Count On Me ‘Til I Die: Crowbar’s Zero and Below
Icicles in your veins.
No line encapsulates Crowbar’s ethos quite like the refrain from “Command of Myself” (2000). “Count on me until I die,” Kirk Windstein compels us with grim determination. It is the double promise of resolution at the heart of the band: resolve yourself to relying on my hard-won strength and resolve yourself to my inevitable death. In fact, it is only the latter promise that matters; the former remains elusive and permanently forsaken until the very moment the latter is kept. It is precisely in that moment—that moment when two promises collapse into one grave—where and when we meet and have met Crowbar’s cosmic composure for 30 years. No wonder, then, they named that album Equilibrium.
If I’m thinking of other Crowbar albums while reviewing Zero and Below, Crowbar’s 11th LP in over 30 years of constant activity, it is simply because, as a veritable institution, their own albums are the only proper references. Yes, the incestuous nature of New Orleans’ sludge scene means that Crowbar is inseparable from acts such as Down, Corrosion of Conformity, Eyehategod, and an endless list of others, but there’s no explanatory power there anymore. Only Crowbar can explain Crowbar. Equilibrium, too, always returns to me when Crowbar rears its legendary head, as it was the first Crowbar album I owned. (Prior to it, I had tied-up phonelines and sent my mother into fits while downloading on Napster setlist-classics “All I Had [I Gave],” “Planets Collide,” “Existence is Punishment,” and “[Can’t] Turn Away from Dying.”) It is Crowbar at their hookiest, playing with an infectious bounciness that flirts with then en vogue groove metal without running afoul of the band’s quintessential Nola roots. “I Feel the Burning Sun,” the aforementioned “Command of Myself,” personal favourite “Buried Once Again,” and towering “Euphoria Minus One” are less songs than they are just riffs and pain stitched together to elicit a most feverish and harrowed response. There’s nothing ponderous, methodical, or complicated about any of it. For all the torturous highs and opium lows of Odd Fellows Rest (1998) and Sonic Excess in its Purest Form (2001), the two albums that bookend and often overshadow it, Equilibrium is a singular balancing act in the long history of the band.
One would think, given what I’ve just written, that Zero and Below is most akin to Equilibrium in all of Crowbar’s oeuvre, but that’s not really the case. Sonically, the album is much more bluesy, southern-fried, and weighty. It’s overselling Zero and Below to compare it with Sonic Excess, perhaps the band’s last truly perfect record, but it stands proudly and boisterously alongside anything the band has released since then. While I might not be as partial to the more recent Crowbar albums, there is simply no denying their quality. How many bands, honestly, have released something as good as 2017’s The Serpent Only Lies 26 years after their debut?
Lead single “Chemical Godz,” thematically and visually, undertakes a tremendous responsibility to empathize with people living with substance use and facing extreme privation. It is a visceral video, one that juxtaposes familiar interpersonal dramas with the quotidian terrors and mor(t)al failures of the militaristic War on Drugs. Musically, the band seems to want to capture the momentous crests and troughs of love and life the couple experiences in the video. “Chemical Godz” finds the band swinging between mournful chorus and chunky verse. Each time the band slows down, allowing Windstein to sing, “Frozen… so cold” in his patented lamentation, it is just as willing to return to the sludgy upsurge. That is, until the horrors become just too much to bear, as they inevitably do in every Crowbar song, and Windstein and fellow guitarist Matthew Brunson begin harmonizing in their unmistakable way. Of course, what would a Crowbar track be without one last taste of the chug of their central motif? In effect, it mirrors the tragic return of the symptom, that which for all of us, to varying degrees of severity, is inescapable.
“Bleeding from Every Hole,” the second video the band delivered in anticipation prior to the March 4th release of Zero and Below sounds both like something from Sever the Wicked Hand (2014) and absolute classic “Self-Inflicted” from Crowbar (1993). I don’t ever need Crowbar to play faster than “very slowly” but a little speed and a touch of molasses-thrash never go amiss. It also contrasts nicely with the thundering stomp that punctuates the track. I’m glad, too, the band dropped a second video. It made me refocus on both “Bleeding from Every Hole” in particular and Zero and Below in general, as I had begun wandering again through their discography rather than concentrating on the task at hand. Similarly to “Chemical Godz,” Crowbar aim to tell a story with their video rather than merely stage the band playing live. Dirt-caked faces contrast with tiaras and wedding dresses, as a dinner party sates itself on pain and torture amidst utter dilapidation. It is tempting to see these two videos as an odd moment of moralizing from Crowbar, but they seem to me gritty attempts to aestheticize familiar stories of pain, anguish, and despair. Crowbar albums are not morality tales, of course; they are simply the unfettered expression of agony and an attempt to mitigate its all-encompassing thrall.
