“It’s not music. It’s frantic, frantic noise,” says the sample on Grief‘s ‘Shoot Me…’ before they launch into their signature brand of throat-shredding cries and corrosive riffs. Frantic indeed. Whilst no one could dispute doom’s ability to paint a bleak and desolate soundscape, its grittier cousin, sludge, the bastard offspring of doom and hardcore, can go much further. Often wallowing in stifling, anguished portrayals of physical and mental pain, there isn’t a genre out there better at capturing the essence of a tortured psyche.
Whilst sludge received some attention as the doom scene erupted several years ago, it was largely overshadowed by the bong hits and accessible grooves of stoner doom or the fantasy and escapism of epic doom. Now, though, the genre is in as fit a state as any of metal’s countless subgenres, thanks in no small part to the swathe of fantastic releases that dropped last year.
In recent years and indeed recent months, sludge has shown its merits, but there’s also those who have been championing the genre for some time, not to mention those who ceased to exist all too early. This list features both, burrowing deep into tortured cries and thunderous fuzz new and old to bring you the best and most unfathomably intense sludge out there.
The Bandcamp page for Goatsblood‘s final full-length Drull likens the album to Melvins, Eyehategod and Burning Witch, but to assess it in relation to other sludge bands does them a disservice. Sure, the now-defunct Canadian group’s music was slow, ultra-heavy, and saw the value of the genre’s reliance on repetition, but it was also erratic, and umpteen times more chaotic than most. The group concocted metal that was patently sludge but held an energy unlike those from who they took inspiration. It was bombastic, occasionally lurching into frenzied grindcore before dragging the guitars back down into swampy dirges, the vocals often bridging the gap between the two disparate styles.
North Carolina’s Sourvein have been churning out sludge since ‘93, but original member T-Roy is still keeping the ship running, most recently releasing the criminally underlooked Aquatic Occult in 2016. As a genre known for its slow paces and huge impact, the sea is a fantastic source of inspiration, and the album’s aquatic motifs bleed into the music itself. Churning riffs sway out of the speakers like waves crashing against a cliff, and the swirling whirlpool of ominous guitars found on ‘Aquanaut’ is truly mesmerising. Keep an ear out for a guest appearance from Randy Blythe, whose rough gurgles fit much better than you may expect.
Originally established as ‘Devoid’ in an effort to combine the most caustic elements of hardcore and doom, San Francisco’s Body Void have morphed and mutated into a different beast entirely. Their long form exercises in prolonged agony explore trauma, from mental illness and suicidal urges to gender identity and the systemic oppression of marginalised communities – the trio are locked in with the historic use of metal as protest music to challenge corrupt power structures. 2018’s I Live Inside A Burning House is a sprawling, Sisyphean battle between crushingly dense riffs, harrowing vocals and a shadowy catharsis born of the same.
Nottingham’s Moloch owe a lot to the intensity of East Midlands hardcore, but the unrelenting punishment of their music also borrows heavily from a scene birthed on the other side of the Atlantic. Taking the hefty riffs of classic NOLA sludge, stripping them of their over-reliance on groove and injecting no small dose of dissonance, the band’s strain of sludge is raw and remorseless. Last year’s A Bad Place proved to be their most impressive release to-date. The UK’s answer to Thou’s string of summer releases, it took a more heads-down approach to the genre that drills directly into your psyche then turns the screw by dialling up the agony minute-by-minute.
While for the uninitiated metal music has a reputation for being ‘scary’ or intimidating, fans will know that’s far from the case for most acts, at least once you’ve become desensitised to extreme sounds or themes through repeated exposure. Not so of Denver’s Primitive Man; their caustic blend of pitch-black sludge, noise and doom is a terrifying and bleak endurance test, their sound more than evoking their band name. Whether it’s at one of their harrowing, oppressive live shows or across their sprawling discography of splits, EPs, demos and full-lengths, the sheer weight of their La Brea Tar-thick tone and the inhuman bellows of Ethan Lee McCarthy provide true catharsis.
