Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Iced Earth's 'Incorruptible' - Album Review

Iced Earth are definitely one of the most dependable and consistent bands in the metal world. Since forming in 1985, and especially since releasing their self-titled debut album in 1990, Iced Earth have been one of the standard bearers of traditional heavy metal. While elements of thrash, power, and even progressive metal have been woven into the band's core sound at various points throughout their 30-plus year career, Iced Earth have mostly stuck to the same musical template on each of their previous eleven studio albums. Famed for having a lengthy list of former band members, this consistency is down to the songwriting style of band leader, guitarist, and lead-songwriter Jon Schaffer. While many other excellent musicians have added their magic to the band over the years, it is Schaffer that has written the lion's share of the band's back catalogue and who's instantly recognisable riffing style defines the band's sound. In my opinion, Schaffer is the best rhythm guitarist is metal, and is certainly one of the best riff-writers in the genre. It will surprise no-one then to learn that the band's latest effort, which is titled Incorruptible, is another classic Iced Earth release that is backed with a good mix of faster, thrash-inspired numbers and more emotionally-charged mid-paced rockers. Even given the band's heritage, it is fair to say that Iced Earth have been on a real run of form of late. The band's current (and fifth overall) frontman Stu Block joined the band in 2011 and Iced Earth have been a reborn force since. Dystopia, released in the same year as Block's arrival, is a real modern classic and is one of my favourite Iced Earth releases. The lengthy world tour that followed was the longest the band had undertaken for quite some time and made up for a few quiet years previously. The follow-up album, released in 2014 as Plagues of Babylon (which I reviewed here), was not quite as strong but still contained plenty of winning numbers. Another lengthy tour followed that year with the band really re-cementing their status as a fantastic live act. A couple of quieter years followed while Schaffer recovered from some much-needed surgery and the band worked on the building of their new headquarters and studio Independence Hall. The songwriting for this new album took place during this downtime too and the album was recorded at the new HQ towards the back end of last year. Being an Iced Earth album there is of course some new blood represented on Incorruptible. Schaffer, Block, and bassist Luke Appleton all return from the previous album, and they are rejoined by long-time drummer Brent Smedley, for his fourth stint in the band, who sat out of the previous album cycle because of family reasons. Long-time lead guitarist Troy Seele left the band last year due to pressures taking care of his autistic son, and was replaced by Jake Dreyer (White Wizzard; Witherfall) who has contributed many memorable leads and solos throughout this album. Schaffer's compositions once again dominate the material here (the past couple of albums have been some of the more collaborative in the band's history) but Block and Appleton have also made choice songwriting contributions here to help diversify the album.

While not packing quite the same punch as the opening numbers of the band's past couple of releases, Great Heathen Army gets Incorruptible off to a strong start. The song builds up slowly over the course of an atmospheric intro, which makes good use of a Gregorian-style choir, as a orchestral and percussive backing creates somewhat of a gothic feel. It is not long however before a stomping guitar pattern kicks in which leads into a thrashy riff with some high-pitched vocal screams from Block and the first shredded lead from Dreyer. The song is a pretty fast effort, with lots of Smedley's trademark double bass drumming and an impassioned vocal performance as Block delivers his Viking-inspired lyrics. While the chorus is not as powerful as it probably should be, the harmony guitars make it stand out and Dreyer impresses immediately afterwards with his first proper solo. Block shows here that he is constantly improving as a vocalist and continues to forge his own sound within the band. A section after the first solo that focuses on his falsetto is extremely powerful and contrasts well with his deeper vocal stylings elsewhere. Black Flag, the first of two songs co-written by Appleton, is a tale of swashbuckling piracy. This is not packed with Alestorm's humour however, but is instead a true Iced Earth classic packed full of high-energy riffs and guitar melodies. The bass-heavy intro is somewhat reminiscent of the Iced Earth oldie Damien; and the Iron Maiden-esque twin guitar harmonies that follow show that Schaffer often still wears his influences on his sleeve. The song is at first a bit of a slower-paced chug, but soon speeds up following a scream from Block. While the song builds towards a chorus that never really comes, the song proves to a be a grower with a few distinct sections and some folky guitar leads that fit in with the lyrical themes. While Iced Earth have always done the faster, heavier songs well; I believe it is their more mid-paced emotional songs that they are the most known for. Raven Wing is one of those, and is a great example of a style which has served the band well. From the acoustic intro to the heavier choruses, this is a song that brings back memories of the band's classic Something Wicked This Way Comes era and allows Block to inject some real emotion into his vocals. While he is still prone to unleashing his best Matt Barlow (who is, of course, the band's most well-known frontman) impression on these kinds of songs, he still manages to sound convincing and this allows the band to carry on one of their traditions. Dreyer also really impresses here, with lots of great guitar playing, including a gorgeous bluesy solo that sits atop Schaffers' acoustic playing. This the explodes into a heavier, faster solo which shows the diversity of the man's playing and the talent he brings to the band. The Veil is a similar song with some vocal parts from Block which almost sound like pure cries of anguish. While Raven Wing has it's heavier, faster moments; this song mostly moves along at a much slower pace with plenty of Schaffer's chiming clean guitar arpeggios and Appleton's prominent bass playing. After two slower numbers, Seven Headed Whore ensures the album does not get too bogged down in the darker emotions of these songs with three minutes of pure thrash. Block turns in possibly his best vocal performance on an Iced Earth song to date, with some banshee screams that rival the style of the other famous former Iced Earth frontman Tim 'Ripper' Owens. This is an instantly catchy song, with an anthemic chorus and a hard-hitting pre-chorus with Block's falsetto vocals and Smedley's extremely fast footwork. Dreyer's extremely fast bursts of shred in the middle of the song are the icing on the cake, and help to round out one of the band's most energetic efforts yet.

