The Cruciable of Man

More proof that Schaffer wishes he were in Iron Maiden...

Iced EarthThe Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part II
Rating: 3.0/5.0
Band Website: http://www.icedearth.com
Label: SPV Records

When I finally got my hands on a promotional copy of this record I was very excited because of the obvious news that tinges this record: the return of the mighty Matt Barlow to the Iced Earth fold! As everyone knows, it’s very hard to stay out of music and I’m pretty sure that Barlow’s experiences in the horribly silly cop band that he was in probably increased his desire to keep doing professional vocals. When he surfaced again in Pyramaze in 2006 I was convinced that he would be back to the fold eventually–thankfully I was right. Barlow is back and Iced Earth is restored.. sort of.

The Crucible of Man is a tour de force for this, the face of American power metal around the world. Let’s start with the strengths of this record–the first, and most noticeable difference from the first record in this series (and earlier singles) is the power of the production. Much fuller and thicker, Schaffer managed to avoid the thin, sterile and lifeless production that haunted the first of these two albums (plus, the thin, sterile and lifeless voice that shrieked over the first record is also gone–bonus). However, not only is the production improved but the songwriting is distinctly un-Iced Earth-ish. In the past, when one thinks of Iced Earth, one thinks of stripped down thrash metal with soaring vocals and ripping riffs. These days, that is quite the opposite picture from the Iced Earth displayed on The Crucible of Man. This new Iced Earth is one of many layers, sometimes pounding together 4 or 5 guitar tracks with choirs, orchestrations and a sound that gets bigger and more epic with every moment. Schaffer once said that when he became a good song writer was when he realized that not every song needed to be epic–he seems to have backed away from this on The Crucible of Man.

Of course this brings us to the next, and most important aspect of any record: the songwriting. The Crucible of Man suffers from something that I don’t think anyone would’ve seen coming: a lack of really outstanding or memorable songs. In the past Iced Earth has been very capable of putting out a record with 5 or 6 kick ass tracks that would stick into your memory and haunt your sleep. Sure, there was some filler and some of the worst ballads that anyone has ever heard–but Schaffer had a way of writing memorable, kick ass tracks. This whole album flows really well, from the opening choir track to the epilogue, every song works well with the next–but none of them really stick with you. After my third listen through I was surprised to notice that I really hadn’t hooked on to any one moment throughout the album–except in the track “Something Wicked (Part 3)”, wherein they recapitulate a riff from the original trilogy. The one song I had really noticed was the penultimate track, but that was only for it’s absolute 80s buttrock cheese (possibly one of the worst songs Schaffer has ever produced).. that’s not the best sign.

I think there are two things going on with this–first; Schaffer was tied up mentally when he was writing. He was tied up in telling a story that might well have been just too large for him, and secondly it seems like vocally he was still writing for Ripper Owens which is a major weakness. Barlow’s strength is his personality, not his voice. His voice is great, but all the chorus choirs (which filled out Ripper’s thin vocals) actually detract from the strength and sheer force of Barlow’s tremendous vocals. Now I don’t have a window into how they used to write in Iced Earth, but I was always under the impression that there was a teamwork aspect to things between Barlow and Schaffer, something that doesn’t really seem to exist on this record.

However, of course, in the end the strength of Barlow’s voice and the epic lengths to which this record goes really do overpower the weaknesses. While maybe IE is beginning to sound a bit more like Demons & Wizards than the Iced Earth we remember (given all the chorus choirs), there are still the strengths of a good thrashy IE record–despite the weight of the project nearly snapping the writing. Because the album flows so well, it takes the edge off the lack of super memorable songs, and you can tell that these guys are working their way back to true form. With Barlow back in the fold and hopefully back in the writing process for the next album–I expect to see an amazing record for the next one. I simply wonder if the sheer scope and size of this massive undertaking wasn’t too much for Schaffer, who is a bit of a one trick pony when it comes to songwriting. All-in-all The Crucible of Man doesn’t disappoint–but it doesn’t exactly blow one away either.

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