Friday, August 12, 2016

The underground contract: In praise of Crowbar

"I may be the best writer in this country ... But I'm still a 'mystery writer.'" —Raymond Chandler, from a letter read by Ian Fleming as a preface to this 1958 BBC interview. [Note: Scare quotes around "mystery writer" are mine, but the context makes me think they're warranted.]

By coincidence, I was just finishing up my first Chandler novel, The Lady in the Lake, last week, when I attended a show featuring the bands Carcass and Crowbar at the Gramercy Theatre. That convergence got me thinking about the pros and cons of genre, whether that be "mystery writing" or the practice of playing capital-M Metal music — how these frameworks can restrict an artist's work in the commercial or critical sense but maybe also protect it in the creative one.

I have a long history with each of these bands, dating back more than 20 years. I'm pretty sure I first encountered Carcass and Crowbar for the first time on MTV's Headbanger's Ball and that I bought their respective 1993 albums — Heartwork and Crowbar — soon after they came out. (I saw Crowbar the following year when they set the stage for an astonishing Pantera set in support of Far Beyond Driven.)

Carcass is a band I didn't think about terribly much in the years between that initial exposure and 2008 or so, when they reunited for some touring. But by the time Surgical Steel, their 2013 comeback album, came out, I was fully back on board; it's one of my favorite records, in any style, of the past 10 years or so, and easily my favorite metal record of that period, in part because of the way it gleefully tramples on the idea that various arbitrarily distinct subgenres ought to be kept distinct from one another. I think it's every bit as good as Heartwork and the band's other true back-catalog classic, 1991's Necroticism.

With Crowbar, the situation was a little different. I'd loved that self-titled album back in the day — the one that spawned a couple singles/videos that Beavis and Butt-head had a field day with — but even though, unlike Carcass, they never disbanded, I stopped paying attention for some reason.

That changed quickly at last week's show. Onstage, Crowbar radiated intensity, passion and the kind of blue-collar conviction that had drawn me to them in the first place. Original bassist Todd Strange (known in the ever-witty world of New Orleans metal as "Sexy T") recently rejoined the band after a roughly 16-year gap, which is a blessing, because he and vocalist-guitarist Kirk Windstein were clearly born to play together: Two burly, bald, bearded men, now in their early fifties, laying down a classic form of dirge-blues-metal that's sometimes, reductively, pegged as "sludge," while wearing that classic hard-rock scowl — that forbidding posture tempered, between songs, with Windstein's expressions of unabashed gratitude and enthusiasm. (Fellow Southern-metal institution Corrosion of Conformity, whose sometime member Pepper Keenan formerly worked with Windstein in Down, embodies a similar kind of dark/light duality, an "an auspicious evil borne out of sheer fun and bro-hood" as I called it here; same goes for Crowbar's NOLA comrades Eyehategod, whose guitarist Jimmy Bower also played in Down.)

Crowbar's set last week featured a few of my old favorites from Crowbar, including punishing opening track "High Rate Extinction," in some ways the quintessential Crowbar song — an excellent example of the band's ugly, relentless churn and clench, the way its riffs slam down on you over and over like heavy machinery. But, near the end of the set, they also played this, a song from 1998's Odd Fellows Rest that I wasn't previously familiar with:

After the show, I did some Googling, found out the name of the song and dialed it up, and I was absolutely floored by its artfulness, how it married Crowbar's trademark agonized trudge with yearning pop vulnerability. I hadn't been totally oblivious to the hook-y side of Crowbar — Windstein sort of roar-croons a gorgeous melody during the "Save all that you feel for me" bridge of Crowbar's signature song "All I Had (I Gave)," the same track Beavis and Butt-head ripped on — but I had no idea to what extent Windstein, the band's leader, chief songwriter and only consistent member throughout its lifespan, had cultivated and refined this element of the band's work over the years.

"Planets Collide" was the spark. In the week since the show, I've listened to every one of the band's 10 albums, from 1991's Obedience Through Suffering through 2014's Symmetry in Black, finally placing Crowbar into its proper discographical context. A few things are clear: 1) As much as I loved (and still love) that self-titled album, I've been sleeping on the true power and majesty of this band for quite some time. 2) Crowbar is a classic American band with an incredibly rich, consistent discography.

The latter point brings me back (finally!) to the reason I cited that Raymond Chandler quote above: Crowbar is a band that's perhaps destined to be underrated by the world outside the metal community.

In interviews, Windstein has always flaunted his diverse tastes — citing influences ranging from Thin Lizzy to Steely Dan, U2, the Neville Brothers and Wings — and the band has recorded gorgeous and brilliantly Crowbar-ized covers of both Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" and Gary Wright's Wayne's World–enshrined soft-rock classic "Dream Weaver."

But while Windstein has never been shy about namechecking his varied influences and, accordingly, gradually broadening the scope of his own work in surprising and often revelatory ways, he's never tried to portray himself as anything other than a humble metal craftsman, grinding away in the trenches. Windstein begins every show by bellowing an endearing greeting to the crowd: "We're Crowbar from New Orleans, and we're gonna kick your ass!" He's comfortable in the role of the ass-kicker, and he's one of the best in the business; his commitment to the monolithic macho groove has never wavered and even his most melodic songs are often delivered with guttural anguish. But as with Chandler, there's a risk of camouflage here: that Crowbar will forever be seen as merely a great genre band rather than a great band, period.

