Well, hello everybody. This is the first “proper” piece I’ve written for Heathen Harvest, and after being confronted by an album as dense, layered and downright byzantine as 2010’s Storm Over Sea, the second release by Australian prog metal outfit Ironwood, I’m starting to realize that you have to work for your keep around here! Fronted by the duo of multi-instrumentalists Henry Lauer and Matthew Raymond, both of whom perform in a range of other projects, Storm Over Sea is a grandiose statement of intent. Ironwood clearly have designs on the lofty gentlemen’s club of extreme progressive metal, whose membership includes such chronic overachievers as Mikael Åkerfeldt, Devin Townsend and Dan Swanö (the latter of whom is credited as the producer of this very album). To that end, they’ve unleashed a winding, diverse and texturally mercurial record which would be considered ambitious by the standards of a well-established act with years of experience and record-label backing; coming from a young and unsigned group of newcomers, a contraption this elaborate and broad in the scope of its influences is exceptional.
Lauer and Raymond may be relative newcomers to the prog metal circuit, but you wouldn’t know it from the impeccable standard of musicality on display on Storm Over Sea. Besides both proving their mettle as guitarists in a diverse array of styles ranging from lush, neofolk-flavoured acoustic chords on Share the Burden to black metal riffs on Will to Live bleak enough that they wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Dissection’s Storm of the Light’s Bane, Lauer brings a pleasant surprise in the skilful and tasteful employment of a six-string fretless bass on tracks like the epic Infinite Sea (indeed, between Ironwood and Canadian tech-death outfit Beyond Creation, it seems it’s a good time in metal to be a fretless bassist). Add to that the sparing use of keys and you begin to see that Ironwood have a gift for creating melodies and harmonies with a sense of depth, space and nonlinearity. “Layered” is the word of the day here; look no further than opening track Hail Sign to hear this principle in practice where in three minutes, Ironwood progress harmony by harmony from a backdrop of ambient sound, tension and engagement rising layer by layer.
More than their obvious talent as artisans of melody however, the one overwhelming impression Storm Over Sea left on me was of Lauer and Raymond’s fluency in and love of the genre conventions of extreme prog metal. Influence from pioneers like Ulver, Ihsahn, Opeth and Borknagar is on proud display, although to me personally, a particularly clear point of reference was Portland’s Agalloch. A few of the acoustic breaks on Storm Over Sea, especially during the final track When It’s All Over, sound only a couple of notes removed from melodies to be found on Pale Folklore or The Mantle (incidentally, since this album was released, Henry Lauer has relocated from Australia to the US – specifically, to Portland, Oregon. Probably a coincidence, but a curious bit of synchronicity all the same).
Ironwood seem content for Storm Over Sea to be a chimera pieced together from their forebears – a little of ICS Vortex’s baritone clean vocals here, a little of Prometheus: Of Fire and Demise’s tumultuous riffing there – but unfortunately, more often than not, a chance at a coherent and unique musical identity is overwhelmed by Lauer and Raymond’s eagerness to pay tribute to their influences. Storm Over Sea bears all the hallmarks of young musicians with skill to burn who’ve let their talent and enthusiasm run away with them; their cup runneth over with ideas derived from their no-doubt huge metal collections, and they can’t wait to implement every last one of them. The result is a record with parts which are effective considered in isolation – there are black metal riffs on Infinite Sea which are the equal of the Norwegian elite in majesty and darkness, and moments of tender tranquillity on A Bond to Serve that echo Dream Theater at their most theatrical and poignant – but taken as a whole, it feels fragmentary, weirdly paced and at times directionless. It lacks, for instance, the sense of strong dynamic contrast that characterises Opeth’s body of work; there are heavy and soft sections, sure, but they just kind of co-exist rather than serving to illuminate or inform each other.
Also wanting is a strong vocal presence; when Opeth or Agalloch go off on their meandering fifteen-minute ruminations, their respective vocalists’ distinctive tones - Mikael Åkerfeldt’s subdued murmur or John Haughm’s half-whispered drawl – serve as an entry point for the listener amid what can often be baffling song structures, a guiding hand in the fog. Lauer and Raymond are both credited as vocalists (and as such, I’m not actually sure which of them is the “main” singer/screamer), and it’s a task they handle with the same care and professionalism that they lavish on every other instrument, but neither has a distinctive enough voice to provide Storm Over Sea with the sense of focus and perspective it needs.
I’m being harsh, as is my wont; but don’t take any of this to mean that Storm Over Sea isn’t worth your time or attention, because it most certainly is. I enjoyed the hell out of it; it may suffer from the clutter of ideas I like to call “Scenes from a Memorysyndrome,” but if the problems with a metal album arise from the musicians loving metal too much, then it can’t be all that bad. Make no mistake, Ironwood are immensely talented guys and Storm Over Sea is compulsively listenable. Never once for its 57-minute running time is it anything less than engaging, and its ambition and enthusiasm are infectious. It doesn’t transport me like albums it draws from such as Morningrise, The Mantle or Light of Day, Day of Darkness, but it succeeds in being entertaining, and moreover, it exhibits the potential for true greatness in the future; with some refinement, perhaps even the possibility of eclipsing their idols. This is the first album I’ve heard by Ironwood. I hope it isn’t the last.
Written By: Andrew
Label: Self-released (AUS)/CD, Digital Download
Genre: Extreme Progressive/Folk Metal