Band: Eternal Champion
Album: The Armor of Ire (2016)
Genre: traditional heavy metal
Where to buy: Bandcamp
In the great tradition of using literature as one’s primary inspiration, Texas-based Eternal Champion gives us The Armor of Ire, their 2016 full-length debut. The band takes its name from the character of the Eternal Champion, conceived and brought to the page by British science fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock. The literary Eternal Champion is a hero, found in all timelines and dimensions, chosen by fate and destined to fight for cosmic balance, whatever that means. On The Armor of Ire, we are treated to an eight-song fantasy narrative, with lyrics sprinkled with quotes from various Moorcock tales. I love when bands attempt this, and even more do I love when the result is good metal, as here. The Armor of Ire is not without its flaws, but it would be wrong to say that Eternal Champion has failed; on the contrary, this album achieves their musical goals with a sort of dark enthusiasm.
But what are those goals? The first and foremost must be to evoke the sense of the literature. We find Moorcock’s Eternal Champion in many stories and settings, but our hero is best known in the sword and sorcery (a term Moorcock himself coined) tales that most people associate with the art of Frank Frazetta: muscled, loincloth-girded, blonde He-Men, straddling mountains and raising giant swords to the sky, beset on one or both sides by buxom women. Think of Robert E. Howard and his Conan stories, Fritz Leiber and the adventues of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. The music certainly conjures these elements, with its slightly retro production and particularly with the very effective use of reverb. The riffs are extremely serviceable for traditional heavy metal, and remind me of Sabbath and Maiden and, when they get speedy, even early Metallica. Jason Tarpey’s vocals soar with total abandon over the galloping palm muted rhythm guitar.
The songwriting is utilitarian; nothing about the arrangements or structures will challenge your notions of traditional heavy metal. Occasionally, however, the music surprises me, although I don’t know to what extent I should feel surprised. I found myself noticing solos not taken. The opening track, “I Am the Hammer,” avoids a true guitar solo, opting instead for a lead riff repeated a few times where most bands would extend the rhythm figure and shred for a bit (an economy I appreciate). The album’s short instrumental track, “Blood Ice,” fades out just as the solo gets going. Most of what you hear on The Armor of Ire is so straightforward and straightfaced that the songs come off as nearly pro forma: this is how they sound, because this is how they must sound in order to inhabit their chosen genre and effect their inspiration.
Which brings me to my next question and the next possible goal of the album. To what extent is The Armor of Ire self-aware? The sword and sorcery genre does not lack for action, battles, great feats of strength, magic users both good and evil, hosts on the march, princesses who need rescuing – and so Moorcock created the Eternal Champion as a self-aware pastiche of the genre’s clichés. Ironic would be too strong a descriptor here, but irreverent may function for our purposes. Moorcock’s Eternal Champion sheds light on the less-than-thoughtful literary elements of similar stories, but still participates in them. This hero does not fight a culture war, only gives voice to some amount of critique. In this manner, is The Armor of Ire such an archetypical traditional metal album because it is winking subtly at us? There is no irony I can detect, and I think knowing smiles would cheapen the delivery of the lyrics, so my estimation is that Eternal Champion are earnest in their music and performance. In an artistic era oversaturated with irony, this is no bad thing, though it does lead to an amusing notion. Moorcock is on record as a political anarchist, tending toward self-determination. This is a light metal absolutely loves to cast itself in, self-identifying as resistant to the prudish principles of society and of popular music, as iconoclastic, as a consciously anti-establishment genre. And yet, metal fans love nothing more than adjudicating what is and isn’t metal, arguing about its boundaries and borders, and excommunicating bands that find popular appeal. The Armor of Ire manages to be unimpeachably traditional heavy metal, safely avoiding accusations of committing the sin of being not-metal, and simultaneously telling the story of a character whose very invention was a response to the boiler plate bulk of his genre. Perhaps this is where the irony of this album lives: in an indirect and sophisticated cultural critique, infused in extremely enjoyable traditional heavy metal.