Alfred Morris III knows the exact moment his life changed. It was Feb. 19, 1974-Black Sabbath member Tony Iommi's birthday-and Morris was seeing the band perform at Maryland's now-demolished Capital Centre.
"I was standing in front of him at the bottom of the stage, watching everything," he remembers. "That sealed it for me. . . . I was right there in the room with the man, and I was focused. I said 'OK, I'm gonna do this, this is what I want to do.' So here I am."
It's almost 40 years later and his band, Iron Man, has just passed the 25-year mark and is celebrating the release of a high-profile record, South of the Earth, on not one but two landmark metal labels, with plans for more releases and international touring in the works.
But the road to South of the Earth was a long one. Sitting in their Glenn Dale, Maryland practice space, Morris and bandmates Dee Calhoun, Louis Strachan, and Jason Waldmann recount the long litany of setbacks Iron Man has encountered along the way: members quitting, labels folding, personal problems, creative differences, more members quitting-the sort of issues that plague a lot of bands in the metal underground. But unlike most bands, Iron Man has soldiered on, with Morris assembling lineup after lineup in his quest to find a stable unit, eventually going through more than a dozen musicians over the years. When asked about his perseverance, Morris explains, "I kept going-going-going, because there was that light at the end of the tunnel and I was gonna get it. And I got it."
Doom metal-the slow, distorted genre heavily influenced by Sabbath-has major roots in the area, with iconic bands like Pentagram and the Obsessed coming up around the same time Iron Man did. But because of the changes and troubles within the band, Iron Man's reputation hasn't spread the way they hoped; they have seemed to appear and disappear throughout the years, with releases on notable labels, followed by long periods of inactivity.
Formed in 1988 as a Black Sabbath tribute band, they quickly moved on to creating original songs, soon generating interest, gaining management, and putting out several releases. Their early '90s output, Black Night and The Passage, on the now-defunct Hellhound label, are well regarded in underground circles. But personnel problems led to gaps as long as eight years between releases.
"Time went by, you can't do anything with that," Morris recalls somberly. "A lot of years went by, a lot of opportunities got missed because of not having a full unit going." The band credits a core group of obsessive fans with the band's survival: "word of mouth. And once more people were on the internet, that's what kept Iron Man alive, basically, the internet action," Morris explains. "What I found surprising, too, was that the teenagers, even now, they're into old classic stuff."
Morris' connections helped as well. When the current, stable Iron Man lineup finally coalesced in January of 2012, they immediately began recording; first an EP (2012's self-released att hålla dig över-"To Hold You Over" in Swedish), then the material that would ultimately become South of the Earth. With songs in hand, the band was able to call on old friend Lee Dorrian-leader of classic U.K. doom band Cathedral, early member of Napalm Death, and owner of Rise Above Records. Once Lee found out about the material, he wanted to listen immediately. Vocalist Calhoun remembers the day incredulously: "I got an email-'Can you zip up the song files for South of the Earth? Lee Dorrian would like to hear them.' Uhhhhh. . ." Once he had the material, a deal was offered within 24 hours, and the contract was signed soon after-Rise Above would release the record worldwide, with iconic label Metal Blade taking over North American distribution.
After years of buildup, South of the Earth was released on Oct. 1, on time, and to mostly positive press. According to the band, it even charted in Japan-a first for them. Asked about the band's plans going forward, the members are slightly cagey, revealing only that they plan on touring in Europe and Japan, again building on years of contacts.
"We have a lot of bands who are great friends of ours, and great bands too," Morris explains. One thing is clear, though, the long journey of Iron Man isn't ending with this milestone. As drummer Waldmann-the youngest member of the band at 41-puts it: "This is what I've always wanted to do. So if I have to choose between no job and this, its not even a contest."
Iron Man plays Saturday, Dec. 14 at Café 611 in Frederick with Foghound, Trilogy, and Serpent Witch.