Over the years there have been bands that gain cult status in the metal and hard rock community, and some that gain commercial success, either as well as, or instead of credibility amongst the dedicated followers of the form. Corrosion of Conformity is a band that, in a career that has lasted three and a half decades and counting, have managed both, riding a roller coaster of commercial ups and downs and style changes. The heart of the band has always been Reed Mullin, Woody Weatherman, and Mike Dean, the three piece that has endured through so many evolutions from their skate punk tinged hardcore days of the eighties, through to their eponymous re-emergence in 2012 on Candlelight Records and the excellent ‘IX’ of 2014. However, the period they are most renowned for was the decade that they were fronted by Pepper Keenan before he took off to jam out with supergroup Down, and after occasional guest appearances, and the sold out anniversary tour for ‘Deliverance’, (Yes, I went to both and still have the shirts to prove it!), cries for a new album have been rewarded in the form of ‘No Cross No Crown’, now on the Nuclear Blast imprint.

A whole heap of anticipation has been built up for this album, and the band tease it out even further through the instrumental intro of ‘Novus Deus’, a laboured breath and solitary heart beat building into a wall of tuning guitars and preparatory drum rolls, the loose familiarity of the sound just whetting the appetite for what is to come, and when the album starts proper, there is no disappointment. Worshippers of the riff are immediately given their fix with the dense blast of ‘The Luddite’, the interplay between the guitars of Messrs Weatherman and Keenan that has been re-honed after a long hiatus with a solid tour schedule immediately meshing in their trademark and contradictory relaxed tightness, whilst the bass and drums of Dean and Mullin provide the powerhouse that drives forward the whole.

‘Cast The First Stone’ ups the tempo, some of the pre-Pepper pace coming to the fore, four musicians with over two centuries of hard paced life between them displaying more vigour and venom than so many acts half their age. Lead track ‘Wolf Named Crow’ ups the Southern Rock factor, but with lashings of the psychotropic being mixed with the whiskey to create a number that is by equal measures hard rock and THC tinged psychedelia. More Country comes through with ‘Little Man’, the aroma of beer soaked sawdust weaving through the whole track; whilst I’ve never seen it myself, I could well imagine Mr Keenan topping his normal denim ensemble with a sweat stained Stetson for this number. Whilst for the few mellow moments of the lone acoustic guitar of ‘Matre’s Diem’ it seems that the band have decided to serenade the listener into a gentle sleep, business as usual recommences with the hard rocking stomp of ‘Forgive Me’, a number that had better be a part of any forthcoming live set, showcasing as it does the almost instinctive way that that the guitars of Pepper and Woody compliment each other. Yes, I bloody loved the last two albums and the live shows that went with them, and ‘Dude’ clone Weatherman is one of the most underrated and under-recognised guitarists plying their trade today, but adding a rhythm player to the mix allows him free rein to explore his considerable talents, something he takes to a new level on ‘Nothing Left To Say’, a track that in itself illustrates how integral to the sound and success of Down Pepper Keenan’s writing and playing was, or maybe still will be if their own extended break comes to an end.

Whilst it would be easy for the band to just fall back into much demanded familiar territory, they show that they are still able to surprise the listener, the title track ‘No Cross No Crown’ seemingly emerging from out of nowhere, eschewing the roots of the band, having not a tinge of crossover thrash, punk, or Southern Rock, instead being an almost funereal stoner doom dirge, stripped back to its simplest, darkest elements, vocals delivered like a eulogy for the damned over a stark musical background. This is not a track I could ever imagine the band playing live, albeit it could be the new intro or outro track for a set by COC, but they are only to be congratulated for being willing to experiment and widen their musical horizons, something few bands of their vintage and pedigree are either willing or capable of doing.

As a return to what many consider the “classic” line-up, ‘No Cross No Crown’ succeeds on every level, avoiding the dangers of just lazily rehashing past glories, whilst at the same time managing to sound so familiar and immediate. When the band hits the road, not only can you guarantee I’ll be front and centre for any show I can get to, but I’ll be clamouring for these new tracks to be played just as hard as for old favourites. 2018 may only be a week old as I type this, but I’m pretty damn sure I’ve listened to a solid competitor for my album of the year already.

(9/10 Spenny)