Released: 1995, Elektra Records
Reviewer: Michael De Los Muertos
Hidden Gem Selection
I’ve always thought Down was an interesting experiment. Pantera is a band that is as viciously hated by many and dearly loved by many others; I find myself in the latter category, but even members of the former group, to be fair, have to stop and think about Down. No, Virginia, Phil Anselmo is not the mallcore sell-out some make him out to be, and one who ever doubts that he’s had a positive, substantive contribution to heavy metal need only listen to NOLA, an album which, if not quite yet a classic, probably will become so in another five or six years.
Down is an on-again, off-again side project of Southern metallists, its core membership being Phil Anselmo of Pantera, Pepper Keenan or Corrosion of Conformity and Kirk Windstein of Crowbar. Whenever possible – which wasn’t very often – the band jammed around the grimy, beer- and smoke-soaked clubs of New Orleans in the early and middle 1990s before producing this, to date their one and only studio album, in 1995. I lived in New Orleans for three years, so I’ve been to many of those beer-drenched, smoky clubs, and I know firsthand the kind of atmosphere that Down so successfully tries to distill onto a CD. It’s a grinding, wet-sounding, downtuned kind of doomy thrash metal, fused with a kind of bleak Southern fatalism that is absolutely endemic of the New Orleans heavy music scene. One reason why NOLA succeeds so well as an album is because it captures that “grimy New Orleans” feeling in a way that even the members’ main acts (Pantera, COC or Crowbar) could never do. Imagine yourself in a stifling metal bar at 3:00 AM on a humid late August night on Magazine or Prytania Streets – NOLA puts you there. It’s truly like no other album I’ve ever owned.
The songs are all heavy, thick and moody. “Temptation’s Wings” starts out sounding almost like The Obsessed, then kicks into a thrashier but still mellow gear. You almost don’t notice when you’ve changed tracks – not because the songs sound the same (they don’t), but because the atmosphere is so steady. Say what you want about his Pantera performances, Phil Anselmo’s voice is perfect for tracks like “Lifer,” “Eyes of the South” or the final track, the anguished but defiant “Bury Me In Smoke.” None of these songs strike me as Pantera-esque. Strangely, one of the album’s high points is its one slow track, “Jail.” It absolutely reverberates with utter despair – perhaps the five most depressing minutes in the history of metal – and is the song most likely to stick in your head when the album is over. If you’ve ever wondered what a rainy winter night in Louisiana sounds like, this track will tell you.
Despite the fact that the pedigrees of its members could easily have caused this band to be labeled as a “supergroup,” there was very little that was ever flashy or bombastic about Down. The group began as simply a few guys with common ties who lived in the same area getting together to jam informally, and so they remain – despite no further releases, rumors persist of forthcoming Down albums or even some live shows in the future. As good as they are (were), part of me hopes it will never happen. NOLA captured a moment in time and a feeling whose day has probably already passed. But I think I’ll always love this album. Check it out – you may, too.