Artist: Corrosion of Conformity
Title: No Cross No Crown
Genre: Heavy Metal
Release Date: January 12, 2018
Length: 58 min.
Label: Nuclear Blast
Producer: John Custer
Personnel: Pepper Keenan (Lead Vocals, Guitars), Reed Mullin (Drums), Mike Dean (Bass, Backing Vocals), and Woody Weatherman (Guitars, Backing Vocals)
Additional Personnel: John Custer (Guitars, Backing Vocals)
If I ever make a “most underrated metal bands of all time” list, Corrosion of Conformity (affectionately referred to as C.O.C.) will be in serious consideration for a spot. If you enjoy both metal and rock, and you like many of the subgenres within those two genres, I highly recommend a listen through Corrosion of Conformity’s discography. Perhaps the only reason these guys are not often considered as one of the great bands is that they have dabbled with so many different sounds over the course of their career and throughout their various lineup changes. They’ve never truly had a bad album.
Corrosion of Conformity’s 1982 debut LP, Eye for an Eye, is a fun yet super aggressive and speedy, technical, hardcore punk record that is probably one of my favorites in that particular genre. Then with the rising thrash movement of the early ’80s, especially with the debut albums of Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax in ’83 and early ’84, C.O.C. melded their punk sound with thrash and became crossover thrash pioneers, alongside D.R.I. and Suicidal Tendencies, pumping out the now classic Animosity in ’85. Not content with that path, however, they hacked toward a more straightforward heavy metal sound, influenced heavily by Black Sabbath-style doom, and mixed that with their thrash and the rising groove and sludge metal of the time to produce ’91’s Blind.
They took this sound one step further, further down South (not surprising, since they’ve always been based in Raleigh, North Carolina), and blended the things they were trying for on Blind with stoner and southern metal and rock to produce my personal favorite C.O.C. album, Deliverance, in ’94. ’96’s Wiseblood more or less continued in the same, as did 2000’s America’s Volume Dealer, though that album went more toward their rock side and even had some alternative rock touches. The three albums afterward – In the Arms of God (’04), Corrosion of Conformity (’12), and IX (’14) – more or less played with the sounds of the three albums before those, occasionally referencing hardcore as well.
As I mentioned, throughout the band’s career their lineup changed multiple times. Just looking at the lead vocalist spot in C.O.C., you’ll see Eric Eycke on Eye for an Eye, Mike Dean on Animosity, Karl Agell on Blind, Pepper Keenan from Deliverance through In the Arms of God, and Mike Dean and Reed Mullin on the eponymous album and IX.
So that brings us to this year and Corrosion of Conformity’s tenth studio LP release, with Keenan back on lead vocals. It’s also the first time Keenan, Weatherman, Dean, and Mullin have all four been together on an album since America’s Volume Dealer. In an interview you can watch on Nuclear Blast Record’s YouTube channel, the band members revealed (albeit confusingly) that this album has religious undertones. Albums throughout C.O.C.’s discography have posited various thoughts on religion with no single position taken. This one leans more heavily into their Christian and southern religious roots, though it still doesn’t take any huge position on religion or spirituality. Perhaps they are getting older and asking themselves more questions, which I’m happy to see. They got the title, No Cross No Crown, from an old, decommissioned church they performed at in England, where a stained glass window in the rectory bore the title inscription, which affected the band’s spirits, positively, with a general idea that guided them as they developed this record.
All that talk aside, how good is the album at hand?
I’ll tell you this, No Cross No Crown is a far better album than I expected this early in the year, and it’s my favorite C.O.C. album since Wiseblood. Folks who feel similarly might even say this is a proper follow-up to Deliverance and Wiseblood, though Keenan’s last album, In the Arms of God, is actually really good and underrated. It’s music, here, that sounds like sludge, stoner, doom, and traditional heavy metal, along with many southern rock, classic rock, and even psychedelic elements, as if the band’s biggest influences at this point are ZZ Top, Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, The Melvins, and Neurosis.
No Cross No Crown is also definitely the band’s heaviest album to my ears since Deliverance, and it’s their tightest in a while. You’ll hear this right from the get-go with the intro track, “Novus Deus,” and the first full song, “The Luddite,” one of the best tracks on the album and a fantastic opener. Keenan’s vocals are husky and harsh with a bit of a growl, Pepper aging tastefully into his aging voice.
