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A double-edged sword. - 60%

TheMeh, July 12th, 2018
Written based on this version: 2014, CD, Century Media Records

I've come to build a mental image of Iced Earth as a band that holds many flaws deep within that they keep trying to amend. When Stu Block joined, he brought the best of both worlds by being able to essentially parrot Matt Barlow and Tim Owens, who I have enjoyed equally between the other albums of the Something Wicked Saga. I was very much excited to see what Plagues of Babylon would become, and what it would add not only for the narrative of the Something Wicked Saga, but for the band as a whole. Stu, and to a certain extent, Tim Schaffer, were able to fix a decent number of the issues that I had come to see, and I wanted to believe that Plagues would expand itself even more, and make itself something... awesome. For a time, I guess you could say it was.

This album, in terms of the narrative of Something Wicked, adds a story I have desired to see come to light since I first experienced Framing Armageddon and The Crucible of Man - two highly contested albums that I actually do enjoy to an extent - and I was excited to both see and hear how it would play out. In the context of the story, the first half of Plagues had told us how the Setians/Set Abominae, having watched over and manipulated the course of humanity over the millennia, have decided it would be time to begin their long-awaited crusade against them, using a "plague" to effectively zombify and control the masses, and cull humanity from the earth. For what it's worth, the album goes into better detail on the matter, and I am more thankful of that fact by the end of it. I really like the concept that this album chooses to present, and how expansive it lets itself be.

With the concept in mind, how does that affect the music? Well... that might just be one of the issues. It doesn't necessarily set the course like prior albums that followed the concept were able to do. While an opener like "Plagues of Babylon" bombastically can set the stage and ends up maybe being one of the most epic songs on the album overall, the album chooses to devolve ever so slightly into simplicity. None of the songs on the first half of the album are innately bad, but they don't act like they're supposed to be important. "Democide" and "Resistance", while being able to establish the further built plot towards the saga, are very much songs that follow a formula that Iced Earth has perpetuated for a while. Hell, "Democide" in particular just sounds like a song they cut from Dystopia, since it pretty much sounds like something that would come from that album. In a way, you could say... it's hard to distinguish from the works before it. There are a lot of good songs on this half of the album, and I absolutely love it. But they play it way too safe for me to respect it.

The album further crescendos into forgettable territories with the end of the concept-side of the album. The songs that come from this part of the album are one of the reasons I don't like returning to this album for future listens. Not only do they bore me, but they don't sound like anything new. "If I Could See You" practically reeks of typicality to the baseline Iced Earth formula when it comes to their softer, melodic songs. Further on, the two covers that close the album aren't very much of an improvement towards the overall sound of the album. Not to mention... "Highwayman" is a mess. It would be a good song on its own if Stu wasn't forced to be on a small portion of it... and two vocalists weren't shoved in to be hammy and represent the song's characters. I don't hate Russell Allen (Symphony X) or Michael Poulson (Volbeat), but they kill the song. Neither of them play to a range that I can respect, vocally. On paper, a cover like this is a good idea, but the performances end up making the song become cringeworthy, and inevitably forgettable.

At the end of the day, do I necessarily hate Plagues of Babylon? No, not really. To me, this album presents itself as a double-edged sword, whereas, one side simple seems to be stronger than the other. On one hand, you've got the expertly crafted Something Wicked side of the album, somehow managing to balance out its slight sense of mediocrity with interest, and staying overall creative throughout. On the other hand, you've got the second half of the album, which feels as though there was a basket of jumbled ideas sprawled on different pieces of paper that the band had to draw from randomly to finish the album off so they didn't have to write more songs under the Something Wicked concept. I find it hard to see where Iced Earth wanted to balance the mediocrity with the creativity, but I am content with the level they ended up giving for at least one singular portion of the record. It's not impressive, but it certainly isn't disappointing. It's something of an effort, and I can commend the band for it. All and all... it's a solid record.

NOTABLE SONGS: "Plagues of Babylon", "The Culling", "Among The Living Dead", "The End?".

The album we’ve been waiting 10 years for - 85%

TrooperOfSteel, September 6th, 2016
Written based on this version: 2014, CD, Century Media Records

Mention the band Iced Earth these days to a bunch of metal heads and you could get completely different opinions on them, both positive and negative. Why? I guess it comes down to a few things: Jon Schaffer’s tight grip on the band and the frequent line-up changes, Jon Schaffer’s alleged failures in the song-writing department, and the lack of diversity since Iced Earth’s golden days in the mid to late 90’s. Whatever it may be, as the old saying goes; you can’t please everyone.