This Sheffield sludge outfit owe as much to stoner as they do sludge, but their bizarre concoctions have grown increasingly hypnotic over time, with their discography kicking off like a slightly spaced-out head-banging session before descending into a full-on trip on latest EP Sheffields’s Best Metal Bands, Vol. 1 (review here). The release offers more in the way of psychedelic torment than the psychological kind offered up by many of the bands here, but it’s no less brutal and affecting. The trio featured heavily in DIY documentary The Doom Doc and have since become a prominent part of the doom scene outside of their hometown, but if you’re unfamiliar, give them a try – enjoy the bumpy ride.
If sludge is all about volume and mass, then Milwaukee’s Northless are surely a cut above most of their contemporaries. The quartet deal in hate, anger, pain and hopelessness expressed through rhythms that pummel and guitars that rise out of the mix live a wave. Formed in 2007, the band are racking up quite the discography, most recently putting out Last Bastion Of Cowardice in 2017. It’s a hulking beast of an album full of rich compositions, but the group still find room for the occasional smattering of experimentation, from the noise rocking intro of ‘The Origin Of Flames’ to the ever-so-slight post-punk flourishes and hardcore riffs of ‘The Devil In Exile’.
Sludge duo Vile Creature have just released compilation CD Preservation Rituals (reviewed here), a release that charts their career to date before they record their first release for new label Prosthetic Records. It was a great opportunity to listen back through the nearly two hours of material that comprises the CD, and doing so makes it clear why they have become one of the most vital names in contemporary metal, boasting some of the most creative sludge ever released whilst promoting progressive politics. Last year’s Cast Of Static And Smoke is their current pièce de résistance, but earlier numbers like ‘A Pessimistic Doomsayer’ (from the EP of the same name) and ‘A Constant Yearning To Leave’ are also stellar examples of the band’s world-beating potential.
Emerging from Boston in the early ’90s, Grief brought swollen riffs to an absolute crawl, their imposing weight and dissonant feedback trudging ever onwards as Jeff Hayward’s deep-throated blackened yells expressed the band’s contempt through anti-anthems like ‘I Hate The Human Race’. The band, now considered a cornerstone of the sludge genre, came to an end ten years after their formation in ’91, and have disbanded twice since following reunions. Original guitarist Terry Savastano and ex-drummer Chuck Conlon formed Come To Grief in 2014, named after Grief’s seminal 1994 album, and have since put out an EP and a split, but Grief’s exploratory but dismal (joke intended) early works are what’s most worth hearing if you’re unfamiliar.
NY’s HUSH boast a strain of sludge that’s straightforward but ruthlessly effective in its assault, wallowing in a monolithically heavy wasteland where the only things that grow are toxic riffs. The band’s most recent effort, Untitled II, was released last year, and comprises new and old works, many of which were written shortly after 2016 EP Nihil Unbound. Despite its patchwork nature, the release boasts a cohesive sound, with tracks sewn together by a feral ferocity. The band’s penchant for steamrolling grooves makes them a deadly proposition, but the anguished cries of vocalist C. Cure and some poignant lead guitar work sprinkled here and there make this an affecting listen as well.
Formed in 2014, Finnish trio Morbid Evils quickly established themselves as one of the most monstrously heavy bands on the planet. Fronted by Rotten Sound vocalist Keijo Niinimaa, their aptly named debut In Hate With The Burning World was an abject spewing of bilious death-sludge, yet they sound almost frolicsome with the emergence of second outing Deceases, a record divided into six ‘cases’ that spirals into the nightmarish aural realms of Khanate at their most debilitating or Swans‘ twisted early years. There is undoubtedly a streak of mesmeric psychedelia about what Morbid Evils do, yet it is the raging core of obscene, bile-spitting hatred which defines the band as one of the most extreme to ever do it.