The Relic - Part 1 is another mid-paced number with a really hypnotic rhythm guitar melody throughout and some great bluesy leads from Dreyer. This song is one of Block's lyrical efforts, and given the it's title it seems this could be the first part of a new epic song sequence. Iced Earth has always done concepts and lyrics bridges between albums very well, and this song could easily be the start of another saga. While there are certainly stronger songs here, the relentless, hard-hitting style keeps the song interesting despite a lack of any real stand-out melodies. The atmospheric closing section is excellent however, and I really hope the themes explored here are expanded upon in the future as the song's title would suggest. Ghost Dance (Awaken the Ancestors), a lengthy instrumental piece, is easily the album's weakest cut for me. Iced Earth have never been one to excel at instrumental pieces, as they lack the virtuoso players to truly make them work, and this effort is no different. It goes on for a good couple of minutes longer than it should and is made up of riffs which really are not any of Schaffer's best. I do like the quieter sections which make use of traditional Native American pan-pipes however, as this is something the band has not really explored previously, but overall I feel this the one real blemish on what is an otherwise strong album. Despite a deceivingly mellow intro, Brothers turns out to be a real anthem and is the antidote the lengthy instrumental that preceded it. Schaffer's crunching power chords really drive the meat of the song, and the chorus is one of the album's best with Block's lyrics of camaraderie and unity. I can see this song becoming a real live staple with it's unifying message and singable melodies. The riffing is a little simplistic compared to the band's usual style, but it works well in this instance to create a great headbanging rhythm and a true traditional heavy metal feel. The guitar solo echoes this too and does not rely on the shredded speed that many of the other solos here utilise, instead opting for more old-school phrasing. Defiance, which is Appleton's other songwriting contribution, opens with a burst of neo-classical shredding before a weighty riff kicks in that sounds a little different to anything the band have done before. Despite this, the song is mostly classic Iced Earth that grows over multiple listens as the subtle melodies and slightly downbeat chorus really sink in. I like it that Appleton has made some strong songwriting contributions on both his studio outings with the band now. While I love Schaffer's songwriting, it is always great when other members of the band take up some of slack as this helps to keep things fresh. While Dreyer joined the band after the bulk of the songwriting for this album was complete, I hope he sticks around long enough to contribute to the next album as I imagine his efforts will be as strong as Appleton's. The album's final song, Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862), is a nine-minute plus epic and the first lengthy song the band have done in while. Iced Earth have always excelled at longer, more progressive efforts and this one is a real winner with a great gang-vocal led chorus, atmospheric sections, and a lengthy folky instrumental mid-section that often recalls Thin Lizzy's Black Rose. The song tells the bloody story of the Irish Brigde at the Battle Of Fredericksburg in the American Civil War. Schaffer has always been a real student of American military history and his passion for that really shines through in songs like this. Comparisons can obviously be drawn to the Gettysburg trilogy on 2004's The Glorious Burden, but this is less progressive and more out-and-out heavy metal. It is a real future classic than ensure the album ends on a true high. Overall, Incorruptible is a really strong album from a band that have been delivering the goods now for many years. Iced Earth's style is instantly recognisable and this album proves again why they are held in such high regard across the globe.

The album was released on 16th June 2017 via Century Media Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Seven Headed Whore.

No comments:

Post a Comment