While Metallica gets their fair share of flak from haters, Iced Earth too has bore the brunt of lashings from people over the years. However true fans will always follow their bands and Iced Earth has always been a popular band through its existence and no one can deny the influence they have had in the metal community world-wide. While the unstableness concerning Matt Barlow’s departure/return and departure again has long since ended, there has been an increased anticipation over Iced Earth’s latest album ‘Plagues of Babylon’, with a sense in the air of something big arising from the Tampa area.

Current vocalist Stu Block (ex-Into Eternity) has been with the band since March 2011 and his vocal style is quite similar to both previous Iced Earth singers, Matt Barlow and Tim “Ripper” Owens, and an understandable choice for Schaffer to have someone who reminds both them and the fans of the person who was the heart and soul of the band. In an Iced Earth tradition that began with ‘Days Of Purgatory’, Stu Block was introduced as the new singer of the band by laying down the vocals on a re-recorded version of “Dante’s Inferno”; a 17-minute track that displayed the many strengths of Block’s vocal abilities.

I do believe however that the previous album ‘Dystopia’ was nothing more than an easing of Block into the band and a “safe” album written by Schaffer. With the exception of a few short but speedy tracks, the remainder of the album prodded along (at times mundanely) and was neither spectacular nor memorable; just a safe and tentative album. Schaffer and the team could have done so much more with this album, but neglected to do so, whether the distractions of the ever-changing line-up affected Schaffer’s writing abilities played a part we may not ever know.

At the time of the announcement that Iced Earth were beginning to write new material (January 2013), it had been nearly two years since Block joined the band, plenty of time for him to gel with the band and be completely comfortable and to give his own opinions, expressions and experience towards the follow up album; the one that will really display the abilities the new guy and also the re-emergence of Jon Schaffer’s writing abilities: Enter ‘Plagues of Babylon’.

Right from the opening onset of pounding drums accompanied by the drone of guitar chords on the title track, immediately ‘Plagues of Babylon’ had my interest and I knew that this disc would be a well-deserved return to form from a band that had been fairly stagnant for a period of time. “Plagues of Babylon” roars to life with new invigoration with Stu Block’s snarling vocals and signature guitar riffs from Schaffer and more recently, Troy Steele. Although the track moves in a mid-paced style, you can hear that there is more oomph and passion into the song-writing; something that was lacking on the previous album.

It’s uncanny just how similar Stu Block sounds like Matt Barlow, the gritty and powerful tones are almost exact, while Block can also reach the high tones much like Tim Owens could when he was the frontman. It just goes to show how much an influence and legacy Matt Barlow left behind when he permanently left Iced Earth.

New life has thankfully been breathed into this band and ‘Plagues of Babylon’ is a return to almost the classic Iced Earth sound from the '90s, however still with influences from the two ‘Something Wicked’ albums, released around 6-7 years ago now. The tracks have that fierce and scalding stigma around them again, particularly with the crisp and edgy guitar riffs, while a creative writer’s block (no pun intended) has seemingly been lifted from Jon Schaffer and it’s great to hear their newfound purpose and strength after an almost never-ending rollercoaster ride. For the ones who greatly enjoyed ‘The Glorious Burden’ as I did, will be happy to know that in my opinion ‘Plagues of Babylon’ is the band’s best effort overall since that CD released 10 years ago.

More classic sounding, passionate and heavy thundering tracks appear on ‘Plagues of Babylon’ in the names of “Among the Living Dead”, “Resistance”, and “Democide”, which takes you back to the times of ‘Burnt Offerings’ with its dark tinge and catchy riff/beat combo. “The End?” is an emotional mid-paced track with great melody and a memorable sing-a-long chorus that Iced Earth are known for, while “If I Could See You” is a kick ass and catchy as hell power ballad, in the same vein as “I Died for You” from ‘The Dark Saga’ and “Melancholy” from ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes. Lastly, “Cthulhu” is classic Iced Earth all the way – a slow eerie build-up, then double bass pummelling and hard riffage galore combined with Block’s brilliant vocals that makes this track one of the best on the album.

