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Down’s NOLA 20 Years Later


In 1972, a young athlete by the name of Richard Fliehr decided that he wanted to get into the business of professional wrestling. As the story goes, the future legend was set on performing under the name “Rambling Ricky Rhodes,” a nod to the “American Dream,” Dusty Rhodes. When the young Fliehr pitched this idea to the Son of a Plumber, he was shot down. “Absolutely not,” Rhodes said. “Make it happen for yourself.” So, Richard Fliehr became Ric Flair and the rest is history.

In addition to being a rock-solid anecdote about two of pro wrestling’s finest, this story also shines a light on a sentiment that has been said before and phrased a few different ways. “Make it happen for yourself” follows a proud lineage of mantras that stokes the internal fire of those who are never satisfied. We’ve heard it before in the form of sayings like “Don’t use someone else’s name to get where you want to go” or “Put in the work and earn it.” Or to quote another behemoth: “The wolf on the hill is never as hungry as the wolf climbing the hill.”

However you want to put it, the idea remains the same. If you really want to turn heads then you have to start at the bottom. It’s important to point out that pro wrestling isn’t the only industry where less can lead to more. Bands (particularly heavy ones) have been employing cloaks, daggers, mirrors and smoke for years to announce their arrival. Sometimes, it’s as simplistic as merely stating that they hail from parts unknown while other acts opt to craft aliases and refuse to give proper interviews. It’s always been a nifty piece of showmanship, but there’s also another benefit to it. In some instances, it can keep expectations in check. For instance, which album would have a better chance at succeeding on its own merit: An album advertised to be featuring contributions from members of Pantera, Crowbar, Corrosion of Conformity and Eyehategod? Or a record simply titled NOLA by a group called Down with no other details available?

Twenty years later as of tomorrow, and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to say whether or not Down could pull off the same sort of misdirection now that they did then. If it were to happen in 2015, surely, some internet sleuths would hear “Temptation’s Wings” or “Losing All” and then scour Facebook, Instagram and whatever else to determine that Phil Anselmo, Pepper Keenan, Kirk Windstein and Jimmy Bower have all been in New Orleans together for weeks now. Some site would run a story with the headline “Have the members of Down been revealed?” and then that’d be it. Thankfully, this is not what happened.

By all accounts, work on NOLA began at some point in 1991. The demo work hammered out during those sessions was captured on tape, and as the story goes, was then distributed to unsuspecting headbangers far and wide accompanied with only a word-of-mouth seal of approval. Down weren’t only trying to dupe casual fans, either. In many of the same interviews that detail how NOLA demos ended up in the hands of European teenagers, there’s also a tale of how Phil Anselmo invited Testament frontman Chuck Billy on to a tour bus for a serving of devil’s lettuce. As the cannabis burned, Phil pressed play, Chuck Billy was blown away, and some 20 years later, we’re still talking about it.

As I was the all of nine when this record was released, it’s hard for me to say what the initial reception for Down was like. Per Wikipedia, I know that NOLA hit #57 on the Billboard 200 and that “Stone the Crow” cracked the Top 40 on the singles charts. That being said, I was still nine and enamored with the Batman Forever soundtrack.

There’s another issue for me when it comes to charting the legacy of NOLA: I was six beers deep and in college when I first heard Down, which means that I am hopelessly and endlessly biased. I’ve seen them live countless times at this point. Whether it’s been standing on the floor and hollering “The power of the riff compels me,” actively throwing my weight around in the pit, or standing outside chain-smoking and swapping stories about Down shows past, I’ve pretty much always thought that Down rules. In my mind, no one owns a stage better than Phil Anselmo (except for maybe Papa Emeritus.) He works the crowd with the command of a pro wrestler (somewhat paradoxically, there’s currently a guy in NXT right now whose character I swear is based off of Phil’s shtick.) All of this is to say, that I’d argue that NOLA absolutely holds up after all these years.

Part of what has always blown me away about this record is the punishing physicality of it. It’s an album that feels tailor-made to soundtrack fucking heavy lifting. When I used to work as a pipelayer in Baltimore, it was tracks like “Lifer,” “Underneath Everything,” and “Losing All” that gave me strength as I hauled piece after piece of mile-long steel pipe. The weather was without fail always awful, both my mind and body were forever weary, and the only escape to be found is measured out in either 12 fluid ounces or three-and-a-half grams. In other words, every day ended with me needing that “medicine.”

With the exception of the inward-gazing instrumental numbers “Jail” and “Pray for the Locust,” the other 11 tracks on the album haul ass, which honestly shouldn’t come as a surprise at all. Pepper Keenan and Kirk Windstein are all-world axemen while the guy behind the kit, Jimmy Bower, is a dude who is sometimes referred to as the “Godfather of Southern Metal.”

Then, of course, there’s album closer, “Bury Me in Smoke.” On the whole, Down albums often feel like an exercise in paying tribute the greats. Whether it’s Zeppelin, Sabbath, Pentagram or Vitus, the fingerprints of those forefathers can always be found on a Down record. With that in mind, then “Bury Me in Smoke” is the culmination of all the accumulated knowledge (or at least it feels like it.) There’s reason why this is the number that Down, to this day, closes each and every show with. It also certainly helps that the song carries the heft necessary to level a skyscraper.

The fact that it took nearly four years for Down to release NOLA isn’t all that surprising, as bands with no label support often have to work for years before capturing anyone’s attention. What is kind of staggering is the collective output of the members of Down during those four years. In that time, Pantera released both Vulgar Display of Power and Far Beyond Driven while C.O.C. dropped Blind and Deliverance. Eyehategod put out two long-players, In Name of Suffering and Take as Needed for Pain, and Crowbar authored Obedience Through Suffering, a self-titled joint produced by Anselmo, and Time Heals Nothing. These days, when people talk about top-shelf music from the South, these are the albums that they reference. Well, the ones listed above and NOLA.

—Chris Brown

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