posted on 4/2009 By:
Some albums demand that the bottom line of a review be introduced early because there is something so unique about it that it will instantly make or break the album for new listeners. :Fire:Water:Ash: is such an album and the bottom line is this: Ironwood’s self-released debut LP is an outstanding piece of mythological storytelling that defies heavy metal convention. While :Fire:Water:Ash: is absolutely loaded with equal measures of panache and subtlety around which to conversate, the vocals definitely dominate the discussion early, as they are quite decidedly eccentric (put simply, they can be really weird). This album dares the listener to forsake even metal’s not-so-traditional traditional vocal styles for those that best serve the tales that the album aims to tell. It is an album that demands that listeners look beyond the appeal of individual songs to the album as a whole. In fact, song structure seems much less a vehicle here than a product of the stories being told. In short, if you are the sort of listener beholden to the predictably grim or guttural vocals and familiar song construction of accessible metal, you will likely be confused and then sorely disappointed by :Fire:Water:Ash:. If, on the other hand, you are a bit eccentric yourself and welcome the challenge of discovering deeper value in music that at first strikes you as odd or even silly, then you should give this record a shot.
Understand that Ironwood present :Fire:Water:Ash: as an album rather than a collection of songs. There is nothing like a single here. The flow that Ironwood achieve in their songwriting is much more emotional than aural. Rather than a story about the forest, imagine a story told through the trees. This is the essence that Ironwood capture. While the vocals on this record may come off as weird, it’s the kind of weird that is to be embraced because it is sincere. It’s the sort of oddity that you expect from a native inhabitant of the forest, somebody who loves and lives among all things natural. It is in this spirit that Ironwood conjure comparisons with Agalloch, particularly in their uncanny ability to meld evocative folk music with dark, raw black metal aesthetic. This undoubtedly underscores the band’s primary aim – to demonstrate the juxtaposition between all that is beautiful about nature with all that is black and bleak about living. Much like Agalloch, although Ironwood often revel for extended periods in music that is most certainly not metal, even these passages convey a heaviness that is undeniably metal in essence. In Germanic mythology, the Ironwood is the birthplace of wolves (very metal). It is the area between Midgard, the place inhabited by people, and Hel, the home of the dead (also very metal). It is through the Ironwood that men are allowed passage from Midgard to Hel and, according to the band, the sole purpose of Ironwood is to serve as a metaphorical conduit between these worlds. The band see their music at once as a vision of the stark blackness and undeniable beauty of nature, the contrast of death with life, and this album paints that picture.
There really is no way to review individual songs in a way that does :Fire:Water:Ash: justice, but a couple tracks might comprise a representative sampling of the album as a whole. “Love in Death” begins with sparsely picked acoustic counterpoint, creating an atmosphere of loneliness and longing that suddenly erupts into a beautiful Agallochian melodic electric lead. Cool, clean vocals then rise to the fore in tandem with raspy black metal vocals and harmonized chanting, riding comfortably atop a smooth acoustic strum and thick, mid-tempo double bass drum, all of which builds to and peaks at an absolutely exquisite bass guitar solo. For those of you who lament the disrespect often afforded the bass guitar in heavy metal, rejoice in the knowledge that Ironwood celebrate and exalt it. Not only is the bass featured prominently throughout the album, it often enjoys the spotlight where co-founder Henry Lauer goes positively nuts with some of the most outstanding bass solos you’re likely to hear (see also, “Jarnvidr Gallows”). “The Serpent Seeks Its Tail” utilizes Neurosis-like, trance inducing undercurrent laced with intensely creepy, blackish, gargley whispers and exquisite classical guitar to lure the listener into an uncomfortable quietude before launching into a weird progressive black metal bit spearheaded by an odd ogreish spoken word piece. Bizarre and compelling, all.
With a disquieting leer, :Fire:Water:Ash: invites you on a strange and wonderful journey through the Ironwood. For the intrepid adventurers among you, should you take up the walking staff, you’ll not be disappointed.
Oh, and the vocals are weird.
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