Artist Spotlight: Corrosion of Conformity (or; Banned In N.C.) [Part 2 of 3]

Part 2 of 3

Part One Here.

Blind (1991)

By 1989, drummer Dean Mullin and guitarist Woody Weatherman was unsure if they would continue as Corrosion of Conformity, they were unsure if they would continue at all. Fortunately (obviously), they opted to keep moving forward. The first person they contacted to fill the singer slot was Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. If you’re keeping track at home, this is the second time a band I’ve covered lost a singer and went to Chris Cornell and offered him a job. Clearly, he didn’t take it. The band also approached Melvins’ Buzz Osbourne, who also declined.

COC then placed in ad in Village Voice which read they were looking for a singer who combined HR, James Hetfield, and Ian Gillan.  This led them to Karl Agell, who was also from the band UNICEF, which is where new recruit Phil Swisher had come from. Seems like they would’ve just talked to their bass player, who was in UNICEF with him. But before Agell was auditioned, they had another recruit.

New Orleans native Pepper Keenan had been friends with the band for some time, and auditioned for the lead singer role. Keenan was not what the band was looking for at the time, but they told him to hang around because they might try it out with two guitars. The singer job became Agell’s… for now.

The new band lineup went to New York for 10 weeks to record what would become Blind, but even then there was tension. Keenan had written this song, that the other members weren’t picking up what he was putting down, in particular Agell was standing in the way. Keenan doubled back with the producer, and they finished what would become “Vote With a Bullet”.

Blind was released November 5, 1991, and while it was a decent seller with some steady MTV airplay, it was divisive among COC’s fans. The hardcore fans hated it (but they would hate the next record even more), but the band was tired of hardcore anyway.  The album was a meld of thrash, southern rock, and sludge metal, and was creating a new fan base for them.

I can remember I had friends who has this on cassette, and I thought it was ok. But it didn’t really stick with me, despite hearing at their houses all the time.  The good news was that my friends were primed for COC’s big breakthrough, so I also had the foundation laid for me as well. Today, I do like the album for what it is.

The touring cycle for the album went well, but things finally came to a head in the summer of 1993, when the band was five weeks into recording the next album. Agell was dismissed from the band, “All I can surmise is that [Keenan] realized, ‘Hey, I can be a front person and I can get the attention that I originally wanted’.” Bassist Phil Swisher quit in solidarity, and the two started Leadfoot together.

Deliverance (1994)

“Everybody was doubting them and then one day I see this record called Blind and blown away by how musical it is, it’s totally awesome,” Dean recalled. “[It’s] a very, very good record, I’m not knocking it at all.”  Dean was not really looking to rejoin the band, but when he heard that the bass slot was open again, and he decided to rejoin. “They were auditioning singers and I’m like, that’s ridiculous. Pepper sang on Blind, and it turned out really good. Why get one more person in the band?”

When the change was made to have Keenan front the band, again, they considered changing the name (again), but decided to keep with Corrosion of Conformity. Mullin later reflected, “I’m glad we didn’t. Because constantly you’re changing things up and people have all these expectations that you’re expected to conform to. I feel like we can do whatever the fuck we want. It’ll still sound like us as long as me and Mike and Woody are in it.”

While recording the new album, Columbia up and purchased Relativity, who had put out Blind (they would reissue the album under their label in 1995). Very few bands survived that transition, but COC held on. “We were doing Deliverance on Relativity’s budget and it sounded like a major-label giant record,” Keenan said. “So, one thing led to another and through Reed’s connections, we passed that shit on to somebody at Columbia Records. They snagged us off Relativity. At that point, we were off to the races.”

Ahead of their album, COC contributed “Big Problems” to the soundtrack to Clerks (also on Columbia). The soundtrack was a huge seller that helped the film tremendously, and also got COC music into a lot of new hands. The song is a muscular, heavy tune, and was much more metallic sounding than most of what would end up on the album.

In September of 1994, Deliverance was released. The album is more stoner rock and southern metal than any sort of hardcore or sludge metal. The fastest song and most metallic song is, “My Grain”, while “Heaven’s Not Overflowing” and “Clean My Wounds” (which was the second single) are quicker than most of the album, but still mid-paced. The album does reflect their switch to a heavier Black Sabbath influence than a Black Flag influence. The album has three short instrumentals, reminiscent of the instrumentals that Sabbath did like “Laguna Sunrise” and “Orchid”.

The lead single, “Albatross”, was released in August, ahead of the album. I actually remember hearing the song a few times, but we didn’t have MTV (and I’ve still never seen the video for it), maybe it was on our classic rock radio. Anyway, the song is a slab of southern rock with a metal slant.

