An Eyehategod show is a nonstop barrage of mixed messages. On Friday, at New York’s Brooklyn Bazaar, frontman Mike Williams flipped off the crowd constantly, both during and between songs. Whenever they had free hands, Jimmy Bower and Gary Mader, the 30-year-old New Orleans band’s respective guitarist and bassist, did the same. Just as often, they expressed sincere gratitude: Bower clapped for the audience; Williams told them, “We fuckin’ love you guys, we really do.” When introducing the song “Medicine Noose,” Bower made an upside-down fist near his head and jerked it upward, miming a self-hanging, with Williams adding, “This song’s about killing yourself.” When it was over, the vocalist went back to playing the genial host: “Is everybody having a good time?”
By the looks of it, everyone was. Even before the proper show started, when the band began its customary onstage overture — a lengthy, tension-building feedback drone, like a moment of zen’s nauseating inverse — people near the front were shoving and shouting, getting riled up. Then, Williams gave the signal, shouting, “We’re Eyehategod, from New Orleans, Louisiana,” in his trademark caustic bark. Hill counted off the tempo, and the band kicked into “Agitation! Propaganda!,” the hardcore-style rager that opens their 2014 self-titled album, and the place went off. The crowd had been attentive and vocal for the night’s openers, which included veteran Maryland hard-rockers the Obsessed, the band’s U.S. tourmates through September 24th. But at this moment, it was like some sort of switch had been flicked in the showgoing hive mind. For the next 90 minutes, the show became a sweat-and-beer-soaked bacchanal, with shirts coming off, sweaty grins exchanged and the mosh pit threatening to engulf the whole room.
There are certain bands who are very good at playing heavy rock or metal music. They’re tight, intense, professional; they project just the right air of macho authority. You might catch them in a club, nod your head and shoot “not bad” looks to your friends during their set, and spring for a T-shirt at the merch table afterward. Then there are other bands, a very small handful, who, through some alchemical combination of execution and attitude, transcend their subgenre completely and connect with the primal root of rock & roll, offering showgoers a hint of that sacred, “What in the fuck is happening right now?” wildness that’s been the hallmark of great American artists from Howlin’ Wolf to Jerry Lee Lewis and the Stooges. Eyehategod are one of these bands. No matter what your level of interest in metal or punk or any of their offshoots, if you value the cardinal virtues of rock, you need to see them live at least once.
There’s no single satisfying name for the kind of music Eyehategod play. There is a term, “sludge metal,” that often gets affixed to them and fellow Big Easy bands like Down (which features Bower on drums) and Crowbar, neither of whom really sound anything like Eyehategod except in the macro sense of “big riffs and slow tempos.” But it feels too limiting. It doesn’t get at the way Eyehategod cherry-pick, mashing together elements from different eras and movements to create a kind of ultimate form of riff-based amplified art.
“I don’t really like that term,” Williams told an interviewer in 2010 of the “sludge” tag. “To me, we are just a rock ‘n’ roll, blues band. We never called ourselves a sludge metal band. That was made up by journalists. I think we started a style of music, putting the hardcore punk thing with the slow, Sabbath-style metal — kind of like Black Flag meets Black Sabbath. Those are two of my favorite bands so it kind of made sense.” He put it more succinctly in the liner notes to a vinyl reissue of the band’s 1993 masterpiece, Take as Needed for Pain, which came in at number 92 on Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Metal Albums of All Time: “Total hardcore and total doom.” Opening track “Blank,” with its contrast between frenetic uptempo bashing and a greasy, sluggish evil-blues groove, epitomizes the band’s M.O.
Other, earlier bands, particularly Raleigh’s Corrosion of Conformity on their 1985 cult classic Animosity, had homed in on a similar blend. But Eyehategod, formed in 1988, made it feel rawer and more massive, adding in a certain kind of scuzzy, substance-fueled misanthropy. “All the followers of my path must, in order to reach spiritual discovery, make one hallucinogenic trip per week with LSD, and every day with marijuana,” read a note in the original edition of Take as Needed. “They must abandon their families and society as soon as possible.” Williams’ fragmentary, rarely intelligible lyrics, filled with cryptic, often stomach-turning scenes of degradation, completed the disturbing picture.
But in contrast to the band’s anti-social doctrine, Eyehategod shows are all about community. Williams subjects the audience to constant badgering — everything he says between songs has the tone of the town smart-ass trying to provoke a bar fight just to see what will happen — but his quips feel more affectionate than mean-spirited. He doesn’t spare his bandmates either. “Jimmy’s gonna show you his dick soon,” Williams told the crowd on Friday, as Bower looked on with an amused “news to me” expression. “You have to see it; it’s really weird.” Williams paused, and then added, “It looks like a spool of thread.” Later he was exchanging onstage hugs with both Bower and Mader, sometimes midsong, and inviting the band’s merch guy up so the crowd could sing happy birthday to him. (In true Eyehategod fashion, the birthday boy’s chocolate cake came complete with a cigarette for a candle.)
Ball-busting camaraderie aside, Eyehategod’s music-making itself is dead serious. The band started out as provocateurs: “That was the concept of Eyehategod in the beginning: To play as slow and aggravating as possible and just destroy people,” Williams told Decibel in 2006. (“We were ecstatic that people hated us,” Bower added.) Now, operating in their self-created niche, they’re virtuosos. Few bands have a more organic understanding of the art and science of the riff, and the laid-back finesse that’s required to make you feel a given groove in your bones. On Friday, the band’s renditions of Take as Needed favorites like “Sister Fucker (Part 1)” and the title track swung mightily, feeling closer to overdriven R&B than rigid metal.
Their current quartet configuration is still new — Hill stepped in after the death of original drummer Joey LaCaze in 2013, and Bower’s longtime fellow guitarist Brian Patton recently left the group to spend more time with his family — but entirely convincing. Bower is the band’s nerve center, injecting each riff with maximum swagger and milking the pauses with his trademark vibrato bends. His guitar functions like another voice, a point he drives home by mouthing out nearly everything he plays. Mader and Hill breathe with him like a great jazz rhythm team.
Williams is the chaos element. With his cockeyed grin, hollow features and taped-up fingers, he looks — and at times sounds — like he wandered in off the street, dazed and muttering to himself. (Offstage, Williams has been through a lot: heroin addiction, jail, a liver transplant following cirrhosis.) He tears at his hair, crosses himself, jerks the mic stand back and forth. His delivery, an unremittingly abrasive part-yell, part-screech acts a brilliantly harsh complement to the band’s deep-pocket grooves. At one point on Friday, he got ahold of Bower’s guitar and started jamming with Mader and Hill on some improv hardcore, as Bower looked on with a grin. “I only know Discharge riffs,” Williams told the crowd.
Friday’s Eyehategod show wasn’t that different from the last couple this writer has witnessed. The set leaned heavily on Take as Needed and Eyehategod, their final album with Patton and LaCaze and arguably their second-strongest overall. If this were another band, one might start to wonder when they might go back into the studio, or at least start rotating some new songs into the set.
But Eyehategod don’t really work like that. In their 30-year lifespan, they’ve only released five full-lengths. That might be because they don’t really need fresh material: Each night onstage, they bring their repertoire to life with a soulfulness and sincerity that only the most elite bands in any genre can match. On Friday, amid the dick jokes, shit talk and Williams’ constant snot rockets, the music operated on a higher plane. The trappings of an Eyehategod show might be profane but the feeling is something sacred.