If you're a metal band rolling into Houston for the first time, there aren't too many better guys to have backing you up than Phil Anselmo. The ex-Pantera front man is unabashedly worshipped as a metal god throughout Texas, and when he speaks, Houston's heavy music fans listen.
Lately, Anselmo has been spreading the gospel of haarp, the New Orleans sludge-metal quartet whose debut LP, The Filth, was released on his Housecore label in 2010. He's taken a real stake in the band's success -- Anselmo manned the booth on the band's follow-up to be released this year, and now he's taken them out on tour.
The group makes its Houston debut opening up for Anselmo's Down Saturday at Warehouse Live.
It's not hard to figure out what attracted Phil in the first place: haarp (yep, always lowercase) is excruciatingly heavy. Guitarist Grant Tom and bassist Ryan Pomes churn out oppressively thick riffs that ooze from the speakers, and the sounds that vocalist Shaun Emmons rips from his throat sound as if he'd just chugged blackened bongwater. Songs on the album run upwards of nine minutes, giving drummer Keith Sierra plenty of space to swing hammers.
New Orleans boasts a fine tradition of heavy sludge, but the scene vets in haarp didn't adopt the mercilessly slow style until the band was formed in the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As the destruction scattered the city's musicians, haarp emerged from the splinters.
"We were all just mutual friends in the music scene, and we all met each other and all needed to get together and put the band together after the hurricane," Sierra says. "We talked about what direction to go in, because all of our old bands, we'd played a different style of music for many years, you know, whether it was death metal or grindcore or black metal.
"For haarp, we decided to go with something a little more mid-paced and heavy-metal-oriented, instead of doing the extreme speed-style music."
The band found a crucial supporter in Anselmo, who's a bit of an amateur curator of American extreme metal and metal from his hometown of New Orleans, in particular.
"We knew him from seein' him at shows, and he had come to see the band that Shaun and I were in before the hurricane," Sierra says. "After the hurricane, we just got back in touch with him and he asked what we were doing. We told him about haarp, and he asked us to send a copy of the CD."
Today, Anselmo serves as the band's label head, producer and tour mate, giving haarp a close-up look at nearly every facet of the legend's expertise in the music business.
"You know, really, he's the same guy in all of those circumstances," Sierra says. "He keeps it upbeat and he jokes around, and there's not really a time when he gets too heavy on the business side or too heavy on being the record-label guy. He's always just down to earth, and he's more of our friend than anything."
Anselmo has a lot of friends in Houston, and haarp seems sure to receive a warm, sweaty embrace by the Down fans in attendance Saturday. The group has already risen to the top of the New Orleans metal scene: Last year, they were named the city's Best Metal Band at the Big Easy Music Awards.
The apocalyptic pain of Hurricane Katrina -- keenly felt in Houston -- and the daunting inevitability of NOLA's slow rebuild thoroughly inform haarp songs like "A New Reign" and "The Fall, the Rise." But Sierra says his city's metal scene has emerged healthy and secure in the storm's disorienting aftermath.
"There are a number of bands that are well-known: You have your Eyehategods, your Soilent Greens, your Goatwhores, your Downs, all those bands," he says. "You have the next level of bands that are pretty good and have a good following in the New Orleans scene, and then you have a lot of younger players that are comin' out with new bands and a lot of small bands in the New Orleans area and surrounding areas like Lafayette, so it's pretty good.
"The scene's doing well, and it has a lot of different bands and a lot of talent up there making music."
Sierra and his bandmates are headed back to New Orleans as soon as the Down tour wraps up to finalize the artwork for their new record and play a few shows around its release.
"Then we go straight back to the room," he says. "We're gonna write some new stuff and record some more music for a split that's gonna come out on Housecore. We'll throw in little shows here and there when we can; we all have day jobs and we got bills to pay at home and things to do, so it kind of limits us, you know. We'd like to get out more than we can, but it's kind of difficult right now."
Whether they come back sooner or later, we've got a hunch that Saturday won't be haarp's last trip to Houston -- not if Phil Anselmo has anything to say about it. Check 'em out this weekend so you can say you saw their first show in town.
With Down, 8 p.m. Saturday at Warehouse Live.
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