On Oct. 4, 1991 — just 11 days after the release of the soon-to-be runaway blockbuster Nevermind — Nirvana was on a tour stop in Chapel Hill, N.C., when drummer Dave Grohl connected with his longtime friend Reed Mullin, a native of the area and drummer in nearby Raleigh-based outfit Corrosion of Conformity. The pair went for a ride in Mullin's father's station wagon, where Grohl got his first taste of Corrosion's album Blind, at the time still a month away from coming out.
"That is so fuckin' badass!" Mullin remembers Grohl saying. "You guys are gonna sell way more records than us."
Things didn't turn out that way, of course, but Grohl can't be blamed for thinking they would. A galvanic outcry of left-wing discontentment seething to a boil, Blind has a historic value that's actually been trivialized by the Nirvana myth. Two years before Rage Against the Machine achieved multiplatinum success by railing violently against the system, Corrosion of Conformity railed harder, and with greater lyrical acuity. The album's single, "Vote With a Bullet," asserted flat out that certain politicians deserved to die.
"We had fliers," Mullin says, "that showed crosshairs on the foreheads of conservative congressmen. Could you imagine if we did that now? Relativity, our label at that time, asked us to discontinue the flier. They were like, 'Our lawyers are thinking this isn't such a good idea.' "
Inspired in part by Mullin's work on Harvey Gantt's racially charged 1990 senatorial campaign against conservative North Carolina incumbent Jesse Helms, Blind contains several pointed verses that could easily serve as Occupy rallying anthems. Meanwhile, for sheer technical proficiency, the album rivals prog-minded speed-metal landmarks like Metallica's Master of Puppets and Megadeth's Rust in Peace; production-wise, it even surpasses them, with a thick, forceful roar somehow as clear and detailed as it is bottom-heavy.
Yet for all its merits, Blind confused Corrosion of Conformity's existing fan base. Throughout the '80s, COC had built its reputation as a scrappy hardcore-punk unit banging out tinny recordings in single afternoons — as was customary for underground acts working on shoestring budgets. The band reinvented itself yet again — this time more drastically — for 1994's Deliverance, the first of two lavishly financed albums for Sony that were stocked with down-tempo, apolitical hard rock more akin to Skynyrd and ZZ Top than Black Flag.
Mullin admits that even he found the change jarring.
"We were pretty much ready for everyone to hate Deliverance," he chuckles. "It probably would have made more sense to change our name, but I really like everything we've done. And it's kind of cool because the band name means all these different things to different people."
During every phase of the band's career, he explains — even now — audience members at shows have persistently called out for songs that aren't in the set list. At the very least, though, Corrosion of Conformity's new self-titled album comes close to finally unifying the band's three disparate identities. Featuring the same personnel that appear on 1985's sophomore full-length Animosity, a quick-and-dirty 26-minute burst of punk, the new album reunites founding core members Mullin, guitarist Woody Weatherman and bassist Mike Dean (who have all, at various points, departed and returned).
Fans eager to revisit COC's hardcore legacy after a 25-year wait now have their chance, though some restrictions apply. The current set list does include vintage material from Animosity, as well as the 1987 punk-metal crossover EP Technocracy, but the reconvened trio ignores 1984 debut Eye for an Eye entirely. Moreover, the new album doesn't exactly rehash Animosity's youthful clamor. (The band is also likely to revisit straight-ahead rock in the future, as the door remains open to lapsed frontman Pepper Keenan.)
Recorded last year in L.A. at Dave Grohl's Studio 606 — the arrangement came about after Mullin visited Grohl at a Them Crooked Vultures show in Atlanta — Corrosion of Conformity was produced by John Custer, who has helmed every album from Blind onward and, like the band, varied his approach every time. Custer's production favors the energy of first takes and live-trio performance, but also allows for space and texture in ways that just weren't feasible in 1985. Thanks to Custer, Grohl and Mullin's parents (who bankrolled the album), COC is able to benefit from production value in the fullest sense of the term — a sharp contrast to Sony's extravagance.
"When Sony called me up to New York to tell me they were dropping us," Mullin recalls, "they showed me the account statements. We were over $3 million dollars in the red. But for the 'Albatross' video shoot, the catering alone for two days was 20,000 bucks! I'm not even talking sushi; it was just sandwiches and shit. We got a little too used to that."