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Lurking behind the shadows of Iced Earth’s impressive stint as late purveyors of thrash metal with a melodic edge in the early 90s is “Enter The Realm”, a literal blueprint of what would become most of the band’s greatest works, and also a very impressive demo by late 80s standards. Most of its contents would end up on the self-titled debut, but the overall presentation is very different, all but mirroring the dark, spiritual character of many earlier 80s acts that took to writing creepy thrash as opposed to politically charged, neck-ruining goodness. It presents a band with one foot still firmly placed in the sorrowful melodic character of several relevant early 80s metal acts from Britain, while the other stamps down hard in the post-Metallica Bay Area explosion that was still largely underway at this point in history.
If there is one thing that really makes Iced Earth distinct from most of the thrash metal world, particularly post-1984, it is a glaring lack of punk/hardcore influences. While the hyper-galloping character of Jon Schaffer’s riffs has its origins in the pioneer work of Mustaine and Hetfield, the overall mood and feel, one might argue that the direction taken by this band is a step backward, if progression towards the later extreme metal scene that was also underway by 1989 be the standard. In light of the more NWOBHM influenced material that preceded this under the moniker of Purgatory, it could be safely argued that the Iced Earth institution is more a celebration of metal than a desire to push its boundaries, but the result is still a fine slab of traditionally anchored thrash metal with an eye for pummeling riff work, catchy hooks and a dark atmosphere.
The dichotomy of thrash metal riff work and creepy, 80s occult based darkness is on full display from one song to the next. Perhaps the most blatant example of the latter side of the coin is “Nightmares”, the lone song that didn’t make it onto the subsequent studio debut. It plays off a fairly simple mid-tempo groove and showcases a crunchy set of guitar lines that is somewhat reminiscent of the proto-thrash character of Blitzkrieg and Satan, alongside a vocal job out of Gene Adam that channels elements of King Diamond, Quorthon and Jeff Ulmer. Naturally, shining examples of neck-crunching madness also ensue on “Colors” and “To Curse The Sky”, alongside some brief acoustic ditties with a slight familiarity to what would come to dominate much of the Barlow years in “Enter The Realm” and “Solitude” are to be found here as well, though they also appeared on the debut. However, the presentation here is much more guitar oriented, and lends itself more to the archaic character of 80s thrash that the 1990 incarnation of these songs.
While I have a slight preference for the finalized version of these songs, there is a sort of mystique to these versions that lend themselves to an obligatory listen, especially for fans of older Iced Earth, though a similar case could be made for the general 80s thrash audience. The presence of “Nightmares” alone makes it a worthy listen, but there is also a very different air to this entire demo that separates itself from the rest of the catalog, and the production actually lends itself a bit more to “Night Of The Stormrider” than it does to the album that came immediately after this demo. This is a band that was young and hungry, and though it is still bound by the power/thrash orthodoxy that continues to dominate Jon Schaffer’s songwriting, it’s not watered down to the point of redundancy and lacking in passion.