Somewhere in the '90s, metal lost its street cred. What was once the province of blue-collar warriors and street kids was usurped by suburban pretenders: Creed; Hot Topic; Fred Durst; body piercing at the shopping mall; Korn; Nu with umlauts; "Hello, I'm not a heroin addict, but I play one on MTV."
Well, it's a new millennium, bubba, and slowly but surely, the bills are coming due. And while those multiply-pierced mallie wannabes struggle to make good on their vastly overextended credit, new (no umlauts, thank you) metal acts, like Knoxville's Downslave, are paying as they go, with a sound that nods at those elements that made metal vibrant and dangerous in the first place.
"Our energy, the way our songs are built, it reminds a lot of people of Pantera," says bassist Karl Mager, a stocky blond fellow with a square-cut goatee that seems to have a life all its own. "It reminds people of what they had, of that brotherhood. We work real hard as a band; we put things on hold for the band. We live like this every day. That willingness to be better and tighter, people see that and feel that, whether we're playing or just hanging out."
Besides Mager, Downslave also includes vocalist Brad Parker, guitarists Scotty "Roc" Kirkland and Dalton Cochran (the band's youngest member at 20), and double-bass maestro Scott Campbell on drums. The Pantera reference isn't entirely unwarranted, in large part thanks to Parker, whose virtuosic yowlings are more than a little reminiscent of a young Phil Anselmo.
"When Brad auditioned, he was it," Kirkland recalls. "There were guys before him yelling into the mic who just couldn't sing, then he comes in. He had great tones. And he didn't sound like you just jammed him in the throat after he gargled razor blades. He had that great natural, raw, harsh tone about him."
Now, after eight years, Downslave has released its first full-length CD, Cost of Freedom, a 10-song blast of tight, focused, and blisteringly accomplished "groovy Southern metal." The disc was produced by GWAR guitarist Flattus Maximus, aka Cory Smoot, whom Downslave met while opening for Smoot's other band, Mensrea.
The road to recording the band's lone longplayer was a difficult one, fraught with financial hardship. "None of us have wealthy parents," Kirkland says. "We're a struggling, working band. You go to work, pawn your shit, have a lot of yard sales. No hands have been stuck out for us."
He notes that most of the band's five members work flexible or odd jobs, rather than holding down full-time careers, not for lack of work ethic, but because of the band's practice schedule—four or five nights per week—and frequent road jaunts. They put more than 100,000 miles on their last van, an old Ford Econoline salvaged from the junkyard. From the stories these guys tell, most full-time jobs would be a cinch in comparison to what they go through for the sake of metal.
"We dragged that Econoline out of the yard; they were going to crush it," Kirkland says. "It had an engine and a body. We replaced everything else. Not the most comfortable ride. No air conditioning. Three members on one bench seat. One hundred miles in and it smells like onion soup."
They've since replaced the Econoline with a 2000 GMC conversion van, given to them by a friend's mother when the transmission died after a trip down from New York. Five hundred dollars later, the boys had a van with comfortable seats, stereo, CD, television, and an air conditioner. "A huge improvement," says Mager.
To date, the band's greatest triumph is arguably meeting and recording with Smoot, who was impressed when Downslave's performance when they opened a Mensrea show in Knoxville. Kirkland and Smoot talked guitars for hours after the set, and stayed in touch for a year after that. "We stayed phone buddies, and that ended up working out for us," says Kirkland. "I ended up trading a Gibson Les Paul as a down payment for studio time."
For the recording, the band spent a week at Smoot's home in Richmond, Va. Band members report that Smoot himself was a fascinating, talented, complex, but ultimately very gracious host.
"He is actually very serious about his work," says Mager. "He doesn't show any humor whatsoever until after the work is over."
"Once the work is done, he's different," adds Kirkland. "Then we're all running around his house wearing GWAR masks. But he's a very down-to-earth guy, and a great studio tech."
What's next for Downslave? Lots more road work, and the search for a distribution deal. "We've got some other bands, friends we've made on the road, trying to hook us up," says Mager. "With the record out now and some touring coming up, we'll get a chance to see who's really interested."
"We'd love to do cycles of out three weeks, then one week off," says Kirkland. "That would be great. We're ready to go. We put pretty much everything on hold for this band. This is not a hobby."