CROWBAR: Building the Mountain (a ranking odyssey)

If you had to describe CROWBAR in one word that word would surely be “heavy”, sonically, emotionally, tonally, CROWBAR deal in huge down-tuned riffs, themes or torment and struggle and with Kirk Windstein’s instantly recognisable rasping howls, have one of the great frontmen of heavy music. Rightly considered by some to be up there amongst the heaviest bands ever, a challenge for me will be to see if I can get through this article without using the word “heavy” 40 times. I’m setting myself up to fail.

Having discovered them via the PANTERA home videos, CROWBAR have gone on to be a band I love dearly. Spanning almost 3 decades and 11 albums, the only constant has been guitarist and frontman Kirk (also notably of DOWN and KINGDOM OF SORROW), CROWBAR have remained incredibly consistent in quality and while their sound might seem fairly straightforward at first, there’s a surprising amount of variety and subtlety to be discovered by those who care to bury themselves in amongst the band’s catalogue. I’ve seen music writers fall into the trap of describing CROWBAR as only having two sides, torturously slow and maniacally speeding. This is a lazy oversimplification and doesn’t do the band justice. Certainly there are many memorable CROWBAR tracks that could fit into one of these two categories, but you could probably fill out a full album with their more contemplative and melodic material. There’s a lot more to this band than brute force; Kirk has a great ear for melody, whether it’s delivered in the most crushing terms, or via something more softly melancholic and understated.

Given how consistent the band’s been from one album to the next, ranking their releases might seem a bit redundant, but we all kind of like lists don’t we? I don’t see anyone ranking CROWBAR albums anywhere else, so why not me? Here goes then, ranking each CROWBAR studio album, building that mountain all the way to the top…

#11: Obedience Through Suffering (1991)

It’s a mark of CROWBAR’s consistent high quality that while their debut is almost certainly the band’s weakest, it’s still pretty damn good. Kirk hasn’t quite perfected his signature growling howls and the production feels a bit thin, with the guitars not adding the weight that’s typical of the band. It’s interesting to hear the bass more prominently than on later releases and the playing is still pretty great. I’m a big fan of Craig Nunenmacher’s drumming and his playing is just as cool and interesting here as on any other release, with plenty of neat little flourishes and fills. Even at this early stage the band fires out a good dose of great depressive, sludgy riffs. It feels wrong to have this at the bottom of any list, but the band always evolves from one album to the next and they just improved with more memorable tracks and better production after this release.

#10: Crowbar (1993)

 A step up from the debut and with several quintessential CROWBAR numbers like “High Rate Extinction”, “All I Had (I Gave)” and “Existence Is Punishment”, but when held up against later releases it’s starting to feel a bit dated and the album does get kind of repetitive. As much as the cover of “No Quarter” is well handled, I find it sucks the momentum out of the album and although there’s nothing bad on here, the band went on to refine their sound and add more finesse. To be sure though, if you’re just starting out with CROWBAR there’s a ton of meaty riffs to be found here and Kirk’s honed his vocal delivery to a much more impactful, gruff growl than what he had on the debut, so there’s much to like. Notable as well, this album was produced by the one and only Philip H. Anselmo. It’s a good album, but not one of my favourites by the band.

#9: Time Heals Nothing (1995)

Although still very recognisably CROWBAR, “Time Heals Nothing” is a bit of a black sheep amongst the band’s albums; pounding and morose, but the sound is not as huge as a lot of their other releases and there’s an eerie, ominous feel that caries through the album, especially on tracks like “Through a Wall of Tears” and the title track. And speaking of the title track, this is an absolute gem of the CROWBAR catalogue: starting out with a brooding, stalking bass line and a great, inventive drum pattern, before a haunting guitar line paves the way for one of Kirk’s bleakest vocal performances. The album is also pretty varied as far as CROWBAR releases go, with some faster, more Hardcore infused tracks, typical mid-paced stomping and in places more of a stripped back approach. Some might not like this one so much for it’s less sonically overwhelming sound, and some of the later tracks are not so memorable after a very strong start, but I like the sound the band has here. It’s not as blunt as the self-titled release and caries a lot of emotional weight. 

