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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Album Review: Iron Claw - A Different Game

Iron Claw - A Different Game
2011 Ripple Music
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

It takes a lot of balls to pick up where you left off nearly four decades ago. While a lot of rock and metal bands have hung tough through the same period of time, or they came and went and came back, there's something about the story of Scotland's Iron Claw that makes you smile. Particularly when you throw on their first ever polished studio recording and it sounds this damned heavy, this damned cool, this damned right.

You've never heard of Iron Claw, no doubt. Rock snobs who are aware of these power rock ruffians from yesteryear never hesitate to use the word "obscure" in the same sentence when introducing Iron Claw. Okay, so Iron Claw never achieved the same notoriety as Canned Heat, Free or Blue Cheer. Somehow, even though Iron Claw was largely contained to their native highlands and neighboring Euro territories, one gets the impression they should've had a shot at an Isle of Wight appearance in the opening tiers.

The lore of Iron Claw has it the original foundation consisting of Ian McDougall, Alex Wilson and Jimmy Ronnie banded together in 1969 after witnessing the earth-shattering might of Led Zeppelin. Iron Claw are said to have derived their name from a King Crimson song, "21st Century Schizoid Man." Whatever is truth and whatever is fiction about Iron Claw, they sought to fuse the meanest blues rock riffs they could muster with the groovy grunge of Black Sabbath and perhaps Iron Butterfly. In the beginning covering Ten Years After, Free and Johnny Winter cuts, Iron Claw developed their repertoire and lasted officially until 1974.

Add to the legend the fact Iron Claw had never released an actual album during their original run, which eventually expanded to a foursome, while drummer Ian McDougall soon bolted at one point. Shift to 2009 and Iron Claw's improbable "comeback" of sorts with the release of Rockadrome, a collection of the band's early demo recordings, which then served as the only known capsule of their work.

Until now.

A Different Game. A simple title, that, but you have to appreciate it for the way Iron Claw intends it. Things have naturally changed in the music business since McDougall, Wilson and Ronnie first set out to conquer the rock world and didn't. Forget the formats of music consumption and forget the demographics that have changed since the early seventies. Iron Claw returns with a live-recorded studio album with very few dubs and final touches and indeed, life is a different game for these headstrong Scots.

Much of the pace of A Different Game barely gets past the doom and blues variety. However, Iron Claw is not a doom band, much as they sport a bitchin' righteous doom metal band name if there ever was one outside of Black Sabbath and Saint Vitus. A Different Game is more upbeat, if even-handed. You're not going to get a lot double time and signature swaps. No use worrying about ripping arpeggios. This is pure muscle at work and Iron Claw still has plenty of the natural juice in them to make this reunion endeavor soar. Fellow countrymen Nazareth continue to march with amps kicking and Iron Claw brings a booming kindred spirit in the tradition of Nazareth along with a respectful blend of Lynard Skynard, Black Sabbath, AC/DC and Deep Purple.

The stepped-up opener, "What Love Left" gets right into the crunch and though Iron Claw has a few variations to mingle into their snarling stride on A Different Game, expect to settle in with a plod from the next cut, "Saga," on. It's a mid-tempo pace that you'll embrace, actually, because this is a pack of elder statesmen intent on showing themselves off. Raunchy guitar chugs and dirty solos from Jimmy Ronnie are part of Iron Claw's rebooted assets, while Alex Wilson and Ian McDougall seem content to pound out a primary rhythm that allows the listener to take a hit of their heft. A band with this much of a layoff and no album history (prior to 2009) shouldn't sound so controlled and so focused.

Vocalist Gordon Brown, recruited into the fold for this venture, sings a quickly-contained memento about Iron Claw on "Saga," quickly pecking out their story that's "often been told but never heard." That's basically all the candle-lighting Iron Claw obliges with this album. Knowing perfectly well they have to re-introduce themselves to a largely-unknowing public, they employ some of Deep Purple's more rugged methods on "Angel Woman" and the title track, while "Southern Sky" and "Falling Down" are so Skynard and Bad Company-esque in a less-flashy manner you buy into it all. Retro, but not quite. Grittier, we should say.

McDougall's deft strikes gives A Different Game a heady punch while Jimmy Ronnie shifts between laggard chord drags, wailing bar slides and some ear-bending solo scorching--a prime example of the latter on "It's Easy," where Ronnie gets two extensive rockout sessions. Greasy, nasty, indulgent, rude and ultimately satisfying, given the delicate acoustic intro to the subsequent track "My Way Down," a song which quickly develops into one of the heaviest and meanest tunes on the album. Forget Born Again; let's pretend Purple and Sabbath merged altogether and you get the flavor Iron Claw is seeking out of "My Way Down." They pretty much nail it as a mere foursome, so much even Gordon Brown pulls a tricky octave or two from Ian Gillan's repertoire. Then listen to Jimmy Ronnie wreck havoc in the final stanza of "Love is Blind," oi...

Sticking to a general groove with A Different Game is not the inherent foil one would expect. Iron Claw ends up not being a one trick pony, despite their critics from another day who are probably lucky to still hold their pints in their guts for more than a half hour. Iron Claw possesses a specialty that was lost to the world, simply because they weren't discovered. Iron Claw missed their shot at arena glory and it's a bit painful to hear well-polished songs like "Targets," "What Love Left," "See Them Fall," "The Traveler" and "Falling Down" as evidence they could've at least opened for Purple, Rainbow and Thin Lizzy. Thankfully Iron Claw has given themselves the opportunity to say a thundering hello to the rock world, if not hijack it.

Now is the time to discover Iron Claw. It's naive to think of this band in terms of the next Anvil, meaning the feelgood comeuppance story of the year. Yet you do have to think Iron Claw has engineered their own comeuppance. A faithful bunch of fans demanded their return and Iron Claw responded. Smartly they flocked to Ripple Records, home of the mighty Poobah and Stone Axe, and home of the rawk resurrection. They went into the care of fans and with any luck, Iron Claw will finally be given some due...for their balls, if nothing else.

Rating: ****

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