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Slow Southern Steel – Southern Fried Metal Documentary

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Watching Slow Southern Steel as it was screened at Asheville, North Carolina’s The Orange Peel a few nights ago, left me with a strange mix of satisfaction and a degree of skepticism. For those unaware, this is a documentary of the Southern metal scene; in particular it is an explanation through interviews and the odd sound clip of where that distinctive Southern Metal sound came from, why it sounded the way it did, and the rationale of the culture behind it. In short, this is a documentary about a regional sound, something that, if future predictions are to be believed, may not exist for too much longer.

While the majority of bands mentioned are sludge, the regional nature of the sound (i.e. blues and country influences, a premium on gritty realism) applies to many different types of bands, and thus many of the interviewed bands are of a fairly diverse nature. Goatwhore, Lamb of God, HOD, and Hank III are all featured, and while all of those bands are sonically quite different, they do have similarities. As with the best music documentaries, the filmmakers themselves have ties to the scene, so we get an insider’s perspective: the director, Chris “CT” Terry, is the lead singer for the Arkansas sludge collective Rwake, and the screenplay was fleshed out by him and David Lipke, who appears to have strong ties to the Little Rock metal community. The filmmakers clearly love the Southern scene; but rather than personally arguing for the Southern sound’s uniqueness and superiority, they let the bands themselves do the talking, whether literally through interviews or figuratively through various sound bites of performances. This allows the viewer to get a taste of what Southern Metal is really like, and, in having such potent examples of it displayed on the screen (Dixie Witch, Beaten Back To Pure, and Eyehategod are highlights), the sound’s strengths and idiosyncrasies become immediately apparent.

I, as a viewer, began to feel quite proud to be a Southerner who could more immediately identify with the scene than a non-Southern viewer, and I left the screening wanting to start a Southern Metal band of my own (though, hell, who doesn’t?). In short, this is that rare documentary which is actually able to do justice to the scene it covers.

There are, however, some curious aspects of the film. First of all, for a documentary that apparently purports to comment on the Southern sludge subgenre, some of the featured bands don’t immediately come to mind as being “Southern”. Yes, Lamb of God are from Virginia, and, yes, some of their songs do contain lyrical themes that one might associate with the South. However, they never really present their Southern-ness as an integral part of their sound, and their “Southern” songs (i.e. “Redneck”) are non-specific to the point that they’re not really “about” the American South. It would have been interesting if, having interviewed bands who claim overt “Southern” influence in their music, the filmmakers had also contacted bands who, despite being from the South, don’t seem to have adopted the regional sound that the other interviewees seem to think is ubiquitous.

For instance, Municipal Waste are from Richmond, Virginia, and yet their music is about as regionally non-specific as one can get. What would those musicians have to say about the Southern scene and the fact that, if many of the interviewees of the film are to be taken at face value, every Southern metal band can, to the trained ear, be recognizable as Southern in origin?

Secondly, it’s interesting to see where the film concentrates its viewpoint vis a vis bands and sub-scenes. Much of the second half involves exploring the impact of Hurricane Katrina upon the New Orleans, Louisiana, scene, yet the actual NOLA bands receive less attention than other bands. The musicians of EHG all get ample time to be interviewed, but Crowbar is only mentioned once. This would appear to be a matter of who they could interview and on what budget: Phil Anselmo and Mike Williams IX are always down to talk about their hometown scene, whereas, at the time of filming, Kirk Windstein was probably in rehab. However, some of the interviewees with much less immediate name recognition within the scene get more screen time (I had never heard of Beaten Back To Pure until they were featured in this documentary).

This does add credibility to the film’s desire to capture the regional nature of the scene: the film makes it clear that this sound is not particular to just a handful of bands but that the Southern sound is a true, widespread idiom. That said, some artists interviewed, despite being close to the scene, are more prominent in other areas. In particular, much time is devoted to the thoughts of Hank Williams III, including him playing a song, despite the fact that much of his recorded output is purely country. He’s certainly Southern, and has extensive scene cred with Assjack and Superjoint Ritual, but he does not immediately come to mind as a representative of the Southern sludge scene.

More interesting, however, were the discussions (however brief) of the racist element that must be acknowledged in any discussion of music of the American South. This is multifaceted, and even when attempting to recognize the fact that much of the South does foster racism, it becomes apparent that the filmmakers are not seeking to put up any sort of critique of Southern culture. For example, it is interesting that, as “bluesy” as Southern metal often is, far more time is devoted to discussing how much the artists were influenced by country music than to the clear blues influence on the genre. Issues of Southern bands employing racist tropes, satirically or otherwise, are left out (for example, eyehategod’s song “White Nigger,” Phil Anselmo’s history of racist stage tirades, etc.) In addition, there’s some fairly open commentary on the usage of the Rebel flag by many constituent bands. On the one hand, the movie addresses the cultural battle over the Rebel flag, admitting that it has a history of hatred and bigotry. The filmmakers were making an effort not to completely skirt the subject of racism. However, this argument does not seem to be one of any particular conflict within the scene: Hank III gives it his endorsement as does Mike Williams IX of Eyehategod (whose support for a camouflage Rebel flag is at least a different take on the matter).

Far and away the most intriguing responses are the interviewees of Beaten Back To Pure, who not only stand up for their decision to decorate their gear with the Rebel flag but are also quite bellicose in their disdain for bands who criticize them for it (though mainly because the other bands assume the flag imagery to mean that BBTP are ignorant and backward, which does not appear to be the case). This aspect of the film is especially intriguing given the fact that most of the interviewees claim a heavy influence of ’80s punk rock (Black Flag gets multiple shout outs). What would the majority of punks, both in the ’80s and today, have to say about such heavy, almost belligerent usage of the Rebel flag?

The cinematography is very crisp and well done, if a little heavy on establishing shots and cheesy animations, and the bands’ performances are all excellent. The sound production avoids the amateur washout frequently experienced during live recordings: every time a cymbal is hit, you blink as if it was ten feet away. Furthermore, it’s just fun to watch the interviewees telling their stories; in interviewing Phil Anselmo a few years ago, our beloved Cosmo Lee mentioned how fun it was just to hear him talk. That holds true for the other artists interviewed as well: the whole “Southern storyteller” persona is not as exaggerated as one might think. Listening to bands talk about their childhoods and how they faced their families, their rigid cultures, and the crisis in ethics that metal often engenders is often much more interesting than just listening to them go on and on about how much they love the music (and let’s face it, seeing Anselmo as an ’80s glam rocker is always entertaining). The bottom line: Slow Southern Steel is a good, solid music documentary. It’s not the best out there, but as a chronicle of one of the last great regional scenes and thus an exploration into what makes a regional scene, it is very much worthwhile to any serious metal fan.

— Rhys Williams

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