The Sound of Sludge: Groove, Materiality, and Bodily Experience in Sludge Metal
This paper was presented at the 2014 IASPM-US Conference, “Music Flows,” at UNC Chapel Hill. While my knowledge and opinions have changed–slightly, at least–I’m offering this text as it was delivered in 2014.
This paper takes as its topic the musical subgenre of sludge metal, a collection of sounds and practices caught ultimately in the interstices of metal and punk, metal and hard rock, heavy metal and extreme metal, among others. My approach here is motivated by the themes of this conference–“Music Flows” and the various metaphorical applications of water–to consider the “sludge” in sludge metal as more than a categorical marker. I consider the metaphorical utility of sludge as a material similar to yet significantly different from water in a discussion of the sounds, generic constitution and contestations, and embodied experience of sludge metal.
My interest in sludge metal, and metal more generally, is driven by concerns similar to those in Michelle Phillipov’s recent work Death Metal and Music Criticism. Phillipov points to the emphasis in popular music studies, whether implicit or explicit, on political considerations at the expense of notions of pleasure–an emphasis that she attributes to an idealism motivated by the political bent of punk rock, a genre that she in turn positions at the heart of popular music studies. She argues that this insistence can lead to not just a lack of discussion of pleasure in metal but to a fundamental misunderstanding of the pleasures that can be found in this music.
The pleasure that I am after here is, like the pleasure that informs my own metal fandom, rooted in momentary, somatic experience. This pleasure is based in the body as it listens to metal, as it reacts to metal, and as it moves to metal. As a result, I am not particularly concerned with what comes afterward–the state of relaxation or release that marks the conclusion of a cathartic episode. I am interested in the moments during the experience and before release, when the body is shot through with sound, captured by rhythm and, in this case, submerged in sludge. These pleasures are particularly relevant to the experience of a live performance, but are present in encounters with recorded media as well.
Heavy metal and its attendant subgenres, almost by definition, invite considerations of materiality. The very name conjures images of iron and steel and the sensations of power and ability that accompany their manufacture and use. The visual iconography associated with much of this music centers around industrial machinery, implements of warfare modern and otherwise, and myriad other manifestations of metal. The names of subgenres like power metal, speed metal and thrash metal seem to make these associations explicit.
Against this backdrop of insistent solidity, the subgenre of sludge metal, or simply sludge, stands out for its suggestions of fluidity and a power not of authority or strength but of toxicity and filth. While it shares many of the characteristics of the family of subgenres under the extreme metal umbrella such as thick distortion, pounding drums and aggressive and often indecipherable vocals, sludge differs in several significant ways. Like doom metal, sludge is predominantly slow, but unlike doom features frequent and sudden shifts to faster tempi. Its timbre is typically fuzzier than in other metals, leading to a perceptibly sloppier sound that is heightened by the common occurrence of tiny bursts of feedback between notes. Most sludge bands mix their bass guitar rather loudly, lending a slightly muddy quality to the overall texture. Drum patterns tend to be simpler than in other forms of metal, with the nearly ubiquitous blast beat technique almost entirely absent in sludge. Lyrics, which as in other extreme metals are in most cases only legible with the aid of a lyric sheet, eschew the mythical and supernatural, instead focusing on personal, and interpersonal, pain, suffering and violence with drug use and abuse commonly referenced.
The development of sludge metal, like the development of most musical genres and subgenres, is somewhat complex and murky. Like an industrial sludge, it is the unintended byproduct of a series of combinations, fracturings and recombinations. Sludge, along with just about every sort of metal, can make a genealogical claim to Black Sabbath–early Black Sabbath, of course: the slow, simplistic and plodding metal that helped give rise to doom metal in the 1980s with bands like Pentagram, Candlemass, Trouble, Saint Vitus and Witchfinder General electing to slow down while the rest of metal had sped up. Sludge also counts hardcore punk as a generic predecessor–more specifically, the divisive “slow punk” of the mid-1980s. As Steve Waksman thoroughly recounts in his study of cross-pollinations between metal and punk, punk in the early and mid 80s slowed down in large part due to an engagement with the aesthetic of heaviness coming out of heavy metal. Black Flag’s slow album My War, often looked to as a sharp departure from their earlier hardcore catalogue, was strongly influenced by Black Sabbath. The Melvins, in turn, were influenced by Black Flag’s slow punk to explore slow and heavy sounds on their 1987 album Gluey Porch Treatments, which would be referenced as a foundational text for grunge and significant for the development of experimental rock, noise rock, stoner rock, and an endless number of subgenres trading in slow tempi, thick distortion and non-traditional forms.
