Originally appeared in Razorcake 120, Feb./March 2021.
Here is a printable PDF and full text of the article.
Original Layout by Dylan Davis
Layout adapted to this zine by Todd Taylor
This zine is available directly from Razorcake.
ONE PUNKS GUIDE TO SLUDGE METAL
One of the really lovely things about discovering sludge bands like Crowbar, Neurosis, and Iron Monkey as a teen in the ’90s was they were unhealthy, scruffy, and unglamorous, like myself. These bands’ onstage demeanor also appealed to me. The slow music lent itself to a downbeat presentation—not many sludge musicians jumping off PAs. Also, no tight vests, leather trousers, or bullet belts; a general lack of the flamboyance and grandstanding you find in thrash and macho hardcore. As a salty, self-deprecating type, I didn’t miss the gang shouts, skanking, or the windmills at all. I did once see Kirk Windstein of Crowbar, swinging his mic round by the lead like a despondent Roger Daltry while his guitar was being fixed mid-gig, but this was a special (and boozy) occasion. The devil makes work for idle hands. To borrow another phrase from the Catholic church: a gig should be a hospital, not a museum. It’s not like a museum where perfectly crafted artworks go to be displayed; it’s a place people with flaws can go to feel better.
A gig should be a hospital, not a museum. It’s not like a museum where perfectly crafted artworks go to be displayed; it’s a place people with flaws can go to feel better.
For anyone who doesn’t know what sludge is, it’s a metal subgenre based around playing slowly. Sludge is an onomatopoeia for the sound of very distorted, down-tuned guitars. The term has become somewhat interchangeable with the more commonly used doom metal. But, for me, sludge implies something grittier and less retro. The incessant wall of bassy power chords that Black Sabbath brought to the table in the ’70s is the aspect that holds together the doom and sludge genres. Sabbath had some good lyrics as well, burning blim holes in the backdrop of the Vietnam war and the hippy movement.
Stoner rock/stoner metal is basically a happy genre. There is no call to action, no worries about human decline, but a relaxing retreat to the riff-filled land.
The current sprawl of Sabbath-worshipping bands tend to rely on Hammer horror film vibes and a lot of stuff about witches and wizards. When I’m trawling the internet looking for new stuff to listen to, I have a policy of skipping anything with “witch” in the title. I’m more interested in the down-to-earth-ness of sludge as opposed to weed-wizard-word-salad. At the chirpiest end of the doom spectrum, the amp settings are pretty much the same as sludge, but the “lyrics” and “attitude” knobs are turned right down. Stoner rock/stoner metal is basically a happy genre. There is no call to action, no worries about human decline, but a relaxing retreat to the riff-filled land. Even the smear of illegality is all but gone. Sludge bands use distortion pedals. Distortion means harsh, industrial, destructive. Stoner bands use fuzz pedals, which means warm and cuddly.
ECO-DOOM AND MAKING YOUR POINT
There are three or four specific branches (puddles? sumps?) of sludge that might be of interest if you’re into DIY, punk, activism, or political music. The first is a sub-sub-genre sometimes called eco-doom. Neurosis came out of the Bay Area punk scene in the early ’90s. Lookout! Records released some of their earlier material and they were entrenched in the DIY scene at the time. Their sound moved from dark hardcore with touches of Amebix and Rudimentary Peni on to something far more psychedelic and progressive, owing more to Swans. They were on Alternative Tentacles at this time before shaking hands with Relapse towards the end of the ’90s. They used the low end and slowness to create an ominous, chasm-like atmosphere, and a wall of noise that sounded like buildings collapsing. Several metal bands reported scrapping all their songs after encountering these albums on hallucinogens. Neurosis’s “epic” sound was folded in with apocalyptic dread, and although the lyrics are fairly esoteric, “The End Is Nigh” would be a fair summary.
Neurosis used the low end and slowness to create an ominous, chasm-like atmosphere, and a wall of noise that sounded like buildings collapsing.
