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Album Reviews : Iced Earth – Plagues of Babylon

By on March 6, 2014

While the overarching themes and bleakness behind Plagues of Babylon is interesting, it’s a bit of a shame to see Iced Earth to a degree jumping on the zombie bandwagon for this album. If only for the fact they’re capable of so much more. I mean, here’s a band that have released album after album and song after song chronicling different and fascinating concepts, ranging from an ode to Dante’s Inferno, to a record centred entirely on classic horror movie monsters (aside from that one song about Jack the Ripper), and furthermore to an album focused upon the world of Todd McFarlane’s Image Comics character, Spawn. That’s not even to mention the many great dystopian themed lyrics on the previous album (aptly named Dystopia) and the small group of songs written about films set in dystopic worlds such as Equilibrium and V for Vendetta. It seems to slightly undersell themself when rather than adopting a new idea from the wealth of available material (for example, just off the top of my head, they could do a Horror Show Part II, this time based around 80s slasher villains – just putting it out there now, you read it here first!) they instead opt to go for the theme of the living dead; an idea that has been done to death in recent years, and feels rather like the battering of a dead horse.

With the talents that be in the band, it seems that going for this theme is undercutting the brilliance that is Jon Schaffer. Being the only original remaining member of Iced Earth, it’s clear from the outset that Iced Earth is Schaffer’s baby, and I’m not saying he did a terrible job on this album (because he hasn’t), I only wish he’d chosen something else aside from the slice of Romero-esque horror. I love zombies as much as the next guy, but seriously, how much is enough? It currently saturates every form of media (film, television, and now music).

That gripe aside, I’ve spent the last few days listening over this album. It’s one of those records that’s hard to grasp an immediate viewpoint on from the outset as it’s approached at by many angles; something a bit new and different for the band, who usually tend to adopt either one of two things: melodic heavy metal or speed/thrash. What separates Plagues of Babylon from the many others that have preceded it is for one thing the increased diversity Schaffer has allowed current band frontman Stu Block (on his second outing here). Because, let’s face it, Schaffer is the one who dictates what happens with this band. He made all the rules during Tim “Ripper” Owens short-lived run, and it seemed to be not so different here. At least until now. While I adored Dystopia and thought it served to reinvigorate the band with the new life it needed, it did feel as if the vocals were written with Matt Barlow in mind; the bands original vocalist, and current frontman of Ashes of Ares. As such, while Block gave it his all and still delivered a fine, memorable effort, during the whole time listening through that album in particular, I found myself reminiscing of Into Eternity, the progressive melodeath band Block was in before Iced Earth. And now, don’t get me wrong here. I understand Into Eternity and Iced Earth play two entirely different styles of metal, and that obviously we’re not going to be getting consistent death growls and black metal tinged screeches, it doesn’t mean we cannot at least glean that aspect in the background of songs to heighten the drama and tragedy that flutters throughout Iced Earth’s lyrics – all attributes of which Iced Earth has come to be known for.

It pleases me to no end then that I can say with Plagues of Babylon we have been given just that. Granted, while it’s perhaps more hinted at than anything, that’s understandable enough for a band known mostly for their power/heavy metal style as opposed to death growling. Throughout the record, Block’s excellent vocal range (seriously, if you want an example of this guy’s vocal talent, go check out some of the old Into Eternity songs: especially the likes of “Timeless Winter” and “Time Immemorial”) is explored as the ‘Something Wicked’ saga that began with 1998’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is further expanded upon with the albums first three tracks. And these same vocal changes are also hinted at in other areas as well, such as one of my personal favourites off the album; the Lovecraftian themed track, “Cthulhu”. Ever the source of musical inspiration, the seminal character of some of author H.P. Lovecraft’s most beloved and famous works, “Cthulhu” manages to perfectly channel in the music the brooding and looming darkness that made me fall in love with this band in the first place.

