Among The Dead
Denmark power metallers Iron Fire have returned with their seventh output, a record that seems to showcase their love for either The Walking Dead or just plain zombie movies in general (or perhaps both.) Now I wasn’t really sure to expect what to expect with this one, as I’ve always been a stickler for the genre, especially if it thrashes and grooves as we’re experiencing here. I’m immediately reminded of John Bush-era Anthrax or lighter Testament when I hear a track like “Hammer Of The Gods” for instance, but there’s a bit more bite to this one than you might expect at first glance. First of all, current skinsman and founding member Gunnar Olsen rejoins the band for this record after a whopping fifteen year absence – and from the looks of things, he clearly wanted to give the kit a good beating, as tracks like “Tornado Of Sickness,” “Made To Suffer,” “No Sign Of Life” seem to prove that he’s a more than capable backbone for the act. Adding to the punch he provides is vocalist/bassist Martin Steene who replaces former bassist Martin Lund (who according to Metal Archives, doesn’t play in anything anymore. Sometimes that’s just how it goes) and pounds out downtuned grooves like there’s no tomorrow. As it has been quite a while since the band’s 2012 release Voyage Of The Damned, and I don’t recall ever having heard that one (or if it even struck on my radar) I can’t say as to whether or not the style of bass grooves played on this record reflect what the band did during the Lund years. I would assume that the difference wouldn’t be all that varied, and it certainly comes across relatively weighty regardless.
Aside from the fiery grooves, we certainly get a memorable approach from Steene, which is what truly appeals to me. While yes, axeman Kirk Backarach certainly does play up a storm of captivating and noteworthy leads on this record; I feel that the performance from Steene really brings the whole experience home. That’s not to take away from Backarach though, as the man proves with nearly every track that he is growing far from weary, it’s more or less my own personal preference for potent sing-along moments that deliver nearly every time. If you haven’t heard Iron Fire before, I’ll admit that Steene’s accent is just a bit rough, but it’s certainly not a big enough deterrent to take away from this performance in any fashion. He also performs some hefty growls, which surprised me quite a bit. Extreme metal vocals don’t normally find themselves on power or traditional metal albums, so hearing these injections certainly beefs up the performance a little for me. Though I must admit that such a brightly lit chorus as accompanies “Higher Ground” sounds a bit weird coupled with such a grueling vocal approach – but at least they’re giving it a try.
According to my trusty (I’ll try not to screw up band lineups again) leaflet here, three records in particular were influences in Among The Dead. These were namely, Black In Mind, The Dark Saga, and Better Than Raw. Of these three, I’ve only heard one to my recollection, but that is in particular a personal favorite – Iced Earth’s The Dark Saga. Originally based on Spawn, it too was a concept album and I’ve noticed some resemblances here and there to it. But Among The Dead is not The Dark Saga and I can accept that. However, it does come with some strong choruses and potent thrash bits, which were exactly why I liked the aforementioned so damn much in my youth. I don’t even know how many times I played that thing. The very fact that I’m hearing even a slight resemblance to that disc is more than likely just one of the many reasons I decided to pick this album up for review. However, in noting that; I need to discuss a few minor nitpicks I have with the album.
These are very minor issues, but could be a major decision as to whether or not someone purchases the disc, so let me roll out the complaint department. (Coughs) To begin, while I did mention the fact that this record did feature a lot of groove sections and downtuned riffs aside from those great thrash and power metal bits, some of these riffs seem to verge on modern and core metal. You’ll notice what I’m talking about when you approach certain sections on the record. Now I’m not sure if this the work of Steene or Backarach, but I can say that some listeners might be turned off a little by it. I don’t feel that these modernisms are enough to consider the record a wash by any means, nor would I consider it a mediocre effort due to these excursions. It’s just not something I really expected to appear on the disc and can come across a bit confusing to the anal retentive listener (perhaps that’s me.) An additional nitpick (which is quite weak, I’ll admit) appears on “The Last Survivor” in the form of a backing vocal that rubs me the wrong side of hardcore. I’ve never really liked the gut-punch style of vocal or bands like Agnostic Front for that matter (it’s just not my thing, folks) and these background shouts really turn me off from what I feel is a pretty solid track with a catchy chorus. Oddly enough, a different kind of background shouts are used on the track thereafter, “No Sign Of Life” and I don’t seem to mind those much. Background shouts have always been reminiscent of the punk and hardcore residue still left in thrash and I understand their necessity to be present within the music, but it doesn’t always work in the band’s favor.
Lastly, there is one more complaint I have on my list here, and that concerns the band’s odd idea for a closer. “When The Lights Go Out” is by and large different from anything else on the album and it is also a ballad. Now I clearly remember that the ballad “Question Of Heaven” closed The Dark Saga with a nearly monumental performance that will be remembered for years to come. It still remains one of the best power ballads I’ve ever heard in my life. Unfortunately, “When The Lights Go Out” is some sort of weird radio-rock love song, and not the kind that works either. Instead, it feels like the zombie apocalypse here ended with the kind of human/zombie relationship present in a film like Warm Bodies. For an album as heavy as this has been, I’m scratching my head trying to figure out the reasoning behind this oddly placed song. Adding to that, this track is the final cut given to purchasers of the digital version (which also loses the intro, but you’re not missing anything there) and is pretty much your closing note for supporting digital music. Physical copies on the other hand however, get not only the intro, but a song that had my ears perk up just from the opening note. It’s a song that nearly every metalhead knows, or should know by now and still remains a potent memory in thrash metal history. Indeed, the cover of Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” works as a fine conclusion to the tale woven here and it’s kind of a shame that this cover wasn’t switched around with the oddly placed love ballad, which fits much better as a bonus track IMO.
All in all, Iron Fire have crafted a rather solid record here and it’s a good enough sign that they’re still comfortable in their own skin after having given us quite a break in between this record and the last. Sometimes musicians just need a break to recharge their batteries and negotiate decisions within the band family, so that they can come back in and do what they love to do with a clear head. Among The Dead feels exactly like that kind of record, and I would at least hope that Iron Fire fans are pleased with it.