More recently, a small set of bands have explicitly used the musical trudge to depict the existential march towards extinction. Sūrya (U.K.) took it further than most, but have sadly disbanded during the pandemic. They wore it on their sleeves—all vegan, and often stating their support for ideas of human, animal, and earth liberation. Their take on sludge has an urgency steeped in post-metal and their songs are mostly instrumental. Like Neurosis, Sūrya used samples and projected footage to get their message across. The strategy is as least as old as Crass. Both Neurosis and Sūrya use footage that plants a flag in reality, combined with more oblique imagery that gets under your skin.
Despite having few lyrics, Sūrya were clearly aware of how the scheme of the music can have an effect on the audience. Guitarist Greg told sanctuspropaganda.com:
“...Adorno in his often misunderstood writing on musical aesthetics thought that musical structures, rather than lyrics, can actually challenge society. I like instrumental songs because I think they encourage us to become reflective rather than just passively receiving the music.”
Bismuth (U.K.) are at the experimental edge of sludge. They put out an album-length song, “The Slow Dying of The Great Barrier Reef.” Bassist Tanya must deserve some kind of award for the heaviest sound ever produced by a single human. The screeched vocals are sparse but evoke serious anger. You can’t tell what the lyrics are and Bismuth doesn’t use samples or projections. Their ambitions are focussed squarely on sound. The sustained erosive wall of sound emulates planetary destruction on as near a 1:1 scale as you’ll get. This could be me being over simplistic and pretentious, but the live experience needs experiencing.
With drawn-out, drone-y songs, the duration can be used to focus the listener’s attention in a different way.
Sūrya and Bismuth are both bands that are thinking about the relationship between their message and the style and format of the music. In art schools, it’s called “form and content.” Some political punk bands impose structures on their songs to emphasize the message—vocals always start within the first four bars, no solos, songs always less than two minutes—that kind of thing. With drawn-out, drone-y songs, the duration can be used to focus the listener’s attention in a different way. If an idea or a perspective is set out, it can be contemplated in a very powerful way, rather than a gig being a purely sedative nodding session.
THE FILTH AND THE FURY (NOW WITH ADDED FILTH)
Eyehategod are a monochrome anti-authority mess with old roots in punk. They’re as likely to be touring with Negative Approach as with Crowbar. It feels like the musicality in their playing is a homegrown, New Orleans thing. When I mentioned to vocalist Mike IX Williams that I was writing an article on sludge metal for a punk zine it was clear it’s a subject close to his punk-since-1978 heart: “One thing I do wanna stress is that we existed before that term was used. We have always been a weird punk band that likes Black Sabbath, St. Vitus, and Trouble... We just hate the term sludge and we’re definitely not a metal band. We have none of the trappings of a metal band.”
A bit Sabbath-y, a bit blues scale-y, and like a lot of like-minded bands, they cite Black Flag and the Melvins as
an early influence. Eyehategod are one of the few that really took the attitude to heart. They started in the ’80s when slow and sloppy was a provocation in the face of thrash. The pace and repetition is less trance-inducing and more akin to being berated by some self-righteous miscreant for every sensible life choice you ever made.
Across the water, Iron Monkey took the septic baton from Eyehategod and used it to batter the audience, the venue, and their equipment. Iron Monkey are much loved in the U.K. and their cult status deepened after the death of vocalist Johnny Morrow in 2002. They were infamous for causing aggro and the chaotic bilge of the lyrics spilled over into their interviews where they would act up, complaining that they hated being in the band and generally “laughing at how shit it all is.” I remember at the time there was a tendency for some impressionable types to take Eyehategod and Iron Monkey too much to heart and get tangled in their own trousers trying to emulate their nihilism. This often resulted in broken bones or ill-advised tattoos.
Iron Monkey included members who played in Cerebral Fix (thrash/crossover), Hard To Swallow (grindcore barrage) and Ironside (straight edge, metallic hardcore). They were based in Nottingham and played around the U.K. DIY scene. Despite their hardcore origins, Iron Monkey grudgingly signed to Earache Records, bringing relatively mainstream press coverage and gig slots. In the sleeve notes for their Earache reissue, guitarist Steve Watson explained that the fact they had destroyed all of their own equipment after a gig was a deciding factor:
“After weeks of inactivity the reality of being equipment-free had dawned on them and they (reluctantly) agreed, so during the traditional Earache curry and booze frenzy a few terms were thrashed out—i.e., Johnny Morrow declaring, “I’m not going on tour with Morbid Angel or any of them other dickheads.”
