There are few who can claim the kind of commitment to doom that Iron Man guitarist “Iron” Al Morris III can claim. Largely ignored throughout their career, Morris has watched trends come and go, bands rise and fall, and has never wavered from his commitment to classic, riff-driven Sabbathian doom, tracing his roots all the way back to late ’70s rockers Force, out of whose demise Iron Man formed after an initial run as a Black Sabbath cover band. Iron Man proper made their debut with 1993’s Black Night on Hellhound (reissue review here), and 20 years later, they emerge with the new South of the Earth on Metal Blade and Rise Above Records, Morris having stuck it out as the founder and heart of the band for all this time with what to this point has been little reward. From 1999’s Generation Void to 2007’s Submission EP, Iron Man was on hold as a studio outfit, but since ’06, the band has been vigorous in remaking their name in the realms of doom, Morris‘ tone ever at the fore. South of the Earth follows their 2009 full-length, I Have Returned (review here), and a series of EPs including the John Brenner of Revelation-recorded Iron Man Shall Rise (discussed here) in 2010, 2011’s Dominance (review here), and last year’s Att hålla dig över, which was the first Iron Man outing to feature the complete lineup of Morris on guitar and Louis Strachan (who joined in 2006) on bass alongside vocalist “Screaming Mad” Dee Calhoun and drummer Jason “Mot” Waldmann. Waldmann was the last to come aboard, and his presence obviously makes a clear difference in the results on South of the Earth‘s steady grooving 50 minutes, giving Morris the space to blast out bluesy improvised leads to comport with his long-underrated top notch riffing — see “IISOEO (The Day of the Beast)” — while Strachan punishes his frets on madman bass runs and Calhoun hosts the proceedings like a über-metal storytelling master of ceremonies.
Still, even with the change in drummer, or the change in vocalist for that matter — Calhoun having come in after Iron Man split with Joe Donnelly following I Have Returned — there are clear audio signals throughout South of the Earth that Iron Man are working at a different level than they ever have before. A lot of that has to do with producer Frank “The Punisher” Marchand, who also helmed the last album but on South of the Earth brings Iron Man‘s sound to new levels of professionalism and gives a stately feel even to the grit in Morris‘ tone, sacrificing none of the band’s heft or push, but bringing the songs to life in a manner clear, vibrant, and at times punishingly heavy. Essentially split into two halves surrounding the Iommi-esque interlude “Ariel Changed the Sky,” South of the Earth is not aiming to wow with its sonic diversity — it is a doom record by a doom band for doom heads, and if I can add to that: Doom, doom bloody doom — but moments of flourish occur periodically in songs like “A Whore in Confession” and “In the Velvet Darkness” enough to hold the listener’s attention while Iron Man ply their trade in grade A form, and they veer from the earlier, catchy songwriting modus in the second half to the more exploratory territory of “IISOEO (The Day of the Beast)” and the Lovecraftian “Half-Face/Thy Brother’s Keeper (Dunwich Pt. 2).” In direct comparison to I Have Returned, Calhoun‘s presence will likely be the standout marker of the new album. He earns his “Screaming Mad” early on with the opening title-track and subsequent single-worthy hook of “Hail to the Haze” — the analogy I’ve used since I first saw him with the band is he’s the Rob Halford to Joe Donnelly‘s Ozzy Osbourne — but in subdued, moodier parts like the opening verses of “The Worst and Longest Day,” he’s no less able to carry across deceptively complex melodies while sounding confident and assured both in his lyrics and delivery. As a frontman, his presence bleeds through even the recorded versions of the songs.
And while turns like when the “Whore in Confession” turns out to be the priest — we learn he “holds a Bible in his hand” in the last verse of the song and as amusing as the image of the pious male prostitute is it’s probably not what what was intended — or the arrival of Cthulhu’s call in “Half-Face/Thy Brother’s Keeper (Dunwich Pt. 2)” are expected if not mandated, Iron Man undeniably make both the classic and familiar aspects of their approach their own. Strachan‘s performance here is the stuff of doomly legend, whether he’s locked with Waldmann in propelling the linear builds of “The Whore in Confession” and “The Worst and Longest Day” or circling Morris‘ riffs in “Half-Face/Thy Brother’s Keeper (Dunwich Pt. 2)” as the guitarist, in layers, also tears through a solo that proves one of many highlights throughout the record’s course, that song in particular underscoring a trip that by then feels a long way from the relatively simple (though effective) catchiness of “Hail to the Haze.” The second half of the tracklisting — again, split around “Ariel Changed the Sky” — is moodier and more complex, rounding out with closer “The Ballad of Ray Garraty,” which feels culled from a Mob Rules-era playbook, Calhoun leading the way as we fall off the edge of the world. As a payoff for both the slower movement in “In the Velvet Darkness” and comfortable middle pacing of “South of the Earth,” “Hail to the Haze” and “The Worst and Longest Day,” “The Ballad of Ray Garraty” satisfies, Morris ultimately getting the job of providing South of the Earth with its apex in a raging torrent of a solo while the band behind him applies its fullest thrust. Even a final verse and chorus feel like an epilogue, but it’s one well earned, and I’d say the same of Iron Man‘s overall success on the album. This record is a triumph and they’ve come by it honestly. Morris is and will always be the core of Iron Man, but Strachan, Calhoun and Waldmann each leave a stamp on South of the Earth such that it’s not just about one person anymore. Maybe that’s the difference between this and the rest of their work, I don’t really know. It’s a rare thing to witness a group hit their stride 20 years after their first album, but Iron Man are a rare kind of band. As a fan, it’s vindicating to see them get some of their due in having this album come out via Rise Above/Metal Blade (a considerable endorsement), but better than that, to have it be Iron Man‘s best work to date makes South of the Earth all the more worth celebrating.Iron Man, Iron Man South of the Earth, Maryland, Maryland doom, Metal Blade Records, Rise Above Records, South of the Earth