No Cross No Crown, the 10th album from Corrosion of Conformity, marks the return of guitarist and vocalist Pepper Keenan, who re-joined the founding trio of guitarist and vocalist Woody Weatherman, bassist Mike Dean and drummer Reed Mullin shortly after the release of the band’s 2014 offering IX. This is his first record with the band since 2005’s In the Arms of God, and the first time that the North Carolina sludge/stoner rockers have operated as a quartet since 2000’s America’s Volume Dealer. But it’s a less obvious detail that makes the new album truly notable.

C.O.C.’s impressive and chaotic 1985-94 run found the band perfecting their crossover roots on Animosity, slowing things down and entering sludge metal territory on Blind and finally exchanging hooks and radio-friendly songwriting for metallic leanings on Deliverance. Following that career trajectory, the band’s self-titled effort attempted a rehash of Animosity to mixed results and was followed by the updated (and weaker) version of Blind that was IX.
Fittingly, No Cross is a kind of Deliverance with Keenan’s return as both musician and songwriter doing wonders for the group.

Lead single “Cast the First Stone” is the most immediate proof. An attempt to recreate the magic of rock radio staple “Clean My Wounds,” it features religious allusions and is driven forward by a similar revving staccato riff. The song also contains something glaringly absent from recent C.O.C. albums: a memorable chorus, confirming Keenan as the band’s secret weapon. Elsewhere, you’ll find satisfying bong haze rockers of the burly (“The Luddite”), bluesy (“Nothing Left to Say”) and groovy (“Forgive Me”) varieties.

When the band misses, it’s because it’s overcompensating for limp songwriting, either in the form of impressively heroic soloing “Old Disaster” or the overt heaviness of “A Quest to Believe [A Call to the Void].” Additionally, the multiple interludes—likely another callback to Deliverance—are gentle and pretty, especially the acoustic “Matre’s Diem,” but such tracks are nonetheless unnecessary and break up the flow and momentum of the album. Blend three of them together into one track and same point is made in a more succinct manner.

Then again, this is a band that refuses to follow trends or bend to popular opinion, and instead has been doing its own thing for three-and-a-half decades. There are no surprises found within No Cross No Crown, nor are there attempts at some kind of profound reinvention. Corrosion of Conformity has always played to its strengths—riff-fueled, southern-fried sludge with underrated leads—and it does so again here with mostly positive results. The group’s latest is not a classic, but it is a solid late-period effort from one of the genre’s finest acts, and sometimes that’s all you need.

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