To my way of thinking, the real heroes of heavy metal are not the glitzy, high-profile bands on the big labels with the big promotion and big studios, but the DIY acts who toil in obscurity and anonymity to chase their dreams. These are the guys who push onward year after year, not for money or fame (neither of which are to be found) but for sheer love of the game. Indiana’s Steel Aggressor fall squarely into this category. The band is the brainchild of Rick Cope, formerly of thrashers Phantom Witch, the same band that appeared on Stormspell’s ‘Thrash Clash volume 1’ CD release back in 2008. Cope handles all guitars, bass, lead vocals, keyboards, and even more exotic instruments like the tin whistle (featured in “Beneath Black Ice”) and kettle drum. He is ably assisted by a drummer (Richard Russo) and Jonathan McCanless, who is credited with backing vocals, timpani, gong, tambourine and chimes. It’s an unconventional band configuration, to be sure. Be that as it may, Steel Aggressor have now released three albums, all on the pillar-of-the-underground Stormspell label. The band’s most recent effort, ‘A Rival of the Fittest,’ saw the light of day a couple of months ago, and is well worth tracking down.
Steel Aggressor are not ashamed to wear their influences on their sleeves. What the band serves up on ‘A Rival of the Fittest’ is a massive dose of early Iced Earth (think ‘Night of the Stormrider’ era, especially in the Greely/Schaffer-inspired vocal lines) mixed with heavy-duty German-style true metal (a la Grave Digger, Rage, Paragon, etc.), but leavened with several attempts at lighter Blind Guardian-esque folksiness. It’s a difficult combination to master, particularly when it comes to balancing the speed and punishing heaviness with the delicate melodies and acoustic bits, but Cope & Co. give it everything they’ve got over the 10-song, 33-minute running time (including an intro, a couple of short interludes, and a fine guitar-driven instrumental in the form of “Alaric I 420 A.D.”). Where Steel Aggressor shine are in the more straightforward ripping speed/power numbers like “Your Skull is My Crown,” “Beneath Black Ice,” “A Rival of the Fittest,” and “Thrown to the Wolves … Oblitator Cometh,” as well as the awesome speedy one-minute intro “Steel Age Dynasty,” where the heaviness, energy and sense of melody coalesce with pretty spectacular results. That’s not to say the folk/mellower/more atmospheric numbers are bad. There are fantastic ideas embedded in some of those tracks. It’s just that the budgetary, technical, sonic limitations are more evident and more distracting with those songs, and the execution occasionally comes up short. Blind Guardian doesn’t achieve that grand, epic, layered-all-to-hell sound on a shoestring budget, you know. So I’m not sure Steel Aggressor have been able to capture certain of their more out-of-left-field musical ideas on ‘A Rival of the Fittest,’ but I applaud them for going for it anyway. No guts, no glory, right?
From the above description, it should be obvious that those who demand polished, shiny, pristine recordings should move right along. ‘A Rival of the Fittest’ is defiantly, unapologetically of the underground. It’s raw, it’s rough, and it’s probably a bit too ambitious for its own good in spots, especially where the mix gets out of whack. But at the same time, Steel Aggressor showcase some killer tunes, and the whole album is imbued with a genuine true metal aesthetic that’s really appealing to me. There are not many younger bands attempting this Demons & Wizards style these days, so Steel Aggressor deserve tons of credit for sticking to their guns and following their hearts. Also, Cope is bound and determined not to stand still. I understand he is already back in the studio recording a fourth Steel Aggressor album, which he vows will feature more epic songwriting, fewer layers and a more “realistic” sound than its predecessor. Give ‘em hell, Rick!
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~