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Barlow era has more to offer, this is terrible - 47%

Jophelerx, January 15th, 2016

Iced Earth has always been an excruciatingly inconsistent band; in fact, they are even less consistent than Manowar, for whom my distaste is well-known (read my Manowar reviews). But surely such a band must have at least one album which is at least decent overall? Manowar has Hail to England, and Iced Earth, others would have you believe, has Night of the Stormrider. Do not be fooled, though - not only is Night of the Stormrider not a decent album overall, it's also far from the best Iced Earth, as mediocre a band as they are, have to offer. Both the predecessor and the successor of this album, as well as 2001's Horror Show, are significantly better than this (and bear in mind, Burnt Offerings, my favorite album of theirs, has precisely two tracks that I like). This is more or less on par with the band's average release; I'm not that it's Iced Earth worst - the Tim "Ripper" Owens albums and The Crucible of Man do exist, unfortunately, but this is pretty fucking lame. No matter how many times I listen to it, all I can summon afterwards is a big fat "meh." John Schaffer has never been very good at writing riffs, and these are far from his best at that; the near unanimous praise for this album is utterly baffling to me, as even within the band's own discography, without venturing more than one album away, one can find music which is much better than this.

Of course, Burnt Offerings had the excellent Matt Barlow to help it along (though I'd still say the songwriting overall is much better there), so perhaps one-timer John Greely is to blame here? This might be a reasonable hypothesis if I hadn't mentioned that I also prefer the previous album - the band's first full-length, simply called Iced Earth - over this one. The vocalist on that album, if you aren't familiar with it, was Gene Adam, who sounds like a gremlin that's just ingested a bit too much helium and is in the process of taking a very difficult shit. I certainly wouldn't say he's better than Greely, nor would I say that I even like him - what I'm saying is, Iced Earth actually manages to be better than Night of the Stormrider IN SPITE of Adam. The songwriting has variation, it has some degree of adventure, it has more than two riffs. With a better production and a better singer, it might be my favorite Iced Earth album, but that's a bit beside the point. The point is, Greely is definitely not the problem I have with Night of the Stormrider - or rather, I should say, far from the ONLY problem I have with it.

So, what does the album really sound like? The production is decent - a bit thin, but better than it was on the previous album, and hardly much of a complaint. Greely is okay - not great, but not nearly as bad as shitting gremlin Adam. Most of the time he uses a gruff, semimelodic delivery that is something like a cross between a bark and the sort of gritty singing one might expect for power/thrash. He does occasionally use a clean tone, which is pretty good, but the scream-thing he does for most of the album is merely decent. Not bad, not great, just decent. Of course, the underlying problem, as it is with every single Iced Earth album that has ever been released, is Jon fucking Schaffer. The riffs are just repetitive as all hell. At 46 minutes or so, the album's run time isn't really all that long, but if you factor out the two interludes, you have 7 tracks over about 43 minutes - that averages around 6 minutes a track. For some bands, this might not be a bad thing, necessarily; hell, it might work better with some bands that like to write more complex, ambitious pieces. But for Schaffer, it spells doom. He has a tendency to use approximately one riff per song, maybe two if we're feeling lucky, and not only that, but a lot of the riffs in entirely different tracks are incredibly similar. If they were great riffs, I might excuse this as decent or at least somewhat more impressive mediocrity, but they're not. Oh, I'm not saying the entire album is shit all the way through - there are some cool parts, especially among the earlier tracks, but never for more than a minute or so, and they're mired within utter mediocrity and lifelessness over the other 5 minutes of the track. Later tracks, like "Desert Rain," are about 95% plodding, pointless shit that has the same riff for 6 minutes with Greely's take-it-or-leave-it bark over it, with almost no variation. Sticking with "Desert Rain" for a moment - we see yet another problem - there's a decently cool solo towards the middle of the song, but it sounds so similar to at least one solo, if not more than one, from earlier in the album, that the redemption it could have provided the track is lost. Fuck's sake, Schaffer, "reduce, reuse, recycle" applies to the environment, not to fucking thrash metal!

I've heard complaints over the repetition in the album closer of Burnt Offerings and one of the band's more famous songs, the 16+ minute "Dante's Inferno." Those complaints do have some validity, but not from those who praise this album. First off, given the relative lengths between this album and that song, I think it actually has more variation overall, and certainly not any less. It also has better riffs overall (yeah, that main aggressive riff is actually pretty close to some that are used in Stormrider, but it's used in much better context on "Dante's Inferno") and we have the added benefit of cool synths, cool lyrics, and Matt Barlow, not to mention more unique solos than Stormrider has throughout its entire duration. Additionally, that song builds up, telling the story of the descent through the nine planes of hell, whereas Stormrider, regardless of whether it was meant to be a concept album (I'm not entirely sure) has no sense of progression or buildup whatsoever, not only throughout the album but not within individual songs, either. The better songs feel like random parts scrapped together, as though Schaffer had Generic Section A, Generic Section B, Generic Section C, and Generic Section D in a pile and just ordered them at random to produce the songs. The worse songs sound like Generic Section A droning on and on until you want to chuck your iPod into the nearest river (or whatever device you happen to be listening to the album upon).

Let's go back to that mention of "Dante's Inferno." Stormrider does have an "album epic" in "Travel in Stygian," and, being Schaffer, the opening acoustic melody is almost identical to that in "Dante's Inferno" (though again I'd say the latter provides a better context for it). We then get a really lame riff that sounds almost like four other riffs we've heard already over the course of the album, followed by another one that could be described in exactly the same way. Greely seems to be in pretty good form here, at least - either that or his vocals just work very well with these vocal lines, but he briefly rises above "decent" and becomes "pretty good," but that doesn't change the fact that feels like maybe the worst track. I don't think it's objectively the worst track - I did say "feels like" - but we've heard every riff, melody, chord, bark, and shriek so many times at this point that I just want to bang my head against the wall at hearing it, assuming I've listened to the rest of the album beforehand. In fact it's really "Dante's Inferno" v. 1.0, but it's worse, it's in a worse album, and it has a worse singer. I just can't get excited about any part of it at all (well okay, that fast solo in the middle is cool, but it's way too short), which is a fair way to sum up the album. This album sucks. I'm going to go do something more enjoyable, like lick paint off the wall, and I advise all of you to do the same, I will never understand why so many give it praise when it is ultimately one of Schaffer's worse albums and one that showcases the fundamental problems in his songwriting perfectly.