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The sophomore from Wolf Counsel reaffirms their commitment to old-school Trad Doom/Heavy Metal thunder.
Sometimes, it's nice to just set everything else aside, drop a no-frills, back-to-basics, rock-'til-you-drop kind of release into the CD tray, and wind the volume up. Which makes it quite convenient that Wolf Counsel's sophomore release 'Ironclad' is sitting on my desk at the moment. It's something I've been keeping a casual eye out for since reviewing last year's self-titled debut: an enjoyable and enthusiastic take on classic footprints-of-Sabbath anthemic riffing.
Released on the Czar Of Bullets sub-label, the packaging is again an understated and slightly ambiguous design on black - at first glance, the Satanic-looking skull and bone juggernaut adorning 'Ironclad' has more of a Death flavour than Doom - but it's a nice, tidy presentation providing the full lyrics and basic credits with old-school Heavy Metal unfussiness. And, on that, the contents pick up pretty much exactly the same vibe.
Returning to the fray are band founder Ralf Winzer Garcia and drummer Reto Crola, this time joined by guitarists Ralph Huber and André Mathieu, both from Swiss technical Death Metallers Punish. The personnel changes haven't actually made that much of a difference, but the thicker, heavier and louder mix gives a first surface impression that there are fewer lead solos and more riffs involved, whereas it's more the case that the former don't stand out as obviously against the beefier backdrop of bass and drums.
If you've been paying any attention over the past forty years or so, there's not going to be much of a surprise lurking anywhere in the seven hefty slabs of slow-to-medium tempo Trad Doom Metal on offer. There are some individual moments, with featured bass runs and lead lines taking the stage, but, by and large, this is classic Metal four-piece territory, all instruments riffing like concerted thunder behind quite plain, precise clean vocals. There's a loose theme to it, with the titular 'ironclad' apparently referring equally to either - as on the back cover illustration - knightly armour, or indomitability of spirit: the tracks conjuring images of both battlefield strife and hope for mankind. Not that there's anything particularly martial about the music, its solid heaviness marked by perhaps more of a weary fatalism than any great bursts of aggression. A lot of that is in the vocals, so often the make-or-break for any Trad-style band: whilst not covering a tremendous range, they make good use of inflection to compensate for that, and the baseline of sonorous sustain sits well within the mix rather than powering over it.
The tracks may not be surprising in themselves, but there's a fair bit of variety between them to keep the album interesting: the slow and steady chug of 'Pure As The Driven Snow' and 'When Steel Rains' mixing it up with faster and more rousing pieces like 'Ironclad' and 'Shield Wall', and a couple of more experimental ventures in changing tempo and texture in 'The Everlasting Ride' and 'Days Like Lost Dogs', before closing with the soaring 'Wolf Mountain'. It makes for a competent and professional balance to the album: none of the tracks are fillers, albeit it does feel like a couple could have been tightened up a little and held to around five/six minutes like the majority.
All in all, though, there's very little to complain about. It's a slick piece of work that ploughs a well-established furrow with vigorousness that doesn't really require much thought or analysis: you'll either enjoy the pummelling heavy groove of it, or you won't. Compared to the debut, it offers enough of an improvement in production to get past the 'difficult second album' hurdle - despite their largely similar spread of compositions and techniques, the two end up sounding fairly different. That does come at a small cost, given it was some of the rough edges that contributed to the authentic charm of 'Vol 1 - Wolf Counsel' - 'Ironclad' trades off some of that exuberant charisma for a greater polish, and some of the raw anthemic quality of the tracks for a more serious-sounding bigger stage. To me, that leaves it just a little more stolid an offering, not quite igniting the same hell-yeah spark, though that still puts it several notches above average, and a worthy contender for your attention during those more Metal moments.