Note: for clarification purposes, this review covers two separate re-issues from Shadow Kingdom Records of Iron Man‘s first two releases — this is not a “2-on-1” package.
One of the many rewarding things about steeping oneself within a genre as voluminous and dynamic as heavy metal is that no matter how Johnny-on-the-spot you think you might be in terms of covering all the bases, there will always be bands that slip through the cracks. And while that feeling of “missing the boat” isn’t exactly something to be celebrated, it does afford one the opportunity to reap new rewards once you finally discover your ticket onto the ol’ ship. Such was the case for myself and Baltimore’s doom veterans, Iron Man. Throughout the course of my metal years I was lucky enough to stumble upon a number of the key player’s responsible for shaping this particular sub-genre, but the slim availability of releases from independent labels such as Hellhound made it nearly impossible to catch every bigwig, so it wasn’t until about five years ago that I finally had the pleasure of familiarizing myself with these hugely under-appreciated Maryland doomheads.
There are two fundamental elements making up the core of Iron Man that I’d like to weigh in on right off the bat. The first is the obvious Black Sabbath influence: the markings are as brazen as a facial tattoo, but the band, and most importantly their guitarist, has worn that particular influence with a Maori warrior’s pride (and why wouldn’t you?) Which succinctly shines a light on the second key aspect to the bedrock of this troupe: the amazing guitar-work of founding member, Alfred Morris III. Folks, within the nucleus egg born of the Universe that is heavy doom metal, if Tony Iommi stands as the obvious Yang, Alfred Morris III surely represents his African-American counterbalancing Yin. In fact, if ever there was a better example of the old adage, “Brother from a different Mother,” I surely don’t know what the hell it could be. But this goes far beyond the idea of someone simply being influenced by a musician. Mr. Morris drops those satiny Sabbath riffs and Iommi-ignited leads not from the standpoint of someone who first heard the call of “Wasp/Behind the Wall of Sleep/Bassically/N.I.B.” in 1970 and realized he wanted to follow the path, but more that he absolutely needed to. There are obviously loads of metal guitarists who love to play and play very well, but Al Morris III has to play; if he didn’t vent those crucial swaggering doom riffs from his fingertips, the “Children of the Grave” would likely burst from his chest with all the gory glory of a John Carpenter film. That if he didn’t doom, the Earth would somehow loom off its axis because one of its crux (please forgive the term, Al) “Old Faithful’s” were no longer allowed to geyser from its core 100-feet into the air. To put it simply, Al Morris is a doom metal KING, and these two particular works should be regarded as essential Holy Tomes in the Doctrines of Heavy Doom Metal.
As I alluded to earlier, both Black Night (1993) and The Passage (1994) were originally released on Germany’s venerable Hellhound Records, the primary label responsible for supporting the very infrastructure of the classic “Maryland doom sound.” And Iron Man fit very snugly alongside the rest of the resplendent roster. Both records were very well-received by those lucky enough to come across them and featured an epidemic level of Al Morris’ Iommi-fired fret wizardry. So much so that to pinpoint all the guitar highlights in one review such as this would likely require a tome as extensive as a graduate-level thesis (title: “The destructive effect on the Trapezius and Sterno-cleidomastoid muscle structure of the neck due to extensive headbanging damage resulting from the doomed works of Alfred Morris III”).
The most obvious difference between the two releases comes in the vocal department. Black Night features the rather “subdued” vocal styling of Rob Levy (who eventually went on to organize the Stoner Hands of Doom Festival) and stand as probably the biggest roadblock to immediate love for new listeners giving it initial spins. But what he obviously lacks in range is made up for in heart, and a bit of patience (and the understanding that it’s that crimson Gibson SG at center stage) actually reveals a strangely endearing, albeit anomalous quality to his voice that I’d honestly not trade for anything today. Still, the vocals are fairly uneven, keeping Black Night just shy of something I’d call doom metal perfection.
By 1994’s The Passage, drummer Ron Kalimon (Asylum, Internal Void, Unorthodox) stepped down and was replaced by Gary Isom (Pentagram, Spirit Caravan, Unorthodox, Valkyrie, Wretched), and Levy made way for the more dynamically ranged Dan Michalak, who brought along a decidedly more traditional NWOBHM flavor to the mix. His voice truly suits the band’s more enterprising playbook on The Passage, giving battle-metal tunes such as “Iron Warrior” a bit more of a classic Manowar feel. But those of you who fear those warbling power metal screechers needn’t be concerned, as Dan’s emphasis here is more focused on heavy metal bravado as opposed to shrilling vibrato. The only kink to be found on the 1994 release rears its head with the oddly jarring “Freedom Fighters,” a tune that sticks out like an injured finger because of its quirky approach and the rather off-putting effect added to Michalak’s vocals.
One more benefit to The Passage reissue is an added DVD loaded with over an hour’s worth of live footage from a 1999 Virginia show whose minuscule crowd proves just how under-appreciated this band was (and sadly still is), along with two cuts from a Maryland show that same year featuring Levy on vocals covering “Lord of this World” and “Killing Yourself to Live” (rather flatly.) The show closes out with rippin’ renditions of “Paranoid” and a fitting cover of “Iron Man” with Joe Hasselvander on drums and vocals delivered by a woman who, if I understand the announcement correctly, apparently did time backing up both the P-Funk Allstars and Fishbone. The sound and video quality is surprisingly good and gives viewers a great opportunity to see just how attached at the hip Al and his SG are (and just how much he resembles Iommi’s approach to playing the guitar without ever taking a single step from his designated spot — ha ha.)
Again, the sheer amount of merits attached to these two releases is overwhelming. I’ve killed far too many words at this point and still haven’t managed to highlight much of Al’s supporting instrumental cast. Suffice to say, these are essential recordings for those interested in the roots of heavy doom metal, and I tip my hat once again to Shadow Kingdom Records for recognizing the eminence and indispensable fortitude of Black Night and The Passage. AND for obviously making the two records easily available once again for those who’ve not yet had the pleasure.
Alfred Morris III and Iron Man may not be the most widely known doom act in heavy metal, but they’re certainly Crowned Kings of their craft.