#8: The Serpent Only Lies (2016)

Kirk said in interviews around the time of this release that he spent time listening to old CROWBAR albums to recapture some of their feel and it shows, with several tracks having a flavour of past numbers. Both “I Am The Storm”, and “The Serpent Only Lies” start out very reminiscent of “All I Had (I Gave)” before adding their own new twists, ‘Plasmic and Pure’ meanwhile opens with a verse that’s basically a minor tweak on “Walk With Knowledge Wisely” from the previous album, but still delivers great riffs and some memorable drum patterns. For the most part, riffs are the order of the day here and while there are a lot of references to previous CROWBAR tracks, there’s still plenty here that stands up for itself, notably the pounding “On Holy Ground”. It’s not all heavy riffing though, ‘Song of the Dunes’ with its sparse, haunting verse shows Kirk’s emotive side and it’s nice to hear him still trying out more stripped back, mournful numbers like the band did previously on “Equilibrium”, “Lifesblood…” and “Odd Fellows Rest”. It’s a solid release, with plenty of variety, energy and great playing, but although it has some gems, like the blistering “The Enemy Beside You”, I wouldn’t take many tracks from this album to put amongst my all time favourites by the band. 

#7: Symmetry In Black (2014)

Album opener “Walk With Knowledge Wisely” kicks off with a cool shifting rhythm (a trick the band also employed to great effect on “High Rate Extinction”, way back on their eponymous second album) and with its great chugging riffing, powerful drums, and twin guitar lines, stands out as one of the band’s best songs to date. There’s a number of slower, brooding numbers like “Symmetry In White”, “Reflection of Deceit” and the epic closing track “The Piety of Self Loathing”, though aside from the eerie, ghostlike “Amaranthine” it’s all delivered with maximum heaviness. Of the more up-tempo numbers (in CROWBAR terms) ‘Teach The Blind To See’ with its stop start rhythms is a highpoint, while on “A Wealth of Empathy” Kirk blends crushing, heavy sounds with the uplifting, motivating themes that first appeared on the previous album “Sever The Wicked Hand” with lines like “The man I used to be, a shadow of me now. The wealth of empathy will let me show you how”. CROWBAR as inspirational life motivators, who would have thought it? Overall the quality is consistently high, although I’d rate most of the songs here as very good, without quite bursting through that final level of becoming absolute classic Crowbar tracks.

#6 Lifesblood For The Downtrodden (2005)

Four years on from ‘Sonic Excess…’, Kirk returns with Craig Nunenmacher on drums (back on a CROWBAR record the first time since “Time Heals Nothing”), metal god Rex Brown contributing bass, acoustic guitar, piano (and producing) and an album that sounds, in part, exactly like what you’d expect of a CROWBAR album, but also contains some very affecting tracks that showcase a subdued, reflective side to the band. The beautiful final track “Lifesblood” sounds like something you might find on a classic rock album from the 70s, while elsewhere “Fall Back To Zero” builds from a slithering bass line, into bursts of charging fury; “Moon” meanwhile showcases some of the melodic touches also found on “Equilibrium”. It’s definitely a great sounding record, rich and warm. While there are immediate standouts like opener “New Dawn” and the gritted-teeth malevolence of “Slave No More”, “Lifesblood…” is a Crowbar release that takes a few listens to fully resonate. Maybe the band at its most understated, this is one that might not jump out at you straight away, but it bears up well to repeated listens.

#5: Broken Glass (1996)

For the band’s fourth full-length release Kirk brings in old friend and collaborator Jimmy Bower (EyeHateGod, Superjoint Ritual, CoC etc etc) to handle the drums and after the more understated and introspective “Time Heals Nothing”, the band is heavier than ever from the get to. Huge, reverberating guitars and pounding drums contribute to an extremely weighty sonic landscape. More consistent than the previous release, “Broken Glass” takes the lumbering weight of the eponymous album and just improves the formula slightly. There are no real weak spots, but “Like Broken Glass”, “You Know (I’ll Live Again)” and the brooding “Nothing More” with its surprising piano outro are definite highlights. If you want a relentless battery of crushingly heavy riffs this is a good one to check out. “Broken Glass” does lack some of the variety and colour that would appear more and more from “Odd Fellows Rest” onward, but damn the riffs here are so good. I still come back to this one again and again.

#4 Equilibrium (2000)

While the uninspiring cover art might be an ominous sign of the musical quality, this is another worthy addition to the Crowbar catalogue. Starting on top form with the great, chugging “I Feel The Burning Sun”, the band here again manages to create an album with its own particular feel, and a slightly different sound, impressive given that on the surface their style hasn’t really changed all that much over the years. To talk about any CROWBAR release being morose feels a bit redundant, when that’s one of their defining characteristics, but this might be Kirk at his most brooding and melancholic, “To Touch The Hand of God” with its sparse, echoing piano line, ghostly vocals and the sound of falling rain is something different from the band and done to great effect, and while the band’s previous cover of ‘No Quarter’ was a pretty logical match up, their spaced out, doom infused version of “Dream Weaver” here seems practically subversive. When they choose to go hard, it’s as heavy as anything else they’ve done, but with the lighter, more melancholic numbers, there’s plenty of variety to stop repetitiveness creeping in. A few tracks pass by without leaving a great impression, but the atmosphere created one this one is superb, with its psychedelically doomy feel and there are enough standout moments, like the mournful outro to “Down In The Rotting Earth” and the stop/ start guitar and drum interplay of “Glass Full of Liquid Pain” to place this album as altogether one of the band’s strongest efforts.

