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You could certainly call me surprised - 78%

Metal_Detector, October 26th, 2011

Iced Earth is one of the most frequently detracted bands in all of the metal kingdom, and a brief glance at their recent discography would make it clear as to why. Whether the burden takes the form of reused (and entirely mediocre) riffs, phoned-in vocals, or the lack of quality songwriting, Jon Schaffer always seems content to release any third rate crap he can while maintaining his unchallenged status of ubiquitous derision. As a result, Iced Earth moved to my 'bands to ignore' list for quite some time; however, my interest was renewed with the announcement that former Into Eternity vocalist Stu Block had joined the group's ranks. A frontman with great range and power, Stu was certain to add some needed youth to this moldy outfit. He has, but that isn't all that makes Dystopia a surprise winner.

Those expecting any significant newfound aggression or technicality to be taken from Stu's other band definitely shouldn't. Aside from some occasional growls and background screeches found seldom within, Iced Earth has changed little either musically or vocally. This house is still built upon simplistic, charging rhythms, gritty pipeworks, and hyper-melodic choruses; the simple difference this time is that those elements actually create a good foundation to build up some music of merit -- no stupid, pointless concept in sight and little bewildering patriotism included, I might add. Stu ranges everywhere from Barlow dead ringer to The product gives off a feeling of conciseness this band has long lacked, even if not every moment is a spectacle of originality and greatness. Dystopia does what it does, and it does what it does well. If one accepts this, than the album is quite enjoyable.

Oh, and the majority of the songs totally rock. The title track proves a suitable opener, overcoming its predictably structured form to spellbound with a chorus that should leave any old fan happy. "Anthem" takes Jon's standard track two position: a slow, anthemic (duh) tune with balladic tendencies. Still, the superb execution helps this one stand out. The first of two sub three minute songs, "Boiling Point" speeds things up a little bit without taking longer than it needs to. "Anguish of Youth" is probably my favorite here, an admittedly cheesy ballad with equally florid lyrics, but I can't help but love it due to a chorus I could only describe as "catchy as fuck." I've gone full days with these goddamn lines coursing through my mind and moving soundlessly over my lips:

"The tragedy still haunts her
The pain she cannot bear
She wants to laugh
She wants to live
Free from a life of despair"

Seriously, those lyrics are borderline awful and this song still has me singing them. "V" doesn't fare badly, either, its simple victory cry piercing straight into your psyche. "Dark City" enters with an eye-rollingly Iron Maiden worshipping intro, but creeps its way through a fitting atmosphere to claim the crown. "Equilibrium" progresses in a similar way to its predecessors, but the formula stays fresh thanks to its particularly puissant energy. The same cannot be said for "Days of Rage," a workmanlike, heavy-for-heaviness's-sake trial whose short length can't even save it. "End of Innocence" is a nice reprieve from that brainless debauchery, almost (but not quite) topping Symphony X's track of the same name. As usual, Iced Earth rounds it all out with an epic. "Tragedy and Triumph" isn't up to code, however, offering too little musical payoff to make up for its shopworn lyrical themes this time around. It's an overlong, lame closer to an otherwise great album.

Still, Dystopia is finally something to be proud of. There are melodic hooks to be found almost everywhere across this wartorn battlefield, and in the end, Iced Earth win a noticeably decisive battle. Eliminate some of the dumber lyrics and irrelevant "heavier than thou" moments and we could be talking about an even greater beast right now. There are numerous entries in the genre I would place ahead of Dystopia this year, but if you can tear yourself away from Tales of the Sands, Iconoclast, or Heavenly Ecstasy for a few minutes, I think Iced Earth's latest offering is well worth a few listens; and it's about damn time.