The 13 Most Essential Sludge Records
Though the term ‘sludge’ is synonymous with the strain nurtured in New Orleans during the ’90s, like any extreme scene worth its salt, it has long had a global reach. There has been a great deal of innovation over the years, but the core element shared by all of its acolytes is the worship of The Riff, and the bigger, slower - and the more distortion it’s drenched in - the better. Often mixed with old school hardcore, southern grooves and/or more experimental tangents, and typically displaying a preoccupation with the bleaker side of life, the result is more often than not one seriously unpleasant cocktail. A cocktail that tastes great.
Here, to quench your thirst then, are the sludgiest of sludge’s best…
Eyehategod – Take As Needed For Pain (1993)
Asking how important New Orleans’ Eyehategod are to the sludge genre is like asking if Slayer were pivotal to the rise of thrash, or wondering if Cannibal Corpse played much of a part in defining death metal. With vocalist Mike IX Williams screeching, droning and growling his way across a soundtrack that is uglier than sin yet insidiously seductive, they have never once put a foot wrong. While 1996’s Dopesick is also essential listening, Take As Needed For Pain is as addictive as the chemicals inspiring the majority of its lyrics, and every bit as hard to kick.
Iron Monkey – Our Problem (1998)
When talking about sludge, to omit Iron Monkey’s name would be borderline blasphemous, and utterly stupid, given that they are the best such band that the UK have ever had. Both their ’97 self-titled debut and this, their stunning sophomore effort, stand toe-to-toe with any and all records facing off against them. Culminating with the staggering 20-minute 9 Joint Spiritual Whip, Our Problem really does give you plenty of opportunity to wreck your neck/shake your ass with some of the slickest and sickest grooves to ever be shat out of the Midlands.
High On Fire – The Art Of Self-Defense (2000)
While Oakland’s High On Fire have arguably dropped better records, their sludgiest moment came at the start, with their debut full-length. The potent worship of high octane Motörhead that leaps out of their later records is already there, though less prominently, and with stoner/doom gods Sleep having imploded two years earlier, frontman Matt Pike clearly brought his bong with him, liking things slow and supremely scuzzy. The 10-minute Master Of Fists is a true epic, but it is the filthy grooves of Last, Fireface and 10,000 Years that make this truly indispensable stuff.
Crowbar – Odd Fellows Rest (1998)
Another integral band spawned in N’awlins, Crowbar make it hard to single out their finest album. Maybe it’s ’93’s self-titled release? Or ’96’s Broken Glass? Or perhaps ’01’s perfectly titled Sonic Excess In Its Purest Form? Odd Fellows Rest edges just ahead of the pack, but the excellence displayed across the course of 11 albums really is humbling. With bearded riff-machine Kirk Windstein churning out thunderous, catchy, bluesy anthems by the truckload, it just about beats Sabbath, Pantera and anyone else with a down-tuned guitar at their own game. Twelve times in fifty-four minutes, no less.
Neurosis – Through Silver In Blood (1996)
Now commonly regarded as the prime architects of post-metal, Oakland’s Neurosis were initially conceived as a hardcore band, but their love of guitar abuse on a massive scale was there from the get go. It was on their fifth full-length, however, that they really defined themselves. With four tracks breaking the 10-minute mark, occasional deviations into unsettling ambient hums and drones and the inclusion of bagpipes, it’s certainly one of the most progressive albums in the sludge canon, and embodies the dark, internalised drama commonly found at the core of the movement. Oh, and it’s beautiful too.
Melvins – Houdini (1993)
Washington State’s Melvins have built a prolific career out of basically being all over the place, but a sizeable proportion of Buzz Osborne’s riffs have always gestated in sludgy territory. And they were kinda doing this stuff before Eyehategod and the sons of NOLA really kick-started the movement… While none of their records are straight down the line sludge, many of them lean more heavily in this direction, and one of the finest of their storied career is Houdini. Playful, kind of evil, and metal as fuck when they feel like it, there’s not a dull moment to be found.
Gaza – No Absolutes In Human Suffering (2012)
While not as prolific as some of their predecessors - and having called it a day in 2013 - Salt Lake City’s Gaza still manage to make it difficult to pick a standout from their magnificent catalogue. Still, it is with this, their swan song, that they gave us their finest hour. With a decent dose of angular grindcore and warped noise blended with their more drawn out moments, an air of potent desperation pervades the entire record. That they are also as capable of creating moments of breathless beauty as destroying everything, guarantees a compelling experience from vicious start to melancholy finish.
Mastodon – Remission (2002)
Though Mastodon’s later output is less likely to have the ’s’ word bandied in its direction, their first few years saw them understandably tagged as a part of the movement. Though their progressive leanings were there from the start, their debut EP and first two full-lengths were rife with the kind of titanic riffs, southern grooves and sneering sass the genre fed on. Every single song on Remission is a standout, but given the importance of brontosaurus-sized riffs in this discussion only a fool would reject Mother Puncher and March Of The Fire Ants as decimating sludge classics.
ISIS – Celestial (2000)
Having largely been tagged as a post-metal band over the course of their career - which came to an end several years before their hijacked name became synonymous with terrorism - there is no doubting ISIS’ sludgy credentials. Though their records lightened up a little over time, the Boston boys could always crush with the best of them, and Celestial hits the hardest. Often locking into gigantic grooves that seem to have wholly taken them over, there is an almost primal savagery driving the likes of Glisten and Collapse And Crush, making it clear nobody was going to push them around.
Acid Bath – When The Kite String Pops (1994)
Another essential Louisiana-based unit, though defunct since the tragic death of their bass player in 1997, Acid Bath always managed to churn up a racket that was nothing less than gloriously sickening. Embracing the de rigueur colossal riffs, hefty southern grooves and sneering, phlegm-stained hardcore that made Eyehategod such a riveting prospect, their sound was always winningly raw and unpolished, and When The Kite String Pops is their masterpiece. Though throwing in occasional flavours of folk, psychedelic rock, Alice In Chains-esque grunge and black metal ambience, make no mistake, this is sludge at its ugliest best.
Baroness – Red Album (2007)
Like their fellow Georgia natives Mastodon, Baroness have migrated further into the progressive rock side of their sound with each passing album, but their origins are proudly sludgy. That said, there are a great many dimensions to the songs comprising the record, just as likely to go down an acoustic, reflective path as get ultra-noodly, bring the thunder or take a walk through traditional Appalachian music. However, they manage one trick that eludes nearly all of their peers: Red Album is frequently uplifting, not least thanks to the sheer joy in making music that leaps from the speakers.
Cult Of Luna – Salvation (2004)
Sweden’s only inclusion on this list, Cult Of Luna are perhaps the kings of ‘cinematic sludge’. Evidently as influenced by the likes of Neurosis as post-rockers Mogwai, and with a penchant for loooong songs that are by turns achingly brittle and planet-landing-on-your-head heavy, they have never lacked ambition, and they can trade gigantic riffs with the best of them. With Salvation, they adopted more of a raw tone, holding back on the guitar overdubs without compromising an iota of weight – the ultimate result being a hypnotic collection worth returning to again and again.
Buzzov*en – To A Frown (1993)
Crawling out of the gutters of Charlotte, North Carolina, Buzzov*en’s obnoxious, punky sound at times could have been the work of Mudhoney - if they had spent the ’80s shooting heroin into their eyeballs and drinking their own bile. As such, it’s suitably nasty enough to fit in well among the sludge canon, and To A Frown is perhaps their ugliest moment. With the likes of Drained and the 17-minute Weeding they show off their slowness with aplomb, but it’s the raucous Toe Fry that leaves the dirtiest stains on the sheets.
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