#3: Sever The Wicked Hand (2011)

With six years passing since “Lifesblood…” and Kirk dedicating time to DOWN and KINGDOM OF SORROW, many fans might have wondered if there would ever be another CROWBAR release. But fear not, for CROWBAR returns and with Kirk having recently achieved sobriety, there’s an interesting twist to the morose, darkness that we’ve come to expect. There’s still plenty of burning rage left in the old dog on tracks like “Cemetery Angels” (harking back to “All I Had (I Gave)” as the band would do again on future releases), but there’s a new flavour of redemption and overcoming; battling with demons and actually perhaps coming out on top. It’s hard to imagine the Kirk of 10 or 20 years prior singing lines like “Crawl back from the dead. Set me free at last. Forevermore. Taste the freedom” as he does on “As I Become One”. I’ve seen some reviews refer to this album as “Christian metal”, but don’t be distracted in this way. Does anyone ever call Nick Cave’s music “Christian rock”? It’s refreshing to hear Kirk coming at his demons from a more redemptive perspective and it doesn’t detract from the power of the music. A lot of “Sever The Wicked Hand” is familiar musical territory, but even so there’s a freshness to these songs and they’re delivered with conviction and passion, with tracks like “Echo an Eternity” showing that Kirk can still effectively merge heaviness and melancholia to great effect, add to all this the new lyrical focus and you have a pretty great CROWBAR album. Not every track stands out as a shining CROWBAR classic, but the overall quality is very high and there’s plenty to hold your attention. After a 6-year break, this is a great return with memorable, heavy riffs and a few more low-key, introspective numbers like the haunting, piano driven “A Farewell To Misery”. Still going strong after 20 years.

#2: Sonic Excess In Its Purest Form (2001)

Do you ever have that situation where you take a sip of a drink and it’s so tasty that you find yourself looking at the can or bottle in surprise and then feel like a dick because you think you must look like some gormless actor in an advertisement feigning surprised pleasure? I repeatedly have that when I listen to this album. Nodding my head and making involuntary expressions of satisfaction. It’s just such a good record. Full of memorable tracks, as each begins I think: “oh cool it’s this one now!” The first release without original bassist Todd Strange, “Sonic Excess…” is a suitable title as this is very much an album about excess, with Kirk singing about drug and alcohol excesses and mental torment. Not new lyrical themes for CROWBAR, but this album perhaps more than any other of theirs really hammers home to sorrows of a life out of control. Sombre and often slow paced, without falling into morbid dirge territory, the tracks are so heavy and catchy that nothing drags. The sound is immense, clear, but reverberating, the guitars are just huge and each resonating, overdriven, crashing chord fills out every inch of the sonic landscape. There’s nothing weak here, no filler, an interesting, melancholic release from the band, contemplative, but as heavy as you could ask for. 

#1: Odd Fellows Rest (1998)

This is it; this is the one; the perfect coming together of everything that makes CROWBAR great. After consistent, incremental improvements from one release to the next this is where the band puts it all together. I can’t think of a single “bad” CROWBAR track; at their worst, they have some songs that just aren’t so memorable, here though every track is a finely crafted gem, one that flows together to form a surreally overpowering sonic megalith. Subtlety might not seem an obvious word to throw in when talking about CROWBAR when you first listen to them, but on “Odd Fellows Rest” more than any other album they craft the tracks with clever little variations to what at first might appear uncomplicated doomy, Sludge metal. Whether it’s the varied drum patterns, the mid-track tempo changes, or cleverly interwoven rhythms, there’s more intricacy and complexity here than it might at first seem. Kirk’s lyrics are suitably strange and otherworldly too; whereas on ‘Sonic Excess…’ it’s all very much an introspective dissection of personal torment, the songs here often place the listener into this weird and ominous landscape of gigantic forces of nature. The sound is huge and tracks like “1000 Years Internal War” and “It’s All In The Gravity” are absolutely crushing. It’s also extremely catchy, and whether it’s the rolling, lurching “New Man Born” (perhaps my favourite ever CROWBAR track), the mournful “Planets Collide” or “Scattered Pieces Lay” that starts out a furious, roaring charge before morphing into a slower and slower, dragging, wailing outro, everything is executed to perfection. It’s varied, interesting and sometimes surprising. A beast.

And if you want a quick taster of all these albums together, try my lovingly curated CROWBAR playlist on Spotify below. Heavy is as heavy does.

Tom Boatman

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