Whether it’s a product of conditioning or a reflection of the fighting spirit of humanity, we tend to have a penchant for rooting for the underdog. So many protagonists in modern storytelling have their tales rooted in a tale of overcoming. From The Mighty Ducks* to the Millennium Falcon*, there is always that element of heart that becomes the significant factor in turning the tides.
In the really good stories, it’s almost as though the characters are coming out on top because we are cheering for them.
Of all the records in all the world, why did this one have to walk into mine? Traditional heavy metal is one of my greatest loves, but I find myself yearning for the words to describe the feeling of when a record really and truly just connects with the soul. How does one review something they have become so personally vested in? At least, in the case of Fires Within, the debut from Austria’s Eisenhand, that vulnerability is what makes the record so difficult to write about. It’s so unapologetic about what it seeks to be, yet it becomes so much more.
“The Engine” starts with wailing feedback, appropriately kicking the motor of the band into gear. As the rapid, punky one-two rhythm purrs in at blistering speed, the lead guitar continues to howl, spinning the wheels until the song kicks into proper gear. A full glimpse of the production values arrives with the vocals – they’re delectably sloppy. While the core of Eisenhand’s sound is played straight out of the ’82 NWOBHM handbook (bits of Holocaust, Tank, Satan, and Tygers Of Pan Tang can be heard all over), they have a knack for channeling it through the deceptive simplicity of the early Swedish scene. Simply put: They capture the essence of that early blending of metal, punk, and the pop-centric melodic tendencies that influenced bands like Heavy Load and Maninnya Blade.
Eisenhand burns through riffs like high-octane fuel pumping through a bored-out V8 on through the anthemic “Steel City Sorcery.” The song would be perfectly satisfactory as a singalong crowd-pleaser, and on the surface that’s what it appears to be. Iron Herv’s vocals are oddly relatable ‒ that is, if you’ve ever heard the drunk guy next to you at a gig hollerin’ lyrics out with reckless abandon. The thing about that guy at the show is ‒ he’s got heart. He’s living in the moment. He also has a whole crowd singing with him that helps to downplay his shortcomings. Eisenhand appear to be aware of what is technically their weakest musical link and turn it to an advantage. The vocals are littered with equally intoxicated harmonies that not only soften the blow, but add to the honesty of the delivery. The subtly accentuated gang vocals of, “You hear the music that gets closer to your heart!” provides a jolt that gives way a relieved exhale of wooooahs triple-dipped in mystic reverb ‒ it’s a moment of metallic zen. Meanwhile, chirpy, spirited guitar leads have just been happily working their hooks in around the chugging fuzz of the rhythm; more on that later.
“Ancient Symbols” throws a bit of a curve into the mix. It opens as this somber, doomy number, and the suspicion of Herv as a vocalist savant is pretty much confirmed with his haunting incantation, brilliantly delivered in a faux-Danzig baritone that holds out until the song opens up. A driving, simplistic one-two beat brings the song to life as the guitars sharply contrast the mournful introduction of the tune with a forward daring. A surprise layer is thrown in with the pleasant tones of what sounds like a genuine Hammond organ; a dash of Deep Purple for flavor, seasoned to taste. That element of hope is felt again as the music explodes with life. While the previous songs have excellent pacing in their own right, Eisenhand really begin flexing their songwriting chops when they take “Ancient Symbols” into cut-time over a running kick for the climax. The flurrying solo soars for the heavens ‒ and what’s more, Eisenhand knows how to bring it down for a perfect landing. The rhythm guitar finds a lead that takes us back to the intro riff. It feels as though the song is winding down, yet that fighting spirit rears its head once again. It’s like a surprise bridge before the real downplay of the outro, a hidden strike. Deceptively simple, yet flawlessly executed.
