Iron Age's Seminal Album Reverberates Through Texas' Metal Scene
The Sleeping Eye turns 10 with a reissue as its creators and other Texas metal icons consider its influence
An hour southwest of Austin sits another world. Rolling hills and winding roads hide neighborhoods, large gaps separate buildings, and long driveways open out onto ranches and farms. Contrast that to the urban sprawl of the Texas capital, and it's no wonder locals flee to the wide ranges and tall skies of Wimberley.
Jason Tarpey's residence here is fitting. When it comes to uniquely unspoiled land, the singer, author, and blacksmith inhabits his own. Inspired by sword & sorcery and weird fiction from his youth, Tarpey created his own universe: Arginor.
Alongside the weaponry he creates in Hammerhall Forge, his blacksmithing business, the onetime local expresses fantastical ideas in the two bands for which he vocalizes: thrashcore powerhouse Iron Age and epic metal flag-wavers Eternal Champion. This month, the second album by Austinites Iron Age, 2009 LP The Sleeping Eye, sees reissue from knowing Pittsburgh indie 20 Buck Spin. On it reside the roots of a statewide scene quickly growing in stature and influence.
In myriad ways, that buck stops at Jason Tarpey.
The Icemen Cometh
A map of Arginor hangs in Tarpey's self-described "man cave," which shares the backyard with his forge. The landmass looks like Great Britain.
"I think it's subconsciously ingrained," affirms the Boerne native. "Robert E. Howard did it on purpose, but I think a lot of writers do it by accident."
A Conan the Barbarian film poster adorns the door, and a widescreen television sits atop a stand full of DVDs. His bookshelves teem with fantasy and horror paperbacks, where favorite authors including Conan creator and Texas native Howard, cosmic horror architect H.P. Lovecraft, and British fantasy icon and Bastrop resident Michael Moorcock sit blade-by-scabbard with graphic novels, hardcore cassettes, and Epic Illustrated comics. His wife Morgan calls it "16-year-old chic," but it's where Tarpey molds his fictional world when he's not hammering steel.
Arginor dominates Eternal Champion, a combo inspired by its creator's favorite band, Manilla Road. The alternate universe first appeared in the lyrics of The Sleeping Eye, originally released by stoner rock label Tee Pee Records and now with a new cover.
"I wanted to put the god I was singing about – Brakur, the Sleeping Eye – on the cover," he explains. "I was trying to write about this world I was creating. [Brakur's] a watcher; he hates his existence and his creation. So he goes to sleep for eons and we're living through this period while he's asleep.
"But he's eventually gonna wake up, and that's gonna be very bad. I love playing with that Lovecraftian notion."
Tarpey laughs. Reading Howard since childhood, he came late to the existential terror of Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories. Ironically, his gateway opened through punk rock, specifically an NYC act called the Icemen. The trio's 1991 EP Rest in Peace contains "Shadow Out of Time," named for a Lovecraft novella.
"When I read it, I identified with it immediately," says Tarpey about Lovecraft's "cosmic pessimism." "He was really on to how I feel. He's basically saying, 'At best, the universe doesn't give a fuck about you, and could be openly hostile. Don't look too hard, because you might not like what you find.'
"That's what's actually scary. It's not the meaninglessness. It's, 'What if there's something out there and it wants to eat you?!'"
Tarpey laughs again. The idea of malevolent cosmic entities inspired his own mythology. Howard's Celtic-influenced stories featuring protagonist Bran Mak Morn, and Moorcock's "dichotomy of law and chaos" – featured in the Eternal Champion series from which Tarpey's other band takes its name – also fueled Arginor's creation.
"The whole sword & sorcery scene these days is really underground," details Tarpey. "Cirsova magazine and publisher DMR are saving the scene by putting out new works and unearthing unpublished works by the masters. That's who's releasing my own paperback, which comes out at the same time as the next Eternal Champion record.
"The lyrics are going to tie in with the book and tell the whole story that [Eternal Champion debut] The Armor of Ire started. The Armor of Ire has The Sleeping Eye in it too. At the end, you can see how it all comes together."