The introduction of Gluey Porch Treatments and its sluggish riffs to the New Orleans thrash metal and hardcore punk scenes of the late 1980s inspired bands there to experiment with slowing down. As recounted by Phil Anselmo, best known as the vocalist of Pantera, “it really broke the mold, especially in New Orleans. People began to appreciate playing slower. With that, all the old Black Sabbath came back around and then you start digging and you come to your Saint Vitus, your Witchfinder General, your Pentagram, etc.” That is, the Melvins, inspired by Black Flag who were inspired by Black Sabbath, encouraged New Orleans bands trading in thrash and punk to turn to Sabbath and the emerging collection of doom metal bands pioneering ever slower and ever heavier metal. Given their geographical location, these bands were also surrounded by hard and southern rock scenes, both of which kept blues influences much closer to their center than metal had in the 80s. And, given sludge’s status as an underground practice, they absorbed elements from other undergrounds, notably the use of sampling that was pervasive in industrial music.
This amalgamation of early doom metal, late hardcore punk, thrash metal, proto-grunge, bluesy hard rock and industrial was explored by New Orleans bands Eyehategod, Crowbar and Acid Bath in the late 1980s and early 90s, leading to the practice that would eventually come to be known as sludge metal. And while I’ve thus far used the term “sludge” as a metaphor to refer to the murky nature of the genre’s development, the title has consistently been used to refer to its sound–thick, heavy, dark, full of distortion and unrelenting. The earliest direct connection that I have seen between the term “sludge” and this music is in a 1984 review of My War in the magazine Creem: “…Black Flag has gone from lean speedballs like ‘Six Pack’ to six minute existential angst sludgebucket bleats like ‘Nothing Left Inside.’” And while this review’s primary concern is apparently speed, what seems to consistently set the sound of sludge metal apart from other genres, despite the commonality of distortion and the concept of heaviness, goes beyond speed to include an overabundance of feedback and fuzz. According to Mike Williams, vocalist of Eyehategod, “the moniker of sludge apparently has to do with the slowness, the dirtiness, the filth and general feel of decadence the tunes convey.” These descriptors of dirtiness and filth are pervasive in discussions about sludge. At times, “dirty” and “filthy” seem to be more relevant to sludge practice than the all-important “heavy.”
This use of the term sludge–as a marker of dirt and filth–occupies a blurry space between describing timbre and describing a sensation of sonic materiality. Sludge practitioners–both players and fans–that I spoke with mentioned the phenomenon of feeling “wrapped up” or “surrounded” by sound, with some adding an element of danger to this sensation. Vocals are described as “tortured screams,” feedback squeals like “a fiery snap of pain,” and riffs bludgeon and “beat the listener down.” One drummer active in a New Orleans sludge band even told me that good sludge feels like drowning in tar.
The sonic materiality of sludge, achieved through decadent fuzz and feedback, comes at the expense of virtuosity. But while virtuosity is a prized metric in much heavy metal, death metal and other subgenres, it is far from the minds and bodies of sludge practitioners. Sludge largely eschews solos, tremolo picking, blast beats, and any other sonic markers of metal virtuosity. Instead, sludge practice is overwhelmingly about riffs and grooves. When I first began conversing with musicians and listeners about doom metal and later sludge, I was taken aback by how frequently they spoke about grooves, particularly given the relative infrequency of the term in discussions of other metals and scholarly discussions of metal in general. Harris Berger, in Metal, Rock and Jazz, makes brief reference to groove as “a pattern of accents and timbres that is layered on top of the time signature,” with a parenthetical note stating that “Confusingly, jazz musicians and ethnomusicologists also use ‘groove’ to refer to the sense of rhythmic energy and vitality that takes place in a successful jazz performance.” What I found to be the case, though, was that, while these musicians and fans use the term “groove” to refer to rhythmic patterns, it is more frequently invoked to describe the sense of energy and vitality in sludge performance.
In discussions motivated by questions of value and taste, practitioners often state simply that they “like the groove” of a particular song, or that a song has “a good groove.” At times, groove is invoked as a specific thing–“a good groove”–while at others it is more of a general feature or feeling–“this song grooves.” Interestingly, some fans who identify more closely with other metals shy away from bands and songs with “too much groove,” even to the point of avoiding sludge metal entirely. And crucially, not all songs groove, indicating that a groove is more than just a repetitive pattern. Some songs and albums are “groove-laden,” while others “don’t really groove.” Further, grooves are often qualified beyond simple valuation, as in “a dark and brooding groove” or “a slow and heavy groove.” Statements like these position groove–or a groove–as something beyond a pattern of accents and timbres, instead approaching a feeling or energy informing the overall impression of the song. Listeners get “locked into a groove,” and grooves “move you through the song.”
Groove in sludge metal, then, arises from both rhythmic patterns and temporal energies or flows. Charles Keil, in his chapter “Motion and Feeling” in the collection Music Grooves, describes groove similarly, as both a large-scale feature of an entire piece of music–the sense of being locked into a groove, of groove as a motoric source of propulsion, and as a small-scale result of a play and tension with and around meter. Keil, dealing primarily with jazz, points specifically to the rhythmic play of drummers and bassists–playing precisely with the meter so that off-beat attacks will push and pull, or playing just behind the beat such that the rhythm consistently tugs against the meter. This constant play accumulates into an overarching sense of movement, which Keil relates to the sensation of flowing down a river. I can’t help but wonder, though, what that river would sound like and feel like if it were made of sludge.
