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Sludge sure don't play sludge metal. That's the first thing I noticed while listening to "Lava" when it first came out. I found it in a $2 bin at my local record store, thought it looked interesting, and decided to grab it. My first impression wasn't wrong. While this record may not be sludge, it sure is lava. The music here flows and roils like the actual material that flows from the earth's core. It's fast and continuous at some points, dormant during others, and explosive during others, but it's always there and it's always intense as the volcano from which it was spawned.
The songwriting on "Lava" is scattered, random, and relentless. By that I mean that I hear little structure. Not unusual, but the way that Sludge have implented this little structure is. It's not entirely chaotic a la Psyopus and it's not semi-structred like most metal bands. It's just that the way the songs develop is always surprising and unpredictable. I rarely know what's coming on this record, even after having listened to it many, many times. The songs are sometimes centered around one major, rolling, intense theme riff, but not always. Pauses are often used to emphasize the music, but this is somtimes overdone ("Monolith"). The transitions are quick and dirty (listen to the change from "60 Mm" to "Idi Na Hui") but in a good way that actually works.
Guitars on "Lava" are simple, loud, and low. That's the feeling Sludge are aiming for and the feeling they achieve. The riffing is primarily made up of hard, jagged riffs on low strings, with a few technical & melodic bits mixed throughout that help to build up certain songs' power. There are few solos that demonstrate the guitarists' technical capabilities, but these are few and far between. There are some of what would probably be considered groove or nu-metal riffs here ("Monolith"), so if you're an elitist for stuff like that, stay away. Personally, I feel that they add to rather than take away from the album - like everything else, groove riffs can work fine if used in moderation, but once they become overdone, that's when they become an issue.
In general, the vocalist sticks with his mid-range, semi-distorted (both naturally and artificially) howl. This is mixed with the occasional clean vocal break ("Inquisition") or a higher pitched effected-so-much-it-sounds-like-it's-underwater scream. These don't add too much to the album, but they do add a bit of interesting texture that's not often found in metal today. One thing Sludge does really well with the vocals is their isolation. Certain passages where the vocals are basically alone emphasize their immensity and generally add to the immensity of the song ("Below"). There's also a strange component to this album of breathing, the effect of which I'm still unsure of. It's not too common, that's for sure.
The drummer uses the toms a LOT on "Lava". They, like the isolated vocals, help emphasize the sheer intensity and magnitude of this release. Huge rolling cymbal crashes do this as well. The snare does sound kind of funny, but that's due entirely to the mix, and while it doesn't really help the album, it doesn't hurt it too badly either.
The bass on this album was quite interesting. It's distorted. Normally, I despise distorted basses. I figure that you could just use a guitar that's tuned lower, because that's basically what a distorted bass sounds like. On "Lava", however, it actually works well. True, it does often sound like nothing more than a lower guitar, but my main complaint and argument against distorted basses is that they can't be heard. Here, the bass sure can be heard even though it's distorted. It's mixed in a way that gives it a truly massive presence, and sounds great rolling along with the rest of the instruments.
I still don't know exactly what genre of music Sludge play. Frankly? I don't care. It's awesome, it's raw, it's simple, and it is undeniably heavy. Pick this one up soon. Despite its few minor flaws, the rest of the album more than makes up for this and is, in my opinion, a very awesome and very heavy release indeed.
Recommended songs: "60 Mm", "Below"