Volume, Volume, Volume

There was a time when the only people truly into Corrosion of Conformity were those weirdo lefties. They looked funny, weren't from around these parts, were better read than you, and probably cooler than you, too.

It was the early and mid-1980s, and COC was busy fusing the hardcore of Black Flag with the heavy groove of Black Sabbath. Initial releases such as 1983's Eye for an Eye and 1985's Animosity were as raw as wild game, recorded with so little self-consciousness that it was easy to wonder if the band even knew the tape was running. "Refinements" were inevitable, of course, but even through the many permutations -- the first shades of metal on 1987's Technocracy, the head-first dive into psycho metal, and the pioneering shift into "stoner revival" -- the COC sound has been rife with many other elements, all of which coalesce into something uniquely corrosive indeed.

Another curveball has recently arrived in the form of America's Volume Dealer, COC's latest disc and likely its most commercial. There are moments of full-on acoustic rock ("Stare Too Long," featuring Warren Haynes on slide guitar) and funk ("Take What You Want"). Less shocking, but even more pervasive, are songs like "Doublewide," a mid-tempo rocker with as much harmony as melody, and lots of both.

"Anytime you're a band like we are," begins guitarist Woody Weatherman, "with an established fan-base, you try a few different things, and there are always going to be some of the people who say, "Man, why didn't you just make the same record over again.' We just try to challenge ourselves to do new things. But I don't think we've ever really deviated from what we've been doing."

Regardless of the avenue used to get there, America's Volume Dealer is one of those rare albums without filler. Each track stands on its own, while also complementing the tunes before and after it.

"I think we've kinda gotten to the point now where we've sort of established our own sound, something nobody else has got," continues Weatherman. "The band is feeding off itself as an influence instead of jumping toward outside influences like it did in the early days. We've got our bag together at this point."

According to Weatherman, any fan who heard a track off America's Volume Dealer on the radio would instantly be able to place it as a COC tune. The first single "Congratulations Song" certainly supports such a suggestion, starting off with a familiar stop-start open riff, before moving into a more melody-oriented chorus, all driven by a lyric focused on the pitfalls of simultaneously dreaming and watching one's back.

"We've seen a lot of trends come and go," states Weatherman by way of assessing where COC fits into today's rock spectrum, "and we've always made a conscious effort to just ignore what's going on." Weatherman figures COC's home base of Raleigh, North Carolina, plays a significant role in allowing the band to "hold onto its own thing," rather than succumbing to outside pressures or trends. In isolated North Carolina, a band just doesn't see its "peers get on the TV or the radio or something like that."

The whole of America's Volume Dealer seems focused on relationships. Whether relationships with yourself, the object of your desire, the world at large, or the hereafter, COC paints picture after picture assessing the proper balance between "tearing it up" and leading a "good" life. In the end, they both sound mighty fine, and it occurs that the only real trick is making sure the life you're leading is yours, not some inspiration insidiously planted by an outside force.

"Doublewide" captures the illicit thrills and morning-after concerns of infidelity; the music reflects the former emotion, while the lyrics ("And I wonder which one knows?/ And I wonder which one goes?/ I'm doublewide/ Over time, on judgment day/ Overdrawn passion play/ If I die before I wake/ I think I got an even break") make the latter evident. However, "Zippo," which follows immediately after "Doublewide," revels in the crime: "I was down town freaky/ Strapped you made it tricky/ Heads go under/ Sho 'nuff gonna roll you over."

"A lot of the way Pepper [Keenan, guitarist and vocalist] approaches [lyrics] is definitely on the personal level," Weatherman reflects. "You hear people give you descriptions of what a song means to them, and it's cool that they have a completely different idea than what I had, or what Pepper might've had when he wrote it. Leaving stuff open to interpretation is the way to go."

"I'll tell you what, about "Zippo' though," Weatherman enthuses, "that was a crazy tune. Because [bassist] Mike Dean wrote the riff for that song, and it was one of those songs that was a lot different when we were jammin' on it in the practice set than when we wound up in the studio and got a couple of amps in there and started playing with different guitar tones. It turned out a lot different. I think it turned out better."

America's Volume Dealers is COC's first digitally recorded album, though according to Weatherman, much of the basic tracking was actually done on analog tape. The primary difference, as far as Weatherman is concerned, is not so much in capturing the performance as in tweaking and molding it afterwards. To this end, drummer Reed Mullin used electronic triggers inside his acoustic drums, allowing the sound to be put on tape, but also allowing for finer shades of post-recording signal manipulation.

Weatherman notes with some sadness, however, that Mullin will be missing his first shows in the 18-year history of the band at the start of the current tour, having been diagnosed with a spinal condition he's attempting to treat non-surgically. Filling in will be long-time band friend Jimmy Bower of both Crowbar and the Mystick Krewe of Clearlight (the latter of whom is touring with COC). "This tour's gonna be wild though, with the Clutch guys and 60 Watt [Shaman], it's like a rock tour! We'd been thinking we had to throw one of these tours together for a long time..," Weatherman's voice trails off, laughing.

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Chris Smith