I'm of two minds about this. On one hand, I'd love to see Kirk Windstein enshrined as a great American songwriter, which I think he is. On the other, the conditions of the contemporary metal underground, the way it allows bands to achieve a certain degree of traction and success — regularly selling out club dates in the U.S. and playing high-profile fests in Europe and elsewhere — without ever truly "breaking," do seem especially conducive to fostering the kind of consistency that Crowbar embodies. How many other bands can you name that have put out nine very-good-to-great albums during the past 25 years, as Crowbar have? (I say nine rather than 10 because I'd count their debut, Obedience Through Suffering, as more foundational than essential.) Hell, how many bands can you name that have put out five, or even two? Looking at some of the great Big Rock Bands of our time, at least the ones whose music I enjoy, I see either spottiness (Pearl Jam and even Queens of the Stone Age who, as brilliant as they are, I find to be hit-and-miss on record) or frustrating sluggishness, bordering on inactivity (I'm looking at you, Tool). And so many of the great '90s hopes left us with stunted discographies: Rage Against the Machine or Pantera, or less widely known but equally worthy bands such as Quicksand, Helmet and Jawbox. (Fugazi had a hell of a streak going there, but they're gone too.) Or they simply evolved into something less urgently great, like Metallica — I love a lot of what's on Death Magnetic and even some of St. Anger, but it's hard to argue that some essential magic, even with re Black Album era, hasn't been lost over the years.

What I'm saying in a nutshell is: Could it be that remaining firmly ensconced within Metal has allowed an artist like Windstein the freedom to evolve while also keeping his band from going off the rails aesthetically or simply imploding due to industry pressure and interpersonal b.s.? Is the ceiling (or umbrella) of genre somehow beneficial in this way?

One thing that's clear: Metal, and especially the underground, is definitely a culture of the long game. As a fan, one reason I've stayed interested for so long is that there's just so damn much material out there. Even when bands make only the slightest incremental changes to their core sound — let's shout out the almighty -tions here: Incantation, Immolation and Suffocation, three groups that I hold up as gold standards re: all that's great about a "lifer" approach to metal in specific and music in general — there's something so rewarding, so fulfilling about these shelf-filling discographies, this consistency of quality product, issued steadily over the course of decades. If you're an album-focused listener, the world of extreme metal is a vast treasure trove.

I'd peg all the -tion bands cited above as relatively conservative when it comes to aesthetics and the progression of time. They've refined their approaches over the years, but these days, they're out to satisfy, not to surprise. None, of course, are as conservative as Obituary, and on a slightly lower rung of recognition/impact, Asphyx, both of whom take what is essentially an AC/DC-esque, ain't-broke-wouldn't-dream-of-fixing-it approach to extreme metal. On the other end of the spectrum, you have your Gorgutses, bands for whom evolution and experimentation are part of the deal — an approach that can — in the hands of Luc Lemay and others on his level of genius, though there aren't many — work wonders (as it did earlier for, say, Death and the sadly defunct Cynic).

I realize that Crowbar aren't a death metal band, but I find the above taxonomy and implied spectrum of aesthetic pathways useful. So where do Kirk Windstein and Co. fit? There is a certain Obituary-esque stick-in-the-mud quality to the band, a basic allegiance to Crowbar's core low-and-slow dirge-rawk style, intact for a quarter-century, but as a songwriter and, most notably, a singer, Windstein has never stopped pushing himself. Read the following Windstein quote (from a 2000 Chronicles of Chaos interview; emphasis mine) and compare the aforementioned "High Rate Extinction" with "Planets Collide" or with that choice "Dream Weaver" cover.

"It's cool because we made a couple of changes beginning with 'Nothing' on Broken Glass. That was the first song we ever wrote that way; melodic vocally. I really got bored with all the barking-type vocals thing. For some of the faster hardcore ones it's cool, but for some of the riffs — the riffs are getting more melodic even though they're really heavy — it's better to do something melodic on vocals on top of it. We've been doing this shit for twelve years, we'd get bored doing the same thing over and over again. We always want to stay true to what Crowbar's about, but we feel that we've made subtle changes over the years that enable us to do different stuff now: to not feel like we can only play this one style."
Windstein is essentially operating as a soul singer here:

And there are examples of those "subtle changes" all over the Crowbar catalog, even predating Broken Glass, from 1996, which Windstein cites as the turning point. See Crowbar's "I Have Failed", "I Feel the Burning Sun" (Equilibrium, 2001) or "Symmetry in White" (Symmetry in Black, 2014), not to mention the almost chamber-music-esque palate-cleansing interludes that started to crop up on the band's albums around the time of 1998's Odd Fellows Rest.