The Sleeping Eye has become a touchstone of Texas metal. Particularly significant is the band's connection to Lone Star headbanger gods Power Trip, whose Austinite Chris Ulsh played in Iron Age post-TSE and whose axeman Blake Ibanez and producer Arthur Rizk play in Eternal Champion. Ulsh's other band, Mammoth Grinder, temporarily included Iron Age guitarists Wade Allison and Alex Hughes. Power Trip saluted Iron Age in 2017 by inviting them to open the record release party for its highly anticipated sophomore LP, Nightmare Logic.
"They're like younger brothers to us, and have been since they started," says Allison while relaxing by the pool in his Austin apartment complex. "So big deal for them, but also one of the best gig situations we've ever had."
Allison and Tarpey each moved to Austin in 2000, the former attending Texas State and the latter looking to make music after a couple of fruitless years in San Antonio. The pair met at Emo's, where Tarpey's straight edge band had tucked into the bill. Iron Age came together as a hardcore act while Allison lived with Tarpey and original IA guitarist Steve Norman. Though the band's music originally grew out of Norman's songs, Allison soon converted to chief composer, working on ideas with drummer Reed Thomas, and later Thomas' replacement, Allison's brother Jared.
The Sleeping Eye opened its compositional portal between 2006 and 2007, right after the band's straight hardcore debut, Constant Struggle, came out.
"Reed quit in the middle of the process, and we brought in my brother," recounts Allison. "I'd have the ideas and work through them with him, so me and Jared spent a lot of hours putting in the work. Then there's the whole conceptual side of what we do – what brings these guitar riffs and drum beats to life and makes it actually mean something.
"Jason's incredible with that."
Blending hardcore punk, turbocharged thrash, and psychedelic doom, The Sleeping Eye gained a devoted but small audience, because metal and punk back then weren't ready for the fusion.
"That's kind of like a Texas thing now," acknowledges Tarpey regarding the album's vision. "Bands that sound like these bands are all shouting out Texas, basically. They realize that this specific kind of crossover is a Texas sound now."
In retrospect, Allison isn't surprised that it took a while for the world to catch up to The Sleeping Eye.
"That's just completely inherent to what we've always done, which is pay little to no attention to our connection to anything outside of our world, whether it's what a label or our audience would want or expect," he says. "We were always just wholly compelled by our own vision of what we needed to put out there."
Following the release of The Sleeping Eye, Iron Age toured with Baroness and Skeletonwitch. Then things fell apart.
"We were at that stage of a second LP and it was time to make a decision," says Tarpey. "I was turning 30 and Wade was a few years away from turning 30, and he wanted to start a family and a career."
"At some point, everybody runs out of money," elaborates Allison. "So it's like, 'Well, I can't leave for three weeks and then try to find another job and quit it again. And I actually need to live somewhere.'"
Iron Age recorded a few Arginor-centric songs and released them on cassette as Saga Demos in 2011. Then Allison went back to school for a law degree, moved to Houston, and had two children. Tarpey studied blacksmithing and started a short-lived band called Graven Rite with musicians from Integrity and Ancient VVisdom. Following the release of Graven Rite's cassette demo, Tarpey formed Eternal Champion with members of Houston's Venomous Maximus, then settled on Power Trip guitarist Ibanez and members of Philadelphia's Sumerlands.
"He takes his craft seriously," says Ibanez. "Not just his vocals, but everything from the imagery of the band to the network he's established around the world. He's the real deal."
But Iron Age wasn't dead. Shows increased to a couple of times a year once Allison moved back to Austin in 2014. New material's been in development since The Sleeping Eye, and an album's worth of songs await recording. The band traveled to New York's Hardcore Hell festival in August for two sold-out shows that both Allison and Tarpey describe as career-best performances.
In fact, a decade after The Sleeping Eye appeared, Iron Age remains at its most active.
"The record found its audience," admits Allison. "It's revered. I have a hard time even thinking those things, but it's nice that it makes more sense now than before to a few more people. I really appreciate that.
"If that wasn't the case, we might've played a 10-year reunion gig at Barracuda and that was it. Now, we've got a reason to live."
Vengeance of the Insane God
Hammerhall Forge includes two anvils, a triple-burner propane forge, leg vises, belt sanders, a drill press, a steel work table, and an assortment of hand tools. Tarpey's arsenal lacks only a power hammer, which would allow him to turn out pieces in an hour that normally take a day to make. Nevertheless, this foundation is enough for him to make a living at this ancient profession, crafting kitchen knives, herb rockers, and steel planters, as well as items like pendants designed after Thor's hammer, Mjolnir, Hammerhall's bestseller on Etsy.
"I love to work with my hands, and I like to do hard work," he says. "I don't want to work for somebody, so what do I want to make?"
At a show, a friend introduced him to master blacksmith William Bastas, who encouraged him to sign up for his classes at Austin Community College.
"I wanted to be like Conan's dad," explains a bemused Tarpey. "That was my whole reference, the intro to Conan the Barbarian and the whole casting of the sword. When I got in the Intro to Blacksmithing [class], William's like, 'No, we can't make weapons at college. And that's not how you make a sword, by the way.'"
Eventually, much hard work and diligence paid off with an associate degree in the trade. He and his wife moved to Wimberley in 2014, and Tarpey worked for a year for a veteran blacksmith friend. Before long, enough work rolled in that he opened his own shop, and business remains steady.
"Welding up trailers or forging a front door grill or window bars – that's my bread and butter," he says. "I'm just as stoked to make someone a kitchen knife or a sword as a pendant or a window bar. I love having the hammer in my hand."
He sells about a sword a month.
"Sometimes, they're just wall hangings, or a family sword that someone can hand down to their kids as an heirloom. It'll probably never leave the wall, but it's battle-ready. They could take it in the backyard and cut up a watermelon or something [laughs], but they usually don't."
He's also made props for music videos, including a scimitar for Denton pulverizers Creeping Death.
"As big of a fan as we are of Iron Age, it was super cool getting to work with him on something like this," says Creeping Death drummer Lincoln Mullins (see sidebar).
For Tarpey, blacksmithing and heavy metal clearly feed off each other.
"It's all the stuff I love. People that like my music help me by ordering specific things that they know I like to make. Like ordering a dagger from a book or a movie that they know I'll probably like. A lot of the things I make are for Eternal Champion or Iron Age fans."
So is Tarpey a blacksmith who sings metal, or a musician who's found a rent-paying commerce?
"I do think about that," he confesses. "Some weeks are all music: I'm in here writing or packing orders. Sometimes I'll take a whole day off and try to get a chapter done. But I do mean to be a blacksmith my whole life, so I don't know how much longer I can do music. I can see making albums for as long as I live, but playing live seems to have an expiration date on it."
Besides the unrecorded Iron Age songs, there's a new Eternal Champion album nearly finished for next spring. As Tarpey delineated, it will accompany his first novel, published by DMR, which released the collection Swords of Steel, containing his story "Vengeance of the Insane God" and a tale by late Manilla Road leader Mark Shelton under the name EC Hellwell.
"I have to do the cover art and finish writing the lyrics and the ending of the book," he notes. "It's great, though, because all I have to do is blacksmith and be in here writing. I cleared my schedule of everything else. I've got two swords to make, and some knives, but hopefully I can just be here finishing up and not getting distracted watching movies."
Jason Tarpey laughs.
Iron Age Influence
Power Trip guitarist Blake Ibanez and Creeping Death drummer Lincoln Mullins rhapsodize about Iron Age's impact on Texas metal.
Blake Ibanez: Iron Age was definitely the gateway band for us. They laid a blueprint for how to properly "cross over" when it came to metal, punk, and hardcore, and were kind of our older brothers that turned us on to cool records and ideas. Our drummer Chris Ulsh and I have played in Iron Age at different points, and performing their songs influenced our playing and songwriting. It's safe to say we wouldn't be a band if it wasn't for them. We're all thankful they set a standard for everyone that's followed.
Lincoln Mullins: I first heard The Sleeping Eye right around the time I was starting to get into my local scene, maybe five or six years ago. I had only listened to Constant Struggle and then one day decided to give The Sleeping Eye a spin. It practically changed my worldview. I'll never forget finishing that record and immediately wanting to listen to it again, and it's still like that every time. It's one of the few records that we all play regularly in the van and one of the greatest records to ever come out of this state. The Texas scene would not be the same now without it. Whether or not people involved in the scene know about it, it wouldn't be as plentiful as it is now without it, and I'm proud to say I come from the same place as that record.