Friday Full-Length: Conan, Horseback Battle Hammer

Posted in Bootleg Theater on August 2nd, 2019 by JJ Koczan

It was only four songs — “Krull,” “Satsumo,” “Dying Giant” and “Sea Lord” — but Conan‘s 2010 EP, Horseback Battle Hammer (review here), was nothing less than a breakthrough, for doom as much as for them as a part of it. The UK-based trio had issued the Battle in the Swamp demo in 2007 and another demo in 2010, but their work on the first EP was the type to earn immediate hyperbole because it was so hyperbolic. It was the omega doom. The doom to end all doom. None heavier. Everyone go home. Conan wins. It’s over. Even today, as a whole league of acts have picked up on their tonal cues and attempted to manifest a similar affect, one can count on a hand the number who’ve managed to do so while manifesting such a sense of utter triumph.

Because that’s the thing about Conan‘s earlier work that often gets lost in the story of how heavy they were. They weren’t just heavy — they were also about heavy. Conan conquered and told tales of conquest. “Worship Krull, within the mountain,” “Bodies flow to the bottom,” “Oceans of graves ebb and flow,” “Sea be lifted sithen” — these lines about struggle and death, worship and the ocean seemed to rise up out of the very murk Conan were creating with their instruments. Founded by guitarist/vocalist Jon Davis, whose voice even then had a surprisingly melodic timbre even in its shouts on “Sea Lord,” with bassist/vocalist John Paul McNulty (now of Coltsblood) and drummer Paul O’Neill, Conan‘s very mission from the start seemed to be to throw down that gauntlet of heavy. From the very launch of “Krull” from the initial wash of cymbals, the focus was clear on what Conan were doing. ‘Heavy’ wasn’t just a tool in their arsenal; it was the foundation of their aesthetic, and they cast it out with superlative revelry, creating a sound that was extreme in its darkness without being a heavy metal caricature and genuinely broadening the scope of what weighted tonality could accomplish.

I don’t think that’s overstating it. Davis has said on multiple occasions he was working under a heavy Slomatics influence, and yeah, that story checks out, and one could likewise argue he was playing to some degree off Floor‘s prior harvesting of the “bomb tone,” but even so, what he did with that influence was his own from the start, and that’s written all over the ensuing rumble of Horseback Battle Hammer. And it’s easy to paint him as the auteur of Conan because he’s the lone remaining original member, but from the swing in O’Neill‘s drumming as “Krull” picked up the tempo at its finish and moved into the holy-shit-did-that-just-happen roll of “Satsumo,” to the tradeoffs made to the lower-register shouts from McNulty — a model Conan would follow with subsequent bassists Phil Coumbe and Chris Fielding — the complete band contributed to the onslaught at all times. “Dying Giant” was a perfect example as McNulty took the forward vocal role at the midpoint and the whole band seemed to emerge from the willful muck of that cut’s early going — not to mention the far-back gutturalisms that pervaded from there and the final surge, with accompanying double-kick from O’Neill.

conan horseback battle hammer

Was Conan metal? Oh yes. But instead of beating their chest to tell you about it, they were stomping your skull.

To wit, “Sea Lord.” The only cut on Horseback Battle Hammer to top 10 minutes, it started at an especially grueling pace and instead of taking off at any point, it really just descended into noise and became even filthier by the close. It took its own extremity, its own inaccessibility, and turned it into a clarion, and not only did it do so at just the right time to capture the attention of an emerging mobile social media landscape — something out of the band’s direct control, but which they’ve made work for them just the same — but it came from a place that was for the underground by the underground in a way the previous generation of acts simply couldn’t have been. Conan were something new when something new was needed, and their work was unto itself in its execution and rawness, its purposefully simple, impressionistic lyrics telling stories of violence in lines that sometimes didn’t need to be more than one or two words as the telling itself became so much a part of the narrative, with voices buried under a wall of riffs that other bands are still trying to climb. You listened to it and knew it was something special. I think you still do.

The vinyl was on Throne Records and the first CD on Aurora Borealis, but Horseback Battle Hammer has been reissued a couple times, including by Head of Crom RecordsConan‘s current label Napalm Records and Davis‘ own Black Bow Records, so it’s readily available (like on Bandcamp; see above). Of course, Conan released their split with Slomatics (review here) and then signed to Napalm before offering their debut full-length, Monnos (review here), in 2012. From there, the world was pretty much theirs for the spoils. They toured hard in Europe and set a foundation of American fandom before crossing the Atlantic, and across their next three albums — 2014’s  Blood Eagle (review here), 2016’s Revengeance (review here) and last year’s Existential Void Guardian (review here) — they’d move away from some of the all-out tonal bludgeoning of Horseback Battle Hammer, but hold firm to the central modus the EP laid forth.

With Davis, Fielding on bass and Johnny King on drums, Conan just wrapped another string of US touring that included a stop to headline the final night of Maryland Doom Fest (review here), where yes, they dominated, and they’ll tour again this Fall in Europe, playing Desertfest Belgium, Heavy Psych Sounds FestSoulstone Gathering and much more besides. And even as Davis has begun to show off a ’90s noise fetish in Ungraven and founded the Blackskull Services management/promotion company, which he runs in addition to Black Bow Records — shooting for that “hardest working man in show business” thing — writing has also reportedly started on Conan‘s fifth long-player which is currently expected through Napalm in May 2020. Mark your calendars, kids.

As always, I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.

Today at 1PM Eastern is a new episode of The Obelisk Show on Gimme Radio. It’s a good one. Don’t miss out:

Holy crap there’s a lot going on next week. Here are the notes:


Busy. You know how it goes.

Feeling a little vulnerable after the essay I put up before, but I guess that’s to be expected. Week was up and down. We took off on Wednesday and went to watch the Yankees play the Diamondbacks with my oldest nephew and my cousin and mother-in-law and The Pecan, who I think had a good time. It started to rain in the middle of the game and we left. I was running with his stroller in the downpour with my cousin and nephew and it was a lot of fun. Something we’ll tell The Pecan about when he’s older and goes to games. He already knows the words “bat,” “ball” and “mitt.” He has a little tee in the living room and he hits balls off it and claps for himself. It’s awesome, though as yet I’m having trouble getting him to throw left-handed.

Always work for a lefty out of the bullpen. And if you can throw a knuckeball, you can live forever.

But hey, baseball, right?

Nice deflection.

I hope you enjoyed that Conan above. It’s kind of interesting to me to close out the week with records I wrote about a long time ago. I’ve been doing “Friday Full-Length” since like 2013 or something like that, and for a while I didn’t want to do anything from after I’d started the site, but yeah that’s pretty much gone out the window. There’s just too much out there to not, and when it’s something I reviewed at the time, it gives me a chance to look at it in a different context — as in this case — and I think that’s interesting. I hope you agree. Plus, there’s always other stuff I missed at the time and this gives me another shot at it. So yeah. As far as I’m concerned it’s all fair game now.

I’ve also started plotting out the next Quarterly Review. Five days so far and I’m going to see if I can’t keep it to that. I’m thinking Sept. 16-20, maybe? We’ll see.

Alright, that’s gonna do it for me. I hope you have a great and safe weekend. Thanks again for reading, please don’t forget the Gimme show if you get to check it out and please hit up the forum, Radio and merch.

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Jarboe and Helen Money Collaborate on New Release, Due in March

Posted in Whathaveyou on January 12th, 2015 by JJ Koczan

Given the avant garde tendencies of former Swans vocalist Jarboe and Chicago-based cellist Helen Money (née Alison Chesley), I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess at what a collaboration between the two might actually sound like in any detail or what stylistic turns or atmospheres it might present, but “textured” seems as fair a bet as any I might be willing to make. Helen Money‘s most recent album, 2013’s Arriving Angels (review here), gracefully layered progressive washes of her central instrument, but expanded around it as well, and anyone who dares predict what Jarboe‘s going to get up to on a given album is most likely just full of shit. Some of it will be very, very dark, and again, textured, but that’s as far as I’ll go.

The Jarboe and Helen Money self-titled LP is out in March on Aurora Borealis, and they’re touring Europe in Feb. Info and background off the PR wire:

jarboe and helen money

Jarboe and Helen Money join forces on wondrous new release due out on Aurora Borealis on CD and LP formats

Aurora Borealis is proud to announce the arrival of the stunning new six-track release from Jarboe and Helen Money, both of whom will be touring in Europe in February in support of their record.

Legend of underground music Jarboe joins forces with visionary cellist Helen Money (aka Alison Chesley) to create what is probably the most beautiful release in the label’s history. While still a “heavy” record in many ways, Chesley’s cello looming massive and distorted over much of the proceedings, there are moments of transcendent beauty with Jarboe’s ethereal vocal and piano work soaring above the drones, reaching for the beyond.

Jarboe, famed vocalist, musician and performer, came to prominence as co-front and co-writer in Swans, and over the past three decades has amassed 36 solo albums as well as over 63 collaborative projects with artists including… Philip Anselmo, Attila Csihar, Blixa Bargeld, Bill Laswell, John Fryer, Jim Thirlwell, Merzbow, Kris Force, Lustmord, PanSonic, Mark Spybey, Steven Severin, Chris Connelly, Alan Sparhawk, Neurosis, Edward KaSpel, William Faith, Monica Richards, David J, David Torn, Bill Rieflin, Iva Davies, Julia Kent, Zoe Keating, Anni Hogan, Meredith Yayanos, A Perfect Circle, Colin Marston, Cobalt, Cattle Decapitation, Byla, Justin K. Broadrick, Jesu, Peter Valsamis, Josh Graham, Esoteric, Vampillia, Crone… Jarboe’s influence on modern experimental music is as much bound to quality as it is astonishingly quantitative. Her accolades reflect this; Jarboe has performed and recorded in scores of countries, appeared in books, films and games, and most recently was chosen to become one of the twelve members of the National Parks Arts Foundation 2015-2016 Advisory Board.

Helen Money is the nomme de guerre of cellist Alison Chesley, an extraordinary musician capable of wholly unorthodox and often pitch-black explorations of her instrument’s farthest frontiers. In addition to working with Mono, Anthrax and Russian Circles, she has toured with Joe Lally and Shellac among others, and released her doom-stricken third album Arriving Angels on respected label Profound Lore in 2013.

Working together and separately on the compositions, the record comes together as a seamless whole under the mastering of Kris Force, with moments of sparse beauty mirrored by howling squawls of intensity. This is a very human record, organic, the voice of Jarboe and the many textured strings of Chesley’s cello combining with an earthy depth but reaching for the stars.

Aurora Borealis will be releasing Jarboe and Helen Money on March 2nd as a black vinyl LP and 4 panel digifile to coincide with their February European tour. They will be joined on dates by Alexander Hacke (Einstürzende Neubauten) and Danielle de Picciotto (Crime & The City Solution) – see the tour poster for full dates.

Helen Money, “Beautiful Friends”

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Conan Split with Slomatics Due in May

Posted in Whathaveyou on March 7th, 2011 by JJ Koczan

You might recall in our interview last September that Conan guitarist Jon Davis alluded to recording in December for an upcoming split with Slomatics to be released on Head of Crom Records. Well, it looks like that split has finally come to fruition (with badass artwork, no less), and will be released May 9. Fans of downtuned ultra-rumble, take note.

Says the PR wire:

Head of Crom Records is proud to announce that the Conan vs. Slomatics split album will be released on May 9. The album is currently being mastered by James Plotkin (Khanate, Isis, Earth), and will be released on a limited edition sky blue 12”.

Conan are a drop-F tuned doom behemoth hailing from Liverpool, whose debut release Horseback Battle Hammer (2010 Throne/Aurora Borealis) received rave reviews, and is now all but sold out. They have teamed up with Northern Irish riff-worshippers Slomatics to create a dual-pronged sludge attack in the form of this sensationally heavy split album.

The fantastic artwork is courtesy of Tony Roberts, who has also done designs for the likes of High on Fire, Electric Wizard and Unearthly Trance.

A CD version of the release will also be available via Aurora Borealis.

Conan will be supporting Buzzov*en at The Well, Leeds on April 4.

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Conan Interview with Jon Davis: “Hither Came the Cimmerian to Tread the Jeweled Thrones of the Earth Under His Feet”

Posted in Features on September 30th, 2010 by JJ Koczan

The above quote, adapted from Robert E. Howard‘s The Phoenix on the Sword, more or less sums up the mission of UK doomers Conan. Throw something in there about playing slow and loud and piling riffs like cinderblocks on the ribcages of their listeners, and you’d be right in there.

Conan‘s first full-length, Horseback Battle Hammer (vinyl through Throne Records, CD on Aurora Borealis), remains one of the heaviest records I’ve heard all year. It is thunderous — not the way you think of music as thunderous, but literally like thunder — and in just four songs, the trio of Jon Davis (guitar), John (bass/vocals) and Paul (drums) manages to roar onto the international stage, crushing those in their path with massive, amplified undulations.

