Conan are comprised almost exclusively of sonic devastation. They exist as a kind of touchstone, a comparison point of tone-worship taken to a new extreme – you hear another band trying to be really, really heavy, and you ask yourself, “Well, okay, but is it as heavy as Conan?” The answer will nearly always be no. The British trio debuted with 2007’s Battle in the Swamp EP, but made their first seismic footprint with 2010’s four-track/32-minute Horseback Battle Hammer (review here); also slated as an EP, but with more than enough heft in the tones of guitarist Jon Davis and then-bassist John McNulty — since replaced by Phil Coumbe, who also contributes vocals alongside Davis‘ own — for a full-length album. Horseback Battle Hammer and an ensuing 2011 split with Slomatics (review here) inspired devotion enough to get Conan picked up by the prestigious Burning World Records, who now offer the band’s first official LP, Monnos. Recorded at Foel Studios by Chris Fielding (Electric Wizard, Moss, Serpent Venom, etc.), the record gloriously basks in being what you might expect if you’ve heard Conan’s output up to this point – a ceremony conducted in homage to distorted punishment and doomed riffing. Drummer Paul O’Neil cuts through a muck unmatched by any other to set a pace that varies mostly from plod to stomp, but Conan show on Monnos that they can balance weight and movement, particularly on the earlier part of the six-track offering, which opens with the relatively upbeat “Hawk as Weapon.”
The album is a vinyl-ready 39 minutes long, and easily split into sides (the second longer than the first) in the middle of the tracklisting. Unspeakable righteous begins almost immediately with a faded-up riff from Davis on “Hawk as Weapon,” which O’Neil soon gives thunderous ground with tom hits that feel no less imbued with low end than the guitar or bass and a crash groove that’s both surprisingly active and undeniably hooky, like if Torche decided to take the dive-bombs from “Tarpit Carnivore,” go deeper with them and blend it with their poppier side. Not to harp on the tone, but at any reasonable volume, it’s enough to vibrate my computer desk and would almost certainly test and/or conquer any other speakers I put it through. It would be enough to carry Monnos in itself – that is, you could listen to this album for nothing other than the gluttony of its rumble – but Conan actually have made several developmental moves and grown even in the time since Horseback Battle Hammer, flaunting atmosphere in the later tracks of Monnos and even effectively using lone screams toward the end of “Hawk as Weapon” where the earlier part of the song had dueling shouts from Davis and Coumbe. The more complex arrangement may not seem like much, but it’s something to supplement the instrumental bludgeoning Conan affect the rest of the time. As “Hawk as Weapon” feedback-bleeds directly into “Battle in the Swamp,” it’s Davis at the fore vocally on top of more open, simpler riffing – which makes sense given that the song is taken from the first EP.
Later into it, though, a sped-up ending movement features more prominent layered vocals and works well to evoke a sense of having beaten the song itself – during the opening verses, it seemed indomitable and the shouts were more buried. It’s almost a shock to hear Conan riff as fast as they do toward the song’s end, but perhaps bringing that side of the sound to Monnos was part of the reason they specifically brought in that track from the EP. Either way, it’s not at all out of place on side A of Monnos, which culminates the momentum built by the first two tracks with “Grim Tormentor.” Here, as with “Hawk as Weapon” and “Battle in the Swamp,” there’s no sacrifice of heaviness for the increase in pace or the clear development of the song structures. “Grim Tormentor” turns into the fastest cut on the record following a bass intro from Coumbe, with verse vocals that echo bordering on YOB’s spaciousness or maybe purposefully nodding toward it, and an infectious delivery of the title line that makes the song an immediate, first-listen standout among the other five tracks. The groove is huge, the tones likewise, but everything comes through clearly as well, and as “Golden Axe” begins its five-and-a-half-minute ambient sprawl, it seems that on their first record, Conan – who admittedly came into this record with considerable momentum from the reception of Horseback Battle Hammer and now find themselves being asked to open for Sleep in Norway following both bands’ performances at Roadburn 2012 – have managed to find a balance between clarity and depth of tone that so few bands manage to capture. They remain undeniably, and at times unbelievably, heavy, and the second half of Monnos proves even more doomed than the first.
Going from “Grim Tormentor” to “Golden Axe” on CD or digital listen, one right into the next, is one of the record’s several easy transitions, and it sets up the longer, slower, more lurching approach of the last two tracks, “Headless Hunter” and “Invisible Throne.” Could be that in structuring the album, Conan wanted to keep the über-doom for the end, but either way, “Golden Axe” sets up that move with sparse guitar lines from Davis and a gradually developing thud from O’Neil that’s both a recovery from the pummel of side A and a precursor to side B – perfectly placed, and still heavy in its own right when Coumbe comes in on bass at 2:42 and accompanies his bandmates to the song’s repetitive but still linearly-building finish, the trio crashing wholesale into the start of “Headless Hunter,” on which O’Neil keeps the structure grounded with straightforward drums while Davis and Coumbe ring out long, droning pulsations. Eventually, both Davis and Coumbe come in on vocals, one low and almost robotic (a feel first heard on “Hawk as Weapon”), one higher à la “Grim Tormentor,” but the big change is in tempo, which though O’Neil’s drums – keeping what feels like double-time on the hi-hat and snare before moving to punctuating crashes – work to maintain, has all but diminished. Conan have put their listeners right in the thick of it, and with “Headless Hunter,” it feels like there’s no getting out. At 5:24, the song breaks to a long wave of distortion and feedback that lasts until Davis introduces the riff that will carry through to the total 7:48. It’s a beast, and somewhat faster – O’Neil even gives a couple measures of double-kick bass drum – but still thick and drenched in the slower feel of the doom that returns as “Invincible Throne” closes out the album.
It’s a suitable finish it provides, and like the rest of Monnos, “Invincible Throne” is placed just where it needs to be to maximize its effect on the audience. The song is unremitting in its pace. Where even “Headless Hunter” offered some respite in its later stretch, “Invincible Throne” gives no quarter and is an onslaught worthy of the giant snail that adorned the cover of Conan’s split with Slomatics, or perhaps the massive stone face on front of Monnos itself. The methodology is roughly the same as the rest of the album, Davis and Coumbe share vocal duties well as they have the whole time, but for being slower than everything else, the finish is even more wrenching. Shorter than the longest track on Horseback Battle Hammer (“Sea Lord,” at 10:43), it is nonetheless the longest on Monnos, surpassing “Headless Hunter” by more than a full minute and typifying the tightness of Conan’s presentation throughout even as it oozes feedback to its end, O’Neil keeping time for a while on the ride cymbal and snare before resigning the album to its fate: a volume swell of guitar noise that cuts sharply to silence. That’s not exactly the kind of triumphant end one might expect for a band who just wrapped what’s sure to be one of 2012’s best records, but it works nonetheless. And Monnos is that triumphant. Conan push the envelope of tonal extremity even as they maintain careful songwriting and show there’s more to what they do than the equipment involved. They’ve already won wide acclaim, and I’d expect no less in the response to Monnos, which establishes Conan as one of the heaviest bands on the planet – period. Their process seems so locked in, it’s hard to believe this is their first full-length. I shutter to think where they might go from here, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if several bands set sail in this album’s massive wake. Something this bold is bound to be influential.Burning World Records, Conan, UK