Sludge metal gets its name from its molasses tempo and heavy, dark instrumentation. On the new album from Black Tusk, Pillars of Ash, the weight of all that sludge unfortunately wasn’t an artistic choice: The record gets its crushing heft from the death of bassist Jonathan Athon, who passed away in a motorcycle accident in late 2014. The trio had been recording music together for about a decade, and then suddenly guitarist Andrew Fidler and drummer James May were forced not only to mourn their lifelong friend, but also somehow take a step forward without him. Luckily, though, they’re not entirely without him: Athon had finished recording parts for Pillars of Ash just prior to his passing, making this an extra-heavy slab of sludge.
Rather than dip into sentimentality, the final Black Tusk album to feature Athon is as pummeling and furious as anything they’ve released. The opener’s called “God’s on Vacation”, and May leads the way through the hardcore head-banger. The band have been called swamp metal in the past, and that might be more accurate than sludge; things move quickly, though they’re certainly still as covered in verdant moss and midnight black ooze as the Swamp Thing. The record as a whole recalls classic Kylesa and Baroness, a punked-up Mastodon, or even Motörhead stalking through the murk of the American south.
Much like the Melvins, who anticipated the sludge movement, the Savannah trio have all the frustration, aggression, and speed of punk, but amp up the distortion and suffocating heaviness. The conclusion of “Born of Strife”, in which the three howl at the moon over a spiraling, jagged guitar solo, epitomizes that intersection of classic rock, metal, and punk. It’s like a familiar song played at twice the speed and with the distortion pedal dialed all the way up, as if they couldn’t pick one single way to express their rage.
As is the potential with any sludge metal record, all that weight can be overwhelming. Pillars of Ash rockets through 11 tracks without looking back, without room for breath. The songs tend to blend together in the spin cycle, one screamed vocal track melting its way into the next, one thundering drum fill inseparable from another. “Still Not Well” comes the closest to offering a change of pace, but even there Black Tusk can’t keep too quiet for long, May adding in impressively rapid drum fills in the midst of a menacing, meditative guitar riff. The growling “Bleed on Your Knees” pushes and pulls at its tempo, too, but not enough to shake things up. “Damned in the Ground” burns and seethes, and Fidller’s guitar rifles through “Desolation of Endless Times”. But the album burns so bright that the need for a changeup only nags a little.
“We are prepared to die/ We walk alone in the sky,” they sing on the explosive “Walk Among the Sky”. While the rest of the song’s imagery will be familiar to anyone who has listened to metal (altars, cloaks, planets aligning), this final line takes on a breathtaking depth considering its context. Metal can get shortchanged when it comes to the emotional salience of its lyrics — and it’s unfortunate that this song gets that extra bit of poignancy from such a tragedy — but “Walk Among the Sky” and Pillars of Ash as a whole are strong, if weighty, reminders of the cathartic power of metal.
Essential Tracks: “God’s on Vacation”, “Born of Strife”, and “Walk Among the Sky”