I just realized something —- this will be only the third time I’ve written solely about Iced Earth in the history of this blog, the first being Dystopia‘s inclusion on the Best of 2011 list, and the second being a 2012 gig report that turned into trip down memory lane back to 2004 when I saw Iced Earth cram close to a thousand Houstonians in a sweltering converted warehouse on the Glorious Burden tour during their Ripper Owens era. I only point it out because its a surprisingly small number for a band that is among my longest running fandoms, as well as an important part of my breaking away from mainstream metal in order to explore the European power metal scene in earnest. I’m certain everyone is aware of the many upheavals within the lineup the past few years but its worth pointing out yet again what a huge shot in the arm the addition of Stu Block has been —- simply in terms of making Iced Earth a fully functioning band again.
Unlike the sporadic live shows in the final years of the Barlow era, Iced Earth is now doing their longest full length world tours yet, and in the span of the past three years have released two studio albums and one live album/dvd. The music has also improved, the difference in quality night and day from the final Barlow offering, The Crucible of Man in 2008, to 2011’s Stu Block debut Dystopia. As I wrote in that linked 2012 article, the band looked fired up on stage, Jon Schaffer in particular looking noticeably happier. I felt happier myself witnessing that. It was a rebirth of a band that I’ve had a tremendous amount of respect for in addition to simply being a fan, as I’d always felt that the struggle of Iced Earth to sustain themselves as an American power metal band during the dry spell of the mid-nineties mirrored what many of us stateside fans had to endure as well.
I was encouraged to hear by the middle of 2013 just how quickly the band was able to finish writing and start the recording of Plagues of Babylon, their second effort with Block. It was a sign that the Block-Schaffer partnership wasn’t fraying from the demands of the road, and that they were eager to parlay that enthusiasm into productive work. And tellingly on Plagues, they’ve either consciously or subconsciously brought their live sound to the recording studio. This is a noticeably rawer and grittier Iced Earth than we’ve heard on their past couple releases (specifically I’m referring to all their albums since 2001’s Horror Show). Speaking broadly, there’s a sense that they have carried the effects of their long touring over into the studio —- Iced Earth have always been far heavier and even thrashier live on stage than they’ve been on record. Here the band goes easy on layered choral vocals during refrains and excessive displays of major key melodicism, instead opting for gun metal grey riffs with slight melodic variations alongside mostly solitary lead vocals that recall to mind their classic Something Wicked and Dark Saga period. Overall there is a very stripped down and “live” approach being employed —- and its a darker album as a result.
The first four songs on the tracklisting are particularly apparent examples, the highlight among them being the adrenaline pumping “Democide”, as thrash metal-y as Iced Earth have sounded in years. Block’s solo lead vocals seem heftier and far more menacing here than on Dystopia, and again it reminds me of how he sounded when I saw him live. Its ironic then that Blind Guardian vocalist Hansi Kursch turns up in a guest spot on “Among the Living Dead”, where he doesn’t really add his trademark wall of sound vocal layering approach to the mix, instead merely offering up his own solo vocal counterpoints to Block’s. Honestly it took me a few listens to even spot Kursch’s usually instantly recognizable voice, and even after many, many listens I wonder if his talents are going under utilized here. But these thoughts are put aside by the time “The End?” kicks in, where Schaffer and lead guitarist Troy Seele deliver a lushly melodic array of guitar work to introduce some contrast to Block’s brutal take on clean vocals —- here he even delivers a near black metal styled scream midway through.
The band amps up the multitracked vocals on semi-ballad “If I Could See You”, a track that recalls “I Died For You” off the Dark Saga in a big way, not a bad thing mind you but its just another thing that ties this album’s sonic feel back to that era. And I particularly love the lush vocal layering on “Cthulhu”, where the refrain is so well written that it bleeds out emotion, despite being a song about a gigantic, mind-boggling octopus beast-god. Again referencing the past, it’s a quality song that would sound right at home on Horror Show (musically and thematically as well). But let’s face facts, eleven albums into their career no one is expecting Iced Earth to reinvent themselves, only to deliver the metallic goods so to speak. I think I could speak for Iced Earth fans if I suggest that all we want is a consistently good to great record that delivers all the trademarks we expect, with a high level of energy, and Plagues does deliver in that regard. Its not all perfect… I feel that the back to back pairing of both “Peacemaker” and “Parasite” tend to fall largely flat, but two out of twelve isn’t bad.
Now to discuss the obvious album highlight, which may irk some as its a cover, but the band’s take on “Highwayman” is nothing short of spectacular. This is of course the Jimmy Webb penned namesake track of the eighties super group of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash The song was fitting both lyrically and structurally for those singers, four country stars long pegged as outsiders in their own genre, four verses for each of them. Iced Earth invite some friends to flesh out their version of the classic, with Schaffer himself handling the first verse on lead vocals, followed by Symphony X’s Russell Allen, then Block, and finally rounded out by the distinctive country-punk twang of Volbeat’s Michael Poulsen. It really works, Schaffer has occasionally done some lead vocals on Iced Earth tracks here and there, so he has the chops to do it and sounds commanding here. Allen is of course a long ranged vocal dynamo, who even adds some of his trademark vocal run extensions despite only singing a few lines. Block’s verse might by my favorite, about the dam builder “Across the river, deep and wide / Where steel and water did collide”, his delivery touched with a hint of outlaw country and rock n’ roll abandon. Poulsen is admittedly an acquired taste, but I don’t mind a little Volbeat here and there and in small doses such as the concluding verse here he is a refreshing change up. They all do a great job.
This was among the first major metal releases of the year, and one of the first cannon shots representing what might be a banner year for power metal. With Plagues of Babylon, 2014 seems to be getting off to a strong start. Its not the best Iced Earth record ever, but its a solid, at times great album that I’m anticipating will sound even better on April 28th when I see them once again in Houston. I’m looking forward to finding out how my back and neck will hold up.