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Enter The Nightmare - 88%

Nosrac1691, November 19th, 2011

Well, here it is. “Dystopia,” Iced Earth’s tenth studio recording, is the first to feature Into Eternity vocalist Stu Block and bassist Freddie Vidales, continuing the band’s long revolving door tradition. However, Block aside, the lineup featured on this album has been touring together since 2008, making this incarnation road tested and not thrown together for the album. Main man Jon Schaffer had promised almost a year before “Dystopia” was released that the album would mark a return of sorts for the group. Schaffer stated that he just wanted a kickass metal album, devoid of the pomposity that can be found on the previous two Something Wicked albums. After listening to “Dystopia” several times, I believe Shaffer delivered on his promise. What we have here is an Iced Earth “theme” album that follows no direct storyline, but dabbles in dystopian themes, much like Horror Show with horror films and stories and The Glorious Burden with history. It should be noted that the opener and closer, “Dystopia” and “Tragedy and Triumph,” respectively, are written in Schaffer’s Something Wicked storyline, though in a more succinct and less direct way. Not all songs follow the theme, particularly the ballads “Anguish of Youth” and “End of Innocence,” which by no means are any less dark as both songs deal with death in two very different ways.

“Dystopia” is an Iced Earth album that, at long last, brims with energy and aggression. I am one of those people who think the two Something Wicked albums sounded, for the most part, tired and worn down. It was almost like Schaffer and company were at last growing weary after firing off incredibly solid albums throughout the ‘90s and into the new millennium. The title track contains more venom and energy than albums eight and nine put together, with the hyper speed picking that was Schaffer’s trademark through the ‘90s. Block introduces himself with an agonized scream and really attacks the song, from his newfound midrange style, to a fascinating bridge comprised of high parts, and a cleaner and melodic chorus. Next up is the extremely melodic “Anthem,” a simply played song with possibly the biggest chorus on the album. These first two songs have cleverly been sequenced to showcase the two separate ages of Iced Earth. “Dystopia” embodies the speedier and angrier first age of the band’s existence, while “Anthem” demonstrates the best of the simpler power metal they have been putting out the last ten years. Played back to back, the two songs are a wonderfully memorable moment from the album.

I would not call any one track filler on this release, though “V” is an oddity in the Iced Earth catalogue. Curious riffing, several vocal parts, and “stand and fight” lyrics propel a song that is over before you know it, though speed is never emphasized. The album does include two other short songs that are of the neck-snapping variety, with “Boiling Point” in particular showcasing Block’s skills of transitioning from mid-range to high vocals to a call-and-response vocal pattern. The other, “Days of Rage,” was completely written by Jon Schaffer and strongly recalls to mind “Violate” from 1996’s The Dark Saga, though the midsection is a departure that puts bassist Freddie Vidales and Stu Block in the spotlight. Even if it is similar to “Violate,” “Days of Rage” stands apart due to Block’s “almost death metal but not quite” vehement vocal performance. This is a song that could really get a mosh pit going in the live setting. My favorite song is probably “Dark City,” about the film of the same name, which features (again) a great performance by Block and is a nod to Schaffer’s love of the music of Iron Maiden, with twin guitar harmonies driving the last half. “Equilibrium” slows things down a bit like only a crunch Iced Earth mid-pace track can and it certainly doesn’t hurt that is contains one of the best choruses on the album.

The album ends with two strange songs, especially considering that this is Iced Earth. “End of Innocence” is a ballad that, at times, feels almost like an alternative rock song, though that feeling quickly vanishes during the chorus and you are left with no doubt what band you are listening too. The song contains heartfelt lyrics by Block about his mother’s fight with cancer. It’s during moments like this that I am pleased that Schaffer, after dominating the writing for the previous three studio albums, has let someone else in his writing circle. Unheard of for any previous Iced Earth release, Stu Block is actually credited with contributing lyrics to eight of the ten songs. While he did contribute to the closer, “Tragedy and Triumph,” the song is mainly Schaffer’s and is a return to the Something Wicked world found on the opening title track. This is a surprisingly positive song for Iced Earth, with lyrics depicting a revolt and emancipation from the harsh environment from “Dystopia.” The song is one of the harder ones to get into, though it does make sense from a closer standpoint. When it is all said and done, Iced Earth’s tenth studio album is easily the best since 2001’s “Horror Show.”

That being said, I do have two major complaints with this album. The first complaint is more of a matter of preference, which is that I am greatly disappointed that “Dystopia” features no epic song. I feel that Jon Schaffer has always done his best writing in the form of epics, be it “Dante’s Inferno,” “Damien,” or the Gettysburg Trilogy. The running time for “Tragedy and Triumph” is misleading, as the actual song lasts just barely over six minutes, which is then followed by a minute of silence and a humorous drunken chant by the band. Most songs on the album are in the four to five minute range, so I feel that an eight minute destroyer really could have lifted the album to a higher plain. My second complain is a lyrical matter, as I think too many songs attempt to depict a character or group overcoming repression and finding freedom. “Dystopia,” “V,” “Dark City,” “Equilibrium,” and certainly “Tragedy and Triumph” all contain at least one character vowing to resist and fight the enemy. This lyrical choice is fine and there is nothing at all wrong with it, but I think it was emphasized a little too much. If I had been around Jon Schaffer’s house when he was writing the album, I would have challenged him to write a completely hopeless song in a dystopian world. Given his well-known political stances, was Schaffer afraid to write a song that would evoke the utmost feelings of desperation and finality? Either way, I believe he should have written one. What could be scarier than been offered a glimpse into a dystopia that includes no uprisings or heroes, but only the ultimate enslavement of good at the hands of evil? Sometimes it is the horror tales that affect people more than the ones with a happy ending.