Note: I am one of the biggest Iced Earth fans out there. I’ve loved the band since I was 16 and will always continue to follow them. They hold a special place in my musical upbringing. This review hurt to write, but you have to be fair to the things you love.
Power metal is more famously a European affair. Legends like Blind Guardian and Helloween have dominated the biggest festivals, the charts, and every blogger’s best-of-lists for decades. There is, however, a small handful of power metal giants from the United States. For example, Kamelot solidified their reputation with a string of successful concept albums in the 2000s but their poppy, symphonic sound could easily be mistaken as European. Older legends like Virgin Steele, Manowar, and Riot usually play in a style closer to classic metal or NWOBHM than power metal. There stands but one real American power metal giant that has all the popularity of the European bands and a uniquely American spin to power metal.
Since 1990, Iced Earth has delivered a thrashy variant of power metal with a long line of gritty, commanding lead singers (sparing that first one), all lead by founding guitarist, Jon Schaffer. The band’s most classic string of albums featured singer Matt Barlow, whose unique voice sounds like Chuck Billy, James Hetfield, and Rob Halford had an extremely metal, three-headed baby. Albums like Something Wicked This Way Comes and Horror Show showcased a darker side of power metal, something the genre desperately needs to show off today. Barlow was replaced by Tim “The Ripper” Owens for two so-so albums with just as much filler as bangers only to come back for one final album in 2008. Since 2011, Iced Earth has featured ex-Into Eternity singer, Stu Block.
All of this background information is important to understand going into Incorruptible. Iced Earth has always had an incredibly vital place in the power metal scene. With this album, however, it is clear that the band is more interested in maintaining their own status quo rather than making anything new.
It’s not that Jon can’t write a riff anymore. Tracks like “Great Heathen Army” and “Black Flag” accurately display the signature Iced Earth sound in all its palm-muted glory. The problem with Incorruptible is it’s addiction to filler and boring hooks. Iced Earth has always toyed with drama and dragging things out but this album brings that tendency to a new extreme. The opening song, for instance, doesn’t really start until a full minute and a half into the track. Iced Earth fans are coming to listen to riffs, impressive vocals, and solos (you know, like, METAL???) and they are getting cheesy choirs with absolutely no thought put into them that sound identical to anything else on any other second-rate power metal album. These aren’t the great symphonic arrangements of Blind Guardian or some interesting minimalist take on metal, it’s just lazy. To put this into perspective, “Seven Headed Whore” is the only song under three minutes when, really, every song should be under three minutes. This track is one of the few that undeniably works like Iced Earth should.
“Ghost Dance (Awakening The Ancestors)” is a six-minute jam session with a vaguely offensive Native American spin. I guess The Glorious Burden wasn’t far enough for Jon. “Black Flag” is a great track instrumentally, though poorly titled, but loses its edge with cringy pirate lyrics. Maybe taking a hint from Alestorm? Most tracks are just completely forgettable because they have boring choruses that fill out most of the song. It’s like they just copy and paste this shit. I hope you liked “When The Eagle Cries” because most of the album is written exactly like that song. Finally, there’s the track that takes the cake for filler. The closing track, “Clear The Way” (another damn Civil War song), has not ONE, not TWO, but THREE, THREEEEEEEE BAGPIPE INTERLUDES! THREE!!! It’s a real shame too because this song takes some risks and ends up being one of the better tracks on the album spare the completely pointless bagpipes.
And then there’s Stu Block. This dude is the most talented vocalist Iced Earth has ever had. He has the range, the attitude, and the look. He is one of the greatest vocalists of all time. Unfortunately, since being in Iced Earth, Stu, either by instruction from someone higher up or by his own fruition, has been doing an extremely convincing Matt Barlow impression. Seriously, listen to Horror Show, then listen to this, then listen to the intro to “The Veil”. The dude is clearly putting on and hiding his own real vocal identity. We don’t want Matt. We want Stu Block.
There are a handful of great tracks on this album. “Seven Headed Whore” and “Defiance” have absolutely amazing vocal performances and all the fire and rage of classic Iced Earth. The band has not completely lost their way. Further, the lead guitar work, courtesy of Witherfall’s Jake Dreyer (who wrote a way better American power metal record this year), is the best I’ve heard from Iced Earth in a while. Hopefully, Jake sticks around.
Overall, not all hope is lost for Iced Earth, but it is hanging on by a thread. The band seems to be playing safe and boring spare a few great tracks. Let’s hope that the next album in 4 years, Something Wicked Part 666 – The Wrath of the Setians (Fuck The British) will be better.