The "super-" prefix attached to supergroup used to mean something, man. But thanks in part to the democratization allowed by the Internet, just about any chucklehead can pen a half-baked garage jam, chuck it onto Bandcamp and label the project a supergroup if they'd like. In that sense, the music industry of 2013 can sometimes suggest the afterschool soccer games of yore: Everyone gets a trophy, and benchwarmers are welcome.
But the dudes of New Orleans doom rock quintet Down have lived the hardscrabble lifestyle long enough to warrant the "super-" tag, and their past is essential to the success of their music. They've put in decades of work, and now firmly settled in middle age, they're reaping the kind of exposure of which their teenage selves would've only dreamed. Dues have been paid, songs have been written, tour vans have been ridden into the ground, deadly forces of nature have come and gone, and painful addictions have been conquered. Meanwhile, Down has deliberately evolved, slowly releasing slabs of Southern metal that testify to its members' tough trips.
Former Pantera frontman, Housecore Records head, recovered addict and dizzyingly prolific musician Philip H. Anselmo is many things; in Down, his role is wordsmith, soothsayer and messianic frontman. His tough-talking stage banter serves as a buffer for the naked vulnerability within his lyrics, couched as they are between slogans and profane utterances. "Losing All," a track off Down's watershed 1995 debut, NOLA, aptly encapsulates his despondent state of mind: "I'm lord of misery, I'm king of the hill, I'm a broken man of the world." Later in the song, the grim specter of suicide surfaces, dashing rockstar bravado on the rocks of despair. At one point in another number, Anselmo even refers to himself as "the lord of beautiful depression."
But Anselmo's backstory is just one piece of the puzzle; every Down member boasts his own sordid tale of rough beginnings, big riffs and ultimate redemption. Guitarist Pepper Keenan is known best for his mid-period involvement with seminal crossover thrashers Corrosion of Conformity, a band that continues without him as Keenan keys Down's Southern rock swagger. There's Kirk Windstein, whose stocky frame, thundering riffs, booming voice and storied beard have fronted hardcore-inflected sludge troupe Crowbar since 1989. EyeHateGod drummer and Superjoint Ritual alumnus Jimmy Bower is Down's rock, keeping time right and spirits high with his trademark "Bower Power." The most recent addition, Patrick Bruders, comes from Crowbar, Goatwhore and New Orleans sludge-punk supergroup Outlaw Order; the band recruited him following the departure of original member and ex-Pantera bassist Rex Brown.
Down released its first demo in 1992, though they've only offered three full-length albums to date. This past September, Down issued its fourth recording, an EP entitled Down IV Part I—The Purple EP, rumored to be the precursor to a new full-length.
But Down has always mattered because of the quality and character of its material, not the quantity: The tunes come across like a mellower, more Southern rock-oriented version of the sludgy doom upon which the members cut their teeth. Down's formula is simple but effective, and the personalities behind those fuzzy riffs and twangy chords help propel them. There are no angels here; these are hard men who have lived hard lives and have come out on the other side.
That's one reason why Down's music works on such a visceral level. In metal, it can be tough to relate to worlds of wizards, devils or zombies, but drugs, depression, loneliness and urban blight offer another story. Down, then, is a heavy metal supergroup that would rather write about super ordinary life than the supernatural realm.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Up with Down."