Russia’s Dekonstruktor boast some of the filthiest, gnarliest riffs this side of Godflesh, with some relentless grooves and acid rock-esque psych flourishes maintaining a grisly atmosphere that keeps the whole affair dank and dark. Vocals that fall more in line with noise rock may initially seem out of place, but their disconcerting nature soon becomes damn effective at adding to the dread-inducing atmosphere. The band’s latest release, No Way Back, comes alongside a particularly dismal quote from George Orwell’s 1984 that reflects the album’s imposing aura, and 2015 EP Fuck Life We Go Further is another career highlight.
Brighton sludgers Sea Bastard were one of the initial names that helped build the doom boom that’s swept the UK underground in recent years, yet their sound is perhaps more intense than anything that’s emerged since. Their style is exceedingly bleak and caked in punitive fuzz so gnarly that the gigantic grooves feel downright homicidal. Perhaps the closest thing the UK has to aforementioned US group Primitive Man, Sea Bastard have been quiet since a 2016 split with the Denver-bred trio. Members are still active in the scene, however, most notably with guitarist Oliver Hill bringing the riffs in Grave Lines and Dead Witches.
Making use of misanthropic imagery and sociopolitical lyrical themes, California’s Dystopia boasted a sound that was recognisable as sludge but also borrowed from the frenetic energies of crust punk and grindcore as well as the unsettling atmospheres of noise rock. The band unfortunately came to an end before the doom scene exploded, but even amongst the wealth of great bands in the modern metal world, Dystopia are a band worth returning to. Their final LP was released posthumously in 2008 despite being recorded a few years prior, but ’94s Human = Garbage is, for many, the release for which the band will be remembered most fondly. It’s easy to see why, its gruesome aura revelling in putting the listener through the sort of uncomfortably confrontational experience that dares them to press stop and run and hide.
Grimpen Mire‘s A Plague Upon Your Houses is the sort of rough, DIY album that the sludge genre was founded upon. Recorded by the band in their rehearsal studio over the space of just two days, it’s absolutely brimming with abrasive blood-spitting yells and massive discordant riffs that churn onwards into the abyss, grabbing you by the scruff off the neck on their down. The band came to an end in 2015 and founding member Paul van Linden tragically passed that same year, so be sure to turn their riffs up loud in his memory.
One-man sludge monolith Crawl released their new LP just last month, and it’s an imposing slab of noisy sludge and sludgy noise. Half an hour of blackened intensity punctured by unworldly synth and dense, dissonant bass, Necrotic Fear is a record that’s as concerned with atmospherics as it is riffs, with both working either solo or in tandem to produce a listening experience that’s enough to put even the most hardened sludge veteran on edge. The percussion crashes like smashed glass, the guitars churn like rusted machinery and the vocals are spat out from some demonic realm. The “transcendence through repetition” mantra is exemplified here in spades, with meticulously-built loops swelling malevolently whilst the cinematic ambience oppresses your spirit, holding your attention until the very end.
An enigmatic Japanese outfit with a penchant for long-ass songs and the Spanish language, Corrupted have been operating since the mid ’90s, and yet little is known about them due to an aversion to publicity. Their most recent release was a vinyl-only EP designed to be played at either 33 or 45 RPM, but it is their colossal albums that remain their masterworks. 1997’s Paso inferior and 2004’s Se Hace Por Los Suenos Asesinos are fantastic places to start for an introduction into the band’s signature blend of tender subtlety and frantic intensity, whilst El Mundo Frio and Garten der Unbewusstheit are endurance tests that see the band at their most wistful. Always happy to deliver both zombiefying sludge and sections of disquiet but also oddly soothing respite, the band have made use of acoustic guitar, harps and atmospherics, their sound often crossing the border into drone-doom.
In a scene where it seems every band is competing to be the heaviest, London-based trio Torpor are serious contenders for the title. Their signature blend of sludge, doom, post-metal and noise is characterised by tectonic bass rumbling, sprawling riffs and ethereal soundscapes. Evolving noticeably with each release, they’ve distanced themselves from the hardcore and groove metal elements found on 2015 debut From Nothing Comes Everything, moving into sprawling, slow-burning darkness on their 2016 split with Bristol’s answer to Neurosis, Sonance. Spending the last three years cementing their reputation as a crushing live act and honing new material, expect greatness from their upcoming second full-length.
