Iced Earth is a bonafide heavy metal institution, and part of their long staying power and general widespread appeal has got to be attributed to their fearless leader and head riff master Jon Schaffer, whose strong work ethic, unwavering live free or die attitude, and keen sense of aesthetics, has kept this machine rolling for over the last two decades. With his tried and true formula of power, thrash, and lyrical armageddon, Schaffer has churned out a number of genre leading staples, ranging from 1995’s Burnt Offerings, with all of its dark imagery and heavy riffing, to 1998’s Something Wicked this Way Comes, whose last three songs became the basis for the multi-record Something Wicked Saga, an epic fantasy about the rise and fall of man.
But as my esteemed and angry colleague is also quick to point out, Schaffer and Co. have also put out quite a few clunkers in recent memory, especially after their long time lead singer, Matt Barlow, became inspired by the tragic events of 9/11 and left the band (read: fired) to pursue a career in law enforcement. Schaffer then hired one of Angry Metal Guy’s all-time favorite vocalist and former Rob Halford stand in, Tim “Ripper” Owens, as Barlow’s replacement, which seemed at the time, at least on paper, like a very good idea [No, it didn’t. Owens = Horrid. — AMG]. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, and Iced Earth churned out one dud after the next, reaching rock bottom with 2007’s Framing Armageddon – Something Wicked Part 1.
Enter Stu Block, a relatively unknown Canadian vocalist and now dark horse, who literally breathed new life into the band with 2011’s Dystopia. Hailed as a return to form by many fans and critics alike, Dystopia simply brought the fire back, with burnt offerings like the title track, “Boiling Point,” and “Days of Rage,” proving that Schaffer’s riff well hadn’t completely dried out yet. And though Dystopia still doesn’t recapture all the magic of the early ’90s, it was a big step in the right direction and certainly helped bring a lot of old time fans back into the fold.
So with a newly established vocalist and new lease on life, can Iced Earth‘s recently released eleventh studio album, Plagues of Babylon, continue their steady ascent out of mediocrity? In a word, yes, but with a few caveats.
Without a doubt, the opener and title track is bar none, the best Iced Earth song I’ve heard in over a decade. This track has it all: Catchy power riffs that harken back to the glory years. Check. Flair for the melodramatic with apocalyptical monologue bonus insert. Check. Blistering solos. Check. If you lost any faith in Schaffer’s riff craft, this is the song that will restore your religious fervor. “Democide” is just as tasty, starting off in a minute long death march before segueing into those hard charging, galloping riffs that just scream classic Iced Earth. The same is true for its follow up too, “The Culling,” which despite its somewhat mid-paced nature and subsequently rockish vibe, simply works, with lead guitarist Troy Steele pounding out another excellent solo right around the three minute mark, making his presence known.
Lest we forget that as Dystopia proved, and now Plagues reaffirms, Stu Block is simply a beast. Whether it’s his powerful falsetto or his more straightforward power metal delivery, or even his clean vocals, this gentleman was simply born to sing metal. Despite my affinity for Barlow, I submit that Block maybe just as good, if not better. Believe it. [AMG approves this endorsement of Stu Block’s beastliness – AMG.]
Unfortunately, here is where the album starts to loose some steam, with the next two songs, “Among the Living Dead” and “Resistance,” never quite reaching the same euphoric heights of their predecessors. “Among the Living Dead” isn’t necessarily bad, but despite featuring one of the greatest power metal vocalists of all time, Blind Guardian‘s Hansi Kürsch, the song comes off somewhat anti-climatic, relegating itself to Kürsch’s background screams as its main draw. “Resistance” feels a little disjointed, with sort of a start/stop progression that again, isn’t awful, but has very little replay value sans the excellent soloing midway through.
However, the seven minute plus “The End?” puts the album back on track with Iced Earth firing on all cylinders. Pay particular attention to Luke Appleton’s bass line which is simply killer, providing the backbone for the entire track. And despite what you may have heard, no eagles were hurt in the making of the album’s aforementioned token power ballad, “If I Could See You,” which is pretty much guaranteed to be a live staple going forward. “Cthulhu” isn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be, and comes off as a Horror Show B-Side. Same goes with Peacemaker, which sounds like recycled riffs from the Glorious Burden days. “Parasite” is another stand out track though, especially toward the back end where Steele and Schaffer pull out all the stops, with more heavy tag team riffing and a head snapping breakdown just before the two minute mark. Do not miss.
The special edition ends in very meh fashion, with the lackluster Sons of Liberty cover “Spirit of the Times” and the star-studded cover of Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman,” featuring vocals from Russell Allen of Symphony X and Michael Poulsen of Volbeat. Again, neither of which is particularly horrendous, but by tacking these songs at the end, not only does it make the album (as well as its review) too long, but it doesn’t fit the narrative of the record, and subsequently feels completely out of place.
Believe it or not, Schaffer is a big, big proponent of dynamics in metal, and the overwhelming majority of Iced Earth records sound fantastic. Glorious Burden may not be your all-time favorite Iced Earth record, but at DR11, it certainly sounds lively. Unfortunately, despite Dystopia’s musical success, from a purely production standpoint, it was a total letdown, with Schaffer finally giving into the record companies and allowing the album to be compressed down to DR6 territory. But with Plagues, Schaffer has decided to pull a Swanö, offering not one, but two different alternative masters to the DR8 CD, a lightly compressed vinyl master clocking in at DR10 as well as a “competitive” digital one clocking in at DR7, both of which are shipped as extras on the DVD. Do not hesitate, get the DVD, since the DR10 vinyl master is the only way to listen to this record in my book. Saini’s drums are just so damn alive at DR10, with cymbals and hats crashing like they should. Appleton’s bass is prominent too, and never gets washed out by the back and forth banter between Schaffer and Steele’s impeccable axe work. Also, while you’re at it, actually watch the interviews this time, especially the one with mastering engineer Sascha “Busy” Buhren, where he and Schaffer talk about the Loudness War and its detrimental effect on the metal industry. Must see TV.
Look, if you are already an Iced Earth fan, Plagues of Babylon should go down like gangbusters, and I can’t imagine you walking away from this record disappointed. If you are just an on and off fan of Schaffer’s heavy metal fantasy, then now is the time to get back on the bandwagon again. It’s somewhat amazing that after twenty four years of semi-kicking ass, Iced Earth is even still relevant. But in the end, despite being a tad too long with a few fillers sprinkled in, this record is ultimately a win, plain and simple. Go forth and spread the plague!