The BLOG: Culture

From punk came sludge: Scaled back in tempo, not in force

Punk exploded onto the music scene in the late ’70s with bands like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and the Clash, but by the mid-80s these bands were beginning to move away from their early loud, fast and abrasive sound, and began to incorporate either more complex songwriting or fully embrace their pop leanings. From this vacuum, hardcore punk emerged, a new style, one even faster, angrier and more aggressive. One of the earliest hardcore punk bands was Black Flag, but by the mid-80s they too had begun to expand and evolve, and with their second full length album, My War, they had created a new genre altogether: sludge. Filled with abnormal chord progressions and a slower, more produced rhythm, Black Flag slowed their punk songs down the same way Black Sabbath had slowed down the blues to create heavy metal. Black Flag’s “Nothing Left Inside,” with its grinding guitars and slow drums, sounds almost primal. This dirty sound was quickly named sludge, and it angered many of Black Flag’s fans who wanted more of the same fast, simple hardcore punk. Black Flag’s albums would continue to explore this new style, much to the disappointment of most of their fans, but to some this new sound was revolutionary and inspirational.

Despite Black Flag’s early experimentation with the genre, sludge wasn’t truly codified until the Melvins from Washington state put out their first releases. Six Songs in 1986 and Gluey Porch Treatments in 1987 are the first true sludge records. Sludge, like funk, is named after the almost indefinable but instantly recognizable sound. Melvins took the slowness and lowness of doom metal, but played it with the aggression and attitude of hardcore punk. Although these records weren’t bestsellers, they became highly influential to those who heard them, particularly the early grunge artists that were beginning to emerge in Washington in the late ’80s. Nirvana’s first album, Bleach, even features Melvins drummer Dale Crover on three songs. The success of grunge resulted in Melvins getting signed by Atlantic Records, a major label which brought their music to a much larger audience across the country.

Gluey Porch Treatments is in many ways an unusual album. Although it’s somewhat short, barely over 38 minutes, it has 17 tracks, including the six-minute-plus opener “Eye Flys,” and six songs that each last under a minute, not to mention the song “Leeech,” which was originally written by Mark Arm and Steve Turner of Green River, an early Seattle band whose members would later found grunge groups Mudhoney and Pearl Jam. Although they wrote the song, Green River never played it. Instead they gifted it to Melvins guitarist and vocalist Buzz Osborne after he expressed interest in it.

Melvins released three more records from 1989-1992 on independent labels, but once Nirvana achieved huge success, major labels began to look at the Seattle underground for more potential stars. Melvins were signed to Atlantic Records and released their album Houdini in 1993. Producing the album themselves, along with help from Kurt Cobain on several tracks, Melvins created one of their most acclaimed and highest-charting albums, despite making no attempt to create an accessible or popular record.

In 2014, Melvins released its most recent album, Hold It In, and have recently announced their plans to release two more albums; one, a collaboration with Mike Kunka of godheadSilo that began in 1999 only to go unfinished until recently, is scheduled for April 2016. Basses Loaded will be a completely original album featuring several different bass players, including former Melvins Jared Warren and Jeff Pinkus, along with former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and several others. That album is scheduled for release in September 2016.

Finally, although sludge began on the West Coast with California’s Black Flag and Washington’s Melvins, it was in the South that sludge found a new home, particularly in New Orleans. Eyehategod, Crowbar, and Acid Bath are some of the most notable sludge bands from New Orleans. Sludge has mutated since the ’90s. Most sludge bands today combine the slowness and heaviness of sludge with greater compositional focus, incorporating elements of post-rock, giving their songs a larger, more grandiose and operatic feeling.

Jimmy McPhee and Teddy Bunker

Jimmy McPhee and Teddy Bunker

Jimmy McPhee is a former sound engineer for SiriusXM Radio and the former engineering director for WNYU​​, where he presented the radio shows Unknown Pleasures and Throwing Bricks. Teddy Bunker is a writer whose work has been featured in Structo Magazine​, The Harvard Press and the Hofstra Chronicle​. Together, they are The New Noise.