For a prog-ish metal band — one that might both achieve mainstream success and re-write a rule or two of the genre — Iron Age are startlingly … polite.
“We don’t owe anything to anyone,” vocalist Jason Tarpey said, not bitter or angry. “We just do what comes natural and people have stuck by us.”
Iron Age’s sophomore effort, The Sleeping Eye, begins neither with a surging riff nor a head-rattling drum fill, but with cool, darkly ominous keys. “Om,” the record seems to say. Then guitarists Wade Allison and Alex Hughes, drummer Jared Allison, and bassist Ribz Mason shatter the silence with a classic speed-metal intro before Tarpey comes screaming into the mix.
What follows is six minutes of metal metamorphosis. Tarpey doesn’t so much deliver a verse and chorus as he does scream a metal prose poem with a recurring theme. “Saved are the forgotten, lone and hidden from the sleeping eye of old,” he shrieks. Then it’s wicked solo ? prose poem ? wicked solo ? wicked solo ? howling, slow metal break down ? mid-tempo buildup ? ominous slower metal breakdown ? keyboard “om.”
But Tarpey insists that just because the complex song structures are bookended by ambient noise doesn’t mean that Austin’s Iron Age is grasping for some as yet unknown future music. In truth, each song is a monument to the bands that inspire them. It just so happens that their monuments don’t easily reveal the bricks they comprise.
“It’s easy to grab riffs off a bunch of different bands that you like and write songs that are obviously thrown together,” he said. “But writing a record when you want elements of Bathory, Thin Lizzy, Tangerine Dream, and Candlemass is tricky, and keeping everything from clashing is even trickier.”
And yet, rock history has been kind to metal bands that dare to expand the genre’s horizons. The success of Zeppelin, Sabbath, Metallica, Tool, and, presently, Mastodon, prove that fans are not just willing to redefine the conventions of metal, but may even crave the challenge.
Perhaps the time is right for Iron Age to penetrate college radio and tour with MGMT (hey, they’re prog, too!). There’s just always that price of crossing over, of losing the fans that may have supported you when you were all aimless riffs and broken snares. Tarpey isn’t worried.
“That’s cool if people want to lump us in that category, but I don’t think we’re a crossover band, nor do I think that we have a sound that could cross over into the mainstream,” he said. “Everything happens in its time. If you write good music and continue to progress, then you’ll get better offers and things will get more comfortable. I like where we’re at now. I feel like I’m in my element playing shows with our friends in Texas.”
And so it is. Iron Age have struck a delicate balance between flirting with genre subversion while continuing to get work. Perhaps tempering their roller-coaster speed metal with ambient synth passages is what keeps their pockets full. But their understanding of the fluidity of genre goes beyond texture and composition.
Midway through The Sleeping Eye, Iron Age drop “Materia Prima,” an Enohomage of the highest order. Tarpey finds the track quite practical.
“To me, having something ambient, drone-y, or soothing makes perfect sense in the middle of a heavy record,” he said.
Literally meaning “prime matter,” the song’s title is an etymological house of mirrors. Philosophers, alchemists, and scientists have argued the phrase’s definitive meaning for centuries, often producing definitions that reflect their own beliefs and that, not surprisingly, contradict one another. In other words, defining “Materia Prima” is no different that defining beauty, love, or art. You’d be more productive having sex on Vicodin.
But being a band that has toyed with metal’s conventions, Iron Age seem all too deliberate with “Materia Prima,” especially because they got the Latin right (Noun first. Adjective second. Perfect gender agreement). They relate their “arty” song to the struggle to solidify that which can never be concrete. Whether they are throwing in the towel or resolving themselves to a never-ending quest is, ahem, up for debate. And Iron Age is not giving any definitive answers to the question either.
“We just do what we think will suit us and see what comes out the other end,” Tarpey said. •
Iron Age (with HOD)
8pm Fri, May 21
The Ten Eleven
1011 Ave. B