Sludge, especially southern sludge, is in a strange place right now. Since 2010, the current standard bearers of the region (Baroness, Kylesa, Mastodon) have eschewed traditional sludge sounds and lyrical themes in favor of exploring more progressive and hook-laden territory. The shift in the musical direction has been authentic, organic, and mostly positive. However, for those of us who really latched onto the sludge style as it was pioneered by Black Flag, Melvins, and Eyehategod, there was a substantial vacuum created in the scene by this change. Black Tusk moved in to fill this vacuum in the late 2000s, hitting the scene hard, releasing four full length records in five years. They were fast, they were catchy, they were rough around the edges and sounded angry as fuck. In 2014, founding member, bassist and vocalist Jonathan Athon was taken off life support after suffering irreparable brain damage in a motorcycle accident that Fall. The untimely passing of their brother and bandmate left the future of Black Tusk uncertain and put an end to an extremely prolific 7-year cycle of releases.
Pillars of Ash, the final recording to feature Jonathan Athon, is being released ahead of a major North American tour with Holy Grail. Produced by Joel Grind of Toxic Holocaust, Pillars of Ash is everything Black Tusk fans would want in a full-length following Set the Dial. The album clocks in at just under 35 minutes, which is about the perfect length for an outing like this that often feels more like a hardcore punk record than a metal album. Black Tusk did not take any really colossal steps forward on Pillars of Ash save for a few experimental moments that come at the end of the record’s run time, but that’s actually a good thing. For the most part, their records really only serve as a tame preview for what you’ll able to expect from the band on tour, which is really their bread and butter.
One of the best early moments on the record is “Bleed on Your Knees,” which combines aspects of Scandinavian punk – think early Turbonegro – with a main verse riff that would feel right at home on Damaged, My War or any of the early Black Flag records. This is probably a good time to mention that if you’re expecting virtuosic performances on this record, you’re in the wrong place. This is metal served loud, dirty, and rough around the edges. Similar to Vancouver’s Bison, this is one of those bands that needs to be experienced live, in the dingiest club you can find, PBR in hand, surrounded by denim clad dirtbags. Still, I need to give a special nod to “Still Not Well”, which features a particularly filthy breakdown and is sure to be a live favourite.
One of the things that I do really think should be mentioned about this particular record is the increase in quality of the overall sound production relative to previous efforts. Joel Grind has successfully managed to make Black Tusk sound much more aggressive at a higher level of volume, but manages to maintain clarity in the mix.
Really, there aren’t too many overly profound things that one can say about Pillars of Ash; it’s not a groundbreaking record by any stretch of the imagination. This is sludgey, punk-saturated metal that’s meant to be played very loud while skateboarding on your backyard mini-ramp at a Saturday keg-party, and that’s perfectly alright with me. If you were a fan of Set the Dial, picking up this record should be a no-brainer. Pillars of Ash is a fitting tribute to the memory of Jonathan Athon, and a sign of great things to come from this powerhouse of southern sludge.