With Baroness visiting our fair city this weekend in support of Danish heavy metal-meets-rockabilly giants Volbeat and Torche headlining Exchange in December, we thought it’d be a great excuse to dive into the thick, dirty depths of sludge metal.
Popularised by the genre’s godfather the Melvins, who mixed early Black Sabbath’s plodding and stone-hazed approach to hard rock with hardcore punk and a wall of fuzz, sludge metal sounds much like its name suggests; slow, seeping distortion and suffocatingly dense walls of sound, played out by some of the hardest riffs in the extreme metal canon.
But sludge metal is a diverse animal, with artists melding its stylistic touchstones with everything from psychedelic rock through to pop punk, and below we’ll take a short walk through both the pitch black and glittering light sides of what the genre can offer.
Hailing from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Thou’s music lives in perpetual darkness. On the outside, their music is an impassable mountain; long, heavy compositions chug along at a snails place, written by a band who know the meaning of oppression. But once you spend a bit of time with Thou, you’ll find they also aim for euphoria.
Soaring melodies breach the walls of noise, before coming down in riffs that rain strong blows
Soaring melodies breach the walls of noise, before coming down in riffs that rain strong blows, creating pieces that dip and swoon with a level of intensity not many can match. If you fancy giving them a go, Thou’s generous DIY approach to music means everything they’ve ever released is available for free somewhere, most of it collated on their own bandcamp. And they’re prolific, so you’re looking at hours and hours of bleak brilliance to sink yourself into.
Two drummers, two lead singer slash guitarists and a bassist can create one hell of a din. Kylesa’s music is swirling; pounding and often divergent percussion drive neck-swinging riffs over effects-pedal-led psychedelia, giving their music the feeling of staring into the centre of a spinning spiral.
Now defunct, their career was a series of strong albums that began as punk influenced exercises before morphing into a less jagged but more claustrophobic band over the years. Kylesa don’t shy away from adding melody to their hazy riffs either, creating some of sludge’s most catchy and layered tracks.
The below track highlights them at their peak. A crooning, crawling intro leads into anguished screams and dramatic guitar lines, before collapsing into huge riffs and building to the song’s shuddering climax. Definitely to be played at max volume at all times.
It seems Baroness were destined to be critical darlings. From the opening beautifully sombre tones of their debut, Red Album, Baroness felt like a band playing with purpose from the beginning. Throughout their career, tinges of country and arena rock melodies have been a cornerstone of what makes their style of sludge distinct.
enough head-snapping riffs to keep even the most ardent metalhead content.
With the recent release of their final album in the colour series Gold & Grey taking their style to even more experimental places, the four-piece have cemented their legacy for writing complex yet instantly hooky melodies with enough head-snapping riffs to keep even the most ardent metalhead content.
What to say about Harvey Milk? By far the most experimental band on this list, this band from Athens, Georgia, create albums that are almost obnoxiously insurmountable. However, all up for the challenge will uncover a discography of emotionally potent songs that wallow in the lowest moments of the human psyche.
Harvey Milk use silence as a weapon
With nods to country, blues, folk, pub rock, drone, and many other genres littering their style, Harvey Milk also use silence as a weapon throughout their tracks. Colossal riffs played low crash in a din before complete silence erupts, and combined with minor keys and the throaty, depressed warblings of their lead singer, Harvey Milk make depression sound triumphant and inescapable.
Built from the ashes of the iconic sludge-pop/noise band Floor, Torche play fast, pop-punk inspired sludge with the mission statement of: riffs equal impossibly thick, vocals equal glittery pop. Their albums often bunch tracks not hitting the two minute mark, each with their own collection of large riffs and impossible-to-not-hum-along vocal melodies, making listening to Torche like nibbling through a bag of your favourite snacks; you always want a little bit more when it’s done.
pop-punk inspired sludge with the mission statement of: riffs equal impossibly thick, vocals equal glittery pop
Moments of their career feel impossibly heavy (looking at you Barrier Hammer and Tarpit Carnivore), and others infectiously upbeat (shout-out to Sugar Glider and Walk It Off), but it all comes from the singular vision of making music equally catchy as it is gut-busting. Torch headline Exchange on 4 December.
The Body are a busy band. They frequently release singles, albums, and collaborative works (including two EPs with Thou from elsewhere on this list), yet their meld of sludge and noise music isn’t showing any signs of predictability. Their vocals sound like the screeches of a tortured soul, the drums pound with a relentless anger, the samples exist to unsettle, and the riffs pulverise mercilessly.
one of the most consistently interesting bands in metal
The Body are noisy, furious, and terrifying, but they’re also one of the most consistently interesting bands in metal. Play loud, alone, and in a dark room for full effect.
Named after an iconic song by the Melvins, this Japanese band have dipped their hands into many genres over their 27 year career. Having releases that blend J-pop, drone, noise, and folk into sludge, they made a name for themselves by freely experimenting with the limits of the genre.
releases blend J-pop, drone, noise, and folk into sludge
Their stand out release, 2005’s PINK, is a perfect storm of short garage-rock-esque sludge sprints mixed with longer, dream pop inspired pieces, walking the tightrope of pretty and brutal with the confidence of a band who know exactly what they want their music to evoke.
Interest peaked? Here are a few other bands to check out if you’re getting into the genre:
Iron Monkey – UK sludge forefathers, aggressive and noisy, sound like a punky precursor to The Body.
Black Tusk – Fast, hardcore punk with sludge flavour.
Melvins – What started it all, still churning out incredible albums and a huge discography of experiments with the genre, it’ll be a long time before you run out of stuff to listen to by this band.
Big Business – Somewhere between glam rock, punk and sludge. Huge melodies made by two blokes.
Golden Bats – Australian sludge boys, Golden Bats sound like a funeral dirge played through molasses.
Photo by Monica Seide-Evenson