[5 March 2012]
It would be impossible to overstate the crucial role Corrosion of Conformity have played in the evolution of heavy metal. COC’s blend of gravel-rash hardcore, doom metal and Southern rock played a pivotal role in defining the ‘80s crossover scene, forever altering metal’s parameters. Since the band’s inception in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1982, they has become a firm favorite among fans and critics alike. Incorporating a raft of heavy elements—a bit of punk here, a touch of dirty thrash there, and Black Sabbath-inspired riffs everywhere—COC have spent their career rumbling forward with a ton of downtuned swagger and a decidedly unruly bite.
Following COC’s last release, ‘05’s acclaimed In the Arms of God, the band went into hiatus. Pepper Keenan, the band’s primary vocalist during its peak period of commercial popularity, went on to dedicate his time to the cannabinol-fuelled Down. In 2010 it was announced that the very same venerated trio that recorded COC’s seminal album Animosity were regrouping. Vocalist/bassist Mike Dean, guitarist/vocalist Woody Weatherman, and drummer Reed Mullin began playing shows with the ultimate aim of recording a new album. After touring to much acclaim, COC’s newest and self-titled album brings to a close an excruciatingly long period of recording inactivity. With a line-up reflecting a classic period of the group’s history, expectations are rightly set at maximum.
The first and most obvious issue about the new album is the lack of Keenan. His vocals and guitar work were a defining feature of the band, and there’s no denying that his spirited tones will be missed by many fans. But while his often-soulful vocals clearly played a part in the band’s success, to suggest his absence renders the album or the band incomplete is wrong. While stalwarts Dean and Weatherman provide the vocals this time round, with an admittedly gruffer timbre, the tracks have all been written to accentuate COC’s strengths as the band stands today.
COC’s discography is filled with albums on which the viscous heaviness has been expertly rendered. Blind,Deliverence, Wiseblood and America’s Volume Dealer are all much loved albums to varying degrees. But fans concerned that Keenan’s absence means COC’s Southern temperance has been discarded for the coarser hardcore of its early years can rest easy. Admittedly, there is a paring back of the strutting stoner groove COC became so famed for, but the band ensures there’s still plenty of bolstering sludge in the mix. And correspondingly, while there’s an abundance of belligerence to the album, drawing a great deal of lyrical inspiration from the band’s formative period, there’s a lot more going on here than rote revisiting.
A recent quote from bassist Mike Dean sums up the album succinctly: “This is every stage of the group’s career, filtered through the lens of this particular moment.” The opening track, “Psychic Vampire”, bursts forth with a feigning doom riff, quickly detours into some breakneck dirty punk, before transforming again as swampy tempos are counterpointed by bursts of speed. It’s a fine beginning, and perfectly emphasizes Dean’s suggestion that the album unifies two distinct eras.
Throughout the album the band’s earlier hardcore methodologies are merged with its latter-day Southern metal, yet both styles are weighted and measured so that no one style engulfs the other. This coalescing of genres sits at the crux of what makes Corrosion of Conformity such a gutsy effort. While the band could have placated fans by either fashioning an old-school hardcore album or continuing on with its boggy metallic rock, they have taken the more difficult path, attempting to find some sense of balance between the two. Thus, you get the speedy hardcore and mucky d-beat of “Leeches”, “What You Become”, “Rat City”, “The Doom"and “The Moneychangers”, but counterbalancing all the fury is plenty of the slow-baked smoky grind COC is famed for. “Newness”, “Time of Trials”, “Your Tomorrow” and “River of Stone” could have sat on any of the band’s last few albums comfortably.
A slimmed down band could have hindered the album’s impact, but again, COC play to their strengths in this regard. Corrosion of Conformity was recorded at Dave Grohl’s Studio 606 and produced by the band with perennial collaborator John Custer. As expected, the final result is robust and raw, capturing the tight interplay between the members and this was no doubt helped by extensive touring before and during the recording process. The recording may be an issue for fans expecting the molasses-thick guitar from COC’s latter-day albums. But the new songs themselves have a scratchier, edgier tone, which suits the production very well. If anything, the fact that COC is now a trio has actually increased its palpability. All the tweaks, scrapes, nuances and that fantastically organic roughness have been captured crisply, giving the album plenty of heft without unnecessary sheen.
Corrosion of Conformity is an album that succeeds on many levels. Firstly, it welcomes back one of metal’s most influential bands, which is cause for much jubilation. More importantly, the album builds on the band’s legacy, pushing forward into uncharted territory which is a substantial and admirable feat for a band passing its 30th anniversary in 2012. There’s a clue in the album title itself, a salute to an enduring legacy coupled with a bold statement that this is, above all else, what the band is supposed to sound like.
By harnessing the rage and passion of its earliest years, and combining that with the most celebrated aspects of its work from the past two decades, the group has produced an album that genuinely bridges a gap between two formally distinct periods of its career. COC may have changed a few members, but they lost none of their muscle. Corrosion of Conformity is an album with all the strength and integrity of COC’s very best work.