- Adam Peterson
- IRON CREW: From left, Mark Chiaro, Stephanie Smittle, Tiffany Phillips, Chris Terry, Stan James, J.R. Top, Jason Tedford, Andy Warr; front, producer Billy Anderson.
As far as alloys go, Little Rock's Iron Tongue might seem to have been formed from oppositional elements. You've got members who play or have played in, among others, Ashtray Babyhead, Rwake, Afrodesia, Jeff Coleman & The Feeders, Booyah! Dad and Brother Andy & His Big Damn Mouth. On first blush, those groups might not seem to have much in common. Hell, they don't have much in common on second or third blush.
But you wouldn't guess it to hear Iron Tongue. The band sounds like a cohesive, ass-kicking blues-rock machine.
Their take on the blues is far removed from the sort of paint-by-numbers, scrunch-faced 12-bar wankery made to soundtrack the happy hour patio drinking of leather-clad Baby Boomers. No, Iron Tongue plays bludgeoning, brooding, swaggering, crushingly loud songs of pain that share musical DNA with the likes of Blue Cheer, Cactus, Deep Purple and The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation. They swing with the tempo of a dude who's on his way to deliver a much-deserved ass-whoopin' but who's taking his time about getting there. Exhibit A: Iron Tongue recently released a split 7" EP with Memphis power trio The Dirty Streets (who Iron Tongue opens for at Stickyz on Aug. 8). Their side of the vinyl is taken up by a soulful, utterly transformative cover of "Two Timer" by Kiss, revealing a depth and pain that the original, classic though it is, can't touch.
Back in late June, the members of Iron Tongue were entrenched in guitarist Jason Tedford's Wolfman Studios in midtown Little Rock, recording their debut full-length with producer and engineer Billy Anderson. Anderson's CV reads like a who's who of the most critically respected and innovative heavy bands of the last two decades, including The Melvins, Neurosis, Sleep, Eyehategod and another Arkansas band, Deadbird.
Most of the basic tracking was done by the time I got there. Tedford, guitarist Mark Chiaro and singer Chris Terry — known to everybody as CT — were hanging out at the studio with friends. Anderson was working his magic at the mixing board, listening with furrowed brow, playing the same section back over and over, dropping the level on one track, raising it on another. He called CT over to sit down and give it a listen.
The song — a cover of Free's "Fire and Water" — sounded incredible blasting out of the speakers. There were a lot of nodding heads. The chorus features singers Tiffany Phillips and Stephanie Smittle, and the power of their singing can't be overemphasized. It's a room-filling, goose bump-raising sound. The two have performed live with the band, but Robinson moved to St. Louis recently and Smittle has several other projects going on, including her pop/jazz ensemble The Smittle Band, so getting them together can be logistically challenging.
"It was awesome, because they'd never really worked together before they got in the studio, but they both speak the same language," Tedford said. "They're probably more competent musicians in their instrument as vocalists than we are in our own instruments. They both really could communicate well. They were like peas in a pod."
Tedford and CT said they're very happy with the way the record sounds. CT had hung out and partied with Anderson quite a bit over the years, but had never worked with him in a professional capacity.
"It was completely different," CT said. "It was like night and day. He's one of those guys that can party 'til the cows come home, but when he's working, he's a real serious dude."
It was also work that had to be completed in a relatively short span of time, as Anderson was in town for nine days. But even with the time constraints, "Billy was extremely laid back and really went with it and let us kind of go more or less on our own instincts," Tedford said.
Mastering for the record was recently finished, and it's scheduled to be released in mid-February on Neurot Recordings, the label founded by Oakland's Neurosis, a group that has probably done as much or more than any other band in the last 25 years to advance the scope and the language of heavy music.
CT had first connected with Scott Kelly, guitarist and vocalist for Neurosis, via his other band, Rwake. Neurosis was "like the Bible" for Rwake, CT said, so the idea that his musical heroes were considering releasing a record from one of his bands, that they were all listening to it and that they all gave it the thumbs up was a pretty heavy deal.
"It's been intense to deal with those dudes," he said, "just being heroes and all."
"I got a surprise text from them saying, 'We love the album,' instead of me hunting them down and being like, 'Did you like it? Did you like it?' So that was cool," he said.
Via e-mail, Steve Von Till, guitarist and vocalist for Neurosis, also seemed pleased with the final results, calling the album "a solid slab of balls to the wall shameless rock with a power and an edge and soul that rarely exists in music today."
Every release on Neurot must be approved by all members of the band. Neurosis is an autonomous outfit that has always blazed its own trail, so naturally its approach to running a record label is going to be similarly independent and free of BS and trend-chasing.
"We are always seeking passion and emotional intensity, no matter what the style of music may be. That is the common thread and unspoken spirit connection between all the albums we have released," Von Till said. "The music has to move us, it has to move us in some way. When we first heard Iron Tongue's demo recordings and jam tapes, even though it was a bit different than anything we have released stylistically, we knew instantly that it was right for us. Their music oozes the sound of men who belong to a certain place and have absorbed the musical history of the region and the emotional landscape of their home."