouncing off the floor. Enter the harmonic guitars briefly before we launch into some lengthy, menacing chords. Phil calls out “1-2-3-Go!” indicating we’re about to really get started, but instead the song just changes arrangements. Phil reaches for the high notes and succeeds instead of pulling out his signature pterodactyl screech too soon. The song drags its feet but in a satisfying way, giving it the due sense of scope one would expect from Down. It’s a great start and then we’re on to the first single of the series, “Witchtripper”. While still not the accessible and tight metal you might expect, this track is a little more on the rails. The vocals bark in bursts and are answered back by a barely audible snarl from Phil’s other voice before switching to a simple refrain of “Witchtripper” and “Witchtripper Alright!”.
“Open Coffin” is all-out sludge, not getting around to the typical metal djnts until about midway through the track. Phil is calling out his lyrics throughout in the requisite over-pronounced metal drawl. “The Curse is a Lie” is moodier overall and the tempo is slowed down so much that Phil’s vocals appear highlighted over elastic chords. Again, they wind out a dark metal track that doesn’t sit still for a second. It fidgets uncomfortably in and out of patterns. “This Work is Timeless” begins with more straight-ahead riffage that seems like something you might be able to get comfortable with but then again switches up into completely different songs several times.
Somewhere along the line, I looked over and realized I was now listening to the final track “Misfortune Teller”. Like that guy in the middle of the mosh pit grappling for something to hold onto but never quite finding anything that will hold still long enough, this entire album never falls into a predictable groove or pattern. I cannot point to one song and call it a favourite or even say that it stands out. But it does maintain a level of musical quality throughout. You get the impression that you could seamlessly weave every track into a long, epic listening session and never know where one song ended and the next began. Down’s previous work had more definition, and a much broader range, spanning acoustic instrumentation, slow prog-rock or fast metal dirges. This EP is basically the same format. Though each is well-crafted quilt of complex arrangements, the songs taken as a whole album never seem to venture too far from the line on which they began. It remains to be seen whether we’ll see a more significant deviation from EP to EP.
While ultimately satisfying as a Down EP, I think this record will find it’s way fast into the pile that you’re proud to own but probably won't see as much play as previous releases. But don’t worry, you'll still be able to look your metalhead friends right in the mullets and say it’s another classic, and they’ll probably agree.