How Metal Supergroup Down Created a Riffy Classic on ‘NOLA’
Down released their debut album, NOLA, on Sept. 19, 1995, blowing the collective minds of the metal community due to its strength and cast of musicians.
The long-gestating project spawned out of a series of loose writing and jamming sessions between Pantera frontman Philip Anselmo and Corrosion of Conformity guitarist and singer Pepper Kennan, which began sometime in 1990. The two brought in more Deep South sludge royalty in guitarist Kirk Windstein from Crowbar and drummer Jimmy Bower from Eyehategod.
As the recording of the album wound down, Windstein, who also played bass on NOLA, asked his Crowbar bandmate Todd Strange to handle bass duties on the brief 13-date tour to promote the release.
The opener, “Temptation’s Wings,” sets the tone for almost the entirety of the album with its minimalist-yet-devastating groove which starts fast, slows down and builds back up again into a crashing crescendo. Anselmo’s voice is in top form, arguably the best it’s ever been, as this was well before he began mimicking the screams of his favorite extreme metal bands and focusing on how much he could shred his vocal cords rather than delivering comprehensible lyrics.
But on NOLA, the real star is the abundance of riffs, of which there seems to be a bottomless pool from which they’ve been drawn. “Lifer,” “Rehab” and “Hail the Leaf” put them on display right out of the gate, while the bluesy intro to “Eyes of the South” belies what’s to come, as a six-note salvo quietly creeps into the mix before becoming full blown just as Anselmo growls, “Goddamn!”
Going against the grain, Down saves the best for last, with NOLA's closer “Bury Me in Smoke,” which to this day remains their lengthy final encore song in concert. The riff is absolutely punishing and relentless, continually accelerating and taking on different forms over a guitar solo and a momentary breakdown jam before fading out…and then fading right back in. Even at seven minutes long, it’s a track that can go on and on without getting tired.
There are quieter moments on NOLA; “Stone the Crow,” the only charting single to receive airplay on MTV, expertly plays with the light/heavy element, while “Jail” is reminiscent of the mellowness Black Sabbath were going after on some of their material from 1971-74. And while it’s merely an instrumental interlude, the gentle, Anselmo-penned “Pray for the Locust” provides a welcome contrast to the majority of running order.
Unfortunately, there was no capitalizing on the momentum that came with the unexpected triumph of NOLA. Pantera, C.O.C. and Crowbar were all at the peak of their respective levels of success, and the players soon returned to their "main" bands.
By the time Down reconvened in 2002, all of its members were reportedly battling substance abuse issues – including Pantera’s Rex Brown, who stepped in on bass. It made for the more uneven Down II: A Bustle in Your Hedgerow, a sonic mish-mash that has its moments but ultimately doesn't fully measure up to the all-time classic that NOLA has come to be known.