Encapsulating all the slow-motion horror of being submerged in boiling tar, the elephantine heavy escapades of Hull wrecking-ball Black Tongue are as suffocatingly claustrophobic and sonically devastating as anyone in the game. Purveying their own signature brand of slow-mo misanthropy, the band weave a bloodstained patchwork of seething down-tempo savagery, leaving their foot off the gas and steadily burying the listener with a series of sledgehammer blows. However, Black Tongue are anything but lacking in dynamics, imbued with a host of gruesome influences and straddling a fine line between hardcore hostility and primal sludge. Couple this with some malodorous vocal spewings rooted in death metal grotesquery and some brief nods to early Mastodon and Meshuggah‘s mechanical thunder, and we have something much more than a series of tacked together breakdowns, the band retaining their cripplingly languid pace whilst being a deceptively multi-layered beast.
Doom metal loves to revel in fantastical tales of escapism, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but something sludge certainly has over its less stifling cousin is its innate ability to sonically portray real-life anguish and grief. Oakland outfit Noothgrush embody this more than most – their gruesome strain of the subgenre doesn’t need otherworldly atmospherics or psychedelic flourishes, instead it gets straight to the raw, disdainful riffs that hold within them misery, torment and a deep contempt for mankind. Having split in the early 2000s, the band reformed in 2011 with ex-Dystopia vocalist Dino Somesse joining as frontman in 2012 to release a split with Coffins and the Entropy EP, neither of which did anything to suggest that the band’s downbeat potency had fizzled during the hiatus. ’94s Erode The Person (not to be confused with the compilation of the same name), however, remains the highlight.
A Horse Called War
A UK band with a rocky career so far (“born in 2005, died in 2010, resurrected in 2015”), A Horse Called War offer up a gritty brand of sludge infused with crust punk and stoner metal. 2007’s Stumble At Every Hurdle showed a band with bags of potential, but we’re yet to hear anything new since. The band are still playing live, though, so expect new music to drop sometime (hopefully) soon. In the meantime, the group have dropped shirts to a fiver to fund new stuff, so check out their music and see if you think it’s worth investing in future releases.
Kowloon Walled City
Referring to this San Francisco band’s recent output as sludge is likely to upset those who see genre boundaries the same way a cop sees laws (that being, something they have to enforce), but the subgenre undoubtedly plays a significant role in the band’s expansive sound. Their heavier moments are when we see Scott Evans and co. at their most sludgy, but in between these riff-heavy sections are lengthy, sparse sections in which Evans’ voice become monotonous, somewhat reflecting both the unsettling auras of noise rock and the bare-faced expressiveness of spoken word. Even at their heaviest, though, Kowloon Walled City‘s sludge differs from that of its peers, the distortion proving more fractured than it is fuzzy, and thus fitting the band’s heterogeneous sound.
At its inception heavy metal was born as a product of its environs, reflecting a youthful disaffection for the grey and bleak industrialisation of the 1970s. If this is still the case, lord knows what’s wrong with Kingston-Upon-Hull to have produced a band like Mastiff. Swinging like a wrecking ball between blisteringly paced hardcore-tinged charges and foam-mouthed, colossally hefty breakdowns, the five-piece don’t approach things with anything resembling restraint or subtlety. From Jim Hodge’s inhuman barks and bellows to their sledgehammer riffing, filthy tone and turn-on-a-dime tempo changes, Mastiff might be modern sludge’s premium purveyors of misery.
A Russian band named after an alien war general who dies in a blazing inferno (after being shot in the heart with a laser gun) might sound like the most metal thing ever on paper, but the harsh reality is that General Grevious only actually pops up in one of the widely hated Star Wars prequels (“hello there”) and their appended animated show to sell action figures. Luckily, the band of the same name’s music doesn’t mess around, diving headfirst into spiralling riffs that are bolstered by blood-curdling shrieks and some ferocious percussion. Those who still miss Admiral Angry might find a lot here to like.
