Coming Down

Amid a drugged-out haze in a Louisiana barn, Down created the year's best metal album.

Down Odeon, 1295 Old River Road, the Flats 8 p.m. Sunday, May 3



Bustling in the hedgerow: For Down II, the band - got in touch with its organic side.
Bustling in the hedgerow: For Down II, the band got in touch with its organic side.
"This is not a film about Vietnam, this is Vietnam," Francis Ford Coppola famously boasted upon returning from the South Pacific, after the harrowing shoot for Apocalypse Now. "We went into the jungle, there were too many of us, we had too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane."

Rex Brown can relate. As bassist for the Cajun metal supergroup Down, Brown has experienced firsthand the same drug-addled pandemonium that blurred the lines between fantasy and reality in Coppola's haunting war drama. Down's sophomore effort, the soot-black Down II: A Bustle in Your Hedgerow, was recorded in much the same way Apocalypse was filmed: The participants isolated themselves from civilization; drank, toked, and snorted themselves into oblivion; then promptly lost sight of whether they were creating a commentary on fear, addiction, and lunacy or falling prey to all three.

For 26 days last year, Brown and his bandmates locked themselves in an old barn in rural Louisiana, courted dementia, and came out with an album as menacing as the water moccasins that slithered outside the band's makeshift studio in the bowels of bayou country.

"We're out in the middle of the swamp, a half a tank of gas away from anything," Brown recalls. "Basically, you're fighting for your food and a place to fucking sleep. This thing just got progressively more chaotic as it went along. We were throwing and spitting and cussing each other many times. Somebody'd wake up hung over: 'Fuck it, suck it up, crack open a beer, get to work.' We had plenty of booze; that wasn't a problem."

Scoring dope wasn't either. During the sessions, the band (rounded out by Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo on vocals, Corrosion of Conformity's Pepper Keenan and Crowbar's Kirk Windstein on guitars, and Jimmy Bower of Eyehategod/Crowbar/Corrosion on drums) indulged in so many substances that each member took on a nickname reflecting his drug of choice: Brown was dubbed Flexeril, for his fondness for a muscle relaxant that causes dizziness; Keenan was Speed McQueenan, for his appetite for trucker speed; the marijuana-mad Windstein was Toots Sweet; and Anselmo was Nodferatu, for his bouts with heroin (he overdosed on the drug in '96, his heart stopping three times). After a period of sobriety, Anselmo deliberately threw himself back into his addiction for the recording of II. He did it, he said in a recent issue of Revolver, in order to get in touch with the dejection of drug dependence.

This despondency is painted in broad strokes on the dark and foreboding II. A blend of morose stoner rock, deep-fried Southern boogie, and backwoods, Deliverance-style depravity, the album is every bit as addictive as the chemicals that inspired it. Anselmo has never sounded better, with a voice that's equal parts bourbon and battery acid. Framed by fuzzed-out guitars, Brown's rubbery, robust bass lines, and Bower's pounding, it all congeals into a raw restlessness that drips with an addict's cold sweat. Granted, II is overlong and redundant at times, but it wears these flaws with pride.

"There's a lot of stuff that we could have gone back and rerecorded, but the vibe of the whole deal just kept getting more fucking crazy as we were doing it," Brown says of II's ragged charm. "A lot of this shit wasn't planned; it was just kind of spontaneous and captured on tape. After we had the basic tracks down, it was fucking insane. I'd work during the early hours of the afternoon, then here comes the guitarist, then Philip laying vocals over the top, so something was always going on. I think these guys maybe slept two or three hours a fucking night."

And they did it all without a record contract, which only added to the intensity of the sessions. Though Down's classic 1996 debut, NOLA, went on to sell close to 500,000 copies worldwide, the band was a free agent when it came time to lay down a follow-up: Its old label, EastWest, had closed shop. Consequently, Down recorded II on its own, with no financial safety net -- or creative input -- from a label.

"We didn't have a deal inked until we finished the mastering," Brown says of the band's eventual signing with Elektra. "It was in the process and all; we knew they were going to put it out, but we didn't have any paperwork whatsoever. It was one of those deals where nobody came down to oversee this, oversee that."

II revels in this freedom and sounds wholly removed from what most majors are putting forth as heavy metal these days. A dense, impenetrable disc with few if any singles, II stands as a throwback to the sprawling rock albums of the '70s, when creative liberty and chemical indulgence bred some of the most memorable, monolithic albums in the metal canon.

"A lot of these kids think it fuckin' began with Papa Roach, and it didn't," Brown says of modern-day hard rock. "We know what's real in metal. I do. I know what's real."

Until he enters the studio again, that is. Then all bets are off.

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