Released six years to the day from its predecessor, 2005’s Lifesblood for the Downtrodden, the latest album from Crowbar, dubbed Sever the Wicked Hand (E1 Music), finds the New Orleans sludge progenitors embarking on a full-circle turn of their own influence. With visual layout by Mike D. of Killswitch Engage, mixing and mastering by Zeuss (Shadows Fall, etc.), management by Hatebreed’s Jamey Jasta – with whom Crowbar guitarist/vocalist/central-figure Kirk Windstein also plays in Kingdom of Sorrow – and a take on their traditional sludgy sound that seems at times to favor the kind of heavy breakdowns that the subsequent generation of metallers made their name on, it could easily be said that Crowbar are now under the influence of those whom they most influenced. Listening to a song like “Liquid Sky and Cold Black Earth,” even acknowledging that the ultra-groovy breakdown is nothing new to the Windstein musical/riff-writing arsenal (he’s been doing it since the early ‘90s to great affect), on Sever the Wicked Hand, the approach is given a musical context it didn’t have even six years ago.
And why not? A lot’s happened in that time. The already-noted Kingdom of Sorrow has released two albums, and Down – the Southern metal supergroup in which Windstein joins C.O.C.’s Pepper Keenan on guitar – released their third album to huge acclaim and commercial success on the road. On perhaps a more personal note, Windstein’s sobriety is a topic of discussion lyrically on several of the Sever the Wicked Hand tracks – “Cleanse Me, Heal Me,” “As I Become One” and the title cut –and a song like the late-arriving ballad, “Echo an Eternity” seems to be not much more than your typical “rocker’s song about his kid,” if given the twist of being run through the typically Crowbar, slow-played, downtuned interpretation. That said, the lyrical appeal that runs throughout Sever the Wicked Hand, and indeed across Crowbar’s whole discography, is Windstein’s unflinching honesty. If what that brings out of his venerably guttural voice in 2011 is love for his child and his struggle to stay sober, I’m not about to fault him for that. I’d rather take what’s heartfelt than something born out of kowtowing to the expectations either of fans or critics.
Among the critiques I’ve heard of Sever the Wicked Hand is that, “it’s awfully fast,” and indeed, upon hearing advance-leaked cut “The Cemetery Angels,” I thought the same thing, even as that song breaks into one of the slowest riffs on the album for its second half. Tracks like “Liquid Sky and Cold Black Earth” and closer “Symbiosis” offer plenty of the languid pacing Crowbar is known for, and I’ll go further to say it’s a myth that Crowbar only plays slow. Some of their greatest early-career triumphs – songs like “All I Had I Gave” from 1993’s self-titled and “Waiting in Silence” from the 1991 Obedience Thru Suffering debut – relied on the juxtaposition between fast and slow parts, and that holds true for the Sever the Wicked Hand material as well. Windstein at this point knows what works in Crowbar, and he makes good use of their solidified sonic pastiche on “Protectors of the Shrine” and centerpiece “As I Become One,” which breaks into a melodic guitar interplay between Windstein and fellow six-stringer Matt Brunson that helps break the intensity Sever the Wicked Hand’s first half and set up the 3:45 ambient interlude “A Farewell to Misery” – itself a launch point for the record’s back end.
The impeccable construction of Sever the Wicked Hand is easy to lay at the feet of Windstein as the driving force behind Crowbar for over two decades. Nonetheless, the performances of Brunson and the rhythm section of bassist Pat Bruders and drummer Tommy Buckley are inseparable from the success of the album. “The Cemetery Angels” would hit not nearly as hard as it does without Buckley’s careful following of Windstein’s riff, and even on the plodding ballad “Let Me Mourn” (a sort of precursor/companion piece musically to “Echo an Eternity”), it’s the drums that keep the song grounded. Likewise, Sever the Wicked Hand finds its greatest highlights in the moments where it’s not just Windstein’s leadership at play, but a full unit operating together, as on opener “Isolation (Desperation),” “Cleanse Me, Heal Me,” “Protectors of the Shrine” and “The Cemetery Angels.” No coincidence, I expect, that these tracks also represent in part some of the “newest-school” aspects of Sever the Wicked Hand – the breakdowns, the self-awareness of sound, the established feel. While Windstein isn’t actually teaching the old dog any new tricks here, he does sound refreshed.
That in itself – like the fast/slow tempo changes – is a dichotomy essential to understanding Sever the Wicked Hand. Listening to “I Only Deal in Truth,” there’s nothing yet-unheard brought to Crowbar’s style, but the energy with which the song is played makes it exciting nonetheless. Windstein has long since laid bare his bag of tricks when it comes to both riff writing and patterning his vocals, and although there isn’t much more brought to that on Sever the Wicked Hand than perhaps some slight revisions, after six years, I’m just happy to have a new Crowbar record. Like their last couple – Lifesblood for the Downtrodden and 2001’s Sonic Excess in its Purest Form – there will be a handful of tracks that endure in live sets and the hearts of fans, and a few forgotten down the line, but the difference with Crowbar now is the generation who appreciated them initially has long since come of age and propagated their influence, so that Crowbar’s sound is more widespread than their albums have ever been. To borrow a lyrical trope from Windstein, that factor has breathed new life into them. Even treading familiar creative ground, they do so with a stateliness they’ve never had before, and it suits them well.
With the considerable distribution machine of E1 behind it, Sever the Wicked Hand is primed to be the Crowbar album that conquers an eager younger generation of metallers who, frankly, have been asking for it for a while. Longtime followers will find it has its hits and misses, but Sever the Wicked Hand is Crowbar sounding like Crowbar, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s better than nearly all of the sludge out there. There’s nothing I could ask of the band at this point that isn’t delivered, and if their appeal does in fact cross generations and, 20-plus years in, Crowbar find their biggest audience yet, they more than deserve it.Crowbar, E1 Music, Louisiana, New Orleans