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Voltaire once said “Anything that is too stupid to be said is sung”, and with a healthy amount of stupid music being churned out through the course of history along side better artistic endeavors, it is quite easy to sympathize with his point. However, closer scrutiny visited upon that quote will reveal that those things which are sung do not necessarily have to be stupid, and can just as often be quite true and relevant. Such is the story of many musicians who put their various protests against injustice, corruption and lies to song. Counted among these individuals is the once politically indifferent lover of fictional storytelling and power/thrash guitarist Jon Schaffer, whose various works under the Iced Earth banner have been the subject of much attention since bursting out of the Florida scene in the late 80s.
Arguably the beast that would become Sons Of Liberty was born out of “The Glorious Burden”, as it revealed a songwriter becoming enthralled with historical writings and literature, but what emerges here is something quite different, and very appropriately placed under a different name. Musically, it is just as characteristic of Schaffer’s recent “Something Wicked” 2 part series and the latter of the 2 Demons And Wizards offerings, containing all the stylistic trappings he’s been displaying since the mid 90s in a somewhat more refined capacity. But when faced with not only the lyrics, but the structural presentation of the entire album, imagery of the best political protests songs of the late 60s and early 70s emerge, but fitted into the metal genre and bolstered with enough narrations and sampled political speeches to make Dave Mustaine blush.
Everything about “Brush-Fires Of The Mind” caters to the message contained within, from the simplistic songwriting and plain presentation, to the way everything has been mixed together. In spite of the use of programmed drums, this listens like anything but a mechanical album, and exhibit’s a looseness and freedom that is more often associated with hard rock. The riffs are primarily what anchor this album and maintain a metallic edge to things, although the thrash influences are a bit more toned down and the guitar conforms itself to an only occasionally dominant capacity, in contrast to the vocals and the narrations, which conquer the entire arrangement when present. A good amount of this owes to the vocal tracking being a good bit louder than anything in Iced Earth’s history, and Schaeffer confirmed in several interviews that this was done intentionally to give the lyrics greater prominence.
Be all of this as it may, what ends up being realized here is a solidly enjoyable slab of metal. One listen to the galloping majesty of “Jekyll Island”, which conjures up images of the faster and more exciting parts of the “Something Wicked” series, and the riff happy but slower epic “Tree Of Liberty” should properly sate any desire left in most Iced Earth fans for accursed yet melodic anthems about evil since the somewhat disappointing “The Crucible Of Man”. The presentation is a bit more bare bones here, lacking any keyboard detailing and only occasionally using backing vocals for any purpose aside from gang chorus moments, but it gets the job done nicely. Other songs that are a bit shorter in scope such as “Don’t Tread On Me” and “Indentured Servitude” accomplish a more angst driven variant on Schaffer’s retro-power metal meets “Black Album” grooving, but are also quite entertaining with or without all of the politically charged sound bits filtering in and out.
Perhaps the most impressive part of this album is how Jon manages a solid vocal presence, in spite having a fairly smaller vocal range than any of the lead vocalists that he’s worked with in the past. He’s done a number of lead vocal slots in the past with Iced Earth, but most of it consisted of rhythmic shouts, spoken narrations and melodies consisting of 3 or 4 notes. But at differing points on here he seems to be invoking tendencies towards Barlow‘s dense operatic baritone, while at others he almost accomplishes a sort of middle ground between Hansi Kursch and Ripper. Naturally he lacks the overt largeness of the former and the massive high ranges of the latter 2, but the character of his voice proves to be fairly apt at maintaining a level of intrigue within a vocal range that would normally be associated with Tom Araya after he stopped doing high screams.
The area where Jon’s surprising versatility really comes into play is on the 2 ballads found on here. The rather serene and introspective “The Cleansing Wind” is a unique beast in comparison to most of his catalog, bearing a slight resemblance to some work done with Demons And Wizards, but having slightly more of a folk song character. The lyrical testimony of Jon’s conversion away from conventional politics and the present paradigm while alone in the picturesque land of South America is heartfelt, almost akin to a confession of a man living out Plato’s “Cave Allegory”. “Our Dying Republic” is more of a catchy song in the tradition of “When The Eagle Cries” and “A Charge To Keep”, though with more of a protest song feel. Jon’s ability to go from a melancholy tone to an aggressive one is on full display here, conjuring up heavy comparisons to Barlow’s work on various Iced Earth ballads.
The greatest strength of this release can also be viewed as its greatest weakness, and that is the overt forwardness of the message it carries. Some albums are subtle enough to make tuning out the lyrical themes or simply putting them in the background possible, but subtlety isn’t how an album like this works. It’s the sort of album that will likely either revolt the listener with a divergent opinion to the point that he’ll utterly hate it, or plant seeds that will eventually grow into a change of mind. There’s really no room for compromise here, even for die-hard Iced Earth fans who can’t get enough of Jon’s songs yet are philosophically on the opposite end of where he’s coming from here. But for those who tend towards this way of thinking, this could definitely function as a gateway into appreciating Jon’s other projects, and perhaps even a gateway into heavy metal for those who aren’t into it yet are drawn to this album’s message.
Though this album was first circulated in late 2009 for the promotion of Jon Schaffer’s newfound interest in political activism and paleo-conservative/classical liberal politics, it should be treated as a 2010 album as it was first released in finalized form just recently. It is a testament to the changing political dynamics of the world that this album has been given major label backing and will probably enjoy wide consumption in both America and Europe. It is ruthlessly uncompromising and will probably turn many people off, but it is a solid musical effort, roughly on par with IE’s “Framing Armageddon” in overall quality. But if one is politically inclined and is not familiar with Schaffer’s lengthy repertoire, “Brush-Fires Of The Mind” could be the place to get started.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on July 24, 2010.