Conan, Revengeance: Brutal Refinement

conan revengeance

Over the last six years, the threatening rumble and mad-dash intensity of Liverpool’s Conan has grown to become one of the most reliable presences in doom. Like bomb-toned clockwork, they have issued releases on even years — in 2010, it was the Horseback Battle Hammer EP (review here), in 2012 the debut full-length Monnos (review here), in 2014, the sophomore outing Blood Eagle (review here), and now in 2016, a pivotal third LP in Revengeance — and while that might seem like schedule-beating, each offering Conan have made to this point has brought something new to their core sound. Some of that is circumstance. Blood Eagle was the band’s debut on Napalm Records and the first to be recorded at Skyhammer Studio, owned and operated by longtime Conan producer Chris Fielding and founding Conan guitarist/vocalist Jon Davis.

The band’s methods were well established by then, their ultra-lumbering riff-led doom, minimalist war-cry impressionist lyrics and an overarching sense of drive to be as brutal as possible, regardless of volume at any given moment, but Blood Eagle brought a sense of sustainability to Conan‘s growth, set them up for a payoff that Revengeance delivers like so many heads on silver plates. The circumstances have changed again. In the two years since the last album, Davis has brought Fielding into the band as bassist/vocalist, and Rich Lewis of Intensive Square has joined on drums. These are not minor changes. Once again recording at Skyhammer with Fielding at the board, Conan not only have the benefit of executing these six songs/48 minutes (their longest LP yet) with two years of growth as a touring act — including in North America — under their collective belt, but of being all the more self-sufficient in the recording process. More and more, Conan has become an in-house operation.

While in context that might call to mind all kinds of images of renegade mercenary warriors, battle axes, bloody limbs a’flying and so on, to be fair to the material on Revengeance itself, it’s fair even to understate it and say that that self-sufficiency is to the benefit of the songs. Front to back, Revengeance delivers the punishment that has become Conan‘s hallmark, but there are distinct markers of growth as well even from Blood Eagle, and they begin to show themselves quickly on opener “Throne of Fire” as Davis and Fielding come together vocally over a chorus slowdown from a galloping verse. Davis‘ voice is in a higher register that will be familiar to listeners of the band, while Fielding has a more guttural approach, and as they trade off on the subsequent plodder “Thunderhoof,” the dynamic of Revengeance becomes clearer. Conan are using two vocalists as they never have before.

Fluid and tight shifts in pace on “Throne of Fire” and the steamroller nod of “Thunderhoof” are nothing new, but there’s development in the opening salvo that sets much (not all) of the course for the record, and the rest of Revengeance makes good on the promise of the first two songs, rounding out side A with the well-I-guess-we’ll-just-have-to-play-even-slower chugging of “Wrath Gauntlet” — Lewis distinguishing himself through the adaptability of his crash-heavy approach — and foreshadowing album-closer “Earthenguard” with some flourish of slow-motion wah swirl in its midsection. Psychedelic Conan? The three-piece are no strangers to a cavernous sense of space, in this incarnation or any other, and all things are relative, but it’s something that might perk up the ears of those who’ve been following the band over their last few releases. For what it’s worth, on “Wrath Gauntlet,” they keep it to a couple brief measures and then end the song with a return to the all-black-and-grey thunderchug, fading out gradually to end the side or, on linear (CD or digital) formats, set the listener up to be punched in the face with the immediacy of the title-track.

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With just a few seconds of feedback as warning, “Revengeance” is off at full-speed, Lewis d-beating behind an all-intensity progression from Davis and Fielding. They lose nothing of the album’s overarching thickness for playing faster, but “Revengeance” outdoes even “Foehammer” from Blood Eagle or “Grim Tormentor” from Monnos in offering even less letup in its first half. They slow it down drastically later on, but its first three minutes are genuinely jarring, and that’s exactly what they’re supposed to be, Conan not letting either themselves or the listener become too comfortable. “Revengeance” rolls to a grueling finish and gives way to the middle-ground riffing of the penultimate “Every Man is an Enemy,” which is ultimately similar to “Revengeance” in overarching tempo structure, but pushes toward a less devastating execution, bouncing early with just a touch of stoner flair and dooming out in its later reaches with a bit more of that wah that will show up again after the feedback cuts out and the 12-minute “Earthenguard”‘s launch-riff answers the question of what might happen if these guys ever decided to cover Sleep.

Might sound silly, but the track proves that’s a question well worth asking and answering, playing out with a more ethereal charge that’s about as far removed from “Revengeance” as one would think Conan could possibly go and still sound remotely like themselves. “Earthenguard” is a crawler, like “Wrath Gauntlet” before it, but in addition to putting Fielding at the fore vocally for the two verses — one near the start, one near the halfway mark — the track is notable for being the only time I can think of the band has touched on an improvisation-type feel. Jamming, in other words. At 7:20, there’s a crash where the drums and bass cut out, and the remaining near-five minutes of the song are given to an oozing progression over which is laid a languid, drawling solo that, if it wasn’t made up on the spot, sure feels that way.

Again, all things are relative, and it’s not like Conan are going full-improv space rock or anything like that, but clearly having the (physical) space to explore their sound at Skyhammer and having the well-earned capacity for directing their own growth has resulted in forward creative movement. “Earthenguard” is tucked away neatly at the end of Revengeance, and like “Wrath Gauntlet,” it fades slowly to end its side, but the song is a standout in their to-date catalog nonetheless, and epitomizes the band’s ability to progress without sacrificing their already-established aesthetic. That is the underlying message of Revengeance as a whole: That while Conan may have become a reliable presence, that doesn’t mean they’re to be taken for granted or that they have nothing new to offer. With Fielding and Lewis in the lineup, Davis seems to be bringing his vision of the band closer to reality, and as a step in that ongoing process, Revengeance is no less essential than any of its predecessors. Another notch in their battle helm, and more blown eardrums for the fortunate.

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