Destruction. Doom. Death.
These themes have been heavy-metal hallmarks since more or less the inception of the genre, and let's face it, the music wouldn't be as fun or compelling without them. But for New Orleans residents, these words have a much deeper meaning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For New Orleans-based metal supergroup Down, the disaster hit too close to home for abstraction, and the band's new album, Down III — Over the Under, represents the first entry in the heavy-metal world to confront authentic destruction on such a large scale. And, really, who else could you have expected it from?
The band was originally formed in 1995 as a side project for the creative partnership between then-Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo and a group of musicians he'd been friends with for years, including metal luminaries Pepper Keenan and Jimmy Bower. And Down telegraphed its hometown pride to the world ever since. NOLA, the title of its debut album from the same year, is an abbreviation often used by natives for New Orleans, the city that four of Down's five members call home.
With personnel that includes members from iconic metal bands Pantera, COC, Eyehategod, Crowbar, and Anselmo's totally apeshit group Superjoint Ritual, it was only a matter of time that Katrina and its aftermath would get the full heavy-metal treatment.
But the question was how? Real destruction, actual death, the fact that in the modern era, we face the prospect of a real apocalypse... These are things that make typical metal lyrics seem prophetic but also silly and excessive. When it comes to lyrical excesses, Anselmo has certainly indulged in his share. But, as Down/ex-Pantera bassist Rex Brown noted in a recent phone conversation, the disaster pushed the individual band members, who hadn't worked together in almost five years, to reach into themselves and find new resolve in the well of their distress.
"I was going through hell," Brown says of the period from late 2004 until initial rehearsals for the new album commenced in 2006. "Everybody in the band was. The tragedy of Dime [Dimebag Darrell Abbott, the former Pantera guitarist, was murdered onstage in December 2004 during a performance by Abbott's post-Pantera band, Damage Plan] and Katrina, not being able to get in touch with people and not knowing where your loved ones were, trying to get a cell phone connection or some kind of network where you could find out about people... It's been two years, and they still haven't rebuilt the city."
Like the Abbott brothers, who formed Pantera's nucleus, Brown hails from the Dallas area, but he also has roots in New Orleans and empathizes with what his Down bandmates and friends from the region went through.
"It's hard," he says, "when you have friends and you're driving through the neighborhood, and it's like 'Well, what's her name didn't make it' or 'They didn't get out' or 'Remember them in grade school? Yup, they're gone.' It's a pretty tough fuckin' time. It's not anything to just blow over."
In an online diary of the making of the album, Anselmo describes this period as "two of the worst years — for myself and everyone I know."
But Down didn't take the approach you might typically expect from a metal band — channeling all its energy into the same-old, same-old rage. To respond angrily would have been counterproductive and pointless, Brown says. "There are bigger problems that you face as you get older," he says.
"What Phil did," Brown adds, "is he took the positive in everything that he could take out of this, because that's the only way you can get through shit like that. Fuck the anger. We can't sit there and go boo-hoo, wah-wah."
Playing heavy music "gets better when it's not as angry," Brown says. "Don't get me wrong — I love doing what I'm doing." But maturing and taking on a broader perspective, he explains, brings greater dimension to the heaviness. "I just try to evolve," he says, and the music on the new album "is just a natural progression" that reflects where the band is musically and emotionally in 2007.
By default, Down accommodates a more expansive range anyway. On the one hand, of course, there are influences pouring in from all the other bands that its membership encompasses, not to mention a pronounced Black Sabbath pull. On the other, Down has always naturally settled on a bluesier, more midtempo foundation than any of those bands. Fans who are more familiar with Anselmo from Pantera and Superjoint might be surprised at the melodicism he demonstrates on the new material. Anselmo secured a reputation as one of metal's premier shriekers on Pantera's 1992 classic Vulgar Display of Power. Because he took that style to even greater extremes in later Pantera work and in the hyper-extreme Superjoint Ritual, he rarely gets credit for his singing ability. He arguably had it in him all along, but he raises the bar and achieves his personal best on Under.
Songs like "On March the Saints," with its sparkling-bright, Kings X-like harmony guitar licks, and the soulful, downtempo blues of "Never Try" reveal new shades in not only Anselmo but the entire band. It's a far cry from the self-mutilation and Satanic references that Anselmo reveled in on Superjoint Ritual's last album, as well as most of the music Down's other members have played to date.
"We all played in metal bands for all this time; that's what we like doing," Brown says. "But at a certain point, your ability as a musician grows, so you don't have to pigeonhole yourself and play the fastest, stupidest riff in the whole world. Fuck that. We're just not into it."