September 22, 2012 by Dan Swinhoe
Some of you may need reminding that I fucking love Down. They are still one of my favourite bands. But they don’t half take a while getting around to releasing things.
Formed in the nineties as an off the cuff side project consisting of New Orlean’s metal elite; Pantera’s Phil Anselmo, Corrosion of Conformity’s Pepper Keenan, Eyehategod’s Jimmy Bower and Kirk Winstein & Pat Bruders of Crowbar (the latter replacing Rex Brown), Down went from cult hero status with their debut stoner masterpiece NOLA to becoming major metal force that plays to massive crowds.
It’s been five years since 2007’s Down III: Over the Under, and a further five before that since Down II: A Bustle In Your Hedgerow. In the meantime we may have been treated to a so/so live album with an excellent DVD in Diary Of A Mad Band, but now Down is a full-time project for everyone involved, so why has it still taken so long for new material?
To make up for the slow progress on new material, Down are breaking their newest their newest release into four parts. Each EP will be released roughly a year a part (so we’re promised) and will each cover a different aspect of the band’s sound. The first of these EPs, Part 1- The Purple EP, was billed by the band as their ‘old-skool’ release, one that was going to sound akin to NOLA.
Big promise indeed. Its six tracks, covering just over half an hour, were all self-produced and recorded at Anselmo’s home studio, Nosferatu’s Lair. The artwork promises something epic; an ominous cross looms over the cover while a psychedelic hue in the floats around. And don’t forget the tiny grim reaper in the corner.
A fair word of warning-on first listen those actually expecting some sort of Nola pt II will be very disappointed. However, after giving it a chance, you will realise this record is more than decent.
As the fade in for opener Leviathan ends and the song kicks in proper, you’re instantly aware this is a Down record. Nothing else sounds quite like it. The southern sludgey riffs, the classic blues-tinged solos and Anselmo’s gravelly pained wails. It’s nice to have them back.
The first ‘single'(Do they really count as singles when it’s a digital release with no bonus tracks?) Witchtripper is reminiscent of Lysergic Funeral Procession, with a high pace [for Down] and big sludge-filled riffs providing the kind of headbanging thrills that have been a bit shortcoming lately.
Phil’s vocals remain as they were for Down III; a menacing southern drawl with a pained rasp for the peaks of the songs. As with all his projects, he is always battling to take centre-stage while the band around him plays their arses off. The band still has a lot of groove- probably more than III, but Purple also sees the band bring a more doom-orientated sound, like on The Curse Is A Lie’s slowed chugging before a blues riff takes the song away into more of a southern rocker.
Surprisingly, a more sound seems have also creeped in, as seen in the album’s lychpin, Open Coffins. It’s the centrepoint that holds the ep together; starting as a mid-paced number that adds layers of rawk’n’roll, Anselmo really hits his stride with a quality vocal performance.
Musically it’s hard to place Purple. It has the looser, more jammed-out feel of Nola & heavier parts of Down II, but at times feels more like a collection of riffs thrown together- à la Down III.But either way, there’s very little fat on this EP- just lots and lots of riffs. It’s never dull or droll- something that is easy for doom albums to do, and the songs aren’t afraid to kick up the pace or bring the tempo right down at a moments notice. And while I wouldn’t call the band or the songs lazy-the longs wait for Down releases would sound ungrateful after rabid expectation- But you couldn’t call this an adventurous release. Windstein and Keenan are on fine form with huge catchy riffs that mix into an epic wall of sound- but at no point does the band try to stretch their sound into anything new.
There is however, something of a growing bugbear. Hugh Platt got it exactly right while writing for Thrash Hits when he said that the release as a whole was just a little disappointing. Since becoming the main focus of its respective members, Down have failed to really set the world alight. Down III had moments of real quality, yet at times sounded watered-down, and generally lacked the strong songwriting or spark that made earlier releases so enticing. And though Purple as a whole is rawer and better than III,it’s still missing that Midas touch. Which is odd when you look the members output outside of Down- Crowbar’s last two albums have been of gold-star quality and Keenan’s last COC album In The Arms of God was a piece of genius. While talk of EPs being quicker and easier to make and preventing fluff from being thrown on the album, there’s a worry that maybe Down are running out of steam or ideas. However on repeated listens the initial disappointment is forgotten, and the quality of the songs on offer shine through, even if for many fans it’s still a niggle that wont yet go away.
The Purple EP is a quality, though less than perfect release. Fans who actually expected something on the same level as NOLA will be disappointed, but that was almost inevitable. But in its stead you get a raw slab of pure stone-cold riffage. And if the band can actually get another release out this decade, even better.