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"The Man from Dystopia" - 75%

doomknocker, November 11th, 2011

‘Twas a sad, sad day when Matt Barlow announced his retirement from Iced Earth. We all knew, deep down, that it was coming, and that the band would survive in one way or another without him (as it had happened before), but the sense of finality was more acute this time around. But for me, what I first felt was a bit of dread; the FIRST time Barlow left the group, we in the listening public had to put up with “Ripper” Owens (the Metal Parrot) and his many attempts at singing, only to be bothered and frustrated in the end…well, at least I felt that way. He was just a bad fit all around. However, those sensations came and went when I sampled a bit of Stu Block’s interpretation of “Dante’s Inferno” (like so many others out there) and was pretty impressed with what he could do. But did that leave me wet in the jowls for the next album to come? Well, not really…but what it DID do was prepare me for the coming landing. If that makes any kind of sense.

Nevertheless, knowing a new album was in the works made me a touch curious, and I stepped towards it rather gingerly, ready for a potential dystopia to come…

Before getting into the part of the album that would no doubt be scrutinized the most (the vocals), I gave the album as a whole a realistic listen. On a songwriting level, “Dystopia” burns and churns with a veritable hellfire the band hasn’t channeled in a while and, the way I’d see it, worked with the best of a bad situation. The problem with most Iced Earth albums these days (not all, mind you) is that Mr. Shaffer usually has about three or four songs’ worth of original material that ends up being stretched to about eleven tracks, if not more, and while this is the case once more with “Dystopia”, it’s made more easily digestible as a result of the group’s actual performance, which is spot on and shows more energy and discretion than they’ve shown in a long time. Taking cues from the chunky, slower trawls of “Framing Armageddon” the choral lushness of “Horror Show”, and even a tiny bit of “Something Wicked…” monstrousness, this shows the band almost at the top of their game. This is at a time where we metal folk need to look past the thickening funeral fog of modern metal and rock and find the good choice bits, be they a new group trying to tunnel out of the woodwork with their own wits and talents, or a group of old timers still getting the job done for the sake of doing so, and thankfully, Iced Earth’s “never say die” attitude and general refusal to grow far past their roots can be reliable in the latter’s department. When they want to be.

Despite his compositional limitations, Jon Shaffer is easily one of the tightest rhythm guitar players from then to now and says more with all those emotional clean chord progressions and now-patented rapid-fire triplet gallops than many other kids out could ever hope to do. This is made all the more potent with one of the best rhythm sections the group has had (the consistently strong drumming and just-as-tight bass work) and the wailing leads of Troy Seele, wherein you can see where I’m coming from when it comes to what glorifications are present. But of course, in the end, it comes down to Stu Block and his mighty pipes. As a singer, Stu has a lot of power and strength in his vocal foundations, and he doesn’t always seem to flounder or try to do something he seemed incapable of tackling. He tends to shine the brightest with his mid-range choirs (despite what I’m sure is unintentional Barlow aping) and brusque, semi-blackened screams, but I’ll admit that the higher falsettos sounded quite off and a little too Ripper-like, which doesn’t help matters. Thankfully, though, he doesn’t reach for the sky that often, and the likes of “Anthem”, “Anguish of Youth” and “Equilibrum” properly showcase him coming into his own with the group rather than being the new odd man out.

So all in all, “Dystopia” is a pretty strong release, and as far as modern Iced Earth goes this is one of the better ones. While not as dazzling as the days of old ala “Night of the Stormrider”, those who’ve been paying attention to them lo these many years may be impressed enough to sink their teeth into this rather deeply.

Originally written for The Offering