CORROSION OF CONFORMITY – Sleeping Martyr: 2000-2005

During the first half of their career, Corrosion of Conformity went through a lot of changes to find their sound. Their early thrash metal releases create a confident noise, but didn’t always utilise the best of COC’s combined talents. 1991’s ‘Blind’ blended thrash with a more melodic stoner feel and brought them to a wider audience due to some great reviews, but was still a hit and miss slab of metal. It wasn’t until the release of 1994’s ‘Deliverance’ that the band unleashed something genuinely classic. Part of the greatness came from a shift into even more melodic territory – the COC sound was now dominated by huge stoner vibes and a very retro groove – but just as important was guitarist Pepper Keenan’s decision to take on the lead vocalist’s role. The fourth person to step behind the COC mic, Keenan’s melodic drawl was perfect for the new sound and on tracks like ‘Clean My Wounds’, when dropping Thin Lizzy-esque riffs into a very desert rock scenario, they finally sounded natural in a way they never had before. The follow up album, 1996’s ‘Wiseblood’, gained even more commercial attention due to an appearance of James Hetfield, but 2000’s ‘America’s Volume Dealer’ absolutely knocked that out of the park performance-wise, even if sales were not quite as impressive. With the new millennium, COC finally gave into their natural instincts and became one of the greatest stoner metal bands on the face of the planet.

2021’s ‘Sleeping Martyr’ box set pulls together most of COC’s greatest recordings: ‘America’s Volume Dealer’, its companion live album (2001’s ‘Live Volume’), 2005’s ‘In The Arms of God’, and a couple of associated bonus tracks from within that six year timeframe. Its no frills digipack might not be the flashiest thing ever and the concise booklet doesn’t always go into much of the band’s history, but it’s the tunes that really count here, and if this allows a lot of people to catch up on a couple of albums they missed at the time, then it’s still an essential release.

Decades after it first hit record shop shelves, ‘America’s Volume Dealer’ doesn’t just sound like the best Corrosion album, but one of the greatest ever stoner rock/heavy Southern rock albums, period. Its best tracks – which could change according to mood on any given day – are given a brilliant send off by John Custer’s fantastic production. Custer had already proved himself as a dab hand in bringing retro sounds to life when he produced blues rockers Cry of Love and funk band Dag in the 90s, but on this album, his studio know how really gives Pepper’s guitar sound a warm buzz throughout. In many ways, Custer’s technical know-how gives the recordings as much character as the musicians themselves.

Right from the opening bars of ‘Over Me’, the increased bluesy swagger is evident, and the heavier chorus really brings home the heavy and melodic style explored earlier on the best bits of ‘Deliverance’. In terms of serving a heavy southern groove, its four minutes are almost unsurpassed, and the core melody has so much oomph that you’d suspect COC absolutely know they’re unshakable here. Likewise, the chugging ‘Diablo Blvd.’ scores highly in terms of groove, mixing a crunchy riff with a wibbly funk bass throughout, whilst Keenan drawls with a fantastic southern twang. It’s here that COC really set themselves apart from other stoner metal bands, and this track’s willingness to draw from other retro genres really feeds into their newly found melodic streak with ease. If any small criticism could be levelled at these heavier performances in general, it would be that Reed Mullin’s drum parts seem a little sedate when heard so many years down the line but, nevertheless, the band often sound like a solid unit, really hammering through a style that’s the natural successor to ‘Deliverance’.

The stomping ‘Who’s Got The Fire’ showcases the natural blend between Woody Weatherman’s heavy guitar style and his confident blues drenched leads, and a deviation into unashamed funk during ‘Take What You Want’ works the rhythm section of Mike Dean (bass) and Reed Mullin (drums) a little harder, but never loses any of the COC core sound. On the busier parts of this number, Dean’s broader talents get a look in, but never at the expense of a great stoner melody delivered by Keenan. Another highlight, ‘Doublewide’ adds a world of harmony vocals throughout, lifting the by now familiar southern grooves to new melodic heights without losing any of the musical crunch, before making a superb feature of Weatherman’s multi-layered guitars. It’s the kind of track that all fans of melodic stoner and bluesy metal will take to their hearts, helping to cement the album’s all round greatness.

On the quieter side, ‘Stare Too Long’ could be an old Lynyrd Skynyrd jam beefed up for a rock loving audience, and although Keenan’s emotive voice is key to conveying the important emotion, there’s some great, subtle bluesy lead work throughout that really aims for the heart. There’s nothing here you’d ever think the ‘Blind’ era COC would ever be capable of delivering effectively, but here it is, and as natural as any of Blackfoot’s or Molly Hatchet’s similar outings. ‘Sleeping Martyr’ takes a sidestep into an unexpected Mexican territory with acoustic guitars and a broad melody before a chunky chorus reminds everyone of the older ‘Deliverance’ COC via a weighty riff, and the hazy ‘13 Angels’ treads on the coat-tails of Keenan’s work with Down (specifically sounding like ‘Stone The Crow’ from the ‘Nola’ LP). In some ways, it’s actually better than the nearest Down equivalent; not only is the natural blend of Weatherman and Keenan’s guitar work more natural, but Keenan’s voice suits this sort of thing perfectly. On top of that, you don’t have to feel guilty that you’re supporting a Nazi saluting liability when listening. It’s a win/win. There’s nothing here that the band’s old thrash devotees would like much, but these songs are all the better for that. In growing up, COC really embrace rock melodies deserving of their greater talents.