“We took that as far as we could, and we didn’t make them the Mariah Carey kind of money that they expected from their acts. We got to make two really good records from them. There wasn’t a whole lot of money in it for us but they would spend a lot of money on whatever they did,” Dean recalled. “We met R. Kelly down [at Criteria Studios]. And we met Yngwie Malmsteen the same day. Yngwie Malmsteen was really rude and he looked at Woody’s [Gibson] SG and said, ‘Oh, I had a toy like this when I was a child.’ And he was, like, overweight and he was squeezing into these tight britches and he was walking in these tiny cowboy boots. I challenged him one-on-one to basketball as soon as R. Kelly’s people stopped playing basketball. But he declined. I’m not much of a baller at all, but I felt I could school Yngwie.”

While the singles were active at radio, and the album sold pretty well, not everyone was happy about it.  The old fan base was even more angry at the band (if that were even possible), and felt betrayed by the new “southern rock” sound. Many fans felt that this was the music of the people who bullied them, and wondered loudly what happened to the band that they held up when they had no other music to call their own. Other fans felt that Keenan was “New Orleans” and not “North Carolina”, and didn’t think he was the right fit.

After 22 years, Deliverance finally went Gold in 2016.

Wiseblood (1996)

After a successful run with Deliverance and its touring cycle, it was time to get back to work. Prior to recording, Keenan was in a boarding house with nothing more than a desk, some paper, a radio, and a Black Sabbath poster. He wrote lyrics all day, and then would tape them to the wall, eventually covering them after his few months long stay. “These guys at the boarding house would come in and think I was some kind of freak or burned-out poet,” Kennan said. “I was the only white dude in the whole building and they thought I was crazy anyway, so they started calling me ‘Wiseblood.’ ‘Hey, Wiseblood! What’s up’!”

The band continued on to record in New York, in the same studio, with the same producer. The album itself was not a huge departure from the previous album, but it was a little heavier and it was a little uglier. While in the studio, Metallica was also working on an album in New York, and singer/guitarist James Hetfield hung out with Keenan practically every day. From this friendship came new opportunities, when Metallica invited COC to open for them for the next three years, before their album was even completed.

The band turned Wiseblood into Columbia, and the label was not enthused. They claimed the record was “too harsh” and they “didn’t hear a single”. The label was also unhappy that the band had already agreed to tour with Metallica, in Keenan’s words: “Everything they were seeing was fucking wrong. ‘What do you mean you’ve got a three-year tour with Metallica?’ They were trying to kill it because they didn’t like the record.”

As we’ve seen time and time again, there isn’t really anything a band can do when the top brass decides your band is over. Nevertheless, the band returned to the studio and in two days wrote and recorded “Drowning In a Daydream”, which made it onto the record. The label was happy to let the album die on arrival, but a secretary who was a fan of the band, put the song on the list for consideration sent to the Grammys without telling anyone, and it was nominated (the band lost to Tool).

I can remember getting the album, and being rather impressed with it. The only reason I got it was because it was a freebie from Columbia House, I wasn’t really into what they were doing, or at least I didn’t think I was. Turns out, the album was really very good. It’s not a huge deviation from Deliverance, but not a total rehash, either. It is heavier, and it is harsher, but is still has those more southern rock moments. “Man or Ash” stands as one of their best songs, and has some background vocals from Hetfield (don’t let this deter you, you’d never notice if I hadn’t told you, I didn’t realize it for years because I never read the liner notes), “The Door” is an uptempo swinging number, and “Redemption City” is a slow, bluesy workout.

Regardless of critical acclaim and a Grammy nomination, Columbia dropped the band as they went on a three-year trek with Metallica.

America’s Volume Dealer (2000)

Ousted from Columbia, COC signed with Sanctuary records. Many “legacy” heavy acts signed with the label in the 2000’s, but the label went belly up in 2007.

During this time, the band was starting to fracture and pull itself apart with members starting to want to do different things. Ultimately, the result is a mish-mash of songs, and the most “southern rock” record they made. This was also the first time that the band used Pro-Tools, and their inexperience in using it shows in the production. It’s not a bad album, but it’s mostly forgettable, and the band largely agrees. But there are two songs that are still really good. “Sleeping Martyr” is a great heavy rock song, and “Stare Too Long” is an accessible swamp rock ditty.

“There were some soft songs that were not my kind of thing. I had heavier songs that were more, for lack of a better word, ‘rednecky’ kind of songs,” Keenan said. “Songs like ‘Stare Too Long’, in my opinion, were straight up smash hits for radio, but the label didn’t know what to do with it. I had gotten Warren Haynes from The Allman Brothers to play guitar on it.”

After the release of America’s Volume Dealer, communications between Keenan and Mullin had broken down and they were not speaking at all. Mullin later stated that he had been burned out, and he had had back surgery and became addicted to pills. He made the choice to quit COC and go back home.

In April of 2001, the band recorded a show at Harpo’s in Detroit, which was released August 7, 2001. The recording featured fill in drummer Jimmy Bower from Down, EYEHATEGOD, and Crowbar (and later Superjoint Ritual).

To be continued…