Similarly, Windstein's lyrics have progressed from self-flagellation (see "I Have Failed" above, which memorably features Windstein bellowing, "I have motherfucking failed!") to self-help, e.g., Symmetry's "Walk With Knowledge Wisely" ("I am the living proof / That you can right what is wrong in your life"), mirroring what was apparently a long, hard path to sobriety for Crowbar's leader. (The longest, hardest stretch being chronicled, one suspects, on 2001's Sonic Excess in Its Purest Form, an aptly titled album that's surely the most extreme and excruciating in the Crowbar discography and possibly one of the two or three best.)

So there is an evolution here, but it's tempered with a common-sense, don't-fuck-with-the-formula instinct. Not surprising, given that Motörhead — a band that changed with the times just enough to avoid stagnancy while keeping its core sound within its sights at all times — embodies Windstein's own personal career ideal. From the same Chronicles of Chaos interview:

"... my main goal, when I started the band, was that if we could just get to where Motörhead is or something ... You know, not like mainstream, not on the radio, not on MTV, not on none of this shit, but able to just go on for fuckin' twenty-five years. I want to be the Lemmy of my generation. I want to be fuckin' fifty years old and three hundred fuckin' pounds. Full of tattoos, drinkin' beer and fuckin' jammin' my balls off because that's all I know how to do."
(Tangentially, I love how Windstein talks about how he never feels the need to play faster than what he calls "Motörhead speed" in this Metal Injection interview.)

The result of all this is that you have a band that, in 2016, sounds unmistakably like the one I fell in love with 20-plus years ago but with just enough variation that you can tell that Windstein has remained engaged, passionate, prolific, humble, driven.

It was apparent at the Gramercy Theatre show that Kirk Windstein is Crowbar, that his personal journey — finding greater visibility with Down, a relatively high-profile supergroup, only to leave that project and focus solely on his signature band — has led him to a place of absolute leave-it-all-on-the-stage conviction each night. (I find the speech he gives here, an impromptu tirade against a stage-crasher that culminates in a statement of total vulnerability — "My eyes are closed; I'm singing my goddamn heart out" — extremely moving.)

At that point, when you, as an artist, are also the nerve center of your own small business, a business whose only product is what we refer to as a sound — in the case of a metal musician, this nexus of word and riff and emotion and volume that you have wrought and so carefully, methodically refined over so many years — you're existing in a kind of exalted space. Sure, Metallica is still going strong, but do I believe the 2016 James Hetfield onstage like I believe the 2016 Kirk Windstein? Not a chance. That's because unlike Hetfield (an artist who long ago transitioned from Metal Musician to Rock Star, as a novelist might from Mystery Writer to Famous Bestselling Author), Windstein is still operating according to the contract of the underground, still paying the greatest cost and reaping the greatest reward of a life spent toiling in that sphere, gradually working his way toward a music that is as natural as breath, that is the result of the anguish of living being swirled together with the joy of creation and sublimated into something so harsh it's soothing. So grizzled it's constantly renewed. So familiar it's a revelation each time. The fan shows up and meets the artist in that space and a brotherhood is formed, another contract is drawn up and signed: "I'll keep showing up if you do."

I want all that out of music, and as Crowbar — all 27 years' and 10 albums' worth — shows, it's not too much to ask.


Here are 16 Crowbar songs I love for various reasons:


P.S. I'm intrigued by this musical nexus that unites Crowbar, their fellow New Orleans artists — such as Eyehategod and Phil Anselmo of Down and Pantera — and NYC's now-defunct Type O Negative (R.I.P., Peter Steele). Crowbar toured with Type O back in the day; Windstein shares a heartwarming story about Steele's generosity here. He has the green Type O logo tattooed on the back of his left hand, and he dedicated the song "Symbolic Suicide" on Symmetry to Steele.

All of these artists have made (or did make) art that fixates on the concept of negativity and/or depravity, chronicling what it feels like to succumb to these forces, to defy or resent them, to laugh in their faces, or even to conquer them. But their worldviews are very different. At base, I'd call Eyehategod a fundamentally negative band, one obsessed with the idea of wallowing, while I'd call Crowbar a fundamentally positive band, one obsessed with the idea that some sort of mastery, or at the very least progress, is possible. Anselmo's work has run that gamut, from repulsive to inspirational. Steele's work found great power at the intersection of cold ugliness, rapturous beauty and deadpan humor. In all these cases, and I find this admirable, there seems to be a one-to-one relationship between personality and artwork: What you see in the individual is what you get in the music. There's no softening or blunting going on in any of these catalogs.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You nailed why I'm always trying to get metal skeptics into Crowbar...Windstein is a great American songwriter up there with the best of any genre. I can't find it at the moment, but there's an interview with him about how it's essential to listen to pop music -- I think he cites Sade specifically -- because that's how you learn how to write songs...I fucking love this band. Tony hipped me a long time ago to one of the deepest tracks in their catalog that you did not mention - "Through a Wall of Tears" from Time Heals Nothing. Crushingly bleak but so beautifully written...I think this was the song that clinched my lasting affinity for this band. Also, not only did Jimmy Bower play in Down, but played drums on Odd Fellows Rest and Broken Glass! The Crowbar circle is deep and rife with awesome players. Anyway, great piece Hank.

Luke T.