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This one certainly came as a surprise upon it's initial release. Jon Schaffer was, after all, in the middle of an extended break from all things Iced Earth when, out of the blue and with little fanfare, there was all of a sudden a 9-song collection available for free download from his new side band, Sons of Liberty. Mr Schaffer apparently had something of an epiphany while on his travels and, after a bit of research has come to the conclusion that the whole of the modern world – right down to the endless wars and collapsing economies - is under the control of a cabal of shady bankers pulling the strings from behind the scenes, with the politicians no more than a front to keep anyone from noticing what’s really going on. Phew.
When you think on it, Schaffer probably was the sort of person susceptible to these sort of new world order conspiracy theories – his career-arcing ‘Something wicked’ story after all was one of Machiavellian scheming on a colossal, millennium spanning scale, and when you add his well documented ultra-patriotism and a global financial collapse into the equation, it's no real surprise that 2 and 2 were added together to get a number completely off the charts.
The most startling thing of the whole enterprise though is how good most of it actually is on a musical level; certainly a vast improvement on the lacklustre ‘The crucible of man’, Schaffer’s passion for his new cause without doubt transfers quite audibly into the music and a fire that was in danger of snuffing itself out in recent years seems to be well and truly raging again. I’m no political analyst, so rather than snickering at how cracked the unifying theme of the songs seems to be, I’ll be focusing on the musical side of things in this review.
After the dogged staleness of the last Iced Earth CD – something that had been gradually creeping into Schaffer’s writing for most of the new millennium - ‘Brush-fires of the mind’ is a serious breath of fresh air for Iced Earth fans sick of interlude-heavy concept pieces. Musically, you could of course pick it out as Schaffer’s work a mile off, but while the originality may be in somewhat short supply, there is an energy bubbling below the surface of most of these songs that hasn’t been heard from him in some time.
With Schaffer recording almost the whole thing himself (yes the drums are programmed, but you’d never notice), there is something of a shock in store - where did he find that voice? The growling bellow on “Stormrider” and the crooning on “A blessing or a curse?” were very serviceable, but the performance he puts in here is unbelievable for a man who has never attempted anything on this scale before. What is obvious is either how much Matt Barlow’s style has rubbed off on his band-mate over the years, or how much influence Schaffer’s writing has on the vocalist in his main band, as some of the similarities of inflection are quite uncanny. Schaffer lacks the ginger giant’s astounding range of course, but makes up for it in a dedicated display that is by turns powerfully emotional and scathingly furious.
Another nice surprise is the quality of the solos after the derth on 'Cricuble', provided by long-time producer Jim Morris and Iced Earth bandmate Troy Seele. Indeed, the sparkling solo that bursts out of nowhere on the opening “Jekyll Island” immediately calls for you to sit up and listen, and also to wonder exactly why there has been such a shortage of this sort of thing on the last couple of CDs from Schaffer's main band. The man himself sadly still shys away from lead duties, which is a bit of a shame since a highly personal side-project like this may have been the perfect time to show us what he's got.
Despite this, you shouldn't go in expecting a full-on return to galloping power/thrash, as the songs mostly sit just above or below midtempo, but if you can get past that sort of disappointment there is a mostly very strong collection of songs here built on intense, constantly pounding rhythms. There is only one full-blown ballad too, which will no doubt come as a surprise to some. Iced Earth tend to get panned for their softer songs, but “Our dying republic” sits comfortably with recent efforts like “A charge to keep” and “Hollow man”, so it will be down to the individual listener as to whether or not that is good news. Some of the songs in the middle don’t quite hit the heights, but the opening pairing of “Jekyll Island” and “Don’t tread on me” are both excellent pieces of work, and things are rounded off in similarly inspired fashion too.
The only problem with ‘Brush-fires of the mind’ that becomes a serious annoyance is the heavy reliance on samples and quotations shoehorned between –and sometimes stamped over the top of – the songs. The first half suffers the most, with almost every song being sandwiched between long, long sections of no music, much in the same way Riot sabotaged a near-masterpiece with ‘The privilege of power’. The good thing is that, with the whole project intially being available as a digital product only, the more impatient listener is free to chop up the mp3s as they see fit to get rid of these segments (and I’ll be honest, that’s exactly what I did) and create a far more flowing and uninterrupted work.
When the spoken segments actually interfere with the songs themselves it becomes more of a problem, and “Indentured servitude” without doubt suffers the most. The endless lining up of political figures saying “new world order” eventually swamps the song completely, and doesn’t disguise the fact that it is essentially riding the same riff to its protracted conclusion. A shame really, as a very nice solo gets lost in the mix there. I understand this whole project is essentially a platform for a greater message, but from the humble metal fan’s point of view, I’d have preferred the entire midsection be ditched in favour of a big beasting thrash break.
This sort of thing eases off in the 2nd half though, and there is a more unexpected between-song interlude later on where Schaffer has his Bob Dylan moment, playing a protesting street musician chanting a simple, hypnotic mantra (that later turns out to be the chorus of the closing track) over a twanging acoustic guitar.
The other surprise moment is the penultimate “Cleansing winds”, a Latin-hued bit of relaxing wonderment no doubt inspired by the trip to South America credited with sparking this whole musical journey off. A real oddball, but quite a successful experiment rich with acoustic chiming and tinkling piano accompaniment. The heaviness is brought back for the closing “We the people”, a real highlight that brings things to a storming close. Faster than most of the songs, and blessed with a really powerful chorus, it even gets a way with a pretty silly ‘warning’ speech delivered by Schaffer to the world’s leaders, somehow managing to sound inspiring in spite of it all.
The title of this collection of songs, ‘Brush-fires of the mind’ indicates the intention to inspire a wave of free thinking burning in the minds of its listeners. Now I don’t know about all that, but the new fire that seems to be burning in Jon Schaffer’s creativity zone is good enough for me. Sons of Liberty is not only quite the success in its own right, but also gives hope that Iced Earth aren’t quite done yet either.
(Originally written for http://www.metalcdratings.com/)