Thursday, 16 January 2014

Iced Earth's 'Plagues of Babylon' - Album Review

In my opinion, Iced Earth are one of the most consistent and enjoyable heavy metal bands of the past twenty-odd years. Despite numerous personnel changes, the band has stayed true to their sound and their discography contains plenty of gems. 2011's Dystopia is one such gem. It marked the debut of frontman Stu Block (the band's fifth vocalist) and pulled a lot of fans back in who had been slightly disillusioned with the Something Wicked Parts 1 & 2 albums. I never had a problem with the sprawling concept that spanned those two releases but I can understand why some fans did not enjoy them. The fact that the first part, Framing Armageddon (which is brilliant), had Tim 'Ripper' Owens on vocals and the second part, The Crucible of Man (which is decent but nothing special), had Matt Barlow on vocals spoilt the flow of the albums and was a case of a band pandering to public pressure to bring back the legendary frontman which ended up to be a pretty lukewarm reunion. However, getting Stu Block into the band was probably the best decision that leader Jon Schaffer has made in a very long time. His voice is very versatile and can easily handle the diverse range of styles used throughout the band's history. As a result, Dystopia was an exellent album that went back to a much simpler song-based format that brought the band much success such as on 1996's The Dark Saga. Their new album, Plagues of Babylon, continues from where Dystopia left off but is slightly darker in tone overall. The grisly artwork is in stark contrast to the more cartoonish covers the band have had in recent years and lets you know that this is going to be a no-holds-barred slab of heavy metal. If you are a fan of Iced Earth and know their sound well then you will probably have already bought this album and are enjoying as you read this; but for those who have not, this might not be a bad place to start - especially if you like music at the heavier end of the spectrum. This is not a death metal album by any means, but the overall tone and aesthetics might have more in common with that side of the coin than more traditional metal. Interestingly, this is the first studio album in the band's history to not be recorded at Morrisound Studios and be produced by either Tom or Jim Morris. Schaffer has handled all the production duties himself this time around but the sound does not really differ at all from any other of the band's recent albums.

The album's mammoth title track is the first song here and it builds up slowly layering on guitar harmonies and more atmosphere as it goes. The lead guitar work on this album is probably more prominent than it has been for a while and Troy Seele does a great job on that front. At nearly two minutes in, the song really kicks into a higher gear and turns into a powerful mid-paced rocker. As usual, Schaffer's riffs are extremely powerful and in his unique style. Block's vocals are even better on this album than on Dystopia as he grows more comfortable in the role. He uses more of his range and moves slightly away from the Barlow-isms that were on the previous album. After a sinister spoken work section, the riffing gets even better and Raphael Saini's drums (who recorded the album and played a few shows on a session basis) create a nice rhythm for some off-kilter harmony parts. Democide is a much more traditional Iced Earth song that could have easily been on Dystopia. It is catchy and heavy with subtle guitar harmonies in the riffs and an anthemic chorus. Again, there is some really excellent lead guitar work from Seele. It is great to see him becoming more and more involved with each Iced Earth album he is a part of and this is his best performance on record yet! The Culling is similar in style to the previous song but with a slightly slower pace. Iced Earth have always managed to write songs in a variety of speeds and I think that is one of the reasons why they interest me so much - not every single song is played at break-neck speed! It also has the best chorus of the album so far that you cannot help but sing along with! Among the Living Dead is a really creepy song that features Hansi K├╝rsch (Blind Guardian; Demons & Wizards) on vocals in a few places. His and Block's vocals mix well and create a demonic choir that really adds to the mood of the song. The lyrics of the song are also the perfect partner to the album's artwork! The next highlight is The End? which brings the first half of the album to a close. I should mention that the first half of the album is concept-based and the second is song-based. It opens with a nice clean intro with some excellent bass lines from new bassist Luke Appleton and Block uses the more melancholic end of his range to compliment them. It soon evolves into another mid-paced epic though with a very good chorus and works well to close out the 'concept' half of the album!

If I Could See You is the first of the songs not part of the ongoing and complex Something Wicked storyline and is a power ballad in the vein of I Died for You. It is predictable but very enjoyable with an excellent chorus that is made to be heard live. Block always manages to convey so much emotion during the slower songs which helps you to relate to the song's subject matter. Cthulhu is up next and this is one of the album's best songs in my opinion. It starts off with a clean intro (an real Iced Earth hallmark) before another big riff comes in and Block unleashes one of his falsetto screams. There many memorable riffs scattered throughout the song that sees Schaffer and Seele lock into an excellent groove together before Seele gets to show off on his own with a fluid and melodic guitar solo. As usual with Iced Earth's songs, there is another big chorus and I would not be surprised if this song became a live staple for years to come. Peacemaker shows Iced Earth treading some new ground of sorts. The riffs and overall style of this song are deeply rooted in southern rock but it still fits in with the rest of the songs on the album. Southern rock songs are usually based around a big groove and that is the case here. There is some great slide guitar work from Seele throughout the song that helps to reinforce that sound. In the end, it still sounds like Iced Earth, but little deviations like this just help to keep things interesting. The next highlight is Spirit of the Times which is re-worked song from Schaffer's side project Sons of Liberty. It is another slower song and Block's vocals are the highlight here. It is a slightly chest-beating patriotic song lyrically that probably only really appeals to Americans (a bit like Declaration Day or The Reckoning (Don't Tread on Me)) but musically it is good and still feels sincere. The album comes to a close with a fun cover of Jimmy Webb's Highwayman featuring Schaffer and Block on lead vocals along with guest spots by Russell Allen (Symphony X; Adrenaline Mob) and Michael Poulsen (Volbeat). It seems like everyone had a good time making this song and while it seems a little out of place on the album it still is fun to listen to. The only thing I would say is that Poulsen's voice seems a little weak compared to the others'. I am always surprised how good Schaffer's vocals are too, even though I have heard him so much now that I really should not be! Overall, this is another really enjoyable album from the band that follows on from the strong return to form that Dystopia was three years ago. It seems that Iced Earth have no intention of slowing down any time soon so I look forward to even more great albums from them in the future.

The album was released on 6th January 2014 via Century Media Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Plagues of Babylon.

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