‘What is past is past. never go back. Not for excuses. Not for justification, not for happiness. You are what you are, the world is what it is.’
Nostalgia is a dangerous game. Get it wrong and the present will shit all over the past that you thought you remembered. Some things do hold true with the test of time though. It wasn’t the first time that I heard Johnny Morrow screeching “E-MURDER FER-RAUD” that I fell in love with Iron Monkey. It wasn’t even the second. The first time I heard Iron Monkey I hated them. The second time I laughed at the sheer pushed-to-the-edge-of-sanity ridiculousness of their music. It was the third time, listening to ‘Bad Year’ at full volume through the crappy speakers of my friend’s Ford Fiesta, that I realised that Iron Monkey’s extremity was the point. That Morrow sounding like he was about to throw up his own spleen was the point. This was sludge metal dialled up to 11, beyond the pale of all reason and it was glorious.
One thing that retrospect has taught me is that my relationship to heavy metal and Iron Monkey in particular, is wrapped up with mental illness. Listening to something as pushed to the edge as Iron Monkey was like being picked up by a huge wave and smashed against the shore. It was obliterating and liberating, something so huge that I lost all sense of self and let myself get lost in the grip of a force bigger, stronger and more powerful than I was. If you’re prone to depression, that kind of catharsis is invaluable. It’s addictive, it keeps you coming back and Iron Monkey were experts at taking all life’s horrors, crushing them into a tight, metallic ball and firing them back at the straight world.
I was supposed to be reviewing 9-13, the newly re-formed Iron Monkey’s first album since 1998’s Our Problem. I wanted to like it. I’d reconciled myself to them re-grouping without Morrow, who passed away in 2002. Iron Monkey never got the following or respect they deserved. They were fucked over by their record label, who to this day have never passed over money from reissues and merchandising to the band. If anyone deserves recognition and a payday, it’s Iron Monkey.
The reasons they deserve respect, though, are the same reasons that I can’t focus on reviewing 9-13. For all the extremity and spit-flecked nihilism of Iron Monkey, on a fundamental level, they could write riffs and they could write songs. They’re often mentioned in the same breath as peers Eyehategod, but for me, Iron Monkey’s self-titled debut and Our Problem are better front-to-back albums than anything that Mike IX’s crew ever put together.
In terms of quality and songwriting ability, Iron Monkey were classicists in the vein of Black Sabbath, however much they tried to obscure it. Listen to songs like ‘Big Loader’ and ‘Boss Keloid’ and you can hear the kinship with ‘Into the Void’ and ‘War Pigs’. Iron Monkey wrote great riffs, but they also knew how long to hold onto a part and when to let it go. They knew when to charge and when to break down to a traumatised crawl. And, like Sabbath, they could swing. Listen to Justin Greaves’ polyrhythmic drumming and you’ll hear that same jazzy, lurching edge that Bill Ward brought to the fore.
Johnny Morrow’s stunted, hellish lyrics were another part of what made Iron Monkey great. Like Ozzy, they painted the world as a nightmarish, threat-filled place that could suck you into the void at any moment. Morrow’s poetics were more fractured and tortured than Sabbath’s though. There was a weird, elliptical kind of sense in lines like ‘self mutilation thru fire/quiet traumas/mass devotion / to highest symbol’, but it was like listening to Burroughsian cut-ups of Brass Eye scripts, or reading the internet search history of a spree killer. If Iron Monkey shared DNA with Black Sabbath then Morrow was Ozzy, high and stumbling around with a spike through his head.
That first, classic period makes it hard to be objective about Iron Monkey. They’re a band I love and will always love. I always get on with other Monkey fans because you have to be of a certain state of mind to really get them and there’s a twisted kinship among Monkey fans that comes from that. The one thing I was hoping from 9-13 was that, for anyone new to the band, it would be enough to draw them in and an incentive to go back and listen to their classic work. After four or five listens to the new album I’m still not sure that it would grab someone by the throat enough to send them rushing to YouTube to look up ‘Bad Year’ or ‘Charlton Heston’s Floor’.
There are some recognisable elements on 9-13. The punishing, circular riffs are still there. Their new drummer replicates some of Greaves’ swing and interlocking rhythms. It doesn’t feel like enough though. Something has gone and, whether it’s the missing members or the kind of fleeting alchemy that marks a band’s best work, it doesn’t feel like it will ever come back. Replacing members in a band, particularly a front person, is a practical and emotional minefield for bands and their fans. There is genuine rage and purpose in Jim Rushby’s vocals, but I can’t help but imagine what these songs would sound like with Morrow’s lyrics and delivery. That’s a question that will tragically never be answered and it’s not Iron Monkey’s fault, but I find it a difficult issue to get past.
A band member passing away doesn’t always mark the end point of their greatness. Chi Cheng hangs like a veil over Deftones’ Diamond Eyes, but something in the band’s songwriting and Chino’s ability to turn pain into beauty makes the work a fitting tribute to their fallen bassist. ACDC were never the same without Bon Scott, but produced their most successful work with Brian Johnson. But for every success story there are ten cases of a new singer turning a band into bad karaoke of themselves. In some respects I could take Iron Monkey touring old material with a new singer, a pure nostalgia trip, but a new album feels a step too far. Something important has gone.
Nevertheless, what I would urge you to do is to go out, buy 9-13, or go to an Iron Monkey show and make up your own mind. For all that they have a cult following now, they’ve never seen a penny from that uplift in interest. For their past, Iron Monkey deserve your respect and your cash. One of the beauties of the internet has been the ease of access to a band’s archives, however obscure. People ten or twenty years younger than me are getting into Iron Monkey and other amazing bands that got buried deep in the dial-up grave of the 1990s. You don’t have to dig through crates or trade tapes to find the good shit now. Some things, however, like the sudden, diamond bullet connection between an 18-year-old and a band, in the back of a beaten up Fiesta, you can never replicate or get back. Some things are only beautiful when they die.
9-13 is out now, grab your copy here . You can purchase both of Iron Monkey’s 90s albums, if you want to, but also, fuck Earache, pirate that shit.
Words: Andrew Day