With Set Abominae, the band’s maniacally-faced mascot, gleefully bearing the chains of the dead and diseased, the album begins strongly with tracks like “The Culling” adding another solid number to Iced Earth’s ever-growing repertoire of anthemic, melodic gems; another trait this band is renowned for. This is a song I can’t wait to hear live. Recalling tracks like “V” it just possesses all the perfect ingredients for crowd-band back and forth: melodic, catchy rhythms; soaring, engaging vocals for Block; and a driving melody that can only be further heightened by the unified chanting of ecstatic fans.

While for the most part, “Among the Living Dead”, the song that follows, is quite a headbangable and catchy track it has to be said during the post-chorus part where Block cries out his ominous chant, it feels a tad strained – which for him is surprising. It’s a rather minor complaint though, where the song is actually fairly decent.

“Resistance” and “The End?” feel like low-points, however. The structure of each track feels unusual for them, and while I’m one for experimentation and progression, there are points that just don’t feel like Iced Earth to me. They’re passable tracks and I don’t see them getting much airplay or live renditions outside of the album, to be honest. “If I Could See You” though is a great entry in the bands index of classic tracks, channelling the likes of excellent, mournful songs like “Watching Over Me”, “A Question of Heaven”, and “End of Innocence”. There is such raw, strong emotion weaving its way along the music in this song, and you can’t help but get caught up in the tragedy of its lyrical content.

A few tracks that are interesting to note is “Peacemaker”, followed by the two cover tracks provided on the album: “Spirit of the Times” and “Highwayman”. With “Peacemaker”, the way the track’s constructed, it brings an almost country-Western feel to it; purposefully done as you listen through the lyrics. But it’s just a fascinating and interesting transition for these guys, and something I’d love to see more of actually. Listening through it, it summons images in your mind: for me, of a Jonah Hex sort of deal – the brooding outlaw figure who sweeps into town to clean up the mess before drowning his sorrows in a pool of whiskey. But a man who always has his trusty revolver by his side, his only companion in a painful and unforgiving world.

“Spirit of the Times” seems an interesting choice to cover, as it’s in fact a reworking of an old Sons of Liberty track, one of Schaffer’s side projects where he serves as main vocalist and plays all instruments (with drum programming interspersed on the side). While it may seem a tad self-indulging at first to rework one of your own songs, it’s actually quite a good re-recording of the original track. That being said, however, the changes are rather subtle, and both Jon and Stu’s versions sound just as good as the other if I’m to be frank. “Highwayman” on the other hand is the most interesting, if not unexpected, choice to find itself on the roster for Plagues of Babylon. If the name struck bells for you of Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, then you’re on the right track. This is a cover of the famous track by The Highwaymen (based on the Jimmy Webb original), a country music supergroup from the mid 80s comprising such country legends as Nelson and Cash, as well as Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. This is a fine cover, successfully capturing the power in the music and vocals of the original and never coming across as over-embellished. I’m sure if they were still here to see it now, it would have made members like Jennings and Cash proud.

Even after eleven studio albums, Iced Earth’s style has remained relatively unchanged over the years, and don’t expect Plagues of Babylon to radically change that tradition. That being said, you are in for a solid entry from the band and one that should satisfy a good many people.

Band: Iced Earth
Album: Plagues of Babylon
Year: 2014
Genre: Heavy metal
Label: Century Media
Origin: USA
www.icedearth.com/

Track listing:
1. Plagues of Babylon
2. Democide
3. The Culling
4. Among the Living Dead
5. Resistance
6. The End?
7. If I Could See You
8. Cthulhu
9. Peacemaker
10. Parasite
11. Spirit of the Times
12. Highwayman
13. Outro

About

Jonathon is an aspiring fantasy/sci-fi novelist and music journalist. Thanks to the influence of the music he grew up with, he has always possessed a keen interest in metal and rock. He is also a huge fan of mythology, legend, and folklore from all across the world. You should follow him on Twitter.