Big Al's Metal Shop

Down. Blending the best of Sabbath, Zeppelin, and early ’80s thrash — with a dollop of southern rock for good measure — Down has been in my consciousness since ’95 brought us Nola (for their hometown of New Orleans). For some, Down was the ultimate supergroup, featuring Phil Anselmo of Pantera, Pepper Keenan of C.O.C., and Kirk Windstein of Crowbar — and a little Bower Power on drums. Like the Loch Ness monster, sightings were few and far between, though breathlessly reported nonetheless. With Pantera just then entering its peak, short tours of the South were Down’s only options for concerts. Until 2002 brought us Down II — and a gig on the second stage at Ozzfest — the only way you would have seen the band live was on a bootleg. That album, II, was less of a bulldozer than Nola, delving instead into the Zeppelin side of the group’s collective brain.

I loved it, though the underground essence of Nola wasn’t there. In actuality, Nola was first released as a bootleg of sorts, a three-song demo that the individual band members would trade with fans after their shows, without even letting on that this underground band was in fact them. When band members received their own tapes back in trade from around the world after having been dubbed (remember cassettes?) many times over, they knew it was time to release a full album.

After II, Phil went on to another of his projects, Superjoint Ritual, while all the others returned to their respective bands. But the mystique that surrounds Down only grew with its absence, as did the demand for another album and tour. In interviews, the guys could only shrug their shoulders when asked about another album, which each of them claimed he would love to do eventually. That day has arrived.

With III underway, the band has hit the road in support of Heaven and Hell (read: Black Sabbath with Dio) and Megadeth. The tour opened this month in Vancouver, and the was city abuzz with expectations. As I’ve written before, Vancouver has developed a reputation as a metal town, making it a worthy location for Ronnie James Dio to reunite with Sabbath after 15 years. Truth be told, they put on a stellar set, which consisted solely of songs from Dio’s three albums: The Mob Rules, Dehumanizer, and of course Heaven and Hell, a name the band took on for the tour so as to not confuse fans with the Ozzy version. Dio’s voice was in great shape, and deep cuts like “The Sign of The Southern Cross” and “Lady Evil” stood well beside classics like “Neon Knights” and “The Mob Rules.” Megadeth was tight as well, playing some new tracks of what will surely lead the thrash revival of this year’s crop of albums. But the night belonged to Down.

Opening at around 7:30p.m., the band played a half-hour set that blew me away. Announcing with pride that this was Down’s first time in Canada, Phil was, in a word, phenomenal. A 40-year-old bouncing around the stage like a man half his age, Anselmo was possessed and I felt it. By the time the band hit “Bury Me In Smoke,” I could have left the arena and called it a night. Down is back, folks.

When Heaven and Hell begins its U.S. run later this year, Machine Head will take the spot of Down on the bill. Some of you may remember my review of the band’s last album, Through The Ashes of Empires, as being both a return to form and a masterpiece. Well, Machine Head’s latest, The Blackening trumps, even that. The epic 10-minute songs are there. The weird tempo changes that one wouldn’t expect with thrash are there. On The Blackening, Dave McClain brings his drumming to another level. Just as on TTAOE, the Rush influence is apparent, and it seems that McClain has taken some cues from Rush drummer Neil Peart. The intro to “Slanderous,” for example, could have been on 2112 — well, at least the first five seconds of it.

Then begins the bombing campaign: “A Farewell to Arms” (not Kings) is a moody 10-minute ride that lulls its listener into a false sense of quiet, offering clean, softer vocals which give way to a hardcore stomp. “Now I Lay Thee Down” is a modern metal classic, without sounding like nu metal. Overall, this is an evolution from the band’s debut, Burn My Eyes (way back when), a growth that makes sense in retrospect. Having experimented with its sound in the past, Machine Head has produced an album that, coupled with its last, shows a band that is fearlessly confident, able to fiddle with its trademark sound — and get it right.

Until next week,