I first discovered Corrosion of Conformity during the mid-’90s Pepper Keenan (guitar/vocals) era; by then, they had fully traded in the crossover thrash of 1985’s Animosity album in favor of the swaggering, metallic southern rock of Deliverance and Wiseblood. That’s the COC I had come to know and love over the years, so I was admittedly apprehensive upon hearing that the band had reconvened without Keenan at the helm to record their first new material since 2005’s underrated In the Arms of God. Would they abandon the smoked-out stoner-isms that had made COC so near and dear to my heart in favor of revisiting the crossover days of yore? Would Keenan’s absense leave an unfillable hole in their sound?
As it turns out, I didn’t have a thing to worry about. Corrosion of Conformity doesn’t completely revisit the Animosity era, nor does it adhere to the Southern-fried super-rock of Keenan’s tenure. Instead, it is a nearly perfect combination of both, resulting in something familiar yet different; the next step in COC’s sonic evolution (how many three decade old bands can you name that are still evolving?) and their strongest batch of material since Wiseblood.
Opening track “Psychic Vampire” can be seen as a microcosm for the entire album, kicking things off with a Tom Warrior-esque “UGH!” from bassist/vocalist Mike Dean and a sludgy verse riff before seamlessly transitioning into crossover mode for the chorus. The song is a statement of intent that shows off all of COC’s strengths circa 2012. The rest of the album continues on in much the same fashion, going from strength to strength; “River of Stone” reverses the formula of “Psychic Vampire” with a revved-up verse, a doomy chorus and a middle section that slows the track down to a dying man’s crawl, while “Leeches” is a two-minute-and-fifteen-second blast of pure punk. “El Lamento de las Cabras” is an interlude that lands somewhere between Southern rock and a Spaghetti Western soundtrack, serving as a brief respite before COC careens into “Your Tomorrow,” a pummeling track with a ridiculously catchy chorus. Track by track, the band unleashes volley after volley of feral, unmitigated heaviness.
Corrosion of Conformity loses none of its steam as it progresses. “The Doom” marks the album’s halfway point, more than living up to its name with thunderous, groovy riffing that recalls Eyehategod, before “The Moneychangers” kicks you square in the teeth. “Come Not Here” is a true departure for COC, coming off (at least to these ears) like a long lost Soundgarden track circa Down on the Upside, contrasting itself nicely with the one-two punch of anti-corporate anthem “What We Become” and the raging “Rat City.” “Time of Trials” closes out Corrosion of Conformity with some of the album’s heaviest riffs and rhythms, plus some soulful soloing from guitarist Woody Weatherman. There isn’t a bum track on the whole recording, and COC sounds so goddamn mean and hungry for its duration that you’d never guess they were a trio of fortysomethings.
Production and playing-wise, Corrosion of Conformity is equal parts grit and finesse. The album sounds like three dudes playing in a room together, but these three dudes have a killer set-up where each instrument is perfectly audible and comfortably occupies its own space within the mix. Mike Dean’s vocals are about as gnarly as it gets, somewhere between Mark “The Shark” Shelton (Manilla Road) and Dennis “Snake” Belanger (Voivod), executed with all the verve and venom that the comparison implies. Woody Weatherman’s guitar is all dry, crunchy mid-range, and the riff-barrage he brings to the table proves that COC only needs one guitar to kick the living shit out of you (no offense, Pepper). Corrosion of Conformity also marks Reed Mullin’s return to the drum throne after being temporarily replaced by Stanton Moore (of jazz/funk freaks Galactic) for In the Arms of God, and his playing is just as hard-hitting as you remember it, a rock-solid foundation for the sonic bludgeoning whipped up by Weatherman and Dean. COC play with the skill of the seasoned musicians they are, but with a violence and vigor that bands a third of their age wish they were capable of mustering.
Corrosion of Conformity is one of 2012’s most pleasant metallic surprises; an album that re-establishes COC as the power-house band they’ve always been, while at the same time taking their sound in an interesting new direction. While other veteran bands are content to spin their wheels and relive past glories, COC are forever forging ahead, finding fresh ways to unleash their animosity.