At this point, Eisenhand has proven that they are more than simply a charming throwback to yesteryear recorded in the shed out back, no matter how hard they try to convey that vibe. “Dead Of Night” begins with a pulsing double kick and, on the surface, simply sounds like a fun speed metal tune. “Hell yeah, give me a few more verses of this and a catchy chorus and I’m in!” I think to myself. But Eisenhand has other plans. The bridge hits, and the perceptive ear will pick up on the subtle clang of acoustic strings beneath the domineering twin lead melody. As soon as that organ comes back around, it’s clear this is more than a few bars to break up the song. The cap on the Deep Purple seasoning flies off as the solo wails in proper Ritchie Faulkner fashion all over the song. Like a magician catching a spinning card in the air, the band snatch the song back on track, backed fully by the snapping crack of a whip.
No matter what elements or changes Eisenhand introduce to their music, it never feels awkward or outside their scope. Perhaps there’s something about the garage mentality that holds it all together. On “Ride Free,” the band are certainly playing a bit into that Heavy Load influence, yet they aren’t bound by it. Another anthem, the core of the song has that late 70’s Oi! spirit, largely in bouncy um-pah of the drums and the rabble-rousing singalong vocals. The track hits the heartstrings on the breakdown as Iron Herv preaches about riding fast, riding free, and destiny, and the climax of the buildup explodes with a frenzied bar of tremolo picking. It doesn’t feel influenced at all by black metal, however, it simply feels like the logical, organic peak the song would have demanded in 1981 just as easily as 2021. It’s almost an audio snapshot of the spirit of Eisenhand: In service to what the music demands.
“Dizzying Heights” lives up to its namesake, especially at its conclusion. Along the course of Fires Within, Eisenhand has been taking catchy heavy metal tunes and building them into well more than the some of their parts – it’s like there’s just enough there to get you to believe in the band, and that little bit of faith is all they need to show just what they’re truly capable of. The cymbals crash and splash, showering over the slow shimmer of the guitars. That freewheel adrenaline hits the asphalt with that bored-out V8 force. Even at very beginning, the song feels like something special ‒ the cautiously optimistic melodies of the guitar, the strange wisdom in the conviction of the vocals, the sheer energy of the music ‒ it all has heart. And just when you think the endorphins can’t stop rushing, the music just culminates into force much greater than the sum of its parts and into a cardiac combustion of a solo section. The guitar weeps before finding strength in its twin. The pacing of the song slows, the guitars detach and console one another, trading licks over the slow bob of the rhythm. It again feels as though Eisenhand is wrapping things up, but if we’ve learned anything here today it’s that these Austrians always have more fight left in ’em, and having that faith pays off, in spades. The ultimate conclusion of not only the song but of Fires Within hits in the final five minutes of the album. A rapid crescendo erupts into a sugar-coated melodic solo that enchants the album tenfold. Holy hell, this song is special. Each level of the solo to the appropriately-titled track takes the song to a new height until the notes are spinning at such dizzying speed that it washes the listener back into the real world, leaving but a gentle gust as a final memory of the experience.
Eisenhand know exactly what they are doing, from the deceptive simplicity of the cover photograph to the garage production. It’s the songs themselves that are most important: They’re the heart and soul of the music. Even on the first replay after the first listen, those hooks found in the leads bleed of another time. They are parasites, laying eggs in the brain that begin hatching as early as the first replay of the record, and multiplying their value on each repeat listen. Skimping on the bells and whistles, dressings and frills simply makes the heart of the music stand out even more; Eisenhand has nailed the feeling of old souls rekindling the spirit of yesteryear with the youthful vigor of true belief. Despite the gushing found in the very words here, nothing ever feels excessive on the album. It all serves a purpose, unfettered and barren, like a willingness to peel back the flesh and expose the soft innards of a free spirit longing to believe in so much more than that which lies upon its outer armor. What began as a scrappy, fun heavy metal record becomes much more with just a little belief and a little faith. That’s courage, that’s heart, and Eisenhand inspire both with flying colors on Fires Within.
*Sue me, Mouse.