With all due respect to New Orleans, the center of the sludge universe has in recent years shifted to Savannah, Georgia, that sleepy burg of 136,000 that lacks even a major university to explain the explosive growth in upper tier heavy metal that's been erupting out of the region over the past several years. The Savannah metal scene is not a large one, but its three primary exports – Kylesa, Black Tusk, and Baroness – have all gained prominence as upper echelon sludge bands in recent years. On a regional level, several other illustrious sludge alumni call this area home as well, from Mastodon (Atlanta) to Weedeater and Buzz*oven (both Wilmington, NC).
The common thread between the two regions would have to be Pepper Keenan, a New Orleans native who joined the Raleigh, North Carolina-based Corrosion of Conformity at a seminal time, during C.O.C.'s transition from a hardcore crossover act to a sort of proto-stoner, Southern rock tinged band. Keenan's assist in introducing a Southern rock palate to heavy metal provides much of the overlap between NOLA's raw, cathartic sludge and Savannah's more disparate stoner rock blend, as much Kyuss and Clutch as Allman Brothers.
Other bands may exhibit more Southern gentility, but no one exemplifies this admixture of compact, crushing groove and party-friendly stoner rock like Black Tusk. Basically a more upbeat, accessible cousin to neighbors Kylesa, the Tusk doesn't have time for moody hangovers or contemplative pontification in their musical archetype… while not exactly bright and sunny in disposition, there is a self-assured (even arrogant) middle finger punk rock attitude omnipresent in their misanthropy.
"Crossroads and Thunder" rocks like old 80's UK street punk crossed with late 90s desert rock, the dual vocals (again, shades of Kylesa) providing a call-and-response feel atop a simplistic yet energetic chord progression. The repeated chants of "666!" that open "Bring Me Darkness" demonstrate a further reliance on basic, uncomplicated musical tropes. If anything, Black Tusk offer a needed antidote to the current trend in sludge toward "mature", progressive – and often bloated – works of "art". No one will ever mistake Set the Dial for a forward-thinking masterpiece, but in a market that is arguably the most glutted in all of American heavy metal (sludge/doom) it certainly doesn't hurt to have an alternative.
But if there's one legitimate complaint to be lodged at this Savannah crew, it's that their material does often veer too close for comfort to interchangeability. There's no more to differentiate the jamming, upbeat "Carved in Stone" from the jamming, upbeat "Growing Horns" than there is to differentiate Set the Dial as a whole from previous full length efforts Passing Through Purgatory and Taste the Sin. And so, on the flip side, while defying one trend in sludge metal Black Tusk make the mistake of falling into another, namely that of churning out pleasant yet unmemorable albums that frequently serve little purpose except to remind you to see their more engaging live show the next time they roll through town.
7 out of 10
Set the Dial is out October 25th on Relapse.