They say idle hands are the devil’s workshop. If that old adage is correct, then Indiana’s Steel Aggressor have nothing to worry about. After all, Blackguard Hollow, the band’s fourth full-length effort, follows approximately one year on the heels of its predecessor, A Rival of the Fittest, and Steel Aggressor have already been posting studio updates from the recording sessions for their forthcoming fifth opus. The work ethic is impressive. These facts are rendered all the more remarkable when one recognizes that, in contrast to their prior albums (all of which were released via Stormspell Records), Steel Aggressor handled everything in-house on Blackguard Hollow, with no label assistance or financial backing. The kicker is that Steel Aggressor is essentially a one-man band. Mastermind Rick Cope singlehandedly wrote, performed and recorded this entire album himself, albeit with contributions from Jonathan McCannless on drums and (for one song) lead guitars. It’s a labor of love, indeed. I’ve stood alongside Cope in the front row at the Legions of Metal Festival in Chicago, banging heads to the likes of Armored Saint and Diamond Head, and there’s no doubt he’s a bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool metal lifer.
For the uninitiated, Steel Aggressor play a sort of muscular, aggressive form of true metal with elements from the American and European schools. The most helpful frame of reference would be Iced Earth, especially in Cope’s vocal lines, which range from a Jon Schaffer-style roar to a higher-pitched clean voice that recalls Matt Barlow. For all the heaviness and chugging speed, the guitars are actually quite melodic, and would appear to be more reminiscent of German power metal than anything else. In my review of A Rival of the Fittest, I pointed out the challenges that Cope faced in trying to balance the energetic, straightforward songs with more layered, nuanced Blind Guardian-type stuff, the latter of which suffered sonically from budgetary and production limitations. Steel Aggressor seem to have reached the same conclusion, as Blackguard Hollow feels like a more cohesive, no-nonsense, hammer-down affair. Aside from the well-executed acoustic interlude “A Secret Passage” and an excellent folky Blind Guardian campfire number called “Weary Traveler” (which includes a tin whistle and lyrics about pulling swords from stones and slaying dragons), this album strikes hard and strikes fast throughout its 8-song, 36-minute duration. The hooks become more evident on repeated listens and things really come to life. After many listens, I’d say my favorite track on Blackguard Hollow is “White Knights in Black,” with its catchy “whoahh-ohhh” vocal chant and brilliant guitar melody, wrapped in a song that ebbs and flows so effectively. Also particularly noteworthy is “Throw Down the Gauntlet,” which features a NWOBHM-inspired opening riff and a pounding mid-tempo swagger, before morphing into a speedy romp just shy of the three-minute mark. But the whole album is strong, with Cope having many interesting musical ideas and a great sense of melody and songwriting dynamics.
The caveat to all of this is that Steel Aggressor are a niche band whose appeal will be confined to a narrow segment of the true metal underground. Recording quality and production values are decidedly rough and tumble, more demo level than anything. So if you’re looking for a pristine Nuclear Blast-sounding record, move right along. You could nitpick the sonics of this thing to death if you wanted, from the occasionally distracting keyboards too high in the mix to the abrupt ending of “Blackguard Hollow” to the overall murkiness of the thing. But why would you want to? It’s way more fun to crank up your stereo and enjoy these fine tunes for what they are. To my taste, Blackguard Hollow is a marked improvement on A Rival of the Fittest and shows that Steel Aggressor continue to develop and perfect their craft. I bow down to Rick Cope in respect and admiration for the skill, dedication, and sheer volume of man-hours he devoted to Blackguard Hollow. If you’d like to hear an unpretentious, truly underground, high-octane, warts’n’all take on Iced Earth style heavy power metal, then Steel Aggressor come highly recommended. As for me, I’ll continue to enjoy Blackguard Hollow for the next few months, but with a watchful eye on the horizon for the inevitable forthcoming fifth installment of the Steel Aggressor saga.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~