Listening to the Big Iron's newest album, We Will Fall, is kind of like a first kickboxing class: terrifying, violent and full of swift kicks to painful areas. If you can make it through the album, you'll crawl away bruised, beaten and a little more pathetic than when you started 40 minutes before, even as the masochist in you burns to experience it all over again.
It's not the album you would expect from the five middle-aged dudes in the band photos. No one knows this better than guitarist Ricky Reyes and lead singer Jeff Pendergraft.
"Our working title for the record was How the Fuck Did We Get Here?" Reyes says with a laugh that sounds only half-joking. With stylish black-framed glasses, a silver nose ring and a tendency to tack the word dude onto every third sentence, Reyes comes off much younger than his 40 years. He moves a tattooed arm to pick up the beer in front of him and laughs again. "We're the oldest motherfuckers playing punk rock."
"I'm surprised I'm still alive," Pendergraft says, his voice a little more solemn than Reyes'. At 47, he has spent more than 30 years in the local music community. He can trace his roots back to shows at the now-defunct Outhouse in Lawrence, the onetime mecca for the underground punk scene. The three of us are in Pendergraft's basement, discussing the new record, and he reflects on the hard living of his youth — and the experiences that paved the way for We Will Fall.
"The community in Kansas City that I've experienced, people that I hung out and grew up with — it was absolutely, bar none, family, as important as your own blood," Pendergraft says. "It was dangerous to be different in the '80s, to be a punk kid. You were ridiculed. You were fucked with. The police had a file on you. But you were part of a community, and you helped each other stay alive. You didn't come from pretty backgrounds, and you found yourself in this spot that took you away from that, and that's punk rock. That's what we have."
Pendergraft isn't wrong: We Will Fall is a study in the building-block fundamentals of hardcore punk. The opening track, "Climate Refugee," begins with a gloomy western bass line before Pendergraft's unwholesome voice grabs the riff by the neck. The sky grows dark with suffocating scum, he roars. We've come too far, we can't be undone. It's a miserable message about climate collapse, and it will probably make you angry — which is exactly what the band is going for.
"The Big Iron, for me, has always been a place to let the darker parts of me become unleashed," Pendergraft says. "I can let the stuff that's really bothering me out with the Big Iron, let out the things I really disagree with, things going on in the world."
Not that We Will Fall is full of overly political bulletins. "Past the Pavement" sees Pendergraft reminiscing about the heyday of his prime (and blowing our minds on LSD), and "Letter to a Grave" — practically a ballad, by Big Iron standards — is a tribute to Pendergraft's grandfather. The album closes with a smoking, reverb-drenched cover of the Beasts of Bourbon's "Saturated," a song that takes on a new layer of anguish thanks to Pendergraft's gruff voice.
As much as Pendergraft's lyrics lead the tracks on We Will Fall, none of it would be possible without Reyes' guitar. And there's more to his licks than the abrasive ear-assault that first catches your attention. Each song shows his unlikely stockpile of influences.
"All the years I listened to Nick Cave and the Beach Boys, all the years Hank Williams was boohooing to me, I can finally use that in this band," Reyes says. "I can say, 'Let's play this really dark murder ballad, and then we're going to play '60s-style guitar music with lots of fuzz, and then we're going to do psychedelic freakouts in the middle of the song.' We can do that, and it's cohesive."
Reyes continues: "I'm really big on the feel. I've always noticed that our strength is in the feeling of a song. It's not necessarily the best-written song or has the best guitar riffing going on. 'Letter to a Grave' is literally two chords. But it's all about how we play those two chords, how the words are going to work, and we've done that since the first song we ever wrote."
The Big Iron has been toiling over We Will Fall for more than two years. It's only the band's third album in 14 years together, and the first to be professionally engineered (at Element Recording Studios). The members — including guitarist Paul Krowas, bassist Mike Farren and drummer Jon Paul — are proud of it; Reyes says it's the band's "opus." They might not have expected to last this long, but if We Will Fall is any indication, they won't be retiring soon.
"We're still here, so we won," Pendergraft says. "You get to a point where you just outrun all the bad shit."