Monday, October 11, 2010
Gleeful exorcism: Corrosion of Conformity at Highline Ballroom
Left to right: Woody Weatherman, Mike Dean, Reed Mullin
At last night's Corrosion of Conformity show, the reunion debate finally flatlined in my mind. (Ben Ratliff hilariously called foul nearly a year ago, but this is the kind of thing that each listener must rule for his/her self.) There's just no judging one of these things objectively, simply because the main factor at play is one's own prior experience with a given band.
There have been times, perhaps at Time Out—where reunions can seem, to those of us doing our best to make sense of the rock landscape, like a depressingly all-consuming news topic—when I've bitched about the trend. But let's be fair here: Were it not for the reunion bug, I would not have ever had the opportunity to see Slint (incredible) nor the classic Jesus Lizard lineup (the good kind of ridiculous) play live. Nor, to get to the point, would I have seen Corrosion of Conformity in its original incarnation—the trio of Mike Dean, Woody Weatherman and Reed Mullin—as I did last night.
This was a band with which I had very little experience during their heyday. I was born too late to get into their early-to-mid ’80s work, and once they hit Headbanger's Ball (with "Clean My Wounds," off 1994's Deliverance—released, oddly, on the same late-September day as Chocolate and Cheese), the whole thing had turned somewhat cheeseball and it didn't really appeal to me. (Not that it necessarily would have appealed to me had it been incredible—I was still paying a lot of attention to some not-so-great music at that time.) So the news that the version of COC that recorded 1985's "classic" Animosity album was going to be recording and touring again really didn't mean much to me at all—it registered as a second chance at something I didn't care I'd missed the first time around. I was mainly at the Highline last night to hear Keelhaul (as expressed here ad nauseum, e.g., I'm completely addicted).
I had planned on sticking around to get a feel for what COC was all about, but I didn't commit in advance to weathering the full show. Once they started playing, though, it was pretty much a settled thing: I wasn't going anywhere. Their set was absolutely masterful: one of the most sheerly enjoyable sets of heavy rock I've ever witnessed. The band was famous back in the day for epitomizing punk-metal crossover (my show buddy Nick Sakes told me how an old COC logo consisted of the Black Flag bars and name, with the "Flag" crossed out and "Sabbath" written in). Apparently, this style was somewhat groundbreaking at the time, but to me, growing up when I did, punk-metal crossover was no more or less than the thing one had to do in order to do proper justice to all of one's influences. (My friends in The Crackbabies did an outstanding job at this, by the way.)
So to me, COC's approach didn't come off as novelty. What it came off as was a celebration of the last four decades of heavy rock. I didn't hear last night's set as so much Flag plus Sabbath as Sabbath plus Bad Brains. I'm not sure if I've ever heard a metal band that sounded so comfortable playing extremely slow and extremely fast, sometimes in the same song. One minute they were slithering in a holy proto-Eyehategod sludge dance and the next they were hurtling through classic lickety-split hardcore, and the shifts sounded perfectly logical. Why not play slow and fast? Seems elementary, but it's not something that every punk band dared to explore. I can't tell you how many times I've wished that there were more Bad Brains songs like "Supertouch/Shitfit", which grinds down intermittently into that world-collapsing half-time groove, and this COC set felt like the fulfillment of that dream.
The trio's chops represented the best kind of homegrown virtuosity. The tiny Dean, on bass, plucked with his fingers, like a hardcore Geezer Butler; Weatherman, a happy, hulking caveman, dwarfed his guitar and also made it sing, coaxing out its most righteously evil intervals; and Mullin simply blazed, a ball of hair who smashed like a doom-metal pro on the slow parts and grooved just as hard during the blindingly fast sections. All three players sang as well, though Reed was the star, belting in a pinched, pained whine, kind of H.R.-ish but very melodic in its own way. There were shout-along choruses (to which the spiked-leather-jacket dudes in the pit responded in kind), but overall, the vocals were way more than just dumb-punk sloganeering. Dean brought the harsh Southern soul, very much in line with so much Dixie metal I know and love (Eyehategod, Crowbar), but totally different in his approach.
As gorgeous as the music was, though—and I do mean that: it was the true Temple of Riff, exalting both the Sloth and Cheetah—what struck me most were the smiles, the sinister glee and passion on display. Mullin could not stop beaming. He seemed to me like the eternal Freaks and Geeks–era teen, fueled by suburban home-cooking topped off by candy and soda, bashing away in the basement after (or instead of—could go either way) football practice. And Dean and Weatherman each modeled the "Holy shit" face, not an arrogant, "What I'm creating is so cool" face, but a face of religious awe re: "What can be created is so cool," what the Riff can do and the power it has. If you've played heavy music, you know this well, how the process is a kind of summoning, but a happy one—a gleeful exorcism. Often the harshest music springs from the widest smiles. You bring the devil into the room, and this makes you happy.
And to achieve this, onstage last night, the three players often had to close the circle, playing to and for each other rather than the crowd, with Dean and Weatherman turning their backs not in a Miles-ian display of defiance, but simply because that's what the ceremony requires. First and foremost, you have to honor the thing in its insular form, and then you bring it out into the light for others to see. That's just how it works, and how it was working so beautifully last night. In this nearly-Halloween season, an auspicious evil borne out of sheer fun and bro-hood. The harvest of the Riff.
And so what of reunions? As Ratliff eloquently suggested in the review linked at the top of this post, there's no such thing, in general. A live show is not an accumulation of history or a reflection of a scorecard of legitimacy. It's simply one band existing at one time within one listener's mind. And if that listener feels right about it—as I really, really did last night—then that particular reunion was right, and by extension, all of them were.