Conan, Blood Eagle: Monolithic Dispatch

It has been a substantial two years since UK megadoomers Conan made their full-length debut with Monnos (review here) through Burning World Records in 2012. That album followed a 2011 split with Slomatics (review here) and Conan‘s 2010 hello to the world, the thunderous Horseback Battle Hammer EP (review here), and in its wake, Conan made their way around Europe several times, stopping at Roadburn that year — their set was released as the live album Mount Wrath in 2013 — and at Desertfest in 2013 along with a slew of other appearances, including opening for Sleep in Norway (which, if you have a resume, is the line you want on it). All this and a 2013 split with Chicago’s Bongripper led to their signing with Napalm Records, and it’s as their label debut that their sophomore full-length, Blood Eagle, now emerges, marking the beginning of a new era for the band not just for the additional distribution at Napalm‘s disposal, but also for being the first Conan release recorded at Skyhammer Studio, built and owned by guitarist/vocalist Jon Davis and already host to a swath of UK acts, from Coltsblood to Stubb and beyond. If where it was captured has changed, who helmed it remains consistent in Chris Fielding (many, many, many others, including Electric Wizard), who switched from Foel Studios in Wales to set up shop at Skyhammer. His partnership with Conan continues to be to the benefit of all involved on Blood Eagle, which is the band’s most expansive work to date at six tracks/45 minutes.

Those who heard Monnos or have been subject somewhere along the way to Conan‘s immense, plodding doom — they’re among the heaviest bands on the planet, period — will find that all is as it should be on Blood Eagle. Conan, comprised of Davis, bassist/vocalist Phil Coumbe and drummer Paul O’Neil, have progressed, to be sure, and Blood Eagle is distinct in the band’s growth from its predecessor, but they’re also not going to fix what wasn’t broken. A big enough risk was being taken in recording in a new, just constructed space that if Conan were ever inclined to depart from the low-end largesse that has typified their work to date, this probably wouldn’t be the time. Still, there is progression evident in the cuts on Blood Eagle — the album taking its name from a maybe-mythical torture in which a victim’s ribs are torn open from the back (spread to look like wings) and the lungs are removed; anyone who watched the first season of the tv show Hannibal might recall a reference to the practice — whether it’s the 9:48 opener “Crown of Talons” setting a grim and lumbering course or the dash-and-pummel of “Foehammer.” Coumbe also takes a lead vocal on second track “Total Conquest,” so Conan are trying new things, however much their core remains intact, but more pivotal to the overall effectiveness of Blood Eagle is how fluidly they move through the material. To compare, with Monnos, shorter songs like the dug-in hook of “Grim Tormentor” and “Hawk as Weapon” appeared first, and the remainder spread out in linear fashion from there, tracks getting more malevolent en route to the closing duo of “Headless Hunter” and “Invincible Throne.”

With Blood Eagle, it’s less a case of multiple personalities. Conan were right to lead with the catchier tracks their last time out — one can hardly argue with the success of that album — but the substance here is different and it calls for a different structure. One of Blood Eagle‘s most infectious moments arrives amid the shuffling riff of “Gravity Chasm,” which is also one of its longer cuts at 8:12, indicating that the separation between methodologies has at least begun to give way. Ultimately, this makes Blood Eagle a stronger front-to-back listen, since by the time nine-minute closer “Altar of Grief” arrives, it’s not like Conan have cast off hooks in favor of all-out excruciation. Opening with “Crown of Talons,” the longest song here (immediate points) and also perhaps the slowest, is a particularly interesting choice on the part of the band, since they’re essentially saying to their audience, “This is as brutal as it gets,” and then developing the album’s character working off that foundation. Sure enough, “Crown of Talons” is among the most weighted songs Conan have yet crafted, and paired with “Total Conquest,” which brings Coumbe‘s growling shouts to the fore, they right away show that though they’ve held firm to some of their general ethic, neither are they completely interested in repeating themselves. It’s a framework in which they continue to thrive, and Davis and Coumbe continue to rumble out some of doom’s deepest, lowest tones. One imagines a new studio had to be built only after the last one crumbled to the ground.

The tradeoff between Davis and Coumbe vocally is one factor presented at its most distinct on Blood Eagle, and another is O’Neil‘s drumming. So much of the focus when it comes to Conan is on the guitar and bass — if nothing else, they are hard to ignore — but O’Neil sets a hook of is own in “Foehammer,” and it’s his change from starts and stops to a more rolling groove that makes the penultimate “Horns for Teeth” the nod-ready beast that it is. With both Davis and Coumbe adding vocals, that song is quintessentially Conan and on an album of hyperbole-worthy doom, it stands as one of their biggest-sounding moments, though in terms of its overall flow, “Altar of Grief” earns its place as the closer with its smooth shift in pace, so that by the end of its run, which caps with a massive, blistering payoff — it never ceases to surprise just how much Conan can not only build these huge tones, but also give them motion — that seems to echo the push of “Gravity Chasm” while simultaneously causing the listener to wonder how they got there from where they started. One does not think of Conan as subtle — one thinks of them trodding a field of demolished human skulls — and yet, “Altar of Grief” plays out so naturally that to call it anything but is to sell it short. Thus we have one more instance in which beneath the bluster and the rumble and the sonic warmaking that the band seems so keen to do and so fucking good at, there’s creative progress happening as well. Portrait of the cake, had and eaten.

And just because I haven’t yet said it and feel like it warrants emphasis, Blood Eagle is a fucking exciting album. In both its faster stretches and in the righteousness that pervades its grueling moments, it is a record that continues Conan‘s aural dominance and every bit worthy of the extremity the three-piece have concocted up to this point in their careers. Still, if I’m honest, when I first heard these tracks, it wasn’t with my fist pumping in the air and my head banging. Sure enough, that came later, but the very first listen, all I could do was sigh with relief. Conan hadn’t backslid stylistically. The new recording environment hadn’t taken a toll on the impact of their tones. They hadn’t lost any of their edge. If anything, they’d only come to deliver it more efficiently, more clearly and with no letup in ferocity. I was relieved, because what has been one of doom’s most satisfying developments over the course of nearly the last half-decade hasn’t stopped. It wasn’t an album I was going to have to feel obligated to like because I’m a fan of the band, and these weren’t songs that I was going to hear and then forget five minutes later. I don’t know how much danger there was of that happening anyway, probably very little, but “Crown of Talons” put my mind at ease immediately — “it’s okay, Conan are still Conan” — and there was nothing to do from there but bask in Blood Eagle‘s destructive and complete victory.

Conan, “Gravity Chasm” live in Manchester, 2013

Conan on Thee Facebooks

Napalm Records

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3 Responses to “Conan, Blood Eagle: Monolithic Dispatch”

  1. TVsRoss says:

    Excellent review, can’t wait to hear this album!! Also props for mentioning the drums, I feel like O’Neil doesn’t get quite the props he should. It’s easy to focus on just the riffs or the gnarly as all hell tones, but his drumming has always been one of my favorite things about Conan.

  2. Cannot wait for this album!!!!

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