Journey to the NOLA Swamps – The Birth of Sludge Metal

We’ve covered a fair bit of ground with our Starter Kit series, where we select a handful of key records that highlight a niche musical style or penetrate the prolific status of a staple genre. Unfortunately, this format doesn’t lend itself to covering proto-genres—microcosms of musical history comprised of a specific set of albums released in a fixed period of time. But these movements are crucial to the evolution of our favorite genres, particularly when it comes to the trajectory of sludge metal. What’s become a multifaceted and often refined style was once a disparate lineage of bands from different genres who all applied the “sludge factor” in different measures. While you won’t find a dedicated section for proto-sludge at your preferred music store, the following albums and artists laid the framework for the modern sludge landscape. So whether your sludge purveyors of choice come from the atmospheric, blackened or progressive sects of he genre, they’re all indebted to the groundbreaking statements these albums made.

Black Flag – My War (1984)

After years of releasing 7” and EPs, Black Flag finally dropped their full-length debut Damaged in 1981 and solidified themselves as one of the leading voices in hardcore punk. Henry Rollins’ unique, unhinged vocals and Greg Ginn’s free-wheeling approach to writing riffs helped define the album’s eclectic track list, ranging from genre classics like “Rise Above” to goofy brocore like “TV Party” to borderline experimental rock and post-hardcore on the album’s B-side. Closing track “Damaged II” was particularly rooted in left field and sounded more like a pre-cursor to The Jesus Lizard’s style than anything Circle Jerks or Dead Kennedys were doing at the time. The track, and others like it on the album, dialed down the tempo and embraced elements of the burgeoning post-hardcore and noise rock scenes, taking on a heavier edge freed from a power chord formula.

Other than a handful of new and unreleased songs on various EPs and compilations, the band took a few years to tour behind Damaged and write a proper follow-up; or, as it turns out, three follow-ups. Much to fans surprise—and chagrin, after hearing the music—the band dropped My War, Family Man and Slip It In within a few months of each other in 1984, all of which differed drastically from one another and the band’s previous material. While all three were critical in the evolution of Black Flag’s sound, it’s the b-side of My War that contains arguably the first sludge metal tracks laid to tape.

Across the A-side, Greg Ginn explored his affinity for free jazz and heavy metal through expressive songwriting, crafting riffs even further divorced from the band’s punk roots than the more experimental tracks on Damaged. But while some fans could tolerate these changes, the response to B-side was almost universally negative. “Nothing Left Inside,” “Three Nights” and “Scream” are all six to seven minute sludge fests that sound like a mash-up of Flipper’s slow punk and Black Sabbath’s heaviest tracks. The result was sludge metal in its most pupal form released in the wrong time to the worst possible audience. But despite the lukewarm-at-best reception, this trio of tracks would prove consequential for the future of the genre, and the audience it did appeal to contained some of the most key players in the genre’s history.

Gore – Hart Gore (1986) & Mean Man’s Dream (1987)

Before we discuss who those key players were, it’s important we make a quick pit stop in the Netherlands and touch upon one of the most unknown influences in underground rock. Considering Gore‘s significant influence on drone, sludge and stoner metal, it’s surprising that their discography hasn’t garnered the acclaim of other early progenitors of metal’s entangled web of subgenres. And it wasn’t just metal the band influenced, either; other than expanding their own genres of hardcore punk and noise rock, the band’s later material contained elements of math rock that would help usher in the style’s growth throughout the 90s.

 

This historical blackout makes a bit more sense after listening to the band’s back-to-back sludge metal sucker punches, Hart Gore (1986) and Mean Man’s Dream (1987). The trio’s dense, plodding approach to instrumental rock truly feels like auditory sludge that was undoubtedly tough for rock fans at the time to digest. And of course, a lack of vocals is always going to alienate some listeners regardless of the music’s quality. Even so, it’s no surprise this duo of albums made its way to the ears of metal musicians responsible for launching the aforementioned subgenres; every track feels like a perfect synthesis of sludge, noise and punk that’s primed to soundtrack an intense bout of violence. If you were unfamiliar with Gore before, you have no reason not to rectify that now.

Melvins – Gluey Porch Treatments (1987) & Ozma (1989)

Saxophonist Albert Ayler claimed the creation of free jazz broke down as follows: “[John Coltrane] was the Father, [Pharoah Sanders]  was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost.” When it comes to sludge metal, the Melvins comprise all three points of the genre’s Holy Trinity. The sole reason they’re included in this post as “proto-sludge” is due to the peerless status they held during their early years; prior to dropping Bullhead in 1991, no other band was playing the same style as the Melvins, let alone at the level of quality the band begun honing with their first two records. In all honesty, the band’s prolific output and unique musical quirks are still unmatched in the genre they helped create.

The Melvins first took root in the early years of Washington’s grunge scene, which itself would prove influential to the evolution of sludge metal during the movement’s heyday in the 90s. Before founding the band, frontman and primary songwriter Buzz Osborne fleshed out his punk roots while playing in Kurt Cobain‘s first band, Fecal Matter. Osborne’s approach to guitar became progressively heavier as he blended his newfound love for punk with his formative listening of 60s and 70s hard rock. This manifested into a self-proclaimed marriage of Black Sabbath and post-Damaged era Black Flag, albeit a combination that amplified the heaviness more than either influence ever had. The band’s resulting debut with Gluey Porch Treatments (1987) leveraged these influences for the first of many landmark sludge records.