If you’ve already heard ‘America’s Volume Dealer’ then none of this praise will come as a surprise. If you’ve yet to have the pleasure, rest assured, it really is that good, knocking all of their previous albums into a cocked hat. Both tracks from the previously expanded European edition ‘America’s Volume Dealer’ are also present, although neither is essential. ‘Rather See You Dead’ is a solid piece of hardcore that feels hugely out of place, and ‘Steady Roller’ is a decent demo that works a strong stoner vibe, though never quite achieves the same power as the best of the album tracks, perhaps showing why it was cast aside.

The accompanying ‘Live Volume’, meanwhile, demonstrates how naturally some of these songs fit into the live set, and the 78 minute recording also takes plenty of time to revisit key moments from ‘Wiseblood’ and ‘Deliverance’ along the way. Particular highlights include an especially dirty ‘Albatross’, a really sludgy ‘Vote With A Bullet’ that really gets across COC’s most uncompromising stoner riffs lurking under a wall of distortion, and a groovy ‘Diablo Blvd.’ constantly pushing forth a wah-wahed guitar against classic stoner riffs, positively running rings around that far more lauded Black Label Society. Even at the point where this live collection isn’t quite as full on, the listener is still deeply submerged in some great stoner metal sounds and heavy southern blues vibes, as shown by solid renditions of ‘Wiseblood’ and ‘My Grain’. It’s one of those live albums that, wherever you choose to drop the needle – metaphorically speaking – you’ll find something of high quality. It’s never gained enough of an audience to be considered one of the all time great live albums, but it’s a fantastic document of a band at the peak of their powers.

True to form, 2005’s ‘In The Arms of God’ is as different stylistically as ‘America’s Volume Dealer’ was from ‘Wiseblood’. The production sound is less muted; rather than a warm groove, everything comes with more of a metal-oriented crunch, but more importantly, the very 70s drum sound that sat at the back of the ‘Volume’ material has been replaced with something far busier. Step forward, guest star Stanton Moore, occupying the drum stool throughout. Although chiefly a jazz/fusion musician, Moore’s rhythmic prowess turned out to be a fine fit for COC. His jazz background is particularly clear during the opening cut, ‘Stonebreaker’, where the drums make the groove really swing, and Moore’s tendency towards busy fills to gives everything a lift. Beyond that, fans will find so many COC hallmarks firmly in place: Weatherman’s riffs are huge; Keenan’s voice more so. Across five minutes the band announce their return with some serious desert rock heft which, interspersed with a few bluesy moments and an instrumental break straight from Sabbath ’75, creates an instant classic. Further Sabbath-isms are explored during ‘Paranoid Opioid’ which borrows quite heavily from the faster bits of ‘Fairies Wear Boots’ during the intro and part of the main riff, but takes on a more modern identity via a few post-hardcore riffs and vocal effects. Its a great example of COC’s all round abilities to beef up a very 70s sound for the twenty first century, making it another must hear.

On the heavier side, other highlights include the crunchy as hell, yet fairly sludgy ‘It Is That Way’ (sounding like a overspill from Keenan’s work with Down) and ‘World On Fire’ which calls back to the more Metallica-esque bits of ‘Wiseblood’, in a change of style that seems very natural. Great songs both, but they have nothing on the enormous swaggering ‘Infinite War’, where Moore gets to pitch an effortless, swinging-yet-heavy drum part against some intense chopping guitar work. The whole band sounds hugely at ease on a melodic interlude where twin lead guitars rise from the relentless chug, just in time to remind everyone of COC’s huge melodic heart. As with bits of ‘Deliverance’ way back when, there are times when these moods and riffs seem more important than the song writing itself, but if you’re a desert rock buff (and somehow missed this album upon release) you won’t have a problem with that.

If anything stands out in the long term here, though, it’s actually ‘Dirty Hands, Empty Pockets’, an interlude where Moore takes the lead with a flowing and funk inflected drum part, over which a groove laden bass drives everything forth, and a couple of mellow tunes where COC really stretch out. ‘Rise River Rise’ tempers a few more obvious riffs with a very Moroccan influence throughout, very much accentuating the desert rock aspects of the band’s oeuvre – and something perfectly suited to Keenan’s massive drawl – and ‘Crown of Thorns’, a pure acoustic ballad that goes head first into a floaty melody and light vocal, suggesting that other worldly moods can be attained without resorting to cheap sub-’Planet Caravan’ phased effects. These three tracks really help ‘In The Arms of God’ feel like the most varied COC record to date. It also shows that no matter what style the band try, they almost always pull it off with ease. Perhaps the only big criticism of ‘In The Arms of God’ is its running time. At a full sixty four minutes, it’s about twenty minutes too long. This isn’t necessarily COC’s fault; it’s a well known problem of the “CD era” itself – almost all rock albums from that time are padded out – but there’s a fantastic 40 minute blast to be found within.

If you’re a long time fan, chances are, you’ll have everything in this box set already, but if you’ve only ever dipped into COC and are thinking of checking out some post-’Deliverance’ stuff. this three disc collection should be considered a priority purchase. Although missing the studio takes of two of the band’s best known tunes (‘Albatross’ and ‘Clean My Wounds’, both from ‘Deliverance’), it’s a more than decent introduction with the bulk of the strongest COC material included. It’s got riffs aplenty, and a tone that all good, melodic stoner bands should aspire to achieving, and its share of classic songs. In lots of ways, in terms Corrosion of Conformity “essentials”, this triple disc set and ‘Deliverance’ are all you need.

October 2021