A new singer and a welcome return to form
When vocalist Matt Barlow rejoined the ranks of Iced Earth in 2007 after a four year absence, I couldn’t help but feel that the reunion wouldn’t be a long one. And not surprisingly, within four years, and after one album (2008’s rather patchy The Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part 2), Barlow decided to step down from the front man role, leaving many fans shaking their heads at what appeared to be a never-ending downhill slide for Iced Earth.
But no sooner had Barlow bowed out, guitarist/backing vocalist/group mastermind Jon Schaffer announced his replacement in Into Eternity vocalist Stu Block. Given the progressive/melodic death metal sound of Into Eternity, the departure of Barlow for a second time and the less than impressive previous efforts with vocalist Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens at the helm (2004’s The Glorious Burden and 2007’s Framing Armageddon: Something Wicked Part 1), the odds of Iced Earth redeeming themselves with an album that matched their former classic were definitely not in their favour.
But, lo and behold, with Dystopia, Iced Earth (who now comprise of Block, Schaffer, lead guitarist Troy Seele, bassist/backing vocalist Freddie Vidales and drummer Brent Smedley) has well and truly come back with a vengeance, and produced an album that’s easily the strongest effort since 2001’s Horror Show.
Despite a lengthy military-like start, the opening title track Dystopia sees Iced Earth taking a step back with a sound that echoes the fast paced thrashing power metal sound of their past, but with an added sense of aggression that has been absent from the band’s last three releases. But outside Schaffer’s trademark fast riffing and the tight rhythm Iced Earth section of the present, it’s Block that really steals the show. Incredibly, Block puts in a near perfectly Barlow impersonation on the lower growls, as well as producing the impossibly high screams that Owen was known for. Versatile enough to cover the best of both worlds and still distinctive enough to stand out on his own, Block is nothing short of the perfect front man for Iced Earth.
The slower paced Anthem is deceptive with its ballad-like introduction as it turns out to be a fairly heavy slab of progressive power metal with an infectious anthem-like chorus, while the fast and venomous pair of Boiling Point and Days of Rage are full on thrashing efforts, full of speed and rage. Despite the later pair coming across as the album’s weakest efforts overall, Block’s vocals and Schaffer’s tight knit riffing does at least stand strong compared to the workman-like weaker sounding efforts heard on the band’s last few albums.
While there’s an overall darker lyrical tone throughout Dystopia, as evident in the hard hitting V, the gloriously huge anthem Dark City and the equally impressive Iron Maiden-like galloper Equilibrium. But there’s a sense of optimism in amongst the album’s darker tones, most notably in the semi-acoustic power ballads Anguish of Youth and End of Innocence.
Finishing up the album is Tragedy & Triumph, which is not only the albums longest running track, but also undoubtedly one the albums finest as well. Tragedy & Triumph may not be anything ground breaking from what you would otherwise expect from Iced Earth in the song writing sense, but its sharp riffing, strong melodies and huge sing-a-long choruses are just the kind of thing you want from an Iced Earth anthem.
After some less than stellar efforts and an ever changing line-up over the last decade, it’s great to hear some inspiration within Schaffer’s song writing, and with a front man who’s able to really give the band what it needs on the vocal front. After spending the better part of the last decade merely pretending to be themselves, it’s good to see Iced Earth is finally back.
(Century Media Records/E.M.I. Music Australia)