Sludge metal is an oozing, bulbous hybrid of doom metal and lo-fi, messy punk. Where doom bands like Skepticism or Esoteric adopt a slow, grandiose, unearthly sound, sludge is more visceral and ugly. The sound of sludge has gone pop a couple times, first when mixed with alternative rock by Nirvana, Soundgarden, and other grunge acts in the early ‘90s, and again when mixed with alternative rock in the current decade by swaggering proggy metal acts like Baroness. For the most part though, purer, fouler sludge has remained a niche interest, with even the largest amphibious monstrosities confined to a relatively small portion of the pop culture swamp.
Sludge often smashes noisily into stoner rock, though the later genre tends to be more straightforward in its pursuit of the head-nodding pleasures of the groove. Sludge, in contrast, generally weds a feral craftiness to its lumbering brutality. Most genre excavations trace sludge ancestry back to Black Sabbath and the slowed-down tracks on Black Flag’s My War. But the Stooges and even the Velvet Underground lurk and loom out there beyond the campfire as well, arty throwbacks carefully calculating the correct angle at which to bludgeon your brains out. Most sludge is slow, but as the list below demonstrates, it’s possible to sludge at any tempo, as long as one is careful not to shake free the filth.
Atavistic Primordial Sludge-lords
Sludge arguably began with Black Sabbath’s 1971 “Sweet Leaf,” a love letter to cannabis. “You introduced me / To my mind / And left me wanting / You and your kind,” Ozzy wailed over a thick, detuned, rumbling riff.
Weed and nasty riffage are obviously strong precedents, but sludge proper really begins with Washington state granddaddies the Melvins. “Eye Flys,” the first track on Gluey Porch Treatments, their first full-length from 1987, established the Melvins sound and the filthy blueprint for sludge simultaneously. Dale Crover hits the drums hard enough to fracture the cement foundation underneath, and possibly Earth’s core beneath that. Singer Buzz Osborne shouts belligerent garble, while his guitar and Matt Lutkin’s bass vomit out stringy ropes of feedback. Part doom, part slowed-down structureless noise monstrosity, part hideous vision of creeping fungal infection, the Melvins sounded like no one else—though, as the viscous progress of sludge demonstrates, many were eager to imitate them.
While America’s Northwest may have been the foul birthplace of sludge, many of the early important bands were from the South. A case in point: Soilent Green, who, along with foul compatriots Eyehategod, helped define the New Orleans sludge sound. “Swallowhole,” from the 2001 album A Deleted Symphony for the Beaten Down, alternates bluesy trudge sections with faster death metal passages that seem to have slithered in from a Deicide album. The slow/fast grunge suggests an alternate universe Nirvana, with that band’s pop heart replaced with pure slime.
North Carolina’s Buzzov*en staggered back and forth across the line between belligerent punk swagger and sludge catatonia. On Revelation: Sick Again—an album recorded in 1998, but not released until 2011—the guitars scrape and blare. Singer Kirk Fisher gargles and spits. The result is messy, gross, and clotted rock.
Oakland’s Neurosis started out as a hardcore band in the late 1980s, but slowly began to develop their own style of sludgy post-metal. On 1994’s Enemy of the Sun, founders Dave Edwardson and Jason Roeder began to add experimental weirdness to their punk and metal influences. The song “Enemy of the Sun” opens with quasi-ambient drift and includes industrial-sounding clatter and howling keyboard screech alongside slow lumbering crusty doom.
Metastasizing Sewer Critters
Bassist Joe Preston contributed to some of the Melvins’ most famous albums, including 1992’s Lysol, arguably the band’s masterpiece. “Wage War,” recorded in 2010 under Preston’s solo project Thrones, sounds more like classic Melvins than the Melvins themselves do these days. Preston bellows in a very credible Buzz approximation, and his bass fills the bottom end with mud and guts. Even though the track itself bashes along at faster-than-doom speeds, it still manages to sound thick and ponderous, like prehistoric creatures thundering across a muddy plain.
