Down

Down III: Over the Under

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One has to wonder whether the most newsworthy angle about this third Down album is the fact that: a. it even exists, considering the rare gatherings of this sludge/doom supergroup (comprised of Pantera's Phil Anselmo and Rex Brown, C.O.C.'s Pepper Keenan, Crowbar's Kirk Windstein, and Eyehategod's Jimmy Bower); or, b. the fact that it represents vocalist Phil Anselmo's first major musical work since the murder of estranged Pantera bandmate Dimebag Darrell. Let's face it, probably the latter, since it's only to be expected that fans would dissect all of Anselmo's typically candid lyrics for Dimebag references -- almost to distraction, for truly, the most important, noteworthy angle about Down III: Over the Under: its marked improvement over 2002's sprawling, unfocused Down II. Ironically (and to get this subject out of the way, once and for all), the two tracks most obviously inspired by Dimebag's tragic slaying, the earnestly regretful "I Scream" and the desperately poignant "Mourn" (which describes Anselmo's hotel room exile from his erstwhile colleague's funeral), actually lack distinct musical backdrops on par with much of the surrounding material. There, everyone happy? Now let's move on... Pound for pound, Down III can't be said to possess the same level of newly discovered songwriting chemistry heard on 1995's watershed NOLA debut because, despite their strong delivery, tracks like "The Path," "N.O.D.," and "The Thrall of it All" regurgitate far too many Black Sabbath basics. But it does deliver a handful of career highs in the shape of bulldozing opener "Three Suns and One Star"; the band's arguably purest, bluesiest Southern rock number yet in "Never Try" (Skynyrd meets Sabbath like never before); and a pair of heartfelt, evocative paeans to their Katrina-ravaged hometown in "Beneath the Tides" and "On March the Saints." And the quintet's talents for reshaping and refreshing their classic metal influences achieves a heady climax on the epic "Nothing in Return," which splits time between ethereal Mellotron à la Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter," and gargantuan ringing power chords akin to Sabbath's "Sign of the Southern Cross," with a little chunky "Sweet Leaf" riffing in between. Finally, one would be remiss not to mention the impressive soft/hard tandem of "His Majesty the Desert" and "Pillamyd," which pales only in comparison to the last mentioned epic; nor the impressive European bonus track "Invest in Fear." In sum, who knew, given their sophomore slump and Anselmo's distracting baggage, that another Down album would feel so surprisingly welcome? Yes, genre regulars may still brand their releases as "sludge/doom for dummies," but that's a nearsighted mindset in light of the expanded fan base that each Down album introduces to these underappreciated musical forms.

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