This Australian band mixes neofolk, progressive rock, classic heavy metal and Viking/black metal with an epic, narrative approach that should appeal to fans of Empyrium, Solefald and Doomsword. It’s an ambitious album, and obviously a lot of care and thought has gone into it, although in the end I found it as exasperating as it was enthralling.

Musically, there are a lot of strong elements at play. Plaintive, acoustic folk balladry comprises about half of the album, either as dedicated laments like the lovely “Raven’s Song,” or as the softer segments of larger, epic tracks like “Love in Death” or “River of Fire.” These more epic compositions also spin off into rumbling, bluesy classic heavy metal or clattery, frantic black metal. Ocassionally Ironwood breaks into an Agalloch-like gallop, as in the final minutes of “Love in Death,” which also offers a soaring emotional solo. That was a high point, as is Henry Lauer’s scrambling, bizarre bass solo during “Jarnvidr Gallows.” The rest of the metal throughout :Fire:Water:Ash: is all solid stuff, but nothing really wowed me like Ironwood‘s more ambient, atmospheric moments did.

Case in point, the eerie, wandering acoustics towards the end of “Jarnvidr Gallows,” or the entirety of the trance-like, subterranean drone of “The Serpent Seeks Its Tail.” Ironwood takes its name from the mythical forest that sits between the mortals’ world of Midgard and the shadowy underworld of Hel, and it’s passages like these that really showcase the band’s ability as storytellers and folklorists. Thanks to some miserable, gargled vocals, these tracks make for some of the most compelling moments of the entire album.

I wish I could say the same for the rest of the album’s vocals. Simply put, they’re just too much. Things start on an off note with opening ballad “Ond Ascending,” where vocalist Phil Brown sounds like he’s trying to show just how emotive and soulful he can be. It’s overcooked and almost insincere in its yearning sincerity – a problem which gets considerably worse when the album calls for more chest-pounding bravado, as heard in the first half of “The Oncoming Storm.” There, the croons inflate to a level that can only be described as Jack Black covering Danzig (or vice-versa), and it muddies the heroics that these songs needed in order to drive forward.

Luckily, when Brown drops the clean vocals to a low simmer in some ballads like “The Raven Song,” and is joined by bassist Henry Lauer and Matt Raymond on harmonies, everything fits together much more pleasingly. And as I said earlier, no complaints about the blackened and whispered vocals, or the admittedly awesome gargled pirate roar (that’s the only way I can describe it) at the end of “Serpent.”

Ultimately, this was an album that I wanted to like more, as the bold songwriting and rich atmospheres are clearly designed to pull you in, just like an epic Norse poem around a crackling fire. Had the vocals been less distracting throughout, perhaps it would have.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
May 29th, 2009


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