Iron Man South Of The Earth (2013). Here’s another little beauty that turned my head one lunchtime in Probe Records last year, a band I’d never heard of before with a wonderful spacey LP cover, released on the (ever-reliable) Rise Above Records, on a purple vinyl limited edition of 400 copies, a singer called Screaming Mad Dee, a song title referencing H.P Lovecraft and BEST OF ALL it’s a three-sided LP*. There was simply no way on God’s earth that I wasn’t going to buy this album, someone else might not have loved it as much as I do.
Cries are silenced ‘neath the wreckage
Mercifully they’re spared Cthulhu’s call
A fortunate reprieve from Armageddon
Signed in blood when you crushed down the walls
There’s a bit of a clue to the band’s origins in their name, they started back in 1988 as a Black Sabbath tribute band formed by guitarist Alfred Morris III, South Of The Earth is their fifth LP and a triumph of sheer dogged persistence over several splits and lengthy hiatuses (hiatii ?). This album feels like a real victory for the underdogs. Given the origins of the underdogs in question Sabbath do play a certain part in their sound, it’s safe to say but this really isn’t a disguised tribute album. Iron Man borrow from the masters but have a good few ingredients of their own in the cosmic stew.
South Of The earth is a state of the art rock/metal album to be sure, it’s just bursting with huge tracks packed full of heft, doom and melody. The production by Frank Marchand III^ is perfect, showcasing every instrument but allowing just enough collective fuzz to suggest either the tendrils of eldritch demons, or the rising fug of a demonic doobie – whichever way your taste runs. There’s an embarrassment of riches here from the powerful narrative thrust of ‘Half-Face/Thy Brother’s Keeper (Dunwich Pt.2)’ to the ominous as hell ‘A Whore In Confession’, by way of the pretty instrumental ‘Ariel Changed The Sky’ – who expected a reference to Disney’s The Little Mermaid here?!
My favourite track on South Of The Earth is the closer, the rather epic ‘The Ballad Of Ray Garraty’, which as those far hipper than I (who had to look it up) refers to Stephen King’s The Long Walk**, which explains the presence of all the lines about sadistic onlookers and all the properly angry bits you don’t normally get in ballads. I really like the sense of drama and the space that it gives both Screaming Mad Dee and Albert Morris III to really cut loose verbally and guitarilly and whoa! they don’t disappoint. Mr Dee has a really excellent rock voice, more comfortable in the lower registers than the screamy screamies*^, although he can certainly hit those. Where the singer really hits home here is in the sheer force of his voice, his voice actually sounds musclebound which is no mean feat, I can’t think of a better metal voice I’ve happened across recently.
On the guitar front, Lee Dorrian the label boss waxes lyrical about Morris’ tone describing it as brutally heavy but natural and coming ‘straight from the gut’ and he couldn’t be more right. He plays it just the way I like it, unflashy and with a ton of depth, to the point where it sounds like a guitar and bass playing simultaneously. The man can really solo too, nothing outrageous but everything to the point and spot on – definitely a trick learned from Iomni. Just listen to where he cuts loose on ‘The Ballad of Ray Garraty’, or the title track. I dusted down my trusty old air guitar a good few times here. What I find hugely impressive about Morris’ playing is that as heavy as he is, you can always here a basis in the blues in his playing, like early Iomni and that gives it all a grounded, natural feeling somehow. I don’t mean it as a crass reference to the fact he’s an African-American but his playing really has a lot of soul, hell he touches Electric Ladyland as a reference on the drawn out bits of ‘The Worst & Longest Day’.
Let’s face it though we’re in Metal County, MD here and there are only certain subjects that are permissible for a band this heavy to discuss, therefore by my reckoning out of 8 tracks with lyrics we have 5 horror-themed ones (lots of beasts), 1 about drug-induced paranoia (the brilliantly titled ‘Hail To the Haze’), 1 about dystopian future sport, 1 about kittens (‘Your fluffy little tails and paws are so cute / Soon the infernal majesty of Satan’s power will be absolute’) and 1 about murderous psychosis.
So there you have it, buy South Of The earth because a) it really rocks hard b) because 1537 III and the Old Ones just told you to c) Has a great cover d) has a killer rhythm section that I amateurishly forgot to mention until now. If you have a rock bone in your rock body then you will rocking enjoy this one. This is music made by time-served dudes who really seized their chance to create something special here just in case it was their last chance.
But don’t just take my word for it, crank it.
Hail to unconsciousness – altered and benign
It cannot heal, but I can’t feel so I don’t care
Hail to the haze that comes to keep my demons at bay
*I LOVE three-sided LP’s, LOVE THEM I SAY!!! Iron Man do the decent thing and ensure that the fourth side is suitably etched.
^from now on I insist on being called 1537 III.
**A novel set in a future dystopian society, involving a lethal sporting contest amongst adolescents – nah, could never see that catching fire as an idea…
*^sorry if I’m losing you with all the technical jargon here.