There is no doubt that art is subjective. A fitting parallel for this can be found in the fact that heavyweight Merseyside sludge/doom metal band Conan take their titular inspiration from the fantasy series by Robert E. Howard that spawned the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger seminal fantasy Conan The Barbarian. The film itself is an entity that has both its admirers and detractors.
Conan (the band) have enjoyed a good deal of media praise since their Battle In The Swamp demo lumbered over the horizon in 2007. Since then, they have released countless split collaborations, including one with the awesome Slomatics, several live sets, four full length albums and graced the stage at Freak Valley, Roadburn and Hellfest to name a few. Returning now with their first new music since 2018’s Existential Void Guardian, Jon Davis (guitar and vocals) looks to deliver another monumental slab of Norse/Viking inspired mythical pulp.
Often for me though, Conan are a band who have plenty of the right intentions but do not consistently seem to hit the highs of which they are accused.
First impressions of the powerfully titled Evidence Of Immortality with its heroic, sombre cover depicting a fallen warrior, felled by countless arrows courtesy of visual curator Tony Roberts, is that in drummer Johnny King, the band have a huge tactical weapon that can be deployed unmercifully without fail throughout the album. King thrashes the kit into submission, pummelling and pounding, shaking the speakers and propelling the tracks ever onwards in a seemingly unstoppable manner like some huge demented beast.
As a result, the riffs deployed by Davis and bassist Chris Fielding have no choice but to be as jacked and barbarian as the former Mr Universe’s character.
One thing they have always had going for them is the ability to hammer out mountainous walls of doom that, at times, can sound like and to borrow an image from another fantasy series, the rock giants clashing in the scene from the Hobbit, barely a track passes on this latest album that doesn’t sound like an angry Patagotitan with a bad case of the munchies stomping into view, flattening everything in its path.
Over the course of five of the six epic length weighty passages, Conan attempt to batter you with dramatic and angry tales that want to inspire you to ‘raise up your swords’ (Equilibrium Of Mankind), the soundtrack to seeing your enemies driven before you and it seems like they have checked all the right boxes. However, the resulting end product can be somewhat Marmite.
King thrashes the kit into submission, pummelling and pounding, shaking the speakers and propelling the tracks ever onwards…
Whilst I appreciate doom is not associated with revolutionary musical progression, the base that underpins Conan, is at times, very workmanlike. Many of the songs on Evidence Of Immortality (the aforementioned Equilibrium Of Mankind for example) are seemingly elevated by the frenetic drumming or occasional incidental guitar work. As a fan of the likes of Jesu, I can appreciate the studied dedication to the deeper exploration of slow repetitive sounds, however, whether they’re channelling stumbling Crowbar like hardcore aggression (Ritual Of Anonymity) or crafting crawling ringing notes (A Cleaved Head No Longer Plots), the core features one or two musical passages that rely on other tools to create any sense of variation or movement.
When compared to the likes Slomatics, it can perhaps unfairly draw comparisons to the complexity and plot mechanics of John Milius’ sword and sorcery epic. As a result, this latest release can feel like a study by the numbers doom and lacks even the energy of the likes of Volt Thrower and Vexxagon from the last release.
My biggest gripe about the band, which is evident even on previous albums, is the vocals themselves. Never blessed with the most acrobatic of vocal ranges, the semi screamed rasping voices seldom offer any variation to convey emotion further than a frustrated cry of anger. Again, trying to avoid comparisons to any cinematic delivery, and I say this as a huge fan of Kirk Windstein, they have latched on to an idea and set about thoroughly beating it into the ground. Seemingly pitched slightly lower in the mix, it tends to rob the delivery of the power that is probably meant to be conveyed in the lyrics.
Believe it or not, it pains me to feel like I am being nit-pickingly critical but Conan have been ploughing this unrelenting furrow for some time now. However, to end on a more positive note, my favourite moment on Evidence Of Immortality comes with the sprawling fourteen-minute instrumental closer, Grief Sequence, a moody gothic flavoured and snails paced funeral march that features swirling atmospherics and uses the looping techniques to add something expansive to the album, feeling like the grandiose conclusion to the suitably powerful saga.
I accept, that on paper, Conan have all of the tools and elements that people want when connecting with doom music; not to mention how absolutely fantastic the drumming sounds – like being caught in a hail of breeze blocks – but for me, it doesn’t hang together in a particularly inspiring way.
Perhaps I am being unfair and certainly Conan possesses a passionate and fervent fanbase who will no doubt vehemently disagree with my criticisms whilst embracing their trademark sound and crashing grooves. If you are a fan, you will marvel at the trio’s ability to sound like the mightiest Viking screaming in a thunderstorm after the most epic of battles, however five albums in, this listener just wanted a little more.
Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden