Corrosion of Conformity has a convoluted history, to say the least. Beginning as a hardcore trio in the early ’80s, the band eventually became a five-piece metal band, before promoting guitarist Pepper Keenan to lead vocalist for the landmark Deliverance album in 1994. In recent years, the original three-piece had reconvened without Keenan, starting off strong but eventually running out of steam with 2014’s lackluster IX. By popular demand, No Cross No Crown features Keenan’s return to the fold and is the first album in 18 years to include both him and original drummer Reed Mullin. Can these guys recapture whatever it is that made Deliverance and its follow-up Wiseblood so compelling?
After the first of many instrumental interludes (note to all bands ever: please stop doing this), the album properly kicks off with “The Luddite.” With a menacing riff and a shouted vocal approach, this track could have easily been on the band’s last Keenan-fronted album, 2005’s criminally overlooked In The Arms of God. The same statement could apply to the aggressive “Cast The First Stone,” which features some tasty harmonized soloing by guitarist Woodroe Weatherman. This is nice and all, but I can’t help but feel that something’s missing. It’s not until track five, “Wolf Named Crow,” that No Cross produces anything that can truly stand alongside their best work.
While Keenan’s return is clearly the selling point here, his voice has seen better days. The man sounds fairly haggard on a good portion of the record, and his diminished range results in a few melodies that don’t quite stick the landing. He seems to compensate for this by hollering more than singing, which is a waste of one of his distinctive voice. Similarly, Mullin’s drum chops are not what they once were, and there’re several instances where he has audibly overextended himself. It’s rare that I wish for a producer or record label to exert some quality control, but No Cross would probably have benefited from such an intervention.
“Little Man” is this album’s attempt at “Albatross” pt. II, with a liberal dose of ZZ Top swagger and a soulful Keenan vocal (not to mention a riff borrowed from “Albatross” itself). “Forgive Me” is an uptempo boogie, all fun and games until it takes a darker turn towards the middle of the song. On the more melodic side, “Nothing Left To Say” is a bluesy slow jam in the “13 Angels”/”Redemption City” mold, an environment where Keenan’s weathered voice actually works to the song’s advantage. This is also one of several tracks where Mike Dean’s tasteful bass work manages to elevate an entire song.
The back half of No Cross gets considerably stranger than side A. The catchy and nostalgic “Old Disaster” works well, as does the Trouble-referencing “E.L.M.” The title track is comprised of little more than a foreboding clean guitar riff and some spoken/whispered vocals, and unfortunately, it goes nowhere fast. “A Quest To Believe (A Call From The Void)” is as long as its title implies, all slow-motion doom riffs and some beautiful minor-key guitar harmonies from Weatherman. The album ends with a bizarre cover of Queen‘s “Son and Daughter,” which works surprisingly well, but would’ve worked even better as a bonus track or b-side.
No Cross No Crown will surely feel familiar enough to any longtime COC fan, and there’s some comfort in that. However, the band’s songwriting seems to be on autopilot, coasting on Keenan’s mere presence and the band’s distinctive style. At 15 tracks long, the record could certainly use some editing, and the lack of focus is somewhat disconcerting. No Cross No Crown rarely comes close to the heights that Corrosion of Conformity ascended in the mid-90s, though nothing here remotely qualifies as “bad.” If this review sounds harsh, it’s because I had high expectations.