Overall I found ‘Plagues of Babylon’ to be the album that we’ve all be crying out for from Iced Earth for the last 10 years. They have shaken off the cobwebs and arisen with newfound direction and inspiration and released an album that crushes their previous lacklustre effort (‘Dystopia’) and improves over the ‘Something Wicked’ discs which were slightly inconsistent. ‘Plagues of Babylon’ is a much more wonderfully and creatively written album that pushes Jon Schaffer out of his stagnancy and returns to his song writing styles from his '90s CDs. All Iced Earth fans no matter which album you like or prefer will agree that ‘Plagues of Babylon’ is indeed a return to form and one of the best and consistent Iced Earth albums in the last 10 years.

Originally written for www.themetalforge.com (18/02/2014)

A Few New Turns Down the Same Ol' Road - 65%

doomknocker, October 27th, 2014
Written based on this version: 2014, CD, Century Media Records

Jon Shaffer is anything if not needlessly resourceful in his quest for heavy metal meaning. Consider the main bulk of Iced Earth's history for a prime example; new members every year or so, sometimes every MONTH or so, all of whom appear to show up, do their thing, and are dismissed. Not really what I'd call a steady, solid work environment, but whatever. It's the music that matters, after all, and to be frank, the group's output has been rather hit or miss since "The Dark Saga" due to either lack of focus or an inability to craft new, original riffs. And yet, in spite of the hardest pill to swallow with regard to the almost monthly musician house-cleaning (losing Matt Barlow), "Dystopia" turned out to be a rather well-done affair that proves that Iced Earth can still matter these days. Who'd'a thunk it?

When it comes down to "Plagues of Babylon" one thing is for certain...this is an IE album through and through, so take that for what you will. That's both a good and bad thing, for on one hand it's a solid work chock full of riffs up the wazoo, gentle acoustic interludes and raging vocal/chorus harmonies. The kind of shit we've come to expect and appreciate in their own ways. Much of the songwriting appears to have more breadth to them than before, employing an above average understanding of a fusion of classic and power metal tandems that's always been experimented with over the years but only properly employed every other album or so (it worked wonders with "Horror Show" and specific parts of "Framing Armageddon", for instance). That garners a good amount of gloss to the end result; partake in the thick-as-pancake-batter harmonic layered effect of "The Culling" (all that singing!) and the blistering riff-fest of "Resistance" for prime examples of just how well the album can get under your skin. It's definitely not a slapped-together wankfest, that's for sure.

However, more often than not, the insistence of the classic ends of the inspirational pool still takes more far more precedent than it should. We get it, Jon...you have a thing for the old days...but I'd honestly go so far as to say that the group can offer plenty more. Maybe something as simple as a return to thrashing form ala "Night of the Stormrider", where all that anger and rage was part of the norm. Could that still be possible? That's not up to me/us, so I guess we'll have to see in the years to come. And with regard to Stu Block, I find it a little unfortunate that he seems more willing to emulate Mr. Barlow rather than front the album his own way. That certainly seemed like it would be an option given his approach to the remade "Dante's Inferno" and certain parts of "Dystopia", giving this listener all the more reason to appreciate what he brings to the table. But maybe that wasn't up to him? However, the amount of energy he puts into his performance really makes up for the aping appeal; I'd go so far as to say he's the more energetic performer on the whole album save for lead player Troy Seele, who showcases just how possible it is for classy guitar solos to exist in an IE album. Not that the rest of the line up sound tired or whatever, just a little more milquetoast than they should be. Rhythm guitar, bass and drums are still pretty damned tight all there own. They just needed a little more oomph! to them, being able to match up the solos and lead singing so as to show the listener that everyone's on the same wavelength. But maybe that's just me.

All in all, "Plagues of Babylon" is a pretty good listen, not offering a whole lot of new ideas but still showing that Iced Earth's own blend of metal can still be worth a sip every now and then. If you didn't like what they did up to this point or want something a little more bristling and jagged, you'll not like what this has to offer, but those who've been keen on their post-"Something Wicked..." path will no doubt appreciate this.

Another old-fashioned and egocentric filler record - 38%

kluseba, July 15th, 2014
Written based on this version: 2014, CD, Century Media Records

Iced Earth has always been a hit and miss band for me. The thrashy American power metal institution has released a few very great, underrated records, but also some overlong and overrated disasters. The band seemed to be reborn from its ashes again with the arrival of Canadian singer Stu Block on Dystopia. The record wasn’t a masterpiece, but it sounded fresh, passionate, and straight enough to call this release a return to strength. That’s why I was eager to find out how a new singer, another new bass player, and a new session drummer might have brought a wind of change to the band on Plagues Of Babylon. The new release has, as usual, a whole lot of positive criticism from the predictable and dependent (for the label) big-name magazines and websites and not from truly independent writers such as myself.

