By This Axe, I Rule
Since they released the mighty Monnos in 2012, Liverpool, England’s Conan have turned more heads with their atavistic brand of doom metal than they should have. In this respect, Conan are akin to grinding hardcore hotshots Nails; neither is what you would normally class as a typical “buzz band”, yet metal and some non-metals folks have latched on to both bands tighter than a pair of skinny jeans on an obese hipster. In Conan’s case, this is surprising. As far as doom goes, the band dwell in the rigid, beat-you-to-death-with-a-riff end of the genre’s range. Melody is surplus to requirements and so too are the other flowery decorations that bands tied to doom tend to use as a means of differentiating themselves.
Because of the band’s stance, surely the fact that there is an increasing buzz around Conan must come as a surprise for guitarist and vocalist Jon Davis. Especially considering Davis’s main reason for forming the band (which is completed by bassist and vocalist Phil Coumbe and drummer Paul O’Neill) in 2006 was to act as an escape from the pain surrounding his personal life at the time. To recapture his verve after going through a divorce, Davis immersed himself in the classic tales of Robert E. Howard and other literary fantasists and used the kind of themes regularly reserved for power metal to fill the holes gouged by his ground-splitting riffs. Eight years into Conan’s existence and the band’s brute force musicianship and fantastical lyrics (which contain some basis in reality) are paying off for Davis and company. But interestingly, regardless of who’s listening, Conan have strengthened their resolve to be as uncompromising a metal band as possible.
Conan’s second full-length studio album, Blood Eagle, confirms their position. Blood Eagle takes its name from the execution method sadistically fashioned by the Vikings, whereby they would split the rib cage of their enemies down the middle from behind and drag their blood-sodden lungs out through their back. Conan have created six songs which are as brutally archaic and animalistic as the meaning behind their new album’s title. The riffs bludgeon relentlessly, the pounding rhythms are just as unforgiving, and the pitched shouts that decree Davis’s vivid lyrics makes for a sound that belongs to Conan and Conan alone. Of course, stories of battles, bloodshed, wizards, and warriors are nothing new to metal’s lyrical history, but the clever way in which Davis laces his words with a great sense of action and panic is what separates Conan from the pack. For instance, the lyrics to “Horns for Teeth”, which are indicative of the album as a whole, arise as follows:
“Destroyed destruction. Outdoing death. All Hail the Seeker. Black eyes of Death. Unblemished Blade. Held up to light. Delivers fate. Unending spite.”
Davis’s reasons for writing in this manner were revealed in an interesting interview in the latest issue of Terrorizer Magazine. Speaking to Popmatters’ own Adrien Begrand, Davis explained: “...if you were in the sort of situation where you had to scream your words, you wouldn’t be all wordy… you’d be shouting a couple words and ducking because a boulder’s coming at you.” After reading this interview and considering the rest of his lyrics, you can’t fault the rationale behind his writing. Indeed, his style imparts a crucial amount of movement to Conan’s music, which is necessary for a band whose cadence—except for moments like the opening avalanche of riffs and rhythms that begin “Foehammer”—generally lie between marauding, mid-paced stomps and devastating drones.
Musically, Conan base their oeuvre on twisting a groove to their gain: beginning in one tempo, quickening the pace gradually by winding the rotund riffs tighter, and increasing the intensity and velocity of each repetition through harder hitting beats and an ample smothering of cymbal crashes. This particular songwriting tactic works to a thunderous effect on “Crown of Talons”, and Conan use it as a weapon time and time again throughout Blood Eagle.
For a band with self-imposed stylistic limits, it’s a credit to Conan’s songwriting abilities that their tunnel-vision approach to metal doesn’t sound monochromatic. Great attention has been paid to the pacing of the album and the internal pace of each song. For example, “Total Conquest” starts with stuttering doom riffs, then is joined in unison by beats that slam then slow to an arthritic crawl. The riff then changes course, beckoning Davis’s battle cries of “Rise immortal heathens. Do what must be done. Return from within us. The Kings of The Sun.” O’Neill’s sleight of hand, swing, and accent-heavy playing (his cymbal work on this album is a joy to behold) never sound out of place, and in turn his tom fills set up a bass-heavy groove which brings the song to a naturally destructive end.
Likewise, the aforementioned “Foehammer”, the sludgy gallop of “Gravity Chasm”, and “Horns for Teeth”—which sounds as if Greg Anderson used Sunn O))) to revisit his hardcore roots—are all intent on loosening every tooth in your head, mercilessly moving from all out onslaught to painful chord abuse. But not only that, the confidence of the band to allow each note to ring out clearly and defiantly, similar to Sleep’s bong-aided sway, is quite noticeable right the way through, especially during the colossal pillars that stand at the beginning and end of the album, “Crown of Talons” and “Altar of Grief”.
At this point in their career, even though the band have caused quite a stir, Conan’s music isn’t for everyone (this includes metal fans), as the throbbing neurological torment caused by the band’s torturous low-end is the equivalent of biting down on a brick of tinfoil when you’ve got thirty fillings in your gob. However, the other side of it is that this might just be the best thing about Conan’s music: you can feel it. It’s physical. It’s painful. It’s all power.