I wouldn’t say sludge is a valid metal sub-genre—it’s more of a sensibility, or an ingredient to spice up better defined styles like stoner rock or doom—but I know it when I hear it. Sludge is a good sound for bad times, bearing in mind its direct lineage from Black Sabbath and the blues. It’s music to wallow in, and there’s lots of it around these days. But sludge can be elusive and complex. It ain’t just about tuning down to L-flat and dropping the tempos the way a yogi drops his heartbeat. Like Eskimos and their damn snow and sommeliers sniffing and sipping their way through some new vintages, the discerning ear can identify many varieties of sludge, each festering in its own peculiar malignancy.
Lord Mantis—Spawning the Nephilim (Seventh Rule)
This is evil, nasty music, soaked in black bile and bad vibes. Spawning... is a traumatic, almost gleefully grim record. The Chicago quartet have an ex-member of Nachtmystium in their ranks and are recorded by Sanford Parker, who has dozens of crushing albums on his résumé, and knows what he’s doing. The album bludgeons from start to finish, encompassing some “Children of the Grave”-style churn, a few stretches that recall High on Fire, and some momentum-draining Incantation-ish ultra-doom passages, stitched together into song structures that lurch with demonic (il)logic. Nothing is clearly telegraphed; everything can change in an instant. Much twisted thought and intense rehearsal undoubtedly went into shaping such mutant material. Every band should have their own theme song, and Lord Mantis have a doozy. “Lord Mantis” is probably the most hair-raising track here, while the final song, "Zealot," really crosses the line into outright sadism, pounding you flat before dwindling to a drone while you contemplate your sorry state. The vocals spit pure psychotic hate in a manner that, while not adding much to the songs, bolsters the notion that it’s best not to fuck with this band. (Lyrically, I can relate to "Hit by a Bus"—perfect for the iPod on the #410 through the armpit of Richmond.) Despite the blatant intimidation tactics, Spawning the Nephilim’s ferocious whorl of negativity has drawn me in again and again. Lord Mantis truly know where the slime lives.
Kylesa—Static Tensions (Prosthetic)
Kylesa rock like hell. Everything on Static Tensions is superbly executed, with groin-kicking production across 10 songs; no duds. In a novel move, they employ two drummers (one per stereo channel!) to pound away and pierce the soupy din of guitarists Laura Pleasants and Philip Cope (who also produced the album). The vocals are actually integral to the songs, and are delivered in an appealing punk rock holler, like Fugazi and Turbonegro—while not as poppy as that Norwegian gang, this album carries a similar energy to, say, Apocalypse Dudes. And not everything is in the Motörhead-ish “heads down, see you at the end” vein. There are dynamics and varying instrumental textures like the eerie echo-chambered guitars of “Unknown Awareness,” or the piano intro, middle-eastern modalities and twin leads of the album’s highlight “Running Red.” It’s for good reason that they recently appeared on a Syd Barrett tribute album, doing “Interstellar Overdrive.” The band are definitely secreting an adventurous prog tendency beneath all that fuzz. It’s a thrill to catch a band in full flight like this, and it’ll be fun to see how they deliver these punishing, intelligent songs live on the Mastodon tour next month. The best thing about Static Tensions is that it doesn’t sound like anyone else, admirably free of obvious influences and clichés. This is bound to be one of the year’s best releases.
Harvey Milk—Life... The Best Game in Town (Hydra Head)
I’m an idiot for leaving this off the Best of 2008 list I submitted to Unrestrained! last year. In my defense, I’d maybe just acquired it and hadn’t yet succumbed to its shabby charisma. Now it’s speaking to me in a loud drunken voice. Harvey Milk have a patchy recording history, but have been around since the early '90s, with Life... being their second album since their 2006 “comeback.” Alternately harrowing and hilarious, Life... is what happens when the rush of youth subsides, when you’re stuck at home too long, drinking bad beer, watching bad TV, wondering if you should get that stupid band together and write some more stupid songs. This is the impression I get from bassist Stephen Tanner’s hastily scrawled liner notes anyway: e.g. “another mighty turd I contributed, it’s about nothing... total filler... fuck this I’m watching Janice Dickenson’s Modeling Agency—I want to die—or win the lottery.” Yes, this sounds a little like Melvins (ex-Melvin Joe Preston plays on this), but with a more human, communicative slant to the slo-mo trudge. The album’s main difficulty is that it’s hard to get past the stunning opening track without skipping back and listening to it again. “Death Goes to the Winner” melds the coolest mellow section you’ve ever heard to the coolest heavy section you’ve ever heard, before devolving into an extended thudding second half with lyrics that dare to quote the Velvet Underground and The Beatles, all converging to create the kind of finale that dares you to carry on with the rest of the record. But that’s how this band works, apparently. To end the album with “Death Goes to the Winner” would have been too obvious. Once past that, there are other delights to be had, like “Motown” (I agree with Tanner: sounds a lot like B.O.C.—but not “Black Blade”), or Fear cover “We Destroy the Family,” or the insane, wondrous “Roses,” which sounds like some Brian May/Melvins collaboration. Harvey Milk may creak and groan and leave you in doubt whether they’ll be able to pull off another album ever again. They can’t sing, they ain’t pretty and their legs are (probably) thin. Their record, however, is brilliant. Returning to my 2008 list, I’ll put it at...#3, I guess.