Where the Thunderclouds Are Rolling: Baroness, Sludge, and Southern Rebellion

From Pop Matters:

Southern summers are brutal. With temperatures in the low 90s and humidity near 100 percent, Savannah, Georgia’s hottest months are practically tropical. Frequent thunderstorms blot out the skies while hurricanes threaten landfall. Savannah’s vast canopies of live oak trees are always green, curtained with Spanish moss, giving the throbbing summer air a dreamlike quality.

Every region fosters rebellious music—particularly a region as conservative as the Bible Belt. In most places, heavy metal remains the quintessential soundtrack for misfit alienation. But traditional metal—the breakneck, speed-obsessed metal invented in places like San Francisco—could never have taken root in Savannah. Nobody wants to perform at upwards of 180 beats per minute when it’s a sauna outside.

That’s how sludge metal was born. Sludge is a moonshine distilled from sounds pioneered in the south: blues, especially as interpreted by Black Sabbath; country, notably the gritty, tell-it-like-it-is country of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams; jazz, as re-imagined by progressive rock artists such as King Crimson; and southern rock. True to its name, sludge is a slowed-down groove, the sound of your boots sucking down in the swamp.

“Savannah is really hot. If that doesn’t influence what you do, I don’t know what does,” says John Dyer Baizley, frontman for sludge/prog-metal band Baroness. “Musically speaking, I think it tuned us down. There isn’t any point in writing music you can’t practice.”

Savannah is home to three of sludge’s preeminent bands: Baroness, Kylesa, and Black Tusk. This small, tight-knit metal family has produced some of the most inventive music to emerge from the South in decades—as well as some of the most arresting, recognizable artwork since San Francisco’s 1960s counterculture, thanks to Baizley. His paintings, a riot of wild nature, regal women, skeletons, and decay, have graced album covers and posters for Kylesa, Black Tusk, Torche, and even Gillian Welch.

It’s no wonder these bands emerged where they did. Surrounded by conservatism, Savannah provides an oasis of liberalism, a space for rebellion to breathe. While statewide voters favored John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, Chatham County backed Barack Obama by 57 percent. The city became a destination for musicians like Baizley, fleeing more rural parts of the South for better opportunities.

“They’re poor, they’re surrounded by a lot of Bible-thumping Christians. If you’re different [in the South], it’s a lot different than if you’re in Chicago or California,” says Bob Lugowe, spokesman for Relapse Records, which represents Baroness and many other sludge bands. “A lot of [these bands] lived in rural areas where there’s nothing to do. They got together and start playing together, and that sticks with you.”

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