To tell you the truth, nothing has changed at all because Jon Schaffer constantly does everything on his own. Sounds to me like he’s back to his Something Wicked storyline once again here. The new and old band members don’t really bring anything new to the sound, either. The first five songs sound old-fashioned and exchangeable. We get to hear mid-tempo to mid-up-tempo power metal with thrash metal influences that are all too familiar. Schaffer recycles some worn-out riffs, and the vocals are less unique than before, sounding like a Matt Barlow clone. The first two tracks in particular drag on far too long with unnecessary introductions. The pseudo-epic choruses are so predictable that it’s almost as amusing as a Manowar album. Fans might argue that the first five songs are typical Iced Earth anthems, but I find this rehash extremely boring.

There are a few guest vocalists on this record, but they don’t really add anything to this rather ordinary album. The background vocals by Blind Guardian frontman Hansi Kürsch are almost inaudible, and can be described as a complete waste of talent. That being said, the collaboration with Symphony X vocalist Russell Allen and Volbeat’s Michael Poulsen on “The Highwayman” is also quite faceless and ineffective. The fact that the band included two cover songs on this album, plus a laughable and completely unnecessary outro only shows off Schaffer’s lack of ideas.

The album gets a little bit more imaginative towards the middle part. I hoped that “The End?” was the end of the Something Wicked storyline, but instead it’s a decent mid-tempo track with a few dynamic changes and an atmosphere reminding me of Iron Maiden’s epics of the eighties. This song would have been an average song on some of the band’s past efforts, but is this record’s stand-out, which tells you a lot about the quality of this release.

Some songs have a few great moments but can’t convince me as a whole. The smoothly evolving “Peacemaker”, with its diversified vocal performance and a very cool guitar solo, is almost great until the chorus is repeated way too often towards the end. “Parasite” works the other way around, and starts with another predictable and exchangeable half-ballad tone before the gripping vocals in the chorus really save this song. Many songs have similar structures, and only a few individual efforts such as the vocals and a few emotional guitar solos put these tracks above an ordinary average level.

In the end, a few good tracks in the middle of the record save this album from being a complete failure. Nevertheless, it’s already a solid candidate for one of this young year’s greatest flops. This release is for die-hard fans and collectors only. If you want to hear similar music of a higher quality, go for the last Shadow Host album.

Originally written for Black Wind Metal

A lukewarm disease is spreading. - 58%

hells_unicorn, June 18th, 2014
Written based on this version: 2014, CD, Century Media Records

For the sake of full disclosure, the author of this review feels it necessary to qualify his position regarding one of the best known acts in power metal at present, namely that he doesn't really consider Iced Earth a power metal band. From their inception in the 80s, they always tended more towards the thrash metal side of the coin, only exhibiting hints at the tonality and melodic cliches typical to Iron Maiden, which were equally explored in the seminal works of Megadeth, a band that is never associated with power metal. Having said that, ascribing a level of power metal influence could be appropriately done when considering the latter day works of Iced Earth, namely everything following The Dark Saga and particularly material that came out of the short-lived time when Ripper Owens was leading the fold.

This may seem like a trivial distinction in terms of metal style given that power metal and thrash metal have a common heritage insofar as the NWOBHM and the early speed metal scenes in Canada and Germany are concerned, but it definitely reveals how albums like Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Crucible Of Man and the recently released Plagues Of Babylon function in contrast to their seminal early works. With this sort of odd niche comes a riffing style that is highly reminiscent of the percussive, heavily rhythm based approach of several Bay Area bands, but superimposed upon a much simpler songwriting style that usually comes with a very different chord progression approach. What results is somewhat comparable to Metallica's controversial 1991 self-titled album, although Jon Schaffer never ended up taking the alternative rock pill.

All things considered, writing a watered down version of thrash metal with a power metal format doesn't necessarily lead to overt drudgery, but it definitely limits the number of possibilities pretty sharply. In this album's case, what results is something that sounds like a slower, more contrived version of Something Wicked This Way Comes. The songs sound heavily similar to each other, despite some noticeable changes in structure and jumps in tempo, and the production quality veers slightly into that overly smooth distorted quality where the drums are just a bit too loud and the guitars don't have the necessary punch to make those minimalist thrash riffs truly shine. This is particularly noteworthy on the opening title song, which proves to be one of the better offerings on here despite its long length and very gradual progression. The riffs just come off as stagnant and lacking power, but the extremely catchy principle melody and Stu Block's vocal performance manages to salvage things to a fair extent.

