Had the second album by Columbus, Ohio headbangers Early Man been released on a strictly metal-oriented label, it would have come and gone with not even a raised eyebrow from the mainstream music media, but because Closing In has been put out by indie rock giant Matador Records, not only is the young duo on the receiving end of some good press thanks to their high-profile label, but, like it or not, they’ve become the latest in a growing line of aggressive rock bands on indie labels (Death From Above 1979, Diamond Nights) who pose the most challenging of questions to the indie rock crowd: are you willing to enjoy strong, straight-ahead riff-rock that’s delivered with no hint of irony whatsoever? Conversely, because they’re on one of the least metal-centric record labels around, they ask metal fans, are you open-minded enough not to slough off this album just because it’s on the same label as Steven Malkmus?
Once we get past the various biases of such disparate audiences, what’s left is a good little album that offers enough no-frills, old-school metal that holds our collective attention for 45 minutes or so. Produced by former Chavez member Matt Sweeney, Closing In benefits from its crisp, yet beefed-up sound, obviously inspired by Chris Goss’s work with Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age, but while many will have modern stoner rock in mind when they listen to this CD, Early Man’s biggest influence comes from the classic New Wave of British Heavy Metal sound of the late 1970s. The vintage sounds of the NWOBHM have been making a strong comeback in recent years, as excellent recent releases by bands such as Wolf, Falconer, and even popular metalcore outfit Avenged Sevenfold have all mined the melodic guitar harmonies, soaring vocals, and progressive sounds from a quarter century ago, and Early Man mimic that sound faithfully, but what they lack in real creativity is made up by the kind of potency that makes heavy metal in its simplest form so effective to this day.
Drawing heavily from British Sabbath disciples Witchfinder General, guitarist/bassist/singer Mike Conte and drummer Adam Bennati plow their way through a handful of workmanlike, midtempo numbers, showing enough chops to keep things from getting too monotonous. Nowhere is their skill at mimicking classic metal more evident than on “Death is the Answer”, as the pair slog out a monolithic wall of sound, Conte pulling off a very effective Ozzy impersonation, before the song shifts into a more propulsive breakdown and solo by Conte, a seamless shift from first generation metal to the more streetwise NWOBHM style. “Four Walls” combines double time rhythms, vocal screams, and nimble guitar melodies, much like Diamond Head did, with “War Eagle” chugging along at a fun, Iron Maiden (circa Killers) gallop, and “Fist Shaker”, the one track that most resembles today’s stoner sound, bearing a very strong resemblance to Florida greats Floor (and their current spin-off, Torche). Probably the neatest surprise is the swaggering “Thrill of the Kill” which dares to attempt the same kind of swing as Black Sabbath’s “Fairies Wear Boots”, and does so with impressive panache. All the while, Conte sneers, howls, and screams in a voice that sounds equal parts Ozzy Osbourne, Rush’s Geddy Lee, and Death From Above 1979’s Sebastian Granger, adding both melody and a strong sense of theatricality that many contemporary American metal bands are unwilling to attempt.
Closing In might be a fun listen, but considering the wealth of metal bands who continue to push the genre’s boundaries further outward, it’s odd that Matador would put so much attention on a band as blatantly retro as Early Man. Not that there’s anything wrong with what they do, but with acts like Mastodon, High on Fire, YOB, and Cursed providing greater thrills than Early Man’s comparatively pedestrian sound, Closing In runs the risk of being misconstrued by indie rock bloggers as being more cutting-edge than they actually are. While Wolf’s Evil Star does a much better job pulling off the vintage British metal sound, it’s nonetheless nice to see such a simple, blue-collar piece of heavy rock get such a high profile release. Just as long as people don’t make it out to be greater than it actually is.