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A letter to Jon Schaffer - 87%

Agonymph, November 2nd, 2011

Dear Jon Schaffer,

When I was 13 years old - there's no need to deny this - I worshipped you and 'Alive In Athens' was my gospel. Hearing that live album was a revelation for me. Maybe this is kind of hard to realize for someone who isn't into the band, but Iced Earth was like nothing I had ever heard before. The combination of the blazingly fast and crunchy guitar riffs, powerful vocals beyond belief and adventurous songwriting really blew me away. Iced Earth brought me what the logo suggested I'd find: a more pointy version of Iron Maiden.

As a result, I digested everything Iced Earth put out as if it was cake. And even now, being 25 and able to put things a little more into perspective, the appeal your music had for me hasn't faded. Okay, some things have changed. No longer do I see 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' as the ultimate high point of artistic vision ever unleashed upon man. I do, however, still lose my mind over many an Iced Earth song and I still rank the best of them among my favorite songs of all time.

One of the things that put my faith in your ability to write killer Metal songs to the test was the first decade of this century. 'Horror Show' was a killer album, but the subsequent records were less satisfactory. Although I am a massive fan of his vocals, I find it too easy to blame the departure of Matthew Barlow for that. I must admit that I never found Tim Owens the right singer for Iced Earth, but it isn't his fault that to this day, listening to 'The Glorious Burden' is a torturous experience. Being European, I think part of the message of that album is lost upon me, but I also find the album to be too pompous and overblown.

In addition, I still don't know if spreading the whole 'Something Wicked'-storyline over two albums was such a good idea. Although the 'Framing Armaggeddon' and 'Crucible Of Man' records do have their moments, they're albums I hardly ever put on again, because the excessive length of these albums completely lacks the tension and punch that the original 'Something Wicked' trilogy - which I still regard as one of the highlights of your compositional oeuvre - did have.

However, these last few years, there have been a few developments that made me very hopeful about the forthcoming - and now finally released - studio album 'Dystopia'. First of all, there seems to be a stable lineup, with lead guitarist Troy Seele and returning rightful heir to the drumming throne Brent Smedley have been there for several years and bassist Freddie Vidales, with possibly the best right hand of any Iced Earth bassist, appears to be a very stable addition to the lineup as well. Also, you seemed more focused than ever in recent interviews. It gave me the idea that you were really just interested in writing a bunch of powerful Metal tunes and make a great album again. Now the only uncertainty that was left was the new singer.

To start out with the latter: Stu Block is a revelation. Beforehand, I doubted if he was the right choice, since I really like his work with Into Eternity, but the clean vocals made me think he was a bit too "light" for the power of Iced Earth's music. This Stu Block, however, is a whole different beast than the Stu Block in Into Eternity. This Stu Block has a range I have never heard of him before. A strong, proud and versatile set US Power Metal pipes that have exactly the edge that Iced Earth's music requires. He has Matt Barlow's sense of expression, Tim Owens' Halfordian screams and an impressive range that allows you to experiment a little more with the choirs you seem to have been increasingly equipping since your first collaboration with Hansi Kürsch on the Demons & Wizards debut. Stu Block is definitely a redeeming factor on 'Dystopia'.

Blaming only Stu Block for the euphoria that 'Dystopia' unleashed within me would be too easy though. Fact is that you have written your best album since 'Something Wicked This Way Comes'. There's a decent slab of pure American Heavy Metal on this album instead of excessively dabbling in the theatricality of the last ten years (although the album's weakest track 'Anthem' is borderline). Those people who have listened to the exclusive online airing of the album's title track have heard the return of the Iced Earth I fell in love with over a decade ago. Powerful, punishing riffs, a strong chorus and a cool structure and - I'm sorry, but I do have to stress this again - great vocals.

'Dystopia' even exceeds my expectations. For instance, the fantastic dark epic 'Dark City' even harkens back to the debut album a little with its Iron Maiden-like build-up in tension and that similar "Iron Maiden's heavier brother" vibe prevails in 'Equilibrium'. 'V' is the Metal anthem that 'Stand Alone' was years ago. There's even two scorching Thrash Metal tunes in the shape of 'Boiling Point' and 'Days Of Rage' that are brilliant. Where have you been hiding these riffs for so long? Even the ballads 'Anguish Of Youth' and 'End Of Innocence' are good. Stu's take on the vocals threw me off a little in the beginning, because I am - and always will be - addicted to Matt Barlow's delivery of the power ballad (you have to admit, his vocals on 'The Clouding' were much better than Owens'), but he does an amazing job and save for those who weren't too much into your ballads into the first place, I don't see any reason for any Iced Earth fan not to like these.

Initially, I had my doubts about 'Tragedy And Triumph' as the closing track of the album. Not that it's a bad track, but the remarkably more positive vibe that the music breathes just seemed a bit of an anticlimax to me. After having listened to this album at least another fifteen times, I can only realize this song is like the victorious salvation after being oppressed for so long, with oppression being a theme I feel is central to the album. It still isn't one of my favorite tracks on the album - 'Dark City', 'Iron Will', 'Dystopia' itself and the two Thrashers are - but you were right: it is the only justified closer to this album.

Mr. Schaffer, I welcome you back to where you have been needed for far too long: the highest regions of American Heavy Metal. If you will try and retain this level of songwriting for at least another couple of years, I will go out and urge people to buy the limited edition of this album, as it includes two of the best songs that are actually on the album. 'Soylent Green' is one of those powerful semi-epics that only you can write - okay, strictly speaking Troy Seele has co-written the song, but I think you get my point - and 'Iron Will' is a downright brilliant piece of melodic Heavy Metal with an amazing chorus lifted to an even higher level by Stu's vocals and Troy's part shred, part-raw bluesy emotion guitar solo.

And just for the record: Freddie Vidales and Brent Smedley are the best rhythm section you have ever had. These guys are rock solid and almost sound as if they are one combined entity together.

It's been a long time since a new Iced Earth record caused such sheer euphoria upon hearing it for the first time and honestly, I never thought I ever would again, but I'm glad you have proven me wrong. Let's just forget about the last ten years and move on. You deserve it, your fans deserve it and the music you have written for 'Dystopia' most definitely deserves it.

It's good to have you back.