As such, Zero and Below is frigid and stiff-lipped in its acceptance about the impossibility of life. It traverses, as so many Crowbar albums do, the trials of substance use, wavering faith, internal turmoil, and suffocating external conditions. Album opener “The Fear that Binds You” will assuredly have listeners pressing repeat at least once if not twice before letting the album progress. A ferocious opener, “The Fear that Binds You” layers a classic echo effect on Windstein’s vocals over an astonishingly heavy palm-muted riff. Most importantly, though, the song falls to its knees and returns us to Crowbar’s existential itch of a life lived too painfully yet too transiently. “Survive / No more borrowed time,” rasps Windstein. It is an injunction, a reminder, and a nagging promise all in one: you must live, no matter what, because otherwise there is only death.
“Her Evil is Sacred” initially left me lukewarm, but its plaintive cries and acute sense of crisis eventually captured my attention more fully. “Confess to Nothing” is the album’s most Equilibrium-esque track, with a heady groove, perpetual scowl, and a foolish and magnificent determination to “live another day.” Though perhaps neither song scales the heights of “The Fear that Binds You,” they make for a riveting beginning. The aforementioned “Chemical Godz” injects a sense of urgency into the album before “Denial of the Truth,” one of the slowest Crowbar tracks I can remember, trades growls for cleans and arresting passages of Shane Wesley’s bass rumbling over Tommy Buckley’s drumwork without any guitar. If “Denial of the Truth” spends much of its time at rock bottom, it has just enough life to make it to “Bleeding from Every Hole.” It’s agonizing, to be sure, but that is precisely the point. From there, we reach “It’s Always Worth the Gain,” almost certainly my least favourite track. The song employs some interesting classic heavy metal tropes, but it feels a bit out of place.
Perhaps, though, the brightness and sense of vivacity that make “It’s Always Worth the Gain” an odd choice are also what make it a narrative necessity. It very much feels like we’ve crawled out of the pit of the album’s middle tracks to a moment of lightness and reprieve. A brief glimpse at a newfound way forward and towards an easier path. Alas, this is too cruel and unforgiving a world. “Crush Negativity” follows and is so slow and heavy that it feels as if the band hopes to, quite literally, press with so much weight on the philosophical concept of “negativity” that it would have no choice but to envelop itself in an endlessly negating gesture that leaves no room for it in our world. “Reanimating a Lie,” seeming to cite “To Build a Mountain” (2001) in its lyrics, is an anguished and anxious mid-paced stomp that erupts into a two-step gallop in one last burst of conquering and indomitable spirit before, inevitably, fading into riff-slopped madness. Titular track and album closer “Zero and Below” is for everyone who patiently waits for the final tracks of Odd Fellows Rest. Windstein is in his higher register for much of the track as the band eases back into a near listless melancholy. It has been a frightening and distressing journey, and the toll on us all is unquantifiable. For all of Windstein’s fortitude and self-assurance, exhaustion sets in, and we’re left with nothing to do but beg, plead, and accept. “Please don’t end it all / Close your eyes don’t fall / There’s no coming back / Never fade to black,” we incant in unison over a melancholic and heart-breaking doom finale.
“To Touch the Hand of God,” Equilibrium’s mid-album dirge, is Crowbar’s simplest and saddest song. It is perhaps more hymn than dirge. A thundering, lonely piano echoes through a steady-falling rain while Windstein beseeches his Maker for some sense of hope as he drowns in a choking, omnipresent sorrow. Yet, “too weak to stand” and through it all, Windstein can still “touch the hand of God.” It is the penitent’s triumph in his lowest moment; it is a broken-hearted resolution to reach for help in a helpless world and accept the uncertainty of your gasping grasp. On Equilibrium, something connects—reaches for you—and the album roars back to life and even ends with two bizarre but ultimately charming cover songs.
With “Zero and Below,” it is tempting to understanding “There’s no coming back” as the very moment on the other side of “To Touch the Hand of God,” the moment when your hand falls limply through the stolid air and lands, with you, all but lifeless on the unforgiving ground. No Maker, no friend, no force with enough strength to drag you up and out of your crumpled and forlorn repose. In some sense, it is also the distillation of Odd Fellows Rest, so unflinching, earnest, and confessional in a genre that cannot always abide such grueling honesty. If Odd Fellows Rest had been Crowbar’s resting point, no one would have misunderstood.
Yet, the band persisted. So how then do we understand the album’s final line? “Never fade to black,” implores Windstein. Or perhaps it is not an entreaty. Perhaps it is a command, a directive to perseverate against all. Most likely, however, it is, as it always with Crowbar, a promise and commitment to count on them, eternally and without end, until the only obligation we can ever really make is ultimately fulfilled.
Such is the assurance that Crowbar makes with Zero and Below.