As the album unfolds, it gets a bit difficult to distinguish songs as the format doesn't seem to evolve all that much. Things are moderately enticing on the second offering "Democide", which plays up the thrash angle pretty strongly and manages to keep things up tempo and dynamic. Similarly, "Resistance" also listens more like a late 80s thrash metal offering, but through more of a mid-tempo lens with a chorus that sounds moderately similar to something that a Judas Priest oriented German band like Primal Fear would come up with. Much of the rest of what constitutes metal on here varies from being mediocre to mildly annoying, and in usual fashion the monotony of similar ideas is broken up with a sizable number of ballads. "If I Could See You" proves to be the lone true crapper of a sappy ballad fit for rock radio opposite Breaking Benjamin, whereas slightly less offensive half-ballads in "Peacemaker" and "The End" manage to showcase Stu Block's uncanny ability to competently switch between a husky baritone gruff and a squeaky clean croon, but otherwise induce little more than sleep.

The fundamental problem with this album is basically the same one that has dogged this band on and off for the past 18 years, only to a greater degree. It's heavily repetitious, puts way too much emphasis on riff work that does not receive the needed development to stay interesting, and likewise goes just a bit too heavily on the ballads. This is arguably just a tad bit better than the overall failure that was The Crucible Of Man, but it's nestled pretty comfortably in the same overall territory. Whether a tell-tale sign of Schaffer finally running out of ideas, or just another is a growing number of songwriting slumps, it's pretty clear that whatever fire was rekindled on Dystopia has fizzled. Core fans of the band who think that Schaffer can do no wrong may find things to like here, but even they will have to admit a noticeable decline compared to 3 years prior.

Plagues of Mediocrity - 60%

Under_The_Oak, June 6th, 2014

Where to begin with this review... should I say I've been an Iced Earth fan for years? Should I rave about how great things were back when Matt Barlow was singing for them? Should I discuss Jon Schaffer's crazy redneck political beliefs? Should I mention how the band's music took a nosedive after Tim Owens replaced Matt, but then saw a resurgence when Stu Block took over vocal duties? All of that would be true, and it might put this album in context, yet every bit of it has been said before. More importantly, none of it comes close to explaining or excusing the pile of pedestrian putrescence that is Plagues of Babylon.

On first listening to this record, my impression was, 'Man, that was forgettable.' Having listened to it another two times since, my impression now is, 'Thank Christ that's over.' I had the same reaction to the abysmal Framing Armageddon, which was so boring and unoriginal it was painful. I had my suspicions that Dystopia was more a fluke than the step back on the right track that many thought it was, and this train wreck of an album makes that fact abundantly clear. What little there is to enjoy here has been regurgitated from Iced Earth's back catalog in a much less impressive form than it existed 10 or 20 years ago.

First and foremost, though, must be the drumming. It's not only offensively dominant in the mix, it's not mixed well, and it's not played well, either. Session drummer Raphael Saini is extraordinarily uncreative behind the kit on Plagues of Babylon. His timing isn't bad, nor does he lack speed, but his dynamic-less execution leaves much to be desired. Hearing him play so languidly certainly makes one realize just how much the drummers of Iced Earth have held up the band in the past. If I hadn't known beforehand, I might have assumed a drum machine was used instead of a live person.

As bad as the drumming is, however, it doesn't carry the blame all on its own. Schaffer busts out some of the most uninteresting riffs since Framing Armageddon. "Resistance" plods along through the verses like it's a Limp Bizkit song, "If I Could See You" is a ballad recycled from rejected drafts of "Watching Over Me", "I Died for You", and "Anguish of Youth", and "The Culling" trots out a blatant knock-off of Metallica's "Disposable Heroes" - not any of the good parts, of course. Stu seems to struggle through tracks like "Among the Living Dead" and "Resistance", as if even he's bored with them.

