Ode to Southern Heavy Metal

From The Oxford American

If you grew up in Texas and didn’t wear a black Pantera concert jersey, you likely got your ass kicked by someone who did. (Or in the case of your humble odeman, you both wore a shirt and got your ass kicked, but whatever.) In Louisiana, the requisite jersey was from the band Crowbar. North Carolina? Corrosion of Conformity.

These bands comprise the holy trinity of Southern Heavy Metal, but you’ve maybe never heard of them. Or you’ve maybe heard of them, but haven’t heard them because you prefer blues jams to moshpits and those black jerseys kind of terrify you, and generally lead you to believe the songs are about the devil and drugs and murder and other existential mayhem, and you’ve decided not to waste your time listening. Which decision should possibly be reconsidered, because after all what was Robert Johnson singing about?

Here’s the thing: Southern Heavy Metal is the blues. These musicians are our new bluesmen, and their patently subversive songs, with their essential themes of religion, sex, violence, and—headbangers, forgive me—hope, are the contemporary gut-bucket blues. If blues music originally evolved from call-and-response field hollers, then Southern Heavy Metal is simply a louder call, a more deliberate and authoritative response, a holler that’s impossible to ignore.

(Note to prospective Southern Heavy Metalheads: Gut-bucket would make a killer band name, and would look very cool on a black tee.)

No surprise then that some of the hardest, most important metal hails from the South. Unlike the west coast’s overproduced fashion rock and the punky, vampire-obsessed theatrics that comes from the East—both schools seem calibrated more for music videos than music—Southern metal has consistently offered a raw barrage of heavily distorted musical fury. Poison was pretty; Twister Sister pantomimed menace with rouge and lipstick; Pantera was ugly and plain old pissed. Go to a Crowbar or C.O.C. show—don’t call them Corrosion of Conformity, else people think you’re a poser—and you’ll find no dry-ice smoke, no drumkits rigged to pink strobe lights, no singers with teased, shellacked bangs, no guitarists in Jackson-Pollacked spandex. You’ll find gnarly men who look like they’d just been released from (or are being delivered to) Angola. In addition to sleeves of tattoos, Phil Anselmo, Pantera’s vocalist, has the word “Unscarred” inked in gothic letters across his abdomen. (Whether this is meant to be ironic remains unclear. Either way, it’s vicious.)

Which viciousness returns us to why many have never heard of or heard these bands: this isn’t your soccer mom’s metal. Albums like Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power, Crowbar’s Obedience Through Suffering, and C.O.C.’s Animosity are not, thematically or musically, exactly what one would call listener friendly. The vocals are often abrasive and/or indecipherable, and the music so fast and complex and loud that the listener (black jersey notwithstanding) feels assaulted. But this is precisely the point. Whereas more marketable bands so conspicuously court your fanship (read: money) with sanitized pyrotechnics and saccharine power ballads and catchy, hummable melodies, the gods of Southern Heavy Metal dare you not to listen; they urge you, as Anselmo sings in “Walk”, to “Walk on home boy.” This is music of initiation, and most listeners don’t have the stones for it. There’s a reason more people drink wine coolers than Kentucky moonshine.

But once you’ve tasted the hard stuff, the bubbly goes down a little too smoothly and that vapid sweetness turns your stomach. Because for all of their bravado and overt aggression, there’s a refreshing ballast to these bands, an unvarnished formidability that strikes the ear as distinctly Southern. This is hard to explain, but easy to recognize. Your odeman thinks, though, that it comes down to an anomalous and wholly unexpected intimacy being forged between musicians and listeners, a deep and surprising kinship born from a sort of collective struggle. Try listening to songs like Pantera’s “I’m Broken”, C.O.C’s “Albatross”, even Crowbar’s cover of Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” without identifying with them, without recalling your own shortcomings and trespasses. Try listening to the brutally prescient “Stone the Crow” by Down (the group amounts to a Southern Heavy Metal dream team, a side project born from the aforementioned bands), and not relating it to post-Katrina New Orleans. Although the song was recorded a decade before the storm hit, the lyrics and music are as mournful and livid and inspiring as anything written since the levees collapsed: “Flip through endless stories/a life of hand-written pain/no one can share this hurt that is mine, mine, mine/I never died before/Can’t be what happened yesterday… Same old city, same old pain.”

Such substance and timelessness is absent in most heavy metal, so when you hear it—the sound is unmistakable as a friend calling your name across the field—you want to scream and dance and sing and throw yourself into a tempest of people who feel the same, who carry the same flag. Look, not to sound like a hippie—or a yankee—but there’s an oft overlooked soulfulness to this kind of music, and a rare and undeniable and empathetic urgency, a sense that what you’re hearing has come from years of regret and labor and pain and doubt and pride and loss. And what, in the past or present, is more deserving of song—or more Southern—than loss?