DOWN III: OVER THE UNDER IS AN HONEST SNAPSHOT OF BATTLE-WORN BAND AT THEIR BEST
It’s hard not to like Down. Aside from having members who played in one of the best metal bands of all time and a slew of other seminal, if not lesser-known ’90s metal bands, Down’s distinctly unique southern-fried version of original stoner/doom/sludge metal is delicious in all regards. The story is familiar already because you’ve all been beat over the head with it for the past two months — tragedy at the hands of Hurricane Katrina decimated the band members’ lives only to make them stronger upon regrouping — but it’s one that unquestionably, along with the brutal murder of Phil Anslemo and Rex Brown’s former bandmate Dimebag Darrell, has influenced the band’s latest release Down III: Over the Under in every aspect. The songwriting is refined, though the music maintains the raw, loose element that has defined Down over time. Above all, this record feels honest; honest songs, honest playing, honest lyrics. Nothing comes across as forced; you get the picture this is precisely the album Down wanted to make at this moment in time. Over the Under doesn’t reinvent the metal wheel but it definitely keeps it rolling, and I can’t see any reason that fans of Down would be disappointed.
Down — Phil Anselmo (ex-Pantera, Superjoint Ritual), Rex Brown (ex-Pantera), Pepper Keenan (Corrosion of Conformity), Kirk Windstein (Crowbar), and Jimmy Bower (Superjoint Ritual, Crowbar, Eyehategod) — are a supergroup by all meanings of the word, but their music never comes across as a commercial plot to bank on their past successes. There is a definitive Down sound that is instantly recognizable and can’t be confused with any other band, the members’ other past and present projects included. On Over the Under, the band plows through southern-fried metal with an intensity that you FEEL through the speakers.
Lead crooner Anselmo was in rough shape in recent years with a drug problem, chronic back injury, and poor physical health. But after kicking his bad habits, having back surgery, and going through a rigid physical therapy regimen, Anselmo sounds not only physically reinvigorated but emotionally sturdier. Reports that former Pantera growler Phil Anselmo sounds better than ever are a bit exaggerated — it’s hard to imagine Anselmo ever hitting the guitar-matching shrieks he mustered on “Cemetary Gates” — but Anselmo does sound good.
It’s also worth noting that Over the Under marks the first recording released by Anselmo since the murder of ex-Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell. “Mourn” speaks to the self-imposed exile Anslemo put himself through after those tragic events, and though the music blends in rather ambiguously with the rest of the album here, it’s the incredibly desperate, soulful, and yes, mournful lyrics that do the speaking.
The landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans is also a prevailing topic across the album. Though the images of the hurricane battered city may have faded in the eyes of most of the nation they are still fresh in Down’s memories, the band members and their families having lived through loss, devastation and death. “N.O.D.,” “On March the Saints” and others speak to both the original despair and subsequent reinvigorating hope that washed over the city in turn.
Musically, the band plods, pushes, insert-southern-sludge-metal-verb-heres all the way through the album, and of course does that ever-so-important thing that makes Down be Down: grooves. Metal that actually grooves is few and far between, but Down’s got it covered. “In the Thrall of It All” and album opener “3 Suns 1 Star” may just be the strongest tracks on the disc. “Thrall” hits that tempo sweet spot that makes you surprised you’re headbanging so viciously to something so slow, while “3 Suns” alternates between rocking, swinging, grooving, and smashing you over the head. Grandpa Ozzy (in Black Sabbath form) hovers over the sludgy guitars, while Godfather Duane Allman announces his presence from time to time with his bittersweet guitar harmonies.
At the end of the day Down III: Over the Under isn’t a spectacular album that is going to change the face of metal and save the day. But what it is is an awesome album to groove and smoke a bowl to while being reminded that metal doesn’t always have to be all about tough guy posturing, chug-a-chug chugging and windmills. It’s a snapshot of a band doing what they do best, and doing it honestly and sincerely, egged on by unfortunate catastrophe. This one will be getting full iPod spins for months to come.
(three and a half out of five horns)