03. Boiling Point
04. Anguish Of Youth
06. Dark City
08. Days Of Rage
09. End Of Innocence
10. Tragedy And Triumph
Iced Earth are a band with a colorful past. This due in part to the ever changing line-up of musicians and vocalists. There are no doubt many reasons behind each and every line-up shift, but one thing is certain; bringing the fans around to a new musician is a hard task to achieve. Hot off the wheels of the less than stellar Something Wicked double album, star vocalist Matt Barlow departed from the band — for a second time. Many a fan lamented this fact; we had just gotten him back after a few less than extraordinary albums with Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens at the vocal helm, but of course one’s family is more important than most everything else. Like every fan of Iced Earth, and any band where a new musician takes the place of one you know and love, I was wary that new vocalist Stu Block (Into Eternity) wouldn’t be able to live up to the standard of power and beauty that was emphasized in every song that Barlow performed on. Luckily for me, all those worries were quelled and put to bed when I listened to this record.
Let me start out by saying that Matt Barlow is one of the top 5 greatest vocalist in modern music. He is right up there with Mike Patton, Russell Allen, and Devin Townsend. His drive, power and versatility are something that very few vocalists can match or even come close to. I’ll go even further by saying that Freddie Mercury is the single greatest vocalist in rock and metal history, and while I have never had any desire to listen to Queen + Paul Rogers for the fact that Roger is nothing compared to Mercury, but if it had been Queen + Matt Barlow, I would have bought ever single disc they put out together. To me, he’s that good.
Now with that in mind it’s quite obvious that losing Barlow was a major blow to me, and I was more than a bit skeptical when the band told us that Stu would be taking the reigns. My immediate thoughts were “What, that dude with the high pitch squeaky voice? What the hell were they thinking?”. I felt a little betrayed by Barlow, and the band as a whole, but I tried to keep an open mind about it. Luckily for me the band caught onto the feeling of dread coming from the fans and decided to do something awesome to dispel these feelings. They re-recorded one of the bands greatest songs, “Dante’s Inferno” from the Dark Saga, with new vocalist Stu performing in the stead of Barlow. Not only that, they also released it to all their fans for free. With this re-recording as a sample of what the fans could expect on Dystopia, I was more than willing to give Block a chance. I was fucking ecstatic!
The first thing you will notice about Stu’s performance on Dystopia is how alike it is to Barlow. It’s quite obvious that the band felt like they needed to soften the blow of losing Barlow by keeping Block’s vocal style similar to that of “OH HOLY FUCK WHAT IS HE DOING? Now he sounds like Owens? Oh shit and now he sounds like Warrel Dane circa 1995? What the hell is going on?” The true wonder and center piece to this disc are the vocals of Block. At times he does keep things very similar to that of Barlow, once again probably to soften the blow of losing Barlow, and make live performances easier, but he’s not afraid to stray into other territories. On the very first track Block exhibits at least four different vocal styles. Switching off styles, it’s like he’s having a conversation with himself; a dissociative identity disorder on overdose. At times he sounds like Barlow, others it’s like he’s channeling Ripper Owens, and others still it’s like he’s right back home in Into Eternity. There is a bit lacking in terms of power, as there often is when switching vocalist, but Block more than makes up for it with his versatility and creative melodies. I don’t know what it was like during the recording of this disc, but however the band came to the decision to include so many vocal styles doesn’t matter, because in the end they made the right decision.
A lot of the material on Dystopia is similar in tone and feel to that of the Something Wicked double albums, leading me to believe that they were written during the same time frame. While those discs were kind of boring, and quite possibly rushed, it seems that Schaffer had a lot more time to spend with these ten songs. Each song feels well crafted and purposeful. There is a punch to each track – even the softer ones. While the band isn’t doing something altogether new with their sound, they are perfecting it; making sure that each song is meaningfully written and placed in the sequence of the album without retaining any sort of chronological order or story. This sort of emphasis on placement and song writing has always been a key factor to my listener-ship of Iced Earth, and it is also one of the things that I felt was absent from the last three albums.
The theme of this album is dystopias in the vein of Orwell or Huxley. The songs typically tell the tale of a world in disrepair, but from the point of a human or person with a strong will to survive. The songs show that humans, despite their conditions, will always fight in the face of adversity, because that’s our naturally instinct. So really this album isn’t about dystopias, but instead the power of the human self, and our will to survive. As a whole it’s dark, but to me it feels very uplifting — this is the type of music that you would want to listen to while running a marathon. It pumps the listener up and gives them the drive to get up and do something, anything. Maybe not as thematically connected or strong as last years dystopian masterpiece Victims of the Modern Age by Star One, this is still a strong album that does what all good music is suppose to, evoke strong emotions from the listener.
Many people chalk the lackluster quality of the The Glorious Burden and Framing Armageddon up to the vocals of Ripper Owens, but the truth is that Owens is a damn fine vocalist. He has power, passion, and an ability to transform any song he sings into something epic. Where the problem truly lay was with the sloppy song writing of Schaffer. Maybe he didn’t have as much drive after losing Barlow, or any number of speculative reasons, but the fact remains that the songs on The Glorious Burden, Framing Armageddon, AND The Crucible of Man were just poorly put together and bland. I was very excited to hear that he had written a full two albums based around the Something Wicked Trilogy from Something Wicked This Way Comes, but it was clear that writing so many songs in such a short period of time had left most of them without any punch or fervor, even when Barlow returned to the vocal helm on Crucible of Man. Double albums are a tenuous task, and very few bands or musicians can do it right, and I’m sure Schaffer and the rest of Iced Earth had the best intentions when creating those discs, but in the end they just felt disjointed, jumbled and unfortunately, safe.
Dystopia is different in that regard. Like I said above, the songs aren’t doing anything spectacularly different with the bands sound, but instead the focus is on making each song as strong as it possibly can without losing anything that makes Iced Earth, Iced Earth. Everything works together, and nothing feels like filler. Even with a new vocalist the band sounds phenomenal; confident and at the top of their game. They’ve felt the sting of losing a vocalist before, and not wanting to repeat their past mistakes, they hired a great vocalist and continued on without even batting an eye. They have been doing this for a long time and with this record as the new standard I have very little doubt that Iced Earth will continue to do great things with their career, with their bright young vocalist at the forefront.
Iced Earth – Dystopia gets…