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After a break from Iced Earth for a bit, Jon Schaffer found something that got him good n’ motivated again, and actually inspired! The last couple of Iced Earth albums had been overlong and at times dull, with fairly bland riffs that could not be overcome by Ripper and Barlow’s vocal efforts. Though they had some decent songs, and Schaeffer loves his Something Wicked story, they almost felt like they were done as chores. Here we actually get an album that he clearly wanted to do. Musically, it's a pretty nice slab of heavy/power metal. The riffs, which are vaguely reminiscent of the Demons & Wizards self-titled, have some energy and do something different! Gallops and acoustic interludes are not abused! Most of the songs charge ahead! The guitar harmonies are great! The solos are good! Jon bellows out his own vocals on this album, and does them with some real power! Despite his limited range, I had thought from his backing and occasional lead vocals with IE that he wouldn’t be a bad vocalist (at least any worse than many others in metal) on his own, and he shows it here. The drums are also (programmed) by Schaffer, and don’t really stand out, but they do the job. Complimenting him are Ruben Drake to play bass on some songs, and longtime IE producer/occasional guest guitarist Tom Morris and current IE lead guitarist Troy Seele (who did the good solos on Crucible of Man) chip in some solos. The production is Morris, which is decent.
The problems come in the source of the inspiration, Schaffer's music writing habits and also some of the common shortcomings of concept albums. This is of course a concept album about political and financial conspiracy, and an important thing to understand about it is that a quick visit to the project website reveals it’s closely connected to libertarian pundit Alex Jones, the proprietor of a syndicated talk radio show, online newspaper Infowars, and online TV station Prisonplanet. In recent years it appears both Schaffer and Dave Mustaine have gravitated towards him and his noted promotion of conspiracy theories of questionable veracity. The lyrics of this album detail how various international and US financial and political powers are conspiring to carefully craft sequences of world events (the 2008-2009 economic collapse, 9/11, etc) to their own nefarious ends, and it hits you with this message without much subtlety. Granted, many in power do try to game the system to their advantage, and Schaffer rightly rails against this. But the man who once lamented 9/11 and attacked the terrorists on The Glorious Burden sinks to indirectly referencing the 9/11 “Truth” Movement in the song “False Flag” (and directly references Loose Change on the project website). Alex Jones’ concepts get pretty far out there for some of us, like Megadeth’s song “Endgame” about concentration camps in the US. It’s not entirely unexpected; Mustaine’s mistrust of the powers that be has been long apparent, and Schaffer combined IE’s always present anti-authority bent with his hyper-patriotism. However, you’ll quickly see why Schaffer probably created a side project outside IE to deliver this sledgehammer: the message is tough to separate from the music, unlike Megadeth.
Also, this is a Jon Scaffer album and that means a ballad or few. There's three, one good aside from lyric details (the acoustic "Our Dying Republic") and two medicore in vein of "When the Eagle Cries" ("Feeling Helpless?" and "The Cleansing Wind")
Further, while Brush Fires avoids the oft-troublesome transition tracks of concept albums, there are samples in and at transitions at ends of songs- politician quotes, sounds of people marching, etc. They sound pretty cheesey sometimes (a Hitler quote? really?) and break up the momentum a bit. Heck, the whole first minute of "Indentured Servitude" is just a John F Kennedy speech! However, the marching outro of the powerful closer “We the People” is one place where this works. That song almost makes up for the problems elsewhere to make this a good album. Almost.
This really could have been a great album- most of the music kills. If/when Iced Earth gets back to business, this portends well that Jon Schaffer might have some good riffs left. But it exists for a message, and that message may be tough to swallow.