Art With Impact: Hurricane Katrina and “Over the Under”

I love how art can connect us with something so much bigger than ourselves. It’s been ten years since Hurricane Katrina; I can vaguely remember following the news, especially in the aftermath, and feeling so disconnected from what the people of New Orleans were feeling and going through. I was in Austin at the time, in the middle of a scorching hot, dry summer, and had never been touched by natural disaster in any meaningful way. It was to sympathize, of course, but much harder to empathize, which I think is far more important.

One of my favorite bands changed that for me in a pretty unexpected way. Down started in 1995 as a bunch of dudes who had grown up around each other in New Orleans and now each had their own self-sustaining metal bands. Pepper Keenan had been the face and chief songwriter for Corrosion of Conformity, “Beard of Doom” Kirk Windstein fronted and played guitar for the unique Crowbar, Jimmy Bower had helped form a cult favorite in Eyehategod, and Philip Anselmo was (by this time) world famous as the voice of Pantera, who were selling millions of records almost purely on word of mouth and the strength of their live show. Over the years, each of the band members would take a break from their main bands to get together and record an album steeped in their mutual background, with other members of those bands pitching in on bass, production, and other things.

Each of them individually (and all of them collectively) did a lot to found what’s called “sludge metal:” deeply downtuned and distorted guitars that moved slowly, with a rock sensibility and groove that provided a marked counterpoint to the high-speed thrash and relentless pounding of more common heavy music at that time. Down’s sludge has a particularly “New Orleans” feel to it: it’s got a boggy, bluesy, distinctly Southern character. Their relationship with their city and region is deliberately woven into their music; their second album notoriously involved all of them holing up in a converted barn “a tank of gas from civilization” in Louisiana and recording an entire album from start to finish. Down riffs truly come from below sea level, in a way even the guitar riffs from the members’ other bands do not.

Hurricane Katrina hit Down hard in more than one way. The band lost instruments, equipment, and homes. When they released their third album, “Over the Under,” two years later, I had a window into Katrina that no news coverage could ever have given me. The storm touches nearly every song, from the angry, defiant tunes through the jubilant rebuilding riffs and the moments of quiet, reflective jams. Many of the song lyrics deal with the storm’s impact on the city and on their lives, but the music itself does the same thing even more expressively. I could swear I hear (or feel) the water: rushing and roaring in “Three Suns and One Star,”, washing things away in “Beneath the Tides,” and standing in giant pools or drifting in riffles through the aftermath of “Nothing in Return.” The southern, ‘rebel’ human spirit, soaked in whiskey and dirty flood runoff, shines through in “March of the Saints” and “In the Thrall of it All.” The guitars are sludgy, badass  blues as usual, but there’s something more special going on here than old friends jamming together. Even Phil’s voice sounds appropriately ravaged. Lyrically he struggles with the irony that the destruction and isolation may have saved his life: bassist Rex Brown has since asserted that it was the only thing that got Anselmo off heroin for good.

It all makes “Over the Under” a remarkable listening experience for me, and a reminder that art can reflect truth and the human heart in a far more powerful way than the ‘pure facts,’ as important as those are. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, I’m no more a “Louisiana” person than I ever was, but I’m thankful for the connection to it that Down made for us to understand… and it sounds damned good when it’s blared from my speakers while I’m cooking for the afternoon!

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