Extreme metal fans are so familiar with the term “sludge metal” at this point that the subgenre, like so many others of similar niche appeal, often runs the risk of self-parody. That’s no diss either – it’s somewhat of an inevitability with any musical movement that stands the test of time. Take black metal for example: it’s easy to forget that this type of music created by Norwegian teenagers was at one point arguably the most divisive and, dare I say it, extreme thing happening in metal, as we’re now so far removed from black metal’s inception that the concepts of corpse paint, screeched vocals and dissonant trem picking have become something of an expected uniform rather than the shocking statement they once were. It happens!
So with this in mind, we see the same evolution in sludge metal through the years. Just as the words “black metal” tend to elicit a very specific image in the average metal listener’s mind, mentioning sludge metal to just about anyone with even a passing interest in metal conjures a similarly distinct mental image. Abuse of just about every recreational and prescription drug under the sun, down-tuned riffing with a vaguely “southern” feel, tempos that range from mosh-friendly to dismally slow, and band members who look like they slithered out of a cretaceous tar pit just before walking on stage. Everything comes from somewhere, however, and there’s one band that embodies the entire sludge metal archetype more than any other: Buzzov*en. And when you want the real deal sludge metal experience, one that’s so gripping and exquisitely fucked up that the idea of parody doesn’t even exist in your universe while the band is playing, you want …At a Loss.
…At a Loss was the North Carolina band’s final album before their ~10-year breakup in 1999, and it’s hard to imagine how they could possibly continue after releasing something that exists as such a profound statement to the band’s clearly slipping grasp on their own sanity. While sludge metal bands in the post-Buzzov*en universe took the band’s drug-abuse proclivities and softened the edges to create something of a cartoonish celebration of getting stoned, there’s nothing of the sort to be found on …At a Loss. The addictions depicted on this record are violent and raw, burrowing down to the base nature of impulse and compulsion and making a home in those murky depths for the album’s entire sprawling hour. Travis Bickle kicks off the record by warning us that “someday a real rain will come and wash the scum off the streets”, but that rain never comes. There is only scum. And about a minute later, mocking laughter.
The music found on …At a Loss is just as bleak and menacing as its subject matter. Frontman Kirk Fisher moans and howls over squalls of feedback from his and a man named “Sleepy”s guitars. Bassist Dixie Dave (who most know from Weedeater, which he started following Buzzov*en’s breakup) and drummer Ramzi Ateyeh provide the ironclad backbone of the record, laying a foundation of Skynyrd-indebted shuffle beneath each discordant shelling from the other half of the band. And all the while, samples drawing from the whole spectrum of human suffering are scattered throughout. Police chatter, women and children crying, street fights, drug deals gone bad – every clip serves as an accent to the cruelty of Buzzov*en’s universe.
Many (most likely even Buzzov*en themselves) will point to Melvins as the foundational touchstone for what would become modern day sludge metal, but I’m of the strong opinion that it all comes from Buzzov*en. It’s all there, and it was there from the very beginning of the band’s decade-long reign of subterranean terror. My highest possible recommendation.