The instrumentation, too, strides intimidatingly but flavorfully. Keenan’s and Weatherman’s dual guitars harmonize beautifully, on top of being regularly low-tuned and distorted, with ominous riffing and a tone that is both southern-friend and doomy. Meanwhile, Dean’s groovy, pounding bass and Mullin’s battering drums – at last produced decently, for the first time in a while – back up the music excellently and provide a concrete foundation. The band is in sync, performing well, and displaying excellent chemistry while showing themselves to be experienced and self-assured, essentially the best a thirty-six year old band can ask to be. And even if their hardcore punk and thrash days are far behind them at this point, those sensibilities still present themselves throughout the runtime. They’re doing well by doubling down on past sounds in some areas and building upon those in other areas.
Getting into the other songs, “Cast the First Stone” brings in C.O.C.’s signature rock ‘n’ roll infusion with a kinetic exuberance. “Wolf Named Crow,” my favorite track, is cool and bluesy with a palpable ’70s metal vibe. Then comes “Little Man,” soulful and strutting, sounding like its taking place in the swamps of Louisiana. It’s Skynyrd gone metal. “Forgive Me” is almost a boogie. “Nothing Left to Say” is very Wiseblood, with standout bass work and a grungy feel. “Old Disaster” has a lot of energy and some Mastodon-style sludge. I called “Little Man” Skynyrd gone metal; “Old Disaster” is the Allman Brothers Band gone metal. “E.L.M.” finds the band giving over fully to their Sabbath worship.
The title track, the weirdest here, is a bit disappointing, moody and brooding without ever paying off. But “A Quest to Believe (A Call to the Void)” commits more to the doom side of this album and is a showcase for the band’s abilities, also featuring some great fret-running from Weatherman. So we’re leaving out on a high note, but then along stumbles “Son and Daughter.” It’s an interesting enough Queen cover, kind of raw fascinating in that it’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to knowing what it would have sounded like if Sabbath had ever covered a Queen song. It just doesn’t work as a finale, especially in light of how well “A Quest to Believe” would have worked.
This isn’t a perfect album. Beyond what I just said, I love Keenan’s haggard vocals, which help add to a feeling of heaviness, but there are moments where he tries to swim into his old vocal range yet can’t quite reach it before sputtering. The interludes, instrumental segues, are frustrating and could have been cut completely, which would have shaved off a healthy six minutes. Or they could have easily worked them into the actual intros of the actual songs, and that would have worked better. In the last half or third, things become somewhat rote. Whereas in the early part of the album the heavy, repetitive riffs sounded energized, they become a bit too monotonous. The songs don’t necessarily lack identity, but, especially after the first listen, you might think back on the album and only remember the identities of a few. The track listing also lacks the focus that could have turned this really good record into a great one. Some people have complained about the mix’s muddiness, but I found it appropriate for C.O.C.’s work here and my personal favorite production for the band since Deliverance or Wiseblood, the 2000s and other 2010 albums having succumbed to some of the same production issues that plagued Metallica from Load to Death Magnetic.
Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed spinning No Cross No Crown, listening to it on repeat a few times. I’m never bored when I listen to it, either, despite my negatives above that may seem to point in that direction. Corrosion of Conformity are drawing upon quite an eclectic number of sources for their sound, but the thing that makes me like this album so much is that I love all the genres and subgenres from which they’re pulling. If you’re uninterested in or tired of those, though, well, No Cross No Crown won’t change your mind.
I think a lot of metal and rock fans will dig this. Like Black Label Society’s Grimmest Hits, which came out just one week after this did, No Cross No Crown is crowd-pleasing heavy metal, and I mean that in the very best sense.
I’m going to give Corrosion of Conformity’s No Cross No Crown an 80%.
P.S.: Here’s how I think the track listing could have been great: Trash all the interludes except the first one, cut the awkwardly placed “Nothing Left to Say,” remove the out-of-place title track, and relegate the finale Queen cover to a bonus track. If you did that, you would have a leaner, meaner, thirty-eight minute album I could have come close to calling great.