Few things are more epic than the tale of King Arthur, Merlin, the Knights of the Round Table, and the original sword of poser pokery, Excalibur. Fewer still are as big and bombastic as John Boorman’s mammoth, sweeping retelling of the fairy tale in his 1980 film named after said mega-blade.1 Since Excalibur happens to be my favorite movie of all time, when I heard English doom mongers Iron Void were doing a conceptual album based on it, my interest was piqued. A dark, violent and surprisingly metal version of the tale, the film seemed tailor-made for a band to bend to their will and forge something huge, heavy and bigger than Jesus. This of course presupposes the band undertaking the task possesses the will and mettle to bend something tougher than wet cardboard. Alas, Iron Void was not even remotely up to the challenge, and instead of a 10-ton epic doom opus, we get something closer to the soundtrack for a community theater version of A Knight’s Tale. Shame! *BONG*
After a cheesy intro where an overpaid-regardless-of-wage voice actor repeatedly intones the Charm of Making, we’re off to Medieval Times Dinner Theater2 with “Dragon’s Breath,” which is not particularly impressive, yet still qualifies as the album highlight. Taking the basic approach from Gates of Slumber, the band approaches doom with a heavy rock sensibility, using mostly mid-tempo chuggy leads that borrow more from biker rock than classic doom. While this style could work here with proper song smithing and a healthy infusion of grandeur and majesty, what we get is pedestrian, unadventurous riffing and atonal, monotonous vocals which hamstring everything they touch. There’s a decent song hiding here somewhere but it gets derailed before it takes a full wheel turn. From there it’s all downhill as the basic foundation is established and never deviated from. It’s a marathon of vaguely doomy chugs and godawful vocals set in patterns designed to inflict maximum annoyance on casual and focused listeners alike.
Nuggets like “Lancelot of the Lake” are so awkward and ham-fisted they feel like something we would pass over for AMG’s Unsigned Band Rodeo. The vocals are cringe-inducing and poorly placed, treading into bad folk metal territory at times. “Forbidden Love” is even worse, with a chorus so poorly executed that it made me spit pricey craft beer on my pricier still collection of lovingly embalmed former AMG writers. When the penultimate (Pendragon?) song “The Death of Arthur” arrives, one would expect something extra big, as this is the tale’s emotional reckoning, right? Nah, it’s just another signpost on the road to catatonia. Closer “Avalon” kicks a man when he’s down, featuring the album’s worst vocal assault via horrendous clean singing.3 There’s a certain stylistic similarity here to when the late, great Quorthon tried his hand at singing, but he was Quorthon and he could get away it. This guy, not so much.
At 47 minutes, length is the least of Excalibur‘s problems, as this thing would be unwieldy at any runtime. Sound-wise at least, the band nailed it. The guitar has that big, bulldozing power that Saint Vitus always achieved, and it almost feels like you could lean on it as you quaffed ales. The drum sound is also admirably organic and sharp, and the bass is audible and meaty. Now if only they crafted songs worthy of this burly, bruising mix.
It’s hard to point to one issues as the album’s Achilles’ heel, but I’ll start with the vocals. They are not good. At all. Jonathan Seale and Steve Wilson (no, not that one) are credited with vocals, but it sounds like one took the lead, and whomever it was should consider resigning that commission. He has a flat, monotonous delivery which doesn’t work even in a biker doom setting, and the vocals hurt every single song to one degree or another. Guitar-wise, the riffs are often uninteresting and chuggy, but there are moments which recall Wino’s work with The Obsessed and Saint Vitus. There’s just not enough of these better angels, and even they get dragged down and snuffed by the vocal demons. In the end, it’s the lo-fi songwriting that kills this all but unkillable fairy tale deader than disco.
I wasn’t familiar with Iron Void before this, and perhaps my expectations were set too high based on the source material. That said, there’s a lot wrong with Excalibur and a huge gulf between the timeless content and the mucked-up execution. In short, put a spoke in the Round Table, re-boulderize the sword and attach the Stone of Shame, Camelot has died once again. This time from boredom. This album will neither cut, nor kill.