Three decades on, the North Carolina heaviosity merchants are still making brainy, brawny, ballsy rock.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
IX, the simply titled ninth LP from shapeshifting hard rock crew Corrosion of Conformity, arrived on the same day as Once More ‘Round the Sun, the sixth album from Atlanta’s similarly mercurial Mastodon. Both bands draw from all over the heavy music spectrum — CoC having tripped through hardcore, thrash and sludgy psych-rock during three topsy-turvy decades; Mastodon having bred humid Southern pummeling with prog-ish embellishments across its first few albums. Of late, though, both have settled into a similar pattern, using unusual tools to create rock that is hefty and accessible, intelligent but keying on the simple pleasure of pounding rhythms and driving riffs.
For Mastodon, things aren’t working out so great. While 2011’s The Hunter found middling success by accenting fortified Foo Fighters riffing with subtle melodic detours, Once More sees them juggling opposing impulses, dropping as many leaden balls as they catch. On “Aunt Lisa,” for instance, the band augments its muscular surge with serpentine melodies, ratcheting intensity with utmost precision — but the song unravels after the halfway point, attempting to contrast its rich complexities with a painfully hamfisted refrain: “Hey, ho, let’s fucking go,” adds a chorus of female voices, “Hey, ho, let’s get up and rock ‘n’ roll.”
But unlike Mastodon, CoC have had a couple dozen years to work past such growing pains. On IX, they touch on virtually every sound that has ever graced their catalog, fusing them at oddly pleasing angles to deliver 11 unassuming rock songs that are heavy, catchy and fun as all hell. Mastodon might be the one playing outsized clubs and coveted festival stages — among them a headlining slot at the Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, N.C., CoC’s hometown — but it’s the elder group that is truly excelling.
After 32 years spent rewriting hard rock rules in relative obscurity, CoC bassist and singer Mike Dean is content with this lot.
He answers his phone, exiting what he describes as a “concrete bunker.” He’s likely on the same industrial end of Raleigh where the band has commandeered an old recording studio complete with some enviable vintage gear. They reunited four years ago, ending a five-year hiatus. And while they cut 2012’s Corrosion of Conformity out at Dave Grohl’s Studio 606 in Los Angeles, they handled IX and an intervening EP in their reclaimed digs. It’s been a busy stretch, with all that recording broken up by frequent tours. Dean, though, is hungry for more.
“It feels good, man,” he says, speaking to CoC’s current pace and the pressure of living up to their past works. “It’s always a challenge. It’s a responsibility. It’s a ‘failure is no option’ kind of endeavor, and I feel good in that. I feel like it gives meaning to the process. The stakes are higher, you know? It makes the pre-show and the post-show activities or lack thereof a little more regimented, just trying to make sure that you can do the same thing tomorrow.”
From the blistering hardcore of 1983’s Eye for an Eye to the vicious thrash crossover of 1985’s Animosity to the righteous riffs of1991’s Blind, the band’s early catalog is as essential as it is influential — a reality that weighs particularly heavy on CoC’s current lineup: Dean, guitarist Woody Weatherman and drummer Reed Mullin are the same trio that played on Animosity and backed Eric Eycke on Eye for an Eye. They are the quintessential Corrosion of Conformity, and, for or the last few years, they’ve sounded like exactly that.
Presented cleanly and simply, their 2012 self-titled effort — then their first album in seven years — found them flitting confidently through their various strengths. “Leeches” is a searing storm of punk-rock aggression, Dean’s bass and Mullin’s drums pushing with an intensity equal to that of their early-’80s salvos. “Your Tomorrow” is a perfectly executed thrash rager, with Weatherman slashing nimbly between his cohorts’ clamor, while songs like “Psychic Vampire” make good on the rippling modern rock the group refined during the ’90s. For this trio, Dean confirms, chemistry has never been a problem.
“To me, it’s pretty much always there,” he offers. “Certainly some of the newer songs can become more refined or something like that. It felt pretty natural, man. It felt pretty easy.”
But as comfortable as CoC seemed, the album actually found them recording outside of their comfort zone. Jetting out to California’s San Fernando Valley, the band were left without much of the equipment they typically play with — including Weatherman’s vintage Mesa Boogie amplifiers, an integral element in his full and twisting sound. Picking out gear from the studio’s in-house stock and cutting tracks in a controlled environment, they were unable to tap into the raw power they display onstage.
“We didn’t have [Woody’s] signature kind of sound at our disposal, and that’s such a big part of it,” Dean explains. “We ended up going for maybe a cleaner sound, rather than the huge, nasty sound that we would normally go for.”
Proving the bassist right, Weatherman’s guitar sounds as good on IX as it ever has, a testament to the new recording environment CoC have afforded themselves. The undulating tones of his driving riffs massage the otherwise brutal “Tarquinius Superbus,” which pushes its heavy metal structure to hardcore extremes. His ability to morph between coarse thrash shredding and burly post-Sabbath grime is the glue that holds “The Nectar”’s punk-to-doom sprawl together.
Mullin and Dean also shine. The rhythms throughout are crisp but creative, Mullin’s intricate progressions leaving just enough room for Dean to add some neat melodic embellishments. And in his second straight go as lead vocalist, the bass specialist sounds fully at ease. On songs like the opening “Brand New Sleep,” he slides from an impish groan to a burly bark, keeping up as the band moves restlessly from dense and bluesy riffing to a blitz of tangling solos — one so gnarly that it might well make Mastodon jealous.
IX finds Corrosion of Conformity in full command of every strength they’ve ever had, shifting between them with gleeful ease — a trend that, if continued, might make this era the band’s best.
“We just rolled with what we had and tried to be in the moment,” Dean says of the new record. “That’s definitely the best course. And that’s the course that does serve the legacy of it.”
”It’s kind of a neat solution to a non-problem,” he adds with a laugh.
Corrosion of Conformity heads off on an Australian/New Zealand tour this week, then starts a U.S. trek in mid-August. Dates at their official website.