Half a decade after the release of their third album ‘Down III: Over the Under’, the Big Easy’s finest bestow upon us the first of four instalments of EPs. Long-awaited new material in the form of ‘Down IV: Pt.1’ is within our gammy grasps and our curiosity, impatience and downright pining can finally be smothered.
Five years has naturally seen change in the band, both personally and professionally. Pepper Keenan’s now a father, Phillip Anselmo has started working on not only an autobiography, but also a solo record and his very own horror festival, Jimmy Bower and Kirk Windstein have gotten married and Rex Brown... ah yes. Brown, a brother in arms from the early days of Pantera alongside Anselmo, in addition to being a co-founder of Down has departed the band and in his place now stands Pat Brudders, an extremely talented bassist in his own right and unlike Brown the Texan, is a Louisiana man just like the rest of his comrades.
Straight off the bat, you have to give Down credit for this clever and innovative marketing strategy – four EP’s equals four tours, four different designs of merchandise and four brand new streams of income – without selling out or bending over in front of ‘the man’. In an industry that’s virtually eating its own face, this creative way of working is key to the bands survival. They needn't worry about biting the hand that feeds too much neither; the EP was recorded and self-produced at Anselmo’s home studio, ‘Nodferatu’s Lair’. The first half of the EP showcases more doom and drone than we’re used to from the quintet; this change in direction sure is risky, but it demonstrates that fact that Down really don’t give a flying fuck who likes their music, as long as they do.
The second half morphs into a mini stoner-rock parallel universe and reintroduces a hearty helping of authentic Deep Southern sludge. Lyrically, Phil touches on the imperfection of mankind, faith and cultural belief systems; these topics being a lot less personal than some of the subjects he’s previous drawn inspiration from – his heroin addiction, the cold-blooded murder of Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell and the destruction caused to his beloved hometown of New Orleans by the ferocious Hurricane Katrina, to name but a few.
Vocally, Anselmo doesn’t sound nearly as strong as he used to, but that’s part and parcel of years of straining his vocal chords through screaming and abusing his oesophagus in various ways; his vocal patterns feel a little disappointingly basic and lacklustre in places also. Knowing of the bands other side projects – Eyehategod, Superjoint Ritual, Arson Anthem, etc, ‘Down IV: Pt.1’ doesn't seem like much of a genre-stretch for the likes of Anselmo and perhaps Bower, but you have to wonder how much the other members are really into it. Like Keenan, for example, who wrote some of Down’s most epic and definitive groove-riffs in the early days; it doesn't seem like any bearing real memorable significance could be accommodated on this EP.
Perhaps the bands downfall, to some extent, is that they peaked too early with their debut, ‘N.O.L.A’ - an album held in regard as a masterpiece by many, so much so that the band themselves have openly admitted to desperately striving to replicate the sound and tone of it. However decent the ‘Down IV: Pt.1’ is, it doesn't even come close to living up to Down’s back catalogue. It’s interesting, thought-provoking and packs an imposing punch, but the real test will be what the other three EPs have to offer in accumulation. For now, let’s just celebrate having Down back in the studio and more importantly, back on the live circuit again.