As Davis‘ guitar is such a huge part of what makes Horseback Battle Hammer so incredibly heavy, I just had to ask how he managed to get that tone. Not only does he lay out his full gear setup, but in our interview, he also discusses how the band got together, their plans for shows and recording through the end of the year, and just how he sees Conan growing in the future.

You’ll find the Q&A after the jump. Doom on.

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Conan, Horseback Battle Hammer: Doom with Some Serious Hit Points

Posted in Reviews on August 19th, 2010 by JJ Koczan

Released via Aurora Borealis in a limited edition of 1,000 copies, Conan’s thematic Horseback Battle Hammer is every bit as heavy as the title suggests. This kind of lumbering über-doom I like to call brown metal, because it rumbles so low you could shit your pants from the vibrations. Seriously, listening to the UK band’s EP – you might recall their Battle in the Swamp demo was on their MySpace not so long ago – is like having your head squashed by a boulder-wielding giant, and I’m not usually one for cheesy hyperbolic imagery, so you know Horseback Battle Hammer is heavy.

Conan, comprised of guitarist/vocalist Jon Davis, bassist/vocalist John McNulty and drummer Paul O’Neill, present four tracks on Horseback Battle Hammer, centering their work largely around the writings of Robert E. Howard. They’re true to their namesake, to say the least. Opener “Krull” is slow and devastating, reaching over nine minutes before offering any kind of major tempo shift or payoff. It’s a great opener for Horseback Battle Hammer, because it sets up a half-speed Melvins vibe that Conan build on with the speedier and more active “Satsumo.” You could say there’s a Torche influence, but what the two bands really have in common is a mega-thickness of guitar tone, and where Torche uses it as a go-to for heavy parts, Conan bases more or less the band’s whole sound around it. Davis’ guitar is monstrous, both when affecting the doomed pace of  “Krull” or the more middling speed of “Satsumo,” which at 5:32 is also the shortest song on Horseback Battle Hammer by nearly a full two minutes.

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Journey to Buried Treasure

Posted in Buried Treasure on July 16th, 2009 by JJ Koczan

This may or may not be Ixtlan, but it's the album cover either way.It was my return journey to The Sound Garden in the beery Fell’s Point section of Baltimore, and in addition to an Al B. Sure in store performance (it was wrapping up just as I walked in and I got a hug from him as he was leaving the makeshift stage), I happened upon the self-titled album by Californian experimentalists Journey to Ixtlan. It’s one of few albums I’ve purchased in recent history that when I found it was both brand new and totally unrecognized. If I’m going to take a chance on something, usually it’s used and cheaper. Journey to Ixtlan (Aurora Borealis) set me back $18, and for that reason, I’m not going to give it a full review. Not fair to anyone who sends me records for free.

Nonetheless, as a bit of buried treasure, Journey to Ixtlan bridges the long gap between pre-“LosNatas and SunnO))), with a dark Southwestern drone permeated by chants and distant instrumentation. Not that I knew that at the time. All I knew was what I read on the sticker on the front of the digipak (which I fortunately found came from the label’s website), and it went as follows:

Riding out of the desert like the ghosts of future past in a dune buggy powered by dreams come Journey to Ixtlan. Totally heavy, very psychedelic, and utterly sun kissed this is the sound of New Age Doom & Occult Desert Rock. Journey to Ixtlan are an anonymous badass rock band of desert dwellers, in some cases living outside the law at the very margins of society, who converge infrequently to render their physical surroundings in psychotropic sound. Their heavy sound owes as much to Doom Metal as it does to Psychedelia, as much to Now as it does to Then, as guitar, bass, drums, keys and vocal chants intertwine like shamanic smoke.

They trimmed out some of the stuff about purported philosophical connections to Carlos Castaneda‘s 1972 book of the same name (Castaneda being a pupil of Don Juan Matus — taken as a moniker by a Peruvian desert rock band), but honestly, after reading, “Riding out of the desert like the ghosts of future past in a dune buggy powered by dreams,” there was no way I wasn’t going to buy this record. I also got Demons and Wizards by Uriah Heep. No regrets.

If you want to check out Journey to Ixtlan for yourself and see if they’re worth $18 of your hard-earned, you can do so at this location.

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