In the mid-’80s, Earache was releasing extreme early crust type bands: Napalm Death, Heresy, Concrete Sox, and Hellbastard. It’s a real shame ten years down the line, the label was reduced to being seen as a sell-out vehicle.
Monkey and Eyehategod’s lyrics deserve some love. Both bands use dark, disjointed Burroughs-esque imagery involving drugs and death and weird ’orrible shit. Morrow’s lyrics are more garish than Mike’s and they read like a sleeve of tawdry prison tattoos, but in color. Although not every word would be crystal clear, Morrow’s rasps and puke-smelling growls tell you what you need to know.
Someone once called nihilism a mental disorder masquerading as a philosophical position and I doubt if Eyehategod would argue the toss.
Eyehategod also go for collage and cut-ups rather than clear narratives. They have self-reported as “nihilistic” long before this became a drop-down menu option on Bandcamp. Whilst Iron Monkey had the decency to print the actual lyrics to the songs, Eyehategod print William’s hand-scrawled poems in the albums in such a way they look like they should be song lyrics but aren’t. Their vocals aren’t quite crystal clear either, but you can tell they do have lyrics. It’s just not what’s printed, and I’ve failed to find reliable transcriptions. Far from diluting the message, though, the poetry and the way it’s integrated with found text and collaged images paints a clear picture of what they’re about. Someone once called nihilism a mental disorder masquerading as a philosophical position and I doubt if Eyehategod would argue the toss. Their lyric sheets (and rider) are filled with references to self-medication, and their gigs are certainly more like hospitals than museums for perfect people. You could generously say they were raising awareness of mental health issues long before it became mainstream.
Despite—or because of—the unhinged cut-ups and arcane collages, Eyehategod stake out a clear anti-authority position rooted in punk and anarchism. It seems to me to be stemming from a chaos punk mentality which carried the Sex Pistols’ “bollocks to society” attitude over into the early ’80s. They celebrate chaos and anarchy of the debauched and reckless kind: get pissed, have a fight, smash up a bus stop. Arbitrary acts of destruction and rebellion can be seen as a way of shaking up societal structures, and because there is no particular logic or purpose to the acts, it can be seen as avoiding having another system overlaid onto it in the form of organized anarchism.
With me? Missing the wizards yet?
It makes some kind of sense bands like Eyehategod and Iron Monkey have more attitude in common with the antics of The Exploited or Chaos UK, as opposed to the call to organized action that comes from Crass and social-anarchist type bands. When the music is sluggish, filled with sloven feedback and bloated with noise, it isn’t conducive to the urgency and utopianism needed to promote direct action and community organization. But it’s a fine soundtrack to falling asleep in your own vomit. The tension between social anarchism and individualist anarchism didn’t suddenly spring up above a pub in 1982. It goes back at least as far as nineteenth century scholars like Max Stirner. Stirner was in favor of individualist or egoist anarchism. This means rejecting any moral restraint, rejecting societal values, and doing only what you want. Some of these ideas are found more famously in Nietzsche, Satanism, Anal Cunt, and GG Allin. Anarcho communists see these individualist ideas as bourgeois.
There are some newer bands carrying on the Monkey/Eyehategod spirit. Negative Slug (Croatia), House Anxiety (Greece), and Boss Keloid (U.K.) spring to mind, but what’s more prominent at the moment are über distortion bands (this term is my internal shorthand and I’ll take a better genre name if you’ve got one). The shift has been towards constructing massive, gorgeous walls of distortion with huge walls of amps. As well as the copious effect pedals, the guitars will be down-tuned to as low as they can go and still remain playable. This setup does limit what can come across clearly riff-wise and I sometimes find myself frustrated with the lack of nuance or hooks in the actual playing. On the other hand, I approve of how low the barrier to entry is, dexterity-wise. Remember that when he started all this, Black Sabbath’s guitarist Tony Iommi famously had melted down Fairy Liquid bottles for fingertips. After losing the ends of two of his fretting hand fingers in a factory accident, he made his own prosthetic tips so he could keep playing. Although there are plenty of repurposed death metal bands floating around this subgenre, it’s really not the musical Olympics.
