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Empyreal, January 4th, 2016

I used to really hate Iced Earth. Looking back, I think a lot of it was just because I was getting into all these really cool, badass underground bands that had tangential similarities - bands like Tad Morose, Angel Dust and Morgana Lefay, to name three prominent ones. I remember just listening to those bands and then coming back to the better-known Iced Earth and going "how is THIS the one that got popular?" Their music just came off as so enervated and simplistic compared to the other bands that initially captivated me back in those days. I still think Iced Earth is a pretty bad band, but honestly, is redneck right-winger power metal ripping off Metallica and Iron Maiden really much to get mad about?

I don't think so. But Dystopia is still a piece of shit.

This is supremely boring, cliche tough-guy crap in the mode of bands like Avenged Sevenfold or Disturbed so far as the attitude goes - it's all loud for the sake of being loud, angry for no real reason like a teenager, with super processed-sounding guitars and lots of forced anthemic choruses that all sound alike. The music is less like that - there are at least real metal riffs here, and some of them are pretty good. But the songwriting is nothing but rampant cliche running wild like a drunken rhino - all verse-chorus-verse-chorus, and without the charm or style to keep you interested. They can get a good thrashy groove going, and songs like "Anthem" or "Boiling Point" are professionally written and tight but neither one is exactly great or anything. It's agreeable in the way that 55-year-olds who liked Metallica in the 80s could nod their heads to and go yeah, that reminds me of the classics I vaguely remember. But if your best claim to fame is that your music could be pleasant in the background of a shitty cigarette-smelling, Bud Light-swilling dive bar, that isn't really something to brag about.

As the album moves into its second half, the songs just get more and more faceless and forgettable, just blurs of over-processed thrash riffing and choruses digitally layered up so much that any emotion that would be there would be suppressed as if by a thick blanket. But don't worry, there's no emotion here. Just pandering. New singer Stu Block sounds okay when he tries to imitate Matt Barlow, but the forced Halfordesque Painkiller screaming on the title track sounds lame as hell, and the trite tough guy thrash-styled vocals keeping rhythm with the chunking guitars and battering drums are pretty dull, too. He just goes all over the map basically trying to sound like the past Iced Earth singers, which is why this sounds so soulless and pre-processed. He's got no identity of his own.

Oh, except for the whiny college-rock acoustic-guitar-guy-at-a-party vocals on the ballads "Anguish of Youth" and "End of Innocence," replete with sappy melodies and lame clean guitars, because hey, they can do two whole styles, it's diverse now. I didn't really think Iced Earth would find new ways to suck ass, but they did surprise me with those two! They're only recommended for those of you who don't think your wardrobe has enough plaid flannel in it.

Everything sounds blunt and dumb, and the songwriting is extremely shallow on all levels. If all you want is loud, thrashy riffs, you might be satisfied with this, but there's zero substance here, nothing but wading-pool-deep emotions tailored to kids who want something rebellious but not actually of substance, thoughtful or mature, which are all important things when considering rebelliousness. To be fair, I'm not sure Iced Earth really wanted to be deep on here. But the feelings the music evokes are broad, overly simplistic and don't come off as genuine. Between the formulaic songwriting, the bad vocals and the abundance of tired cliche, this sounds like music made as a job, just pushed out like on a conveyor belt. It's a manufactured, plastic kind of metal made to put the cover art on T-shirts.

There's so little energy in this music that doesn't come off as contrived, created because someone else would find it appealing. Where the classic bands - and good bands of today - sounded full of life, bursting with energy and standoffish gusto, Iced Earth is predictable and rote now, a parody of themselves, and they cover that up by getting louder and more overtly comic book-ish. The ideas get smaller and less creative, and the surface aesthetics get more glossy, more cartoonish and louder. All the distorted guitars in the world and all the layered stadium-ready choruses in the world can't cover the deficient songwriting. It's McDonalds metal, safe and easy to consume, but not good for you and not particularly worthwhile. Iced Earth back in the 90s were inconsistent at best, but they at least sounded like they meant it on Burnt Offerings and Night of the Stormrider, the latter of which I never even cared for. By comparison this is basically (in spirit, if not sound) disposable radio rock with heavier riffs than usual.

Oh sure, it's definitely real metal so far as the music goes, it's not at all a diversion from the genre - but being metal is exactly why this is so safe and annoyingly commercial. Metal is mainstream right now. This is the most acceptable, palatable form of metal there is. Being metal and playing metal riffs alone isn't edgy at all anymore, especially not for bands on Nuclear fucking Blast. Being metal is only as good as the songs you write, and Iced Earth phone it in hard here. It's ironic that I'm saying that playing metal means they're basically selling out and playing it super safe, but there you go. Dystopia sucks and is a soulless, vapid, boring experience, but I'm sure there's a cool T-shirt out there with the album art on it.