Much as Keil is able to identify tendencies in jazz to play around meter, one can point to specific techniques in sludge metal that accomplish a similar effect. As mentioned previously, there is the simple fact that sludge deemphasizes the virtuosic performance practice that is often considered essential to other kinds of metal. This extends beyond the simplification of melodic material to the execution of rhythm, which, in addition to relying heavily on syncopation, can variously be described as imprecise, inaccurate or even sloppy. Perfect unison articulations between instruments are rare, with attacks seemingly peppered around beats rather than landing on them. While at quicker tempi this might prove unbearable and jolting, the slow tempi of sludge feel more forgiving. Some songs are slow enough that bodily entrainment–the coordination of the body with the musical pulse–becomes a waiting game, a process of constantly anticipating just how far away the next beat is. The body already feels like it is falling forward in time to find the meter; imprecise attacks compliment this temporal uncertainty.
This play with imprecision and rhythmic expectation is significant for the embodied experience of sludge. Headbanging, the dance most commonly associated with metal practice (even if many seem hesitant to identify it as a dance), generally relies on a steady and readily-internalized pulse on which to base the motion of the body–ideally, the head will reach the end of its arc on the beat, not before or after. But the imprecision of sludge practice leads to a multitude of attacks clustered around beats and begs for constant reevaluation of the exact placement of the meter. Combined with syncopation and the deemphasis of accented beats, this places the motion of the listener’s body into a position of significance–it is as if the listener is collaborating in the creation of the beat, with the music actively tugging against the moving body. This effect is particularly pronounced at the especially slow tempi that sludge often features. As the temporal space between beats pulls open too wide to accurately anticipate, the headbang becomes a predictive mechanism in which the whole body moves through these gaps. Indeed, one can observe the subtleties of headbanging at these slow tempi, wherein different parts of the body become points of subdivision–from the full extension of the head forward on the beat, the shoulders pull back, then the head, then the hips bend forward as the back straightens and the head is once again propelled forward.
The rapid tempo changes of sludge further implicate the body in the experience of time. Headbanging in sludge (and, one can argue, any metal) is rarely a matter of setting the rate of an internal, motoric response. The unpredictable changes in the speed of the music forces the listening body into a state of constant awareness and sensitivity, ready to modify its movement at any second. Unlike the version of groove represented by the steady stream, the groove of sludge is filled with chunks of solid mass and pockets of varyingly viscous fluids. It lurches back and forth, at times speeding ahead and at others plodding as if in stasis, bringing the body with it in its unpredictable flow. In a sense, the movement of the body serves to smooth over the sharp edges in the music, much like a thick liquid flowing over uneven terrain. The body grounds the shifting rhythms while the shifting rhythms push and pull against the body. Where for Keil groove is akin to being carried down a gentle river, for sludge practitioners, the participatory movement of the body as the head whips back and forth is just as crucial as the motion of the muck.
For musicians and listeners, these experiences of sludge–as a descriptor of timbre, rhythmic flow, materiality and bodily sensation–are sources of enjoyment and pleasure. And as difficult as it might be to get metalheads to talk about their bodies, discussions of musical qualities frequently invite rich, if slightly veiled, accounts of sensuous phenomena: timbres that evoke “screams of pain” or make your skin crawl, textures that smother you, rhythms that bludgeon you, “beat you down,” and compel you to move.
Crucially, these are pleasurable experiences prior to any release, prior to the satisfaction of a cathartic impulse. In many scholarly discussions of the experience of metal, these moments are neatly summed up as energy, excitement, vitality or “a rush.” Frequently, though, these states seem to exist only for the goal of catharsis–the moment after the rush when negative emotions have been effectively released. But I believe that this apparent focus on the result of experiencing metal glosses over a rich set of information about that experience. I do not deny that catharsis is an integral component of the pleasures of metal for many fans. For many others, pleasure is derived precisely from the energies and emotions being released. And for still more, pleasure in metal is not a goal-oriented build-to-release, but a momentary experience of their bodies in extraordinary conditions–surrounded, saturated, suffocated by sludge.
Berger, Harris. Metal, Rock and Jazz: Perception and the Phenomenology of Musical Experience. Wesleyan University Press, 1999.
Phillipov, Michelle. Death Metal and Music Criticism: Analysis at the Limits. Lexington Books, 2012.
“Sludge Special.” Terrorizer Magazine, No. 187, Summer 2009.
Trakin, Roy. Creem, July 1984 review of My War
Waksman, Steve. This Ain’t the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk. University of California Press, 2009.