[Artwork by Ken Kelly]
The struggle of the sophomore album is drastically increased when the debut created such a fantastical impact. This occurs outside of heavy metal, of course, but there does seem to be an even greater expectancy in this realm. We as fans often cling to a first love—how many times have you acknowledged a later work was greater but “not my favorite?” Outside of a somewhat more objective view of the songwriting, recording, individual performances, cohesion of the band, there is that special something, that magic that glistens in the eye of the listener and takes them back to the first time they heard it. It’s something that no amount of fancy solos, studio wizardry, or additional instrumentation can recreate. It pits the band against not only expectations to craft something at least as good as the previous effort, but that final hurdle often ends up being the most difficult one: the battle against nostalgia for that first love.
A few seconds of distant pipes can be heard, married with the clanging of hammer to the anvil—you can almost hear the spirit of “Arise, all ye faithful, to the sword!” right before the main riff of “A Face In The Glare” kicks the gates wide open. Eternal Champion are going straight for the throat with a high-power gallop, as though plowing through a horde of foes in a high octane, cold-open action sequence. Once the blood is pumping, they fall into a driving pace more familiar of the band. A high-pitched cry swoops in like a hawk before the verse hits full swing. Jason Tarpey’s vocals sound as confident and empowering as ever, smoothly barking out triumph as he sets his eye on the keep of his foes. Noodling guitar work accents the coda, splashing the soundscape with brilliant bits of color. And then it hits: that chorus. If “In the glare of my steel I see the face of a god” doesn’t strike lightning in your gut, you may as well turn back now, coward. What a bold and confident bit of lyrical play, and easily the favorite line that yours truly has come across in metal this year.
The title track and lead single off the album follows, and I suspect the power of “Ravening Iron” had more than a little to do with the rapid grab for preorders of the album. That roaring self-confidence is doubled down as Tarpey defies the enemy above the smoldering ruins of a city; “Ravening Iron” is a victory cry of Eternal Champion as they set their sights on their next conquest. Picture Schwarzenegger Conan pointing a claymore outward above the smoke in a Babe Ruth style of calling out the next target. The energy from the first track glides effortlessly across the galloping tempo. The riffs feel a bit more complex than those found on Ire, but they sacrifice none of their memorability or catchiness in doing so. They are simply stretched out more across several bars than an eight-bar repeat that’s more typical of the Manowar style. The guitar wielding and songwriting craftsmanship flow together—the riffs serving the songs and the songs highlighting the riffs, as it should be. A few more new tricks stand out in this track, namely the synths and phasing effects on that particularly delectable guitar solo, and especially the chorus of “ooh’s” that round out the climax of the track.
“Skullseeker” hits a somewhat more familiar groove for the band, pounding the mid-pace as though hammering out blemishes in their steel. It allows a bit of a breather without relaxing the iron grip on the listener’s ears. Then the unexpected hits. The syncopated riffing that comes near the conclusion of the song feels like shifting a fighting stance between the weighted march of the riff and the oncoming onslaught of gleaming guitar solo. It’s the extra bit of excitement that punctuates the entire song on return listens and keeps it from being merely a track that bridges into “War At The Edge Of The End,” another galloping number that feels a bit like the “Invoker” of Ravening Iron. There’s a hopeful sentiment to it, showing that Eternal Champion certainly need not rely solely on boneheaded brute force on their quest for victory. The nuances take shape in the riffcraft—that main riff is so full of the syncopated emergence of chords and leads, and it slides up from the palm-muted muscle of the song. Sparing use of double kick really accentuates the trot, too. It’s not always how many blows you can land on your foe, but how critical your strikes are. Tarpey’s vocals here have that somewhat softer and lofty feel that add so much to the atmosphere of epic fantasy.
Following the more majestic track, “Coward’s Keep” pulls us back down into the battle at hand. The main riff that follows a softer intro hits like a mass of wrought iron directly into the skull. The real meat of the song is found in the chorus, dipping beneath the Adam’s apple of Tarpey and hitting an almost mystical “om” as the backing vocals weave the tapestry of a war standard in the background. “Worms Of The Earth,” however, brings everything that makes Ravening Iron so fantastic together. The long form, diverse (and yet familiar) riffs cut across a thick rhythm, married to a finger-tapping lead that injects fresh adrenaline into the track. The tempo increases mid-song, and there’s a very thrashy feel—not terribly surprising, considering the band’s connection to Iron Age and Power Trip—but they utilize it in such a way that it never loses its true heavy metal feel. The late-80s’ Manilla Road influence has been present for the entire album, but it’s on “Worms” that it really shows the colors beneath the armor of Eternal Champion.
“The Godblade” marks the only “filler” track on the album, but it serves its purpose well. The synth track washes a holy light across the soundscape, and its nigh-impossible not to imagine the most beautiful sword your mind’s eye can conjure: slowly and valiantly rotating, suspended in mid-air—this is truly the blade of the true champions. A bit surprisingly, the closing track of “Banners Of Arhai” isn’t the no-holds barred, high energy escapade one might expect, but a return to the oldest keeps of metal: slow, steady and doomy, though no less epic in scope than its preceding tracks. It’s the final call of yet another victory for Eternal Champion, emerging even stronger from the forges of Ravening Iron.
So where does that leave us? Does Ravening Iron exceed the band’s previous masterpiece? For yours truly, the answer is… Yes and no. My personal interpretation is that the band have presented two complimentary works, that, when viewed together, are even greater than the sum of their components. The colder, more hazy fantasy atmosphere of The Armor Of Ire represents the ice and shield to Ravening Iron‘s more immediate and aggressive fire and sword. The production on the latter is more of a blaze to Armor‘s mighty winds, and while Armor certainly wears a bit more Manowar influence on its sleeve, Ravening Iron hits the Manilla Road vibes a lot harder. Even on the cover art, the fanged skull beneath the logo is a clear homage to the skull on Open The Gates. One thing is certain: Going between the forging fire and the quenching ice of the two albums will only serve to strengthen one’s steel, and all hails to Eternal Champion for finding a perfect solution to overcoming exceptions and storming their way to their rightful place as the new masters of the forge.