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The Nightmare Unfolds Before My Eyes - 90%

Twisted_Psychology, October 20th, 2012

Originally published at http://suite101.com

Iced Earth has always been infamous for their revolving door band lineup changes but their turnover rates over the last seven years have made it hard to refer to Jon Schaffer’s brainchild as a true band. Factor in the occasionally bland songwriting on their last two albums along with the second departure of fan favorite singer Matt Barlow and you’ve got a group with a very doubtful future. Fortunately the release of Dystopia sees things going in the right direction as it takes a good back to basics approach. It has the shortest track listing since 1996’s The Dark Saga and with the additions of Into Eternity vocalist Stu Block and bassist Freddie Vidales, Iced Earth is starting to feel like a real band again!

Musically, this album could be described as a cross between Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Glorious Burden. The songwriting is quite tight and with a lot of variety, a move that will surely please those who were annoyed by the last two albums’ tendency to focus on interludes and mid-tempo songs. Having said that, this album also has some outside influences that keep it from sounding too much like previous efforts. There are inevitably some tropes pulled from Schaffer’s Sons of Liberty project with the guitars having a similarly bright sound. This is most noticeable on “Dark City” as the song is vaguely similar to “Jekyll Island” though it is made distinct by its battle cry inducing final segment.

Speaking of brightness, the band feels more unified and shows off an overall more solid sound. The guitars show off a lot of prowess and manage to balance the brightness with a ballsy tone. Unfortunately, there is also a rather minimal amount of soloing so the leads don’t get to stand out as much as they could…

Predictably, the vocals are what everyone is talking about. As others have noticed, Block’s performance mostly focuses on a mid-range voice reminiscent of Barlow though he also lets out plenty of Ripper-styled screams. With another album or two under his belt, he could become the new quintessential Iced Earth singer and the perhaps the one best suited for the live environment. He’s also contributed more lyrics to a single release than any other vocalist in the band’s history, a good demonstration of Schaffer’s faith in the new guy.

Speaking of lyrics, this is another one of the band’s concept albums with this theme revolving around oppressive governments, brainwashing, and all the other fun forms of control. But even though most of the songs on here are based on films and other forms of media, there is a intent here that is clearly not too far from the Sons of Liberty mindset. Some will probably be turned off by the borderline tinfoil-hattery, but at least there aren’t any samples…

Fortunately, the focus is still on the music as the songs do offer a great deal of variety. And with everything that is on display, the excellent choruses that can be heard throughout make every song memorable. “Anthem” is a particularly memorable track as its chorus is a truly infectious one and the lyrics actually do a good job of conveying the uncertainty that is commonplace in this day and age. The album also keeps up the band’s tradition of including a few ballads with the two on here being nicely written. “Anguish of Youth” is the more enjoyable of the two with its more upbeat acoustic strums during the verses though “End of Innocence” is notable for its somber theme that appears to be a direct continuation from the subject of death that Block had previously discussed on Into Eternity’s The Incurable Tragedy.

Oddly enough, the faster tracks are what end up being the real mixed bags on the album though there aren’t any bad songs on here by any means. On one hand, the opening title track and the closing “Tragedy and Triumph” do offer some upbeat speeds and great verse/chorus transitions. On the other hand, “Boiling Point” and “Days of Rage” feel too short with their less than three minute durations and really would’ve benefited from some ripping solo sections…

Overall, this album probably would’ve been even better with a bit more of a focus on guitar leads but it manages to be a pretty good effort that goes against the expectations of those who believed the band had nothing left to offer after the loss of Barlow. This is definitely the best Iced Earth since The Glorious Burden was released in 2004, though the folks who weren’t Ripper fans should be able to find some earlier albums to compare this to. But for the first time since that album came out, the band is in a position where the future actually looks bright. Hopefully this lineup can keep things up together for a few more releases, as there is a lot of potential on display from the new blood. So what is this going to mean for Into Eternity, anyway?

Current Highlights:
“Dystopia”
“Anthem”
“Anguish Of Youth”
“Dark City”
“Tragedy And Triumph”