Formed in Athens in the early 1990s, Harvey Milk put swagger in their sludge, channeling blooze bad-asses like Zeppelin and ZZ Top as well as more lumbering patriarchs like Sabbath and the Melvins. Though their early albums were influential, 2008’s Life…the Best Game in Town, with Joe Preston on bass, is generally considered their masterpiece. “After All I’ve Done For You, This Is How You Repay Me?” is a typically atypical sludge suite, opening up with a cock rock riff before thundering into plodding bass-heavy feedback nightmare crawl.
Sludge often has more ponderous whimsy in its heavy than is typical of metal, so Oakland’s Noothgrush, named for a Dr. Seuss nonsense word, don’t seem out of place. “Oil Removed” from their 1999 compilation Erase the Person, showcases the band’s flirtation with grungy pop. The chunky guitars could almost be part of a Soundgarden composition, and Chiyo Nukaga’s drums come close to swinging. For all the songwriting smarts, though, the band stays resolutely on the sludge side of heavy, banging out dance music for moshing wildebeasts.
Japanese belching noise weirdos Bathtub Shitter are sort of grindcore and sort of uncategorizable… but they spend a good bit of time with the sludge too, as in this bizarre cover of classic thrash band D.R.I.’s “Time Out.” The drums slam and race and even swing, while someone gargles like a demon swallowing grey water and someone else shrieks like a chipmunk being devoured. The thick guitars turn it all into one sludgy mass.
Japanese band Coffins started churning out ugly doom-death sludge around 2000. Their 2012 EP Sewage Sludgecore Treatment is, as the title suggests, a tribute to the genre, including covers of seminal bands like Buzzov*en, Eyehategod, Noothgrush, and Iron Monkey. “I Hate You” was originally by depressive Boston-based band Grief. Coffins don’t take many liberties with the blueprint, except perhaps to slow it down, add more feedback, and have vocalist Jun Tokita screech even more throat-tearingly and incomprehensibly than Jeff Hayward did.
Ohio’s Fistula started cranking out charred and clotted sludge in the early 2000s, and haven’t stopped since. “Lightbulb Smoker” is a glorious example of their fiendish methods, starting with hardcore-esque shrieks piercing instrumental viscousness. The mud only gets thicker on the track’s lengthy, mottled tail, interrupted by half-muffled Corey Bing muttering about drugs.
Young Bastard Mutant Sludge
Sludge isn’t a natural fit with shoegaze, but Seattle’s Helms Alee has made a career out of smooshing the two together. “Tit to Toe” from Stillicide captures their methods nicely; the band sings lovely counterpoints and layers lovely guitar lines over a thick, twisted, sludgy bottom. It’s a bit like My Bloody Valentine meets the Melvins. Genre purists may sneer, but for those who like some dreaming in their swamprot, this is perfect.
Wyoming’s Nathaniel “Namtaräum” Leveck released the self-titled Cavernlord album in February. It’s not so much sludge as some sort of unholy hybrid. On “Cloudless Sky” Leveck’s vocals are somewhere between a black metal yell and sludgy bellow, while the guitars evoke black metal buzz rather than the thicker detuned wallop of stoner rock. But there aren’t blastbeats; instead, beneath the choral vocals, the drums thump slowly, so that the album both howls and trudges. There aren’t many bands that connect the punk nastiness of black metal to the punk nastiness of sludge; there’s more than a glimmer of intelligence back there in that bat-infested darkness.
Los Angeles duo The Great Sadness make brutally spacious stoner rock on their wonderful 2017 album Weep. The band is always on the verge of sludge metal, but “Suicide” topples over the edge slowly, with a noxious splash. Singer Cathy Cooper’s voice is as piercingly, gloriously painful as her guitar feedback, and drummer Stephen McNeely’s drumming connects sludge primitivism to rockabilly primitivism.