For a band that sold a pretty sizable number of records and spent time in the 90s opening for the likes of Metallica, Corrosion of Conformity sure does have a wacky history…
The core three of Mike Dean, Woody Weatherman, and Reed Mullin weren’t always a trio in the 80s, but were when they released the minor crossover classic Animosity. They added some members, then subtracted some members. Mike Dean left, but a dash of Pepper (Keenan) led to Blind. Dean returned and Pepper took the frontman job, leading to the undeniable classic Deliverance. A very successful run followed, then Mullin left and the band briefly recruited jazzman Stanton Moore for an album and tour. Then Pepper left, or didn’t, or he was taking a break–no one quite knows for sure but he wasn’t with the band for eight years as he was getting paychecks with Down.
Meanwhile Mullin returned and the band released two decent but somewhat forgettable albums as a trio that sounded neither exactly like their 80s crossover material nor their swaggeriffic 90s jams. It seemed as if the three guys that formed the band had forgotten how to truly excel because they hadn’t been the only three guys in said band since they were kids. They couldn’t turn back time, at least not that far. During their long journey they’d found the perfect voice and grown up at least a little, so eventually that voice had to return.
Enter No Cross No Crown. Many will point to this as being the first COC album with Pepper Keenan since 2005’s beastly In the Arms of God, which it is. But Mullin’s return during Pepper’s gone years means it’s also the first album to feature the band’s core four since America’s Volume Dealer way back in the year 2000. A lot has changed in that time: the lives of the people in the band, their likelihood of a big financial return, the metal scene, the world, our general levels of existential terror, and us as human beings and music fans.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is the fundamental sound these four dudes found in the 90s. There is nothing new going on with No Cross No Crown; much of it could be of outtakes from the Deliverance and Wiseblood sessions. It isn’t as strong a set of songs as either album, don’t be silly, and there are some differences, but making something totally new or instantly classic was never the goal of the album. The goal was to turn back time to their most iconic period, and to that end they have been quite successful, even if there are more than a couple cases of déjà vu. (Notably: the verses of “Wolf Named Crow” get pretty close to those of “Wiseblood,” but thankfully the song takes a smokey detour that totally changes the vibe.)
Label: Nuclear Blast.
COC, on the other hand, are seemingly unable to outgrow this feel. This is undeniably a group of musicians that is experienced, comfortable in their craft, and most importantly, comfortable with each other. The chemistry, mixed with how long it’s been since this exact lineup recorded together, gives the impression that they just did this for fun, and are only releasing it because that’s the traditional thing to do with music. It also undoubtedly helps that Weatherman still understands the value of a little lead flourish and that Keenan’s snidely-soulful-sneer is as good as ever. The man remains one of the true greats.
So the feel is there, as is the sound. But the songs? As stated, No Cross No Crown isn’t as strong as this band’s pair of 90s pinnacles, nor is it up there with In the Arms of God, but any insistence that it lacks in great tunes will be debunked the moment “The Luddite” kick-stomps into a higher gear than anything on the Pepperless albums (or Volume Dealer, for that matter). It’s an instant COC classic and monster album opener (not counting the intro).
But it’s also isn’t particularly indicative of the rest of the album, as only a couple other songs drive with this efficient purpose. This is absolutely not a knock, as several tunes find huge success by swapping a bit of the thickness for a bigger-than-usual dose of 70s vibes. The mid-album pair of “Forgive Me” and “Nothing Left to Say” show off the range of this approach, with the former fully indulging in Lizzy-isms (not hard to imagine Phil Lynott singing instead of Keenan), and the latter shifting from an extremely hazy verse into a doomier chorus. Both also show off the range of the underrated Mullin; punchy to the max in the former, all swing-slappy in the latter.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt when the heft and haze are employed equally. “E.L.M.” pairs the Lizzy-esque lead harmonies with some of the album’s chunkiest riffage, and “A Quest to Believe (A Call to the Void)” provides an emotional climax to the album by offering both the outright doomiest passages on the album (riffs and determined vocals both) and some of the simplest, most distant leads. Both tracks are proof that even if No Cross No Crown is a little heavier on the classic rock vibes than an album like Deliverance, it’s merely a slight adjustment of the same formula (closing Queen cover notwithstanding).
After all the leads fade and riffs rumble, No Cross No Crown essentially does for COC what Surgical Steel did for Carcass a few years back: it folds time, connecting the present to the past. Nothing is really new, and no one sounds older or particularly wiser, but there is nothing that could be considered a source of shame. Like Surgical Steel, No Cross No Crown ultimately fails to live up to the albums that serve as its source, but also like that album, there is plenty here for old fans to appreciate and cherish. The band is back on the map with quality new tunes, and that alone is cause for excitement.
Most of all, it’s great to have COC back in this form. This lineup carries a unique symbolic voice in metal that had been gone too long, mostly because their unique actual voice was missing, but also because they successfully splice the down-on-your-luck everymanness of the blues with the fed-up rage of metal (even if the rage is often subdued), without ever taking a cheap or pandering shortcut to these ends. With Pepper back and sounding as great as ever, all is right and full in their camp again, and they can get back to doing what they do best: giving the metal stage a little bit more soul and swagger. These new tunes will fit in splendidly.