The orthodoxy is that the noise is as much the music as the music is. As in the DIY tradition, this invites anyone to have a go without having to become anything like a virtuoso.
Back in the day, I remember pub sound engineers would love to chuck a load of delays and effects on the mic during quiet parts and vocalists would be saying, “No reverberberberberb… turnnn offff the fuckingggg reverberberberb…” But nowadays in a sound check you hear, “Can you put some delay and stuff on the vocals please?” The orthodoxy is that the noise is as much the music as the music is. As in the DIY tradition, this invites anyone to have a go without having to become anything like a virtuoso. However, one aspect of über distortion, and sludge in general, is that “amp worship” and “pedal porn” bring the sugary dead rat stench of consumerism in with them. Expensive gear is probably a necessary evil of the genre.
San Francisco’s Body Void have described themselves as a slow punk band, with songs like “Fascist Cancer” responding to the proliferation of the hard right in the U.S. over the last half decade. Body Void’s distortion is definitely über and they play very slow. Current bands like Body Void, Primitive Man, and Vile Creature share a particular inertia and lack of melody which feels like a punishment as much as anything. For me, this lot are the successors to ’90s bands like Noothgrush and Grief who, via Dystopia, brought crust and grindcore’s squalid horror to bear on sludge. By this, I mean there’s a lot of distortion on the bass with lyrics and visuals addressing the realities of war, capitalism, and poverty.
You can easily watch a whole set by any of these bands without moving your feet, and I mean this as a compliment. You can’t dance, but you can easily lose yourself and get mesmerized by the music. Certainly they don’t provide the jolt of energy like short, sharp hardcore is supposed to, but there must be an advantage, if you are trying to make a point, to having the audience’s feet nailed to the floor. I’m imagining receiving the hairdryer treatment from a very angry person who is standing on your toes.
ANTI-OPPRESSIVE COLLECTIVE RITUALS
Vile Creature describes themselves as a “slow & heavy two piece with anti-oppressive and fantastical leanings” and as an “angry queer doom cult.” Some of the lyrics do have a metallic fantasy tinge, but with the clear intention of demolishing patriarchal and other forms of oppression. “I will run you through if you are not receptive to change” is a lyric from their first album. In a more personal vein, Will Ryan of Body Void has written lyrics addressing gender dysphoria and sees the music as a catharsis for the misery of living with mental illness and everyday prejudice.
Sludge is by no means immune to the bigotry that peppers the metal scene and a catalog of the repugnant language and behaviors that have long been accepted would need a whole other discussion. Primitive Man, Vile Creature, and Body Void are great examples of current sludge bands making a clear stand. Fortunately, there are labels and collectives within the underground extreme metal scene that are actively supporting queer musicians, leftist politics, and anti-racism. Oddly, you might think, these politics would manifest more commonly in black metal styles and the more atmospheric, esoteric end of the doom spectrum. Whatever, it’s obvious the urgency of anti-fascist causes has become more apparent over the last few years and months. Body Void’s Will Ryan made a good point in an Astral Noize interview: “... you can be a band who screams about dragons and Tolkien and still hold people accountable.”
Astral Noize are a U.K. label, zine, and distro promoting progressive left-leaning extreme metal. Examples of like-minded folk are Human Worth (U.K.) and Black Flags Over Brooklyn. My personal local heroes are South London Scum, a gig collective counting ex-Sūrya members. They put on punk gigs and sludge gigs. The punk bands will tend to be the heavier, crustier end of things and the sludge bands will range right out into the more experimental end. It’s the exact opposite of Maximum Rocknroll “banning” Neurosis in the early ’90s because they broke the “no synth” rule. South London Scum is a DIY, not-for-profit situation, and it’s great to see sludge bands in that context, away from naff commercial venues. Who wants to pay £6 for a warm can of Red Stripe poured into a plastic cup by exploited venue staff? More importantly, their bills offer diversity in music and people.
