Follow-ups are always a tough proposition for bands that have a following, and few bands built as many expectations with their debut as Eternal Champion. Their brand of pounding epic heavy metal made them an instant legend in modern heavy metal with 2016’s The Armor of Ire, and with good reason -- few albums in modern heavy metal have as strong a sense of identity or as high-quality songwriting. After years without any new original metal material (though we got a synth EP and a covers tape), Eternal Champion quickly drummed up a mountain’s worth of hype by announcing a followup to The Armor of Ire and also guaranteed their label, No Remorse Records, a mountain of money by sticking with them for the worldwide release.

When I finally heard Ravening Iron, I wasn’t ready for what the album ended up being. This isn’t The Armor of Ire part two: Eternal Champion followed their hearts to pursue new evolution on just about every front. Ravening Iron isn’t completely distinct from the core formula established earlier, but every aspect that could be exaggerated was.

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The title track takes the power metal tendencies of the debut and takes them to new heights, showcasing their love of synths and big choruses and putting it in the shiniest package that Eternal Champion have ever put together -- but that’s not to say that the entire record has taken that direction. There are several hardcore-infused moshing ragers that take the most pummeling inclinations that the band previously had and makes them a focus. Where before heavy sections called back to Manowar, now they call to actual punk. There’s a nastiness present that was only hinted at before, a tendency to smash skulls with the heft of iron and not just with the overall might of the album. An acquaintance described the album as how he expected the band to sound when he first encountered them, given the members’ punk backgrounds, and that’s not entirely wrong, but not quite right either given how adroitly synths and gorgeously layered guitarwork come together to explore new angles here. These differences seem small on paper, but they come together to make for a new Eternal Champion that’s still recognizable but also feels new and exciting.

The members of Eternal Champion have been making music individually for years now and their expertise all comes together now in a way that it didn’t on The Armor of Ire, showcasing what’s one of the band’s greatest strengths and what’s pretty much their only weakness: the fact that frontman Jason Tarpey and crew aren’t satisfied to make an album that sounds "just" like an epic heavy metal band. The Armor of Ire covered a lot of stylistic ground in just a few songs (really -- it was a goddamn short record), but there’s even more of a variety on Ravening Iron to the point where it can be difficult to sit back and just be carried by the album’s flow. The massive shifts from blazing devastation to gorgeous synths to crushing hardcore sections and back to synths and anthemic backing vocals can be almost confusing, and though it comes together after a few listens to form a kind of crystal logic, the occasional flow issues are the only real flaw with the record -- other than that some highs (particularly the title track and "Banners of Arhai") are so goddamn high that other parts of the album sound weaker just by contrast.

Some amazing records get away with being all attack, but it’s the subtleties that have come to impress me more than anything as I’ve listened and re-listened to Ravening Iron over and over and over again. The transition between "Coward’s Keep" and "Worms of the Earth" is exceedingly well done, and the wisdom of putting the album’s only synth track before epic doom closer "Banners of Arhai" is shown as repeated listens prove that it really helps the flow to have a pause there. The backing vocals on "Coward’s Keep" add depth, as does the layering on "Skullseeker," and the brilliant lead guitar on "Banners of Arhai" turns what starts as rather simple slow riffing into a slithering masterpiece that builds on itself in a way a lesser band could only dream of achieving. Also worth noting is the guts it takes to have guest vocals from one of the genre’s most popular singers, the talented Jake Rogers from Visigoth, and stick him on backing vocals -- that it ends up working so well is a testament to their talents. As each and every song shows, Eternal Champion are the masters of taking a handful of riffs that are great but not exceptional and turning them with careful arrangement, lead guitar, synth, and vocals into monstrous earworms that need to be exorcised with repeated listening.

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This is a tremendous record, and there’s a lot of good stuff to talk about outside of the songwriting itself. Vocally, Jason sounds perhaps a smidge better than on previous Eternal Champion material, ranging from ethereal to visceral as the band felt he required; for whatever reason he comes across a little weaker on record than he does live, but that feels like it comes down to the mix not prioritizing him over the tremendous riffs more than it does on his performance, which is stellar. Excellent lead guitar was always a strength that the band had but it’s at its best here, dancing over or cutting through rhythms to lend extra grace and fire to songs that are already great. The mix itself is a lot more forward than Armor of Ire’s was, pushing each riff to the forefront and making sure that the guitars bludgeon in a way every heavy metal band wants but few achieve. Having an in-demand professional like Arthur Rizk in the band can’t hurt when putting together a record with as much layering as this one has, and the overall effect is equal parts impressive and overtly heavy as hell.

Everything -- the guitars, drums, vocals, synths, and bass -- comes together in a way that speaks to the care that Eternal Champion put into arranging their material and recording. It’s why everyone is talking about them, and why they’re consistently a step above everyone else; Eternal Champion write music that's more than just catchy and heavy -- it's thoughtful, and the purpose with which they approach putting together their songs shines through and is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

If you’re into heavy metal, you owe it to yourself to grab a copy of Ravening Iron. Even if you’re not, it’s worth checking out: this band is pretty near the peak of modern heavy metal, and based on how good their sophomore record is, that won’t be changing anytime soon.

-- Brandon Corsair

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Ravening Iron released digitally November 6th via No Remorse Records. Vinyl is expected in December and CDs should ship November 20th -- see the No Remorse website for more details.


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