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Harbinger of triplets. - 71%

ConorFynes, May 28th, 2015

Iced Earth like their heroes grey and tragic. It's fine and dandy to sing about righteous heroes (see: European power metal) or malevolent forces (see: thrash, heavy, doom, black, death etc. etc.) but there's added dramatic weight to be found in a character that draws aspects of both. After all-- is anyone in this world of ours purely good, or purely evil?

Such is the curse of the Stormrider; he is evil enough to have fallen from grace in the first place, but retains enough good in him to ultimately lament his descent. While it wouldn't be the last time Iced Earth told the story of a man caught between heaven and hell, Night of the Stormrider was their first attempt at bringing a conceptual angle to their chugging power-thrash. Depending on who you ask, it's also their first 'classic'. Having done away with the paper-thin vocals of Gene Adam and replaced him with the considerably more capable John Greely, Night of the Stormrider feels like a more professional, well-rounded product than its self-titled predecessor. Even so; their slicker execution feels less impressive in light of the album lacking the strong riffs and songwriting of the debut.

Though it's virtually undeniable that Night of the Stormrider marked a long step forward on the surface, I can't help but feel that Iced Earth's second album was a less musically ambitious than the criminally underrated Iced Earth debut from the year before. Granted; criticism of Gene Adam's vocal performance on that album isn't unfounded, but the album was jam-packed with interesting riffs and unpredictable song structures, the likes of which I don't think have been approximated on an Iced Earth record since. Where the debut ran the gamut from prog-thrash to eerie ballads and heavy metal anthemry, Night of the Stormrider sounds like it was penned with a single mindset and approach in mind.

Fortunately for us, that 'approach' is plenty worthwhile. Arguably closer to the aggressive edge of thrash than any power metal incarnation, Night of the Stormrider is fast and rhythmic. Though the moderate success they'd had with their acoustic interludes circa Iced Earth have been carried over to this one in part, the vast majority of the album can be summed up with the assault of their rhythm section. I don't think I've ever been able to bring up Jon Schaffer in conversation without cracking some line about his undying love for triplets (I'd fathom he loves triplets even more than he loves America!) and while his particular focus on the 'chugga-chug-chugga-chug-chugga' riffs here run the risk of blurring together, Iced Earth are undeniably sharp operators when it comes to carving out rhythms. I get the impression that, on the debut, Schaffer discovered how potentially useful these fast chugs could be; songs like "Angel's Holocaust" and "Stormrider" are full proof of this, but it's a shame that he otherwise wore out its welcome.

Although Schaffer's particular inclinations have had the strongest influence on this and other Iced Earth creations, I'm actually more impressed with the leads of Randy Shawver here. Although there's not nearly as much emphasis on proper solos as there would be in traditional thrash, Night of the Stormrider throws the occasional spotlight Randy's way, and he makes the absolute best of it. More often than not, his leads are more eerie than they are technical, and it perfectly suits the album's concept and atmosphere.

There is less to be said about John Greely's vocals than there were about Gene Adam's performance on the debut, if only because his vocals lack the same dubious quality. Greely essentially strikes me as a less versatile mirror of their future frontman Matt Barlow. His confident wails are a powerful contrast from the somewhat effective Adam, although with such an emphasis on the thrash-standard, tough guy semi-shout, Greely's vocals would be much more easily lost in the crowd than Adam. Say what you will about Iced Earth's first vocalist; he left an impression that was all his own. John Greely was a more potentially capable frontman, but no one would be complaining when Matt Barlow came to take his place with Burnt Offerings.

Night of the Stormrider is powerful in what it does, but it does do is rather limited in scope. "Angel's Holocaust", "Travel in Stygian", and the Judas Priest-reminiscent title track all stand out, but the album tends to leave less of an impression on me than a lot of Iced Earth's other classics. Night of the Stormrider does see the band's rhythm section coming full force, and the however temporary change of lineup was propitious, but the album isn't quite as impressive as its predecessor or follow-up.