Perhaps more than any other Maryland doom band before or since, Iron Man are born of pure Sabbath worship. Guitarist and founder “Iron” Al Morris III is a pivotal figure in American traditional doom maybe not so much for the direct influence he’s had on other players – though certainly that’s a factor as well – but in terms of the loyalist ethic with which he approaches his craft. He’s seen lineup changes enough for three bands, but no matter who he’s playing with for any given release, the core Sabbathian plod remains intact, and that’s true on the newly self-released Dominance EP as well. Dominance, which follows 2009’s righteous I Have Returned LP, is a more rudimentary outing; a true EP in the sense of giving a sampling of what a band is about more than expressing a complete idea musically as a full-length album might. And if Morris feels he needs to get a grasp on the band’s sound again and work it out through these songs, he’s got good reason. Vocalist Joe Donnelly split with the band in 2010 and has since been replaced by “Screaming” Dee Calhoun (who also fronted Land of Doom, from whence guitarist Russ Strahan was plucked to join Pentagram), and Dex Dexter also either left or was fired and Mike Rix brought in to fill the void on drums for this release. Rix, in turn, is already gone, leaving Morris, Calhoun and bassist Louis Strachan without a drummer as of this writing. Having been through at least six throughout the band’s existence, something tells me they’ll survive.
The biggest change, though, is Calhoun, whose approach varies from the unabashed Ozzy-isms of Donnelly and draws more from Judas Priest-type patterns and Rob Halford’s signature and classically metal vibrato. On Dominance, the three songs that comprise most of the EP’s 16-minute runtime – there’s a Morris solo interlude as well – are relatively uptempo, and so Calhoun is more than suited to handle the riffs being thrown his way. It’s a rough production, but clear enough to give some idea of what the band wanted, which I think actually is what the band wanted. Throughout “Ruler of Ruin,” “The Final Straw” and “Grown,” the idea seems to be more about Iron Man (read: Morris) getting their footing as a new lineup on a recording and making that public than trying to expand on their creative formula. The minute-plus interlude “Eternal Sleep” is pleasant as a change of pace between “The Final Straw” and “Grown,” working in the tradition of Tony Iommi’s “A Bit of Finger” to provide listeners a moment’s respite. “Eternal Sleep” also works as a fitting complement to the heavy, straightforward metal of “Ruler of Ruin,” which launches Dominance in fashion well-suited to the EP’s title and offers no letup in its just under five minutes. Calhoun proves a powerful presence alongside Morris’ lead work, and Strachan’s bass comes through the mix in fills between the lines of the verse along with Rix, with whom he makes a noteworthy contribution in the rhythm section, but he did that with Dexter as well, so although Rix’s performance here is capable and enjoyable, Strachan has already shown he’s adaptable to working with different drummers and still enriching the sound of the band. Probably fortunate, given how they come and go.
Second track “The Final Sleep” keeps the momentum and pacing up, and it’s not until closer “Grown” that Iron Man really get into a slower doom march. And they nail it. The production doesn’t allow for conveying the full breadth of dynamics within the overall sound, but the groove comes through anyway, and Calhoun does well to top it with a high-pitched wail just before three minutes in and Morris’ solo. Set apart from the rockers by “Eternal Sleep,” “Grown” is all the more a standout and bodes remarkably well for where Iron Man might go from here stylistically. In parts, Dominance feels more like a demo than an official release, but with 2010 digital only Iron Man Shall Rise demo issued via John Brenner of Against Nature’s Bland Hand Records already in the books and no follow-up to Dominance yet announced, the distinction is moot. More importantly, Dominance does its job in raising interest and excitement for whatever move Iron Man might next make with this lineup. The addition of Calhoun on vocals opens up new avenues of metallic exploration that they’re just beginning to survey on these songs, and one imagines that on a full-length, they’ll be able to have an even better grasp on traditional melodies and structures. Still, as a first outing pressed to plastic, Dominance satisfies and shows that Iron Man is bigger than any single lineup, album or player – except for Morris himself, who remains among the most criminally underrated guitarists in doom.
Tags: Iron Man, Maryland doom