What sludge has going for it is the communal feeling of being at some kind of ritual. It demands being “present,” as they say.
A sludge gig involves filling the room with noise. The wall can start once the amps are switched on and continue without gaps until the end of the set. This can happen by dint of hour-long pieces of music, or just end to end shorter songs with unmitigated feedback as compère. It doesn’t allow for much chit chat and the applause breaks aren’t missed by self-deprecating, dour sludge types. This stifles the sense of common agency that you might get from a proactive political punk gig. What sludge has going for it is the communal feeling of being at some kind of ritual. It demands being “present,” as they say. Once they get going, a good band will be able to focus attention. Rather than focusing on a person back-flipping off a PA, though, the focus is on the sound. This focus can be emotional, intellectual, or visceral in different ratios or it could just be a blank nod-trance. This is also the main reason people go to church; to hang out in a group and lose themselves for a bit. Any ideas can be expressed lyrically through the music/sermon but here are my suggestions of what the format of sludge brings with it, in the form of…
“TEN SLUDGE COMMANDMENTS”
If you wanna be a rock star, good luck and fuck off
No one wants to hear your widdly solos or amazing double kicks
Eyehategod began as a piss-take, not expecting anyone to like them—a good place to start
All of us are born in the gutter
You’re not better than anyone else
Social utopia probably isn’t coming soon. Let’s at least make our bit of the gutter half decent
Everyone is welcome
Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy really loud amps
Like meditation or a kick in the teeth, a protracted bit of sludge can help to focus the mind
You have to Do It Yourself when no one wants your “It”
Sludge has done quite well for a style which seems specifically concocted not to appeal to most listeners.
Sludge has done quite well for a style which seems specifically concocted not to appeal to most listeners. For a while I’ve been waiting for the doom metal equivalent of Green Day and Offspring to prove me wrong (my money would be on Windhand and Pallbearer, by the way). But here I’ve intentionally focused on bands that, because of their music and ethos, and form and content, would be unlikely to get very far in the mainstream.
I shouldn’t let the Melvins go unmentioned because they were a vital pivot point in the ’80s right before sludge started to become recognizable as a genre. They’re often credited for kicking off the idea of playing low and realllyyy slow, and this is true. But what they also did was decouple the heaviness of the riffs from any grandiose metal pretentions. There’s a knowing over-the-top-ness to their playing as well as oddball lyrics that defy any sensible interpretation. This lets the listener revel in the fat, droning distortion for its own sake, with a big shit-eating grin. Likewise, I’ve taken a detour around wizards-ville to avoid stuff which plays to sword-based fantasies and such-like. If that’s your thing, feel free to fill your boots. Sludge is a more specific genus which is more grounded in worldly realism. It’s for and by weirdos, outcasts, and the malcontents. You know, the same types who make all the good stuff!
SUGGESTED SLUDGE ALBUMS
Black Sabbath: Master of Reality
Black Flag: My War (side B)
Melvins: Gluey Porch Treatments
Iron Monkey: Our Problem
Neurosis: Enemy of the Sun
Sūrya: Apocalypse A.D.
Bismuth: The slow dying of the Great Barrier Reef
Dystopia: Human = Garbage
Noothgrush: Erode the Person
Body Void: You Will Know The Fear You Forced Upon Us NB
Vile Creature: Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm!
Primitive Man: Immersion
Angus Wonder Of It All lives in East London and has been making a zine called The Wonder Of It All since 2019. He spent a lot of his life playing in bands, mucking around in art school, and working. All of these come into play. His zine has been described as “messy” and “bleak” but he’s always looking for ways we can Do It Ourselves. IG: @thewondererofitall, [email protected]
Dylan Davis (he/him) is an artist and graphic designer based in Long Beach, Calif., having lived in Humboldt Co. for several years previous. His first love of music was with Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4, and he’s been a disciple of doom ever since. Check him out @angband.art on IG and TikTok
Todd Taylor is the co-founder of Razorcake.