Cult Heroes No. 37: Iron Monkey
Mad, bad and dangerous to know, Iron Monkey received scarcely any praise when they were a going concern. Now, 11 years after they split up, they’re hailed as heroes. But then, some of us knew it all along. Welcome to the latest Cult Heroes. Check out all the past Cult Heroes here.
Words: Malcolm Dome
People used to chortle at Iron Monkey. Seriously, the same folk who now applaud and laud them as heroes regarded them back then in their heyday as nothing but a bloated noise, with no intrinsic musical value. On Kerrang! in the 1990s, just a couple of us saw them as visionaries, and we got mercilessly ribbed for even thinking they were anything other than cannon fodder for clever and witty journalistic prose.
Ah, the Monkey. A band who took the concept of grind, turned it inside out and gave the world a visceral, primal form of metal that was close to sludge, nodded at doom and also had a groove that wasn’t too far removed from the stoner area. Their music had a vicious energy and a real sense of industrial purpose. It was music from the streets and sewers of Nottingham. This didn’t speak of rural ambition or Sherwood Forest aspirations. It was bleak and unrelenting. Crusty (as in punk) on the top, and when you peeled away the surface you faced a lyrical and musical equivalent of a maggot pie, writhing and crawling. Not at all pretty. But that was never the point.
The band started in 1994, with Johnny Morrow on vocals, Jim Rushby and Steve Watson on guitar, Doug Dalziel on bass and Justin Greaves on drums. And when they released a six-track EP (self-titled) in 95 on the Union Mill label, it was clear that Napalm Death had been usurped. Because this made albums like Scum and From Enslavement To Obliteration sound like Celine Dion…well, not quite, but anyone who thought Napalm had taken it all to an extreme that would be impossible to top had reckoned without the arrival of Iron Monkey.
Earache Records certainly got what was going on, picking up that EP in 1996 and reissuing it, by which time Watson had been replaced by Dean Berry. A year later came Our Problem, an through that album I began to take serious notice of the band. Putting it on the Kerrang! stereo was an interesting experience. Howls of derision were followed by demands for getting some Pearl Jam or Bush onto the system. “Can we please get this crap off!”, pleaded on writer, who shall remain unnamed. Oh, the scorn.
But what the mirthless mob didn’t get was that there was also a black humour in among the density. The band were totally fired up, stretching everything to the limit, but they could also have a laugh. It was a very British approach, as compared to the Louisiana sludge monsters like Eyehategod and Crowbar, who were perhaps their closest allies. But listening back now to Our Problem, you know what stands out? It is so melodic. Seriously. Locked behind the severity was a tuneful sensibility.
I’m not suggesting people were gonna hum Web Of Piss or Black Aspirin in the shower. It’s more likely they’d have the songs running their vomit, as they retch over the sink – in fact, that would approximate to Morrow’s vocals. Nor would Iron Monkey sit comfortably in the pages of the AOR magazine. However, these are mighty slabs of late 90s music, anthems to an era that now seems so long ago, but in reality is still just around the last corner. And not only is this one of the most devastating metal debuts of all time, it’s one of the records you’d have to choose to define the 1990s. OK, I’ll go out on a limb, and say that in its own right, this matches Pearl Jam’s Ten, Pantera’s Vulgar Display Of Power, Sepultura’s Chaos A.D., Machine Head’s Burn My Eyes and Nirvana’s Nevermind as being symbolic of that decade. Start the abuse rolling below, but I stick by that statement. Get a copy of the album, listen to it, and then you’ll understand how many of today’s bands owe a lot to Iron Monkey.
A split album with Japanese doomsters Church Of Misery (We’ve Learned Nothing, put out by Man’s Ruin in 1998) was to be the band’s last release. Rushby was replaced by former Acrimony guitarist Stu O’Hara (and Acrimony are to be seriously considered in a future Cult Heroes episode), but the band split up in 1999. Maybe they just didn’t belong to the 21st century, eh? Perhaps they were always destined, like so many other cult bands, to make a brief impact and then disappear.
Various members have done lots of other projects since, and in 2002 tragedy struck when Morrow died from a heart attack, at the time being in a band called Murder One. Greaves is currently in a band called Crippled Black Phoenix, who are rapidly gaining momentum in the prog world. And O’Hara is said to have regrouped with former members of Acrimony in a new band, details of which will hopefully emerge soon.
But the impact of Iron Monkey gets bigger by the year, as people realize that what they did on Our Problem was indeed ground-breaking. Astonishing to think that, over 10 years after it came out, this still hums and buzzes with such vehemence and relevance. There is a rarities compilation called Ruined By Idiots available (released in 2003 by Maniac Beast), but that title actually says so much. Last year Earache re-released the Iron Monkey and Our Problem CDs as one set.
The legacy of the Monkey has been somewhat diluted by all manner of terrible bands, hiding their own inadequacies behind the inspiration of this lot. The amazing thing is that what they did was so cunning conceived – even if this was sometimes more by accident – that the album’s ended up becoming a truly great release. And I haven’t even talked about what they were like onstage.
If you ever saw Iron Monkey live then you’ll know they were a fearsome beast, at times it appeared almost uncontrollable. They seemed to have put themselves into a musical trance, and hypnotized the fans into a frenzy of sweat and movement. This was blood lust taken to a new level. It was as if band and fans were locked in an inexorable spiral of released psychoses. This was a cathartic experience.
Perhaps the last true metal pioneers, Iron Monkey were never destined to be arena rockers, or to be comfortable on a stage at Download or Sonisphere. Their appeal was underground. Who knows, perhaps I’ve done them a massive disservice by even brining them into a more mainstream arena. But it’s here now, and they deserve respect and credit for what they did.
Enough chatter, on with the music.
There’s no official website for the band, but there is more info at www.earache.com
Tags: Acrimony, Celine Dion, Church Of Misery, Crippled Black Phoenix, Dean Berry, Doug Dalziel, Iron Monkey, Jim Rushby, Johnny Morrow, Justin Greaves, Machine Head, Napalm Death, Nirvana, Pantera, Pearl Jam, Sepultura, Steve Watson, Stu O'Hara