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ICED EARTH - Plagues of Babylon

Iced Earth was one of the first metal bands I was introduced to, back when I was a scrawny teenage girl trying to figure out what I wanted from music. I developed a passionate relationship with the first album of theirs that I encountered, Horror Show, and have yet really to develop such a relationship with an album of theirs since. While I love The Dark Saga, I Died for You, and A Question of Heaven, I can’t say I ever listen to any other tracks off The Dark Saga (with the occasional exception of The Hunter). Something Wicked This Way Comes has some great tracks, and for the most part, I consider Iced Earth to be an old favorite of mine in spite of the fact that I can’t name nearly as many avorite songs from them as I can by other bands I love. Yet I love Iced Earth and I love their style. I’ve never listened to their older pre-Barlow albums, but their mid-range stuff has always had a special place in my heart. Also, once upon a time I bought a ticket to an Iced Earth meet n’ greet back in Canada (when Matt Barlow was with them) and I found John Schaffer to be one of the nicest men in metal I’ve ever met, and also one of the most appreciative of his fans.

I was also a huge fan of Matt Barlow and I (figuratively) wept for them when they chose Tim “Ripper” Owens as a replacement. He was the Anette Olzon to their Nightwish. But if we’re sticking to that metaphor, I’d consider Stu Block to be their Floor Jansen. Their 2011 album, Dystopia, featured Block for the first time, and it was a perfectly decent first album with some pretty good songs. Block has a solid voice, similar in style to Barlow, yet in songs like the title track, Dystopia, he has a bit of a Halford-style wail that he wasn’t afraid to unleash. I really enjoyed some of the tracks from that album, like Dystopia and Anthem.

So naturally I was curious about what was to come of their second album with Stu Block behind the vocal reins. Plagues of Babylon was released on January 6th, 2014 (in Europe) to mostly positive reviews all around. What did I think of it? Read on to find out.

First off, since I’m big on judging album art, I’m going to start by saying that this was possibly my least favorite of their covers. It’s got the same style of characters that Iced Earth is known for, except with a grim grittiness that I’m not really into. I’ve always really liked their art style, but this one fell a bit short. It’s dark, dirty, and while it may appeal to a different crowd, it doesn’t appeal to me. However, I have never been one to judge an album by its art. On to the music…

The opening track, Plagues of Babylon, portrays just how deeply Iced Earth has been inspired by Iron Maiden. There was a definite Powerslave vibe to this track, a hint of Egyptian sound, and that galloping rhythm that Iced Earth is known for that is very reminiscent of Maiden. All-in-all, it’s a good start to the album.

The fast second track, Democide, didn’t do much to pull me in. However, I’m sure fans of much older Iced Earth might like that track a little more than I did. The Culling, on the other hand, did catch my attention. It has a certain taste of the mid-range Iced Earth that I loved so much (I’m going to say that it feels a bit like Something Wicked). However, when we reach Among the Living Dead, I was expecting to hear the featured voice of Hansi Kürsch, one of my favorite vocalists, and I found it surprisingly lacking. While he is present, he’s very much overpowered by Block and you don’t really get what I would consider to be the full potential of a contribution by him.

Resistance is a rather unusual track based on Iced Earth’s usual style. It’s an interesting change-up for them with that heavy stopping guitar (is there a term for that technique?) and they manage to pull it off and it does offer a little change-up about a third of the way through the album to jolt you out of the sensation of being amidst familiar friends. The End? is a proper Iced Earth epic, and while I don’t think it has quite the spirit of some of their older ones, it certainly shows a lot of Block’s flare and it really seems that he’s come into his place with Iced Earth. While it might not be the pinnacle of their current sound, it certainly shows a lot of future potential for the band.

If I Could See You Now is a true Iced Earth ballad. I won’t say that it topped my old favorites, such as Watching Over Me or even Ghost of Freedom, but it is beautiful and Block shows that he’s able to be more tender when singing as well. Cthulhu is a really interesting track. I liked the gentle introduction – it leads so nicely into the heavier sound that is to come. Plus, bonus points for a Lovecraft-based song. The chorus also really feels like some good old-fashioned Iced Earth.

Peacemaker is a proper heavy, galloping Iced Earth song. I dig it. It’s probably one of the most interesting tracks off the album. It has a little more flare than most of the rest of them. Parasite, on the other hand, was not really within the realms of what I like from Iced Earth. It’s not offensive to my ears, but neither would I choose to specifically listen to this one. Block has a very different sound on Spirit of the Times. As far as ballads go, this is a pretty decent song, but it doesn’t top If I Could See You Now, let alone the older ones. That big part about, “My soul is not for sale,” could’ve somehow been more powerful to me. It doesn’t have that hook, the way Anthem did.

As a final track, Highwayman was a bit of a surprise. It’s certainly a very different track from anything else on the album, focusing less on the prior themes, and acts as a straight-up heavy metal western. It’s an unusual and interesting track, but it’s a bit out of place against the rest of the album. Interestingly, the lyrics of this one weren’t written by Schaffer either. There were guest vocals from Michael Poulsen (Volbeat) and Russell Allen (Symphony X) as well, which resulted in a very unique blend, as that was a rather bizarre combination of voices. But it works – it was definitely an interesting song.

The outro… that was just disappointing. People swearing pointlessly? I would expect more from a band like this. I have no idea why that happened but it seems to serve no purpose whatsoever other than to confuse the listeners.

Overall comments? It is worth noting that in a lot of these tracks, the verses might be a little bit lackluster, but the choruses are often reasonably powerful, and Block does them great service with his passion behind the mic. Also, I wonder if Block was holding back a bit, of his own merit or of Schaffer’s. Either way, those Halford-esque screams that I was praising in Dystopia were entirely absent in this album.

So in conclusion, I like this album. I’d be happy to put it on while I’m working and let it just slide through the background. However, as I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve had a very medium-passionate love for Iced Earth. When they’re good, they’re amazing. When they’re not good, they’re a solid mediocre. The album is a bit closer to the pre-2000s material to the albums I’ve loved. While I do think this is a good album to put on and listen to, I didn’t get properly gripped by any of the songs off it; there wasn’t a lot of oomph and I won’t be calling any of these the best tracks of 2014. However, it is a good album, with a lot of potential, and I hope they keep going up from here!

A final score? I’ll go with a 6.5/10. It’s definitely better than a 6, but I don’t know if it quite deserves a 7.

Text: Amy Wiseman

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