Thoughts on Iron Monkey‘s material since they reformed in 2017 might be mixed, but sludge fans usually agree pretty unanimously that the UK group’s early works are true highlights of the genre. Fucked over by their label and never fully getting the respect their colossal first two albums deserved, Iron Monkey are nevertheless held in high regard, often mentioned in the same breath as groups like Eyehategod. Painting a bleak picture of the world, Johnny Morrow’s lyrics were dire and wretched and his voice was maniacal and demonic, with its impact heightened by their position on top of mammoth riffs that could both groove irresistibly or bludgeon relentlessly.
Cult Of Occult
These French bruisers have been concocting feral sludge since 2012, but last year’s Anti Life is perhaps their most impressive feat to date. Presented as one track, sometimes split into four sections, the album boasts an encompassing atmosphere, and revels in its ability to pummel slowly but punishingly like being squashed by a steamroller. Meandering riffs are bolstered by throat-shredding shrieks and a level of maximalist volume that rivals even the most cacophonous of grindcore bands. Stick it on if you’re in the mood to drown in noise.
A demanding listen even amongst a genre known for its intensity, this Ukrainian band’s latest LP Джєбарс is 74+ minutes of dank, industrialised sludge that should come with a health warning. The band’s bleak lo-fi sound is characterised by a weighty malevolent atmosphere that’s penetrated only by transfixing psychedelia that pushes the release into hypnotic territories. The tension is palpable in the slow build-ups and the catharsis in the crescendos is more devastating than it is cleansing. The release, which aims to project the spirit of the band’s native city Kharkiv, takes from the darkest corners of the metal genre as well as the mysticism of Ukranian folk music – the band even cite the “dark side of rave” as an inspiration.
Louisiana’s Acid Bath were never really just sludge, but whilst the genre is certainly up there with the most intense musical styles in existence, combining it with touches of stoner rock, death metal, punk, grind and thrash can surely only make for a more intense experience. 1994’s When The Kite String Pops will forever be an extreme metal landmark, its frenzied sound undoubtedly proving an influence on a vast range of bands who’ve emerged in the years since. It is as corrosive as metal gets, stirring up textures from various metal subgenres and emerging with something more aurally challenging as a result. The vocals ranged from tortured screams to more dejected croons, the riffs drifted from sludgy dirges to thrashy assaults and yet the atmosphere was one of chaotic cohesion. Full retrospective here.
Boasting a sound that’s truly immense, ruthlessly heavy and yet remarkably creative and dynamic, Baton Rouge’s Thou are perhaps the leaders of the modern sludge scene. Utilising a collaborative DIY ethos shared by their hometown’s solid punk scene, the group have built up an impressive back catalogue of albums, EPs, splits, collaborative releases and more. Last month the blackened sludge ensemble were this year’s Artist in Residence at Tilburg’s Roadburn Festival, and it’s clear they got there off the back of their fantastic 2018 album Magus, as well as the three preceding EPs, which each expanded on a unique facet of the band’s sound, from the droning emanations of The House Primordial and the grungy tones of Rhea Sylvia to the acoustic melancholy of Inconsolable. The band even managed to cram splits with Ragana and HIRS into 2018, capping off a flurry of creativity that was overwhelming and yet seemed to lose absolutely no one’s interest. We even named Magus as our Album of the Year, but the band have quite the discography beyond that, so if you’re unfamiliar, you better do some digging.
With a strain of sludge that’s entirely their own, Bristol’s Throth combine dissonant and confrontational riffs with the sort of languid vocals that might be more suited to a psychedelically-inclined stoner rock band, and as a result produce some of the most alluring and unsettling music we’ve ever come across. 2016 release Heolstor is perhaps the most impressive instalment in their collection, boasting three tracks of experimental, noisy sludgegaze that captivate and bludgeon in equal measure. Keep an eye on this lot.
Looking for more? Check out this track from sci-fi sludge newcomers Wallowing.
Words: George Parr, Jay Hampshire, Tony Bliss