Refinement is defined as the improvement or clarification of something by making small changes. As a band becomes established, the development of its sound can go one of two ways. Either the band becomes wildly experimental, releasing albums which can sound vastly different to one another, or they can refine their sound, digging deep into its nature and concentrating on perfecting its delivery across their career. Safe to say, when it comes to New Orleans sludge legends Crowbar, they have taken the latter path.
Formed in 1990 on a heavy (REALLY heavy) diet of Black Sabbath, Black Flag and Celtic Frost, Crowbar quickly became one of the flagbearers of the sludge metal sound, combining the heaviness of doom with the aggression of the hardcore punk and influences from southern and swamp rock. Over the course of 30 years the band (led by the legendary Kirk Windstein) have been boiling down this sound to its purest form and in the process released several landmarks of the genre (notably their self-titled 1993 album, 1998’s Odd Fellow’s Rest and 2005’s Lifeblood for the Downtrodden). Now after over three decades into their career they’re releasing what could be yet another milestone in the form of Zero and Below.
Opening with the monstrous ‘The Fear That Binds You’ (a track that has its origins in a writing session for Ice-T’s Body Count) it’s clear from the off that Windstein and his comrades mean business. Building in tempo and rage as the song progresses, it’s a mammoth demonstration that the band’s power hasn’t diminished over the course of 12 albums. ‘Her Evil is Sacred’ lessens the pace but loses none of its power as it sucks the audience into its slowing, grinding wake, while ‘Confess to Nothing’ finds the band dipping into classic New Orleans groove metal territory.
One of the band’s strongest features is Windstein’s voice. With a sound equal parts gravel and whisky it brings a bluesy feel to the band’s sludge metal crunch and can swing from doom-laden sorrow on ‘Redefining the Truth’ to a violent bark on the Discharge indebted ‘Bleeding from Every Hole’.
While it may sometimes feel that Zero and Below is purely a celebration of the band’s trademark sound there’s still a few surprises thrown in to show that they haven’t stopped having new ideas. The Motörhead inspired ‘It’s Always Worth the Gain’ brings some classic rock ‘n’ roll style into the mix with a classic call and response between the riff and vocals, while the epic title track features gruff harmonies and even an acoustic mid-section that brings to mind Ride The Lightning-era Metallica.
Few bands manage to stick around for 30 years and still produce material of this high quality. While their process of refining their sound little-by-little over time may be slow, on Zero and Below it has yielded some fantastic results.
Zero and Below is out now via MNRK Heavy and can be ordered here.
Words: Dan Cadwallader