 

GPT, along with sophomore album Ozma (1989) a couple years later, don’t sound particularly groundbreaking nowadays. The band wouldn’t truly experiment with their sound until their forays into drone doom on Lysol (1992) and alternative metal with Houdini (1993), and by today’s standards, GPT and Ozma sound like textbook sludge (albeit performed incredibly well). But back in the late-80s, the Melvins were truly pushing the boundaries of rock music with heaviness that rivaled their doom counterparts and death metal’s formative bands. Osborne churns out crushing riff after riff on both albums, and the offsetting tempos of Black Flag’s punk and Black Sabbath’s proto-doom led to a steady, mid-paced romp that only enhanced their punishing pace. Both albums’ tracks run between two to three minutes and stick to a uniform formula that never grows old, even on the various reissues which package them both as a 33-track behemoth. There are some moments of exploration, though; the band’s rendition of KISS‘s “Love Theme” on Ozma has some melodic harmonics reminiscent of a raw Baroness riff.

Twenty-one studio albums later (including this year’s A Walk With Love and Death), and the Melvins are still dominating sludge with their bizarre musical brand and Osborne’s endless fountain of riffs. GPT and Ozma are both excellent introductory albums for newcomers and still retain their charm for fans that have delved into the rest of their extensive catalog. If not for this sludgy duo, we likely wouldn’t have many of the sludge and doom bands we love to gush about here on the blog (Boris, EarthMastodon, Sunn O))), etc.).

Godflesh – Streetcleaner (1989) / Industrial & No Wave (1980s)

But before we dive into one of the Melvins’ most influential protege and leave the 80s behind, we need to take another brief detour into the decade’s industrial and no wave scenes, specifically Godflesh‘s milestone record Streetcleaner (1989). Though seemingly unrelated to sludge metal, both of these movements added some subtle sonic elements to sludge’s palette with their approaches to heaviness and atmosphere. Industrial bands like Big Black and Throbbing Gristle and no wave acts like Swans and (early) Sonic Youth added a certain edge and detail to the broader noise/noise rock template that would inform later sludge bands’ approach to songwriting, particularly those who transitioned the genre into atmospheric territory to create post-metal. Godflesh absorbed these musical happenings and added in the flavors of Black Sabbath, power electronics via Whitehouse and the unique, groovy post-punk of Killing Joke‘s self-titled 1980 debut. The result: Streetcleaner, an album that put industrial metal on the map while also creating the framework for post-metal titans like Isis.

 

Streetcleaner‘s direct influence on sludge is pretty obvious—the album’s crunching, methodical, downtuned riffing distilled their influences down to the heaviest common denominator. But it’s the band’s consuming use of effects, space and morbid melody that would make the album perhaps the earliest instance of atmospheric sludge metal. As with the Melvins, a wide variety of bands cite Godflesh as a key influence, some of whom operate outside the sphere of sludge. And when you’re listed as an icon by both Converge and Korn, chances are your music is interesting enough to warrant a listen.

Neurosis – The Word as Law (1990)

When discussing Converge’s first few records, Kurt Ballou described them as albums most musicians get out of their system in their earlier projects before finally finding their footing in their current band. A similar sentiment applies to Neurosis, whose early years playing crossover thrash and punk often rank poorly among fans of the groundbreaking sludge and post-metal they’d go on to make during the bulk of their career. Still, if you haven’t heard The Word as Law before, it’s a worthwhile listen that adds the final bit of context needed to understand proto-sludge’s narrative.

 

Unlike the band’s full-length debut with Pain of Mind (1987), the band strayed away from their crust punk/crossover thrash roots on The Word as Law and began their initial exploration of what would become their calling card. It’s by no means a sludge metal album through-and-through, but the core heaviness of their sound is certainly present, and the Joy Division cover they’d tack on for subsequent versions of the album indicates the affinity for melody and soundscapes which they’d delve into in abundance later in their career. Don’t let the quality of the band’s post-Souls at Zero (1992) albums cloud your judgment when it comes to discovering the band’s roots; The Word as Law has more to offer than just historical significance.

Sludge Metal (1991-Present)

While it’s difficult to set an official start point for a genre, 1991 truly does seem to contain sludge’s formal introduction to the metal landscape. Sludge heavyweights Corrosion of Conformity (Blind) and Crowbar (Obedience Thru Suffering) both dropped their full-length debuts in ’91, and the following year, Eyehategod  (In the Name of Suffering) would do the same, while Neurosis finally made their leap into the genre with Souls at Zero. And from there, the rest is history. There are countless other bands we could highlight when it comes to defining sludge metal in the 90s and beyond, but for me, the artists and albums in this post all deserve heaps more credit for making the genre what it is today. And after reading this post, hopefully you can appreciate the fact that Mastodon playing dad rock on Jimmy Kimmel all started with some Cali-punks pissing off their fans with a revolutionary b-side.

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