This review was originally posted at our friends Death Domain, which is a totally awesome blog that you should read. Maybe not as often as you read Angry Metal Guy, but often enough. Get it?
No one can begrudge you for being a little skeptical of a release by American power metal institution Iced Earth in 2014. Following the departure of Matt Barlow post-9/11, and the entry of one-trick-pony and professional Rob Halford impersonator Ripper Owens, the band has spit out terrible record after mediocre tripe. With the entry of Stu Block, formerly of Into Eternity, Iced Earth was poised for a big comeback in the form of Dystopia — but even that fell short. The record was plodding, mediocre at best, and Block didn’t feel like part of the crew.
Still, Iced Earth is an institution for a reason. When firing on all cylinders, Schaffer and his motley crew of journeymen can pop out some eye-popping metal. Something Wicked this Way Comes and follow up Horror Show certainly show that. So, every time there’s a new Iced Earth record, I perk up. Plagues of Babylon has the added benefit of including a special vinyl mix that has been included with the DVD for the audiophiles among us who think dynamic compression is getting out of hand. Whatever your opinions of Jon Schaffer exploiting traveling musicians for a few tours before kicking them to the road and denying them revenues (note: this is admittedly baseless conjecture and therefore not libel, but fiction), you have to respect his desire to make metal that sounds good.
And two things stand out about Plagues of Babylon‘s vinyl mix immediately: the drums sound goddamned amazing; and Stu Block does one mean Matt Barlow impression. The former is due to the excellent production. While IE‘s later albums often sounded like the worst thing you can ever imagine coming out of a digital studio—sterile to the point of not even sounding like a band playing music together—Plagues has a great sound. The drums pop, the guitars are thick, and the bass is probably a little low in the mix, but still fat and, well, audible. Stu’s vocals might even be a bit back in the mix, but that ain’t a problem because he’s got a big voice and he carries a lot of weight.
Which I guess takes me to part two: Stu is a beast and his performance lifts good tracks to greatness and mediocre tracks to good.. ness? Anyway: point is, Metal Stu ain’t just advertisement. The guy delivers. And his performance is necessary, because Plagues of Babylon isn’t Schaffer’s best showing. While heads and shoulders above Dystopia, which was a pallid reflection of what IE once was, it still is too damned plodding. While there are a few rippers on here, “Democide” is a classic Iced Earth ripper and “Among the Living” rocks out some thrashy double-bass driven grooves as well, most of the stuff on here is mid-paced and doesn’t feel super inspired.
Unfortunately, the mid-paced slogging is a lot more of the record than the awesome tracks. While some of it is good—”Parasite” is a great closer, “Plagues of Babylon” is long, but good and “The Culling” is pummeling—a lot of it is not. “The End?” and “If I Could See You” are both melodramatic and boring, while “Cthulu” is a Horror Show B-Side and “Peacemaker” just misses the mark and, oddly enough, sounds a bit like an ’80s hard rock track. Not in that charming “Turisas giving a hat tip to ‘Eye of the Tiger'” way, but in that cheesy “oh shit, won’t alternative rock please come into existence so that it can knock Winger off the charts” kind of way. Also, as far as I can tell, it’s a love song to Jon Schaffer’s gun. So, y’know. Maybe the lady he’s singing about in “If I Could See You” would be seeing him if he weren’t writing a fucking song to his gun1
So, Plagues of Babylon is an awesome record to listen to. The production is 9/10, it shows off what modern technology can accomplish when it isn’t crushed to death. The songwriting, though? It leaves a lot to be desired.
- What’s written cannot be unwritten, and this has been online long enough that there’s not much more that I can do about it but leave it. But it should be noted, that as the lyrics to “If I Could See You” are either written about Stu Block’s grandma or Jon Schaffer’s grandpa, it’s pretty cold of me to make a joke about the lyrics to the song. I was unaware of it, and in all frankness, I wasn’t given lyrics—I am never given lyrics—to the album and haven’t listened to them particularly closely. Still, if Stu or Jon read this, I was not trying to make light of your loss, as obviously that’s a horrible situation for you. – AMG ↩