Worse to me are the lyrics and structure of the album. The first half is basically another. fucking. rehashing. of themes we've heard on Something Wicked, on Framing Armageddon, on The Crucible of Man, and on Dystopia. The world's being enslaved by dark beings, everyone is blind to the truth but Jon Schaffer, blah blah blah. There's only so many times you can write that story before it boils down to the kind of mindless shlock it is here: "We will tear the weak from the strong to enslave the masses / Our storm has come, see the times are ending, until the culling is over". That's really great, guys, it's the same kind of compelling doom-saying as the Left Behind novels. The opening four tracks of the album have this level of redundant, unimaginative writing.

Not to worry, though! The second half of the album is... better? Different? Not aliens? Well, aside from the song "Cthulhu" - which is possibly one of the most boring Lovecraft-inspired tunes I've heard - on the second half of the album we get tracks like "Peacemaker" and "Spirit of the Times", with such mind-numbing lines as, "My soul is not for sale" and "They'll never take my peacemaker away" (I like to imagine an old Jon Schaffer singing 'They'll never take my pace-maker away'). The final actual song on the record is a cover song about a ramblin' travelin' country man. Plagues of Babylon dissolves into Rock N Roll Jesus.

Honestly, the cowboy/republican fetishism stuff wouldn't be so bad if it were done well, or maybe served a bigger purpose. Manowar's "Outlaw" is considerably more bearable than these attempts at a Western theme, and Iced Earth has done concept albums before like The Dark Saga and even The Glorious Burden that were not about aliens or conspiracies and still managed to be halfway decent. Dystopia had its idiotic Tea Party undertone, but I'd prefer lyrics like those to the bullshit we get here, like "winds of freedom spread like fire through the minds of brothers" or "I’ll stand firm in knowing the truth just keeps on growing / We’re getting stronger everyday".

Of course not everything on Plagues is terrible. There are some fleeting moments of fun to songs like the titletrack, "The End?", and "Cthulhu". The guitar riffs and leads, even when uninventive, are not sloppy or entirely boring. Stu's vocals are also generally as good here as they were on Dystopia. Perhaps what makes this record so lamentable is that it walks that irritating line of squandered potential. The so-called outro hints at this, featuring the band members cackling and quoting Dave Chappelle's "fuck your couch" bit from a decade ago. In fact, that in itself is the perfect ironic summation of the whole album: it's outdated, recycled, and essentially just a bunch of guys fucking around. Sometimes that can make for an enjoyable record, but not here.

The Same Old Stuff - 50%

Altair 4, March 1st, 2014

Hot on the heels of 'Dystopia' (2011), Iced Earth's new album 'Plagues of Babylon' (2014) acts as a sufficient followup, but falls back onto time-worn formulas, stock riffs, and uncreative lyrics. There's enough solid song writing to make listening to the album bearable, but the lack of memorable passages and hooks makes this album a bit tedious to listen to from beginning to end. Many of the songs in here hark back to the days of 'The Dark Saga', as a number of the songs have the same eerie sound with their intros ("Democide", "The End?", and "Cthulu" come to mind first).

The album starts out well enough, the title track pounds and throbs away consistently. It doesn't necessarily stand out on its own, but they certainly succeeded in creating a creepy, malevolent aura. Songs such as "The Culling" and "Parasite" feature guitar work which is impressive and memorable, but soon becomes bogged down and forgettable by everything else in the song that is lackluster. "Cthulu" has the most unique chorus on the album (in context of this album, anyways) with a sort of Iron Maiden feel. "Peacemaker" is another highlight, whilst nothing different regarding Jon Schaffer, in Iced Earth a song with such a western flavor is a welcome deviation from the painstaking norm.

This brings me to some of the more negative points about this album. "Among the Living Dead" features Hansi Kursch on "lead vocals" (bullshit) and "backing vocals" on a number of other songs (I've listened multiple times on different headphones and speakers and can't identify him for the life of me). I have no idea why Schaffer and crew decided to bring in a world class vocalist like Mr. Kursch and not give him any lead vocals. The "lead vocals" he does on "Among the Living Dead" is a brief melodic shrieking which repeats twice in the song. An almost offensive waste of talent, Demons & Wizards fans lament!

On "Among the Living Dead", among others, Stu Block's vocals seem tired and a bit sloppy. If this is not the case then I guess his vocals on this album are simply just annoying. I don't like to talk smack on vocalists, especially since I know Stu can belt like a banshee (as demonstrated on 'Dystopia'), so I don't know why his vocals took a step down on this release. My speculation is that Iced Earth recorded this album after a long-ass world tour with little to no breathing room between.

Choruses on this album seem to be fairly similar in chord