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Originally written for the Riff Repository (http://riffrepository.awardspace.com/).
Overture of the Wicked is the first single of the highly anticipated new concept album from Iced Earth, Framing Armageddon (Something Wicked Part I). Overture serves as both a teaser for upcoming material and a reminder of the story arc that is occuring both through the new album and the one to follow it. As the sub-title of its parent album would imply, the lyrical themes contained on Overture are a continuation from 1998's Something Wicked This Way Comes, chronicling the story of the character Set Abominae. In fact, Overture of the Wicked contains the entire "Something Wicked" trilogy - the last three songs from the album of the same name - completely redone and rerecorded.
Similar to what Jon Schaffer did with the earlier Iced Earth recordings on Days of Purgatory, having Matt Barlow re-record the vocals from songs off of the first two albums, Tim Owens does on Overture of the Wicked. I'd usually be one of the first to say that Matt Barlow was completely unique and irreplaceable and that Tim Owen's voice is not very well-suited, if too generic, for Schaffer's material. The Glorious Burden was, in my opinion, a very mediocre effort for an Iced Earth album, and could've possibly been much better had Barlow provided the vocals.
It seems as though on Overture however, Schaffer and co. have had a return to form of sorts. Maybe it's that the lyrical content is once again of the more fanatasy-oriented variety. Maybe it's because three songs are ones I'm very familiar with and have been creatively reimagined. Maybe it's because Owens has become more accustomed to singing in a style better suited for the music. Whatever the case is, I can say that "The Ripper's" voice actually does not bother me and, dare I say it, is enjoyable. Matt Barlow he is not, but Tim Owens puts on a great performance on the songs contained in Overture's four tracks, eschewing his usual falsetto pitch for the occasional mid-range shout more reminiscent of his predecessor. Some might consider the redoing of such songs with Owens as somewhat blasphemous to Barlow's legacy, but I feel he does the songs justice. The only thing I will say is that there is a lot more effects and self-harmonizing going on in the vocal tracks, something that Barlow did not employ much, begging the question: can Owens' voice stand on its own?
Musically, the album is chock full of riffs and other artistic touches. While the only new song is 'Ten Thousand Strong', which reminds of me of a kind of hybrid of Jugulator-era Priest with a Glorious Burden-esque chorus, the true masterwork is done on the redux of Something Wicked's trilogy. The first thing that stuck out to me was the clarity of the sound. The production going on here is superb. Fidelity aside, the music itself has never sounded better. Schaffer has always been a machine on rhythm guitar, and continues to have a dexterous right hand, but is now complimented by Brent Smedley's syncopated drumming; his bass drums actually match Schaffer note for note!
It's hard to give creativity points for rehashing old material, but the songs are chock-full of extras. It's difficult to say whether or not they are 'better' than their original counterparts; the word I would use is 'different', though the sound quality is undoubtedly better (it's been ten years since the original). However, there's a lot of little atmospheric effects going on here and there, such as a sitar and bongo section to give 'Prophecy' a more eastern feel at times. To that end, some guitar solos and leads are also notably different and better executed (see 2:20-2:40ish, 'Birth of the Wicked'). My only complaint about the music is that Schaffer seems to be....slowing down. While there are still plenty of sixteenth-note triplets, it seems that Schaffer has gone to using more simple held-out chords in some sections. Perhaps this was a conscious effort to give the passage a different flavor.
The band is in top form and has never sounded cleaner, more articulate, or more creative than this. If this is any indication of the quality of Framing Armageddon, my expectations have been raised.