It’s been five years since Down‘s last studio record, Down III: Over the Under, which itself arrived five years after Down II: A Bustle in Your Hedgerow…, the 2002 sequel to 1995’s NOLA. This is a band that rarely bestirs itself to enter the studio. (They also released a 2CD/1DVD live set, Diary of a Mad Band, in 2010; it was recorded in 2006. Clearly, they work slowly no matter what they’re doing.)
It’s probably for the best that they keep their productivity at a low simmer, though. Generally speaking, a little bit of Down goes a long way. Originally a side project for Pantera vocalist Phil Anselmo, the group also features guitarists Kirk Windstein of Crowbar and Pepper Keenan of Corrosion of Conformity; Jimmy Bower, a guitarist in Eyehategod, but playing drums here; and bassist Pat Bruders, also of Crowbar, a recent replacement for Anselmo’s Pantera confederate Rex Brown. The music they make is stoned, lurching doom metal, blatantly derived from Black Sabbath (not just the Ozzy Osbourne era, though; they rock hard enough at times to draw in fans of the Ronnie James Dio version of the group, too), Led Zeppelin, and the various American biker-metal bands fronted by Scott “Wino” Weinrich, most notably Saint Vitus and The Obsessed. It’s the lyrics that really set Down apart, though. The band is based in New Orleans, and in between paeans to weed (“Bury Me in Smoke,” “Hail the Leaf”) and outlaw biker culture (“Lifer”), they address the darkness that envelops their home turf in fairly explicit terms (“Ghosts Along the Mississippi,” “On March the Saints,” “New Orleans is a Dying Whore”). As good as their music can be, though, their albums have tended to sprawl, none offering fewer than 12 tracks and Down II meandering through an enervating 15, including multiple pointless interludes.
The Purple EP breaks that pattern, in the process emerging as the best Down release since the debut. It’s the first installment of a projected four-volume series, to be issued over the course of two years or so. (Each EP will show off a different side of the band, or so they say—to date, they’ve only seemed to have one side, but one of the planned releases is supposedly acoustic, so that’s something.) It offers six tracks in just over a half hour, which is pretty much the ideal dosage. And while the music fades in slowly, when the first track, “Levitation,” gets rolling—Bower battering his drums like he’ll never need them again after this song while Keenan, Windstein and Bruders hammer the riff home like a Sabbath cover band cranked up on bathtub speed—there’s a power and ferocity present that few current metal bands can match. Anselmo is in superb voice; he’s always been an overrated lyricist, but his energy and commitment are undeniable, and after years of guttural roaring, he’s almost back to the sound he had on early Pantera records like Power Metal and Cowboys from Hell.
The second song, “Witchtripper,” was actually released as a single prior to the EP, and it’s one of Down‘s best songs. A huge biker-doom riff churns over and over like an earth-moving machine trying to crawl out of a mud-filled quarry, and Anselmo’s voice, again, astonishes with its power. Bower’s drumming is as loose as if he’s pounding on cardboard boxes, but somehow the rhythm never quite falls apart. “Open Coffins” and “The Curse” slow things down somewhat, opting for oppressive heaviness over rocking, but things pick up again with “This Work is Timeless,” before everything comes to a head, and an end, with “Misfortune Teller,” its nearly seven-minute running time making it the longest track on the EP (there’s another 90 seconds of silence, followed by a short outro). This is a record utterly without fat, with no bad songs and no self-indulgence. Longtime Down fans will be thrilled by it, and newcomers to the group’s work might well find it the perfect introduction.
Here’s a full live show from November of last year, in Brazil: