In the opening moments of the original Conan the Barbarian film, Conan’s father holds up a newly forged sword and solemnly instructs his son that in their world, you can trust no man, woman or beast, only cold steel. This wisdom is as applicable today as it was in the Hyborian Age, but allow your own friendly neighborhood Steel to attach a modern-day proviso. When a new Iced Earth album arrives, you can trust it will include three things: bombast, bravado and triplets. Many, many triplets. Incorruptible is the veteran band’s 12th album of 100% pure American power metal and the third to feature the talented Stu Block on vocals. In many ways it’s exactly the album you’d expect from Mr. Schaffer and company at this stage of their career. It’s full of thick riffs, powerful vocals and tales of bravery, battles and brotherhood. There are no surprises or innovations, as it clearly was designed to play to the Iced Earth base. In fact, Incorruptible sounds like the band toiled mightily to find the sweet spot between classic albums like The Dark Saga and Something Wicked This Way Comes and Ripper-era outings like The Glorious Burden.
So it’s no surprise the main feeling I get from Incorruptible is one of familiarity. Opener “Great Heathen Army” could appear on any Iced album from 1998 onward. Those classic Schaffer riffs crest and crash like iron waves on a sheet-metal beach and Stu does his best Barlow-meets-Ripper impression with his commanding and authoritative voice. It’s the quintessential IE song and fun in their epic yet meat-headed way. You won’t walk away unhappy, but it doesn’t promise a new Pax Romana for the band. Better still is pirate yarn “Black Flag,” which has a bigger-than-life feel and plenty of buccaneer badassery. The song wins bonus points for mentioning a letter of marque and the refrain of “we live out our days with barrels of rum, black powder and the flash of the blade” is free-booting fun without reminding me of that “other” pirate act currently harassing AMG commerce.
The one-two punch of “Raven Wing” and “The Veil” show the band is still capable of penning catchy, brooding numbers that leverage emotion without ever sounding sappy1 and Mr. Block does a great job vocally. “Defiance” is the big standout with punchy, aggressive urgency and a great vocal performance by Non-Disco Stu. This cut more than any reminds me why I loved this band so much in the late 90s and early aughts.
Not all that’s iced is slick though. “Brothers” is a bro anthem about the bond between men (known as a “brothem” in the industry), and it’s cut from the same cheese-marbled loincloth Manowar buys is bulk. “Ghost Dance (Awaken the Ancestors)” is a lengthy instrumental homage to Native Americans and has some sweet moments, but runs about 2 minutes too long. The 9-plus-minute closer “Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862)” sees Mr. Schaffer return to his Civil War obsession, focusing on the fabled Irish Brigade. The Maiden influences are plentiful here and it’s a solid tune with some nifty musical ideas, but it feels like it should end around the six-minute mark.
At 54 minutes Incorruptible feels a bit too long overall and songs like “Ghost Dance” and “Clear the Way” could easily have been trimmed. Others like “The Relic (Part I)” aren’t bad but trend close to filler. It’s a front-loaded album too, with most of the best stuff appearing early on.
Musically the band had its template fully formed by 1996 and they’ve done little tinkering with it since. If this came out after Something Wicked it wouldn’t have seemed a departure, and it doesn’t in 2017 either. Mr. Schaffer is a talented guitarist and his triplet-heavy style is an integral part of the band, giving them their distinctive sound. He plays well and knows when to hand off to guitar phenom Jake Dreyer (Witherfall) who rips off some unbelievable solos, as he did on his own band’s excellent recent release. This kid can play and when he gets to be front and center, fireworks ensue. Stu Block has an amazing range and can go high without causing fillings to ache. What I like best about him however is his gritty, powerful mid-range which is like Matt Barlow without mimicking him. On songs like “The Veil” and “Defiance” he brings enough firepower to elevate the material and though he’s in a bombastic metal band, he manages to avoid sounding over-the-top somehow.
Incorruptible is more or less what I was expecting from Iced Earth, though I was hoping for a little more. It’s a solid album with a few above-average cuts and fans will probably be pleased. Sadly, when I want to hear Iced Earth I never seem to go past The Glorious Burden and generally stick to the first Barlow era. This won’t be changing those habits, but it ain’t bad.