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Musicians whose bands have undergone personnel changes could learn a few lessons from Corrosion of Conformity vocalist/guitarist Pepper Keenan. When asked about the departure of former COC lead singer Karl Agell, Keenan doesn't fall back on polite euphemisms such as "We had creative differences," or "It was an amicable decision," or "Everyone's still really close friends." No, he takes the novel approach of speaking his mind.

"It's not like Karl left on his own," Keenan says. "We got rid of him. We asked him to leave."

That's a surprising admission given Agell's previously prominent role in the group; on Corrosion's scorching 1991 album Blind, he served as lead vocalist, co-lyricist and frontman. But during preproduction for Deliverance, the fine new COC recording, Keenan and the rest of the band (guitarist Woody Weatherman, bassist Mike Dean and drummer Reed Mullin) concluded that Agell had become a liability.

"When we were in the studio to make this record," Keenan remembers, "the music came really easily, but when it came time to add the vocals, they weren't up to par. And there was no way that we were going to make a mediocre record just because Karl wasn't capable of doing better. He came in unprepared--he really let us down. So we had to make a decision."

This sort of dismissal would have wiped out most bands, but not COC. Deliverance, which finds Keenan filling the leadership slot, is one of the finest albums the group has made. The disc is just as heavy as Blind, combining fiery guitar-wrestling with a rhythm section whose only gear is overdrive. But the lyrics from nasty tracks such as "Heaven's Not Overflowing," "Clean My Wounds" and "Senor Limpio" are open-ended enough to allow a variety of interpretations. "I don't want to do nothing but tell you that Ronald Reagan was a bad man and we made mistakes in Panama," Keenan insists. "I'm not going to sit here and give you a history lesson. I'm just trying to write somewhat entertaining songs."

In the past, COC hasn't seemed too concerned with entertainment value. When it got its start in the early Eighties, the band--which then consisted of Weatherman, Dean, Mullin and several interchangeable lead vocalists--was most often compared to angry hardcore-punk acts such as Minor Threat. The group earned enough notice for its 1983 debut, Eye for an Eye, to attract the interest of the Metal Blade imprint. But while 1985's Animosity and 1987's Technocracy combined punk and metal in a manner that's now commonplace, the discs were beloved mainly by a small but loyal cult. That began to change in 1990 with the addition of Keenan, Agell and now-departed bassist Phil Smithers. While this lineup took a more metallic tack than its predecessors, it managed to stand out from the Soundgardens of the world as a result of pointedly provocative lyrics. Today, however, Keenan denies that COC was ever a band of left-wing anarchists. Rather, he believes COC's early-Nineties image was rooted in marketing decisions made by Relativity, the company that issued Blind.

"The last record came out right before an election year, and our little record label pigeonholed us as this political, activist band to sell records," he claims. "A lot of the songs on the new record are as politically fueled as the ones on Blind, but we wanted to focus on the music this time around."

To that end, Deliverance includes a number of instrumentals, as well as sections in other songs that sport extended wordless segments. No one will mistake these moves as revolutionary, but they do depart from the blueprint followed by most current metal/grunge/punk hybrids. Keenan says that's no accident: "We keep an eye on other bands so that we don't head the same way. We want to carve our own thing. Just because hardcore is cool again, we don't want to make a hardcore album like we made five years ago.

"About 90 percent of everything out there right now is fake. I don't believe it--I don't buy it. Hardcore is dead, man. I don't care what anybody says; it's fucking over with. There's no such thing as a hardcore band that sells a million copies, and there never will be."

COC isn't in danger of breaching this sales barrier quite yet, even though it's getting a substantial push from Columbia (Relativity's enormous corporate parent) and stands to receive more attention because of its presence on Nativity in Black, a new tribute to Black Sabbath. In fact, the band is taking a low-key approach to selling its latest configuration to the public. The current tour eschews theaters and arenas for smallish venues where the musicians and their listeners will practically be on top of each other. Other veteran musicians might find such a situation depressing, but not Keenan.

"We probably lost some momentum because of personnel changes, but it was a very conscious decision to do what we did," he says. "We could easily have kept Karl and put out a record that we wouldn't have been pleased with. But ten years from now, I want to be able to look back and say, `Man, I never did anything I didn't want to do.' That's the whole purpose for me."

Corrosion of Conformity. 10 p.m. Monday, October 31, Seven South, 7 South Broadway, $10, 830-2525 or 290-

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts