When North Carolina’s Corrosion of Conformity re-emerged from a four-year hiatus in 2010, it did so as a trio, without singer-guitarist Pepper Keenan, who had joined the band seven years after its 1982 formation, steering it to critical and commercial success in the ’90s and early ’00s.
And while the re-formed metal band released two albums as a trio with the same lineup that was behind its second album, 1985’s Technocracy, it did so without the person most commonly known as its frontman. Now, with the group’s 10th album, No Cross No Crown, arriving Jan. 12, 2018, on Nuclear Blast, Keenan is back for the first album since 2005’s In the Arms of God.
Keenan, who’s also a member of Philip Anselmo’s band Down, never officially left Corrosion of Conformity. “It was always an option,” he says of his return. “It’s not like the band fizzled out or anything. The last album I did with them, In the Arms of God, the label [Sanctuary] basically fizzled out. So we found ourselves label-less, and I moved back to New Orleans to focus on Down and just went from there. But as soon as there was interest from labels and people hearing that we were getting back together, it took on a life of its own.”
Keenan’s return started organically, with the band talking in 2014 about the possibility of playing some shows in Europe when both COC and he had some downtime. “We decided to go to Europe and play a few shows and see what happened,” he remembers. “It ended up going really well, and we kept adding shows. It was interesting to do something like that without having a record out or having done a record with them in the last 12 years, but still going out there. We just did a few individual shows. The festivals came later. We had no new material, no manager, nothing. But everything went great, and it started ballooning from there.”
Keenan says the band was somewhat surprised by how great of a reception the reformation of the four-piece version received. “That was part of the inspiration for the album as well,” he says. “It kind of gave us a kick in the butt that we could do this and have fun with it. The songs stood the test of time. Some of them are 20 years old.”
The band went into writing No Cross No Crown with more or less a blank slate, says Keenan, adding that he had been sitting on several riffs that he used for the album. “We were going in with nothing, having not made a record [together] in 12 years,” he says. “It was an interesting challenge to step up to the plate. I consider In the Arms of God to be an extremely strong record, so the standards were high. We went in there with big expectations and knew we had to work to get there.” Producer John Custer, who has either produced or co-produced every COC album since 1991’s Blind, was behind the boards, which made things easier.
Touring together also provided some inspiration. “We’d come up with a simple riff, or I’d hum something into my phone,” says Keenan, naming album track “Forgive Me” as a song he had created with before entering the studio. “It was constantly a work in progress of coming up with ammunition for when we were ready to get in there. We did some writing in the studio as well.” He says that when Nuclear Blast offered them a deal, they didn’t look anywhere else, and the label gave them as much time as they needed to work on the album.
No Cross No Crown serves as a solid blend of the band’s career output. Some of COC’s punk/hardcore beginnings remain, yet the Lynyrd Skynyrd/Black Sabbath Southern stoner rock sound that brought the band top 20 Mainstream Rock hits like “Clean My Wounds” and “Albatross,” and garnered it a Grammy nomination for best metal performance for “Drowning in a Daydream,” are present as well. Keenan says the group wanted to make a statement with the set.
“In the Arms of God reminded me of Deep Purple when they came out with Machine Head. Their last record [1971’s Fireball] was all kind of hippied out, and they came back with that,” he says. “So once we’d done America’s Volume Dealer, which was kind of a different route for us, people loved the record, but I wanted to get back into the nitty gritty. And with [funk/jazz drummer Stanton Moore] playing drums, it just kind of took on a life of its own. I’d put No Cross No Crown as a combination of In the Arms of God and the Wiseblood era. That wasn’t intentional — we just wanted to make a big, epic-sounding record.”
The band isn’t playing any material from its 2012 self-titled album or 2014’s IX on tour, with Keenan admitting he has only listened to the former project. However, he has no issue with them. “That was always going to be the three-piece thing,” he says. “I was doing records with Down at the time. You don’t plan all this crap out. It just falls into place. There’s no real method to it. If you try to create something like that, you’re going to drive yourself crazy. It happens when it happens.”
Keenan’s laissez-faire attitude carries over to Down as well. “The phone will ring sooner or later, I guess,” he says. “Phil’s got a million things going on, and so do I, and I’m just kind of taking a breather on that. It’s hard enough to write quality music in one band, and doing it for two is even harder.”
And while many bands peak after their first few albums, the fact that Corrosion of Conformity is not only on its 10th album, but has made an LP that ranks alongside its best as its members approach middle age is something the band stands behind. “We made a record, and it’s strong,” says Keenan. “That’s half the battle. It was a challenge to do it, and that was the trying part. The rest is easy: just go out and play if we want to. We made a record that can push some parameters and get people thinking, and not have us viewed as your average flash-in-the-pan kind of band.”