How Corrosion of Conformity's legacy is defined depends almost entirely upon who is defining it. For some, the veteran Raleigh hard-rockers peaked early, and only the ragged hardcore produced between their formation in 1982 and the period shortly after their first album, 1984's Eye for an Eye, matters. Even these fans sometimes debate which singer—Benji Shelton, Robert Stewart or Eric Eycke—is the best.
For others, COC's apex remains 1985's Animosity, which found the trio at the bleeding edge of the punk-metal crossover of the time, in league with the likes of D.R.I., Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies. There's also Blind, the 1991 LP that marked a stylistic shift toward blues-driven riff-rock with the addition of singer Karl Agell, bassist Phil Swisher and guitarist Pepper Keenan. And for still another faction, there's no Corrosion of Conformity without Keenan behind the mic, as on 1994's Deliverance or 2005's In the Arms of God.
The new album arrives with a tremendous burden of expectation, and they don't back down: Corrosion of Conformity's ninth LP is the first to feature bassist Mike Dean, guitarist Woody Weatherman and drummer Reed Mullin in trio configuration since the punk-metal milestone Animosity. It was produced by John Custer, who has held the helm for every COC album since Blind, and is the first self-titled release in COC's varied catalog. Corrosion of Conformity, it seems, is out to define its legacy now.
If that is indeed the goal, this album is a powerful statement, drawing elements from the band's entire career into one tough 11-number package (or 13 on wax). Driven by a reinvigorated Mullin, who rejoins the band after a health-related hiatus following America's Volume Dealer, songs like "Rat City" and "Leeches" match the speed and fury of Animosity-era highlights. But despite trio-era hype, these tracks can't circumscribe this album.
Rather, "The Doom" winds a languorous blues riff that might've fit Arms of God into a breakneck refrain, while "Canyon Man" aims for the sweet spot of urgency and intention that defines Blind. Originally released on a 7" for the metal titan Southern Lord in 2010, "Your Tomorrow" reappears here in a more condensed form, suggesting a would-be Wiseblood-era hit. Weatherman doesn't lose the polished riffing of the band's major-label heyday, but he doesn't forgo the chaotic squall of Eye for an Eye. As a rhythm section, Dean and Mullin are as tight as ever, moving in tandem like airshow pilots.
But as much as Corrosion of Conformity draws from the past, it refuses to replicate it here. These tracks are too mid-paced and riff-dominated to be punk, too gruff and volatile for the bluesy hard-rock of the band's latter days. And yes, there's no Keenan, giving Dean's higher register the chance to replace the departed vocalist's smooth confidence with welcome tension—more Ozzy than Dio, in other words.
And all those expectations? COC seems to have done its best to ignore them. Indeed, Corrosion of Conformity will challenge as many fans as it excites. And that, of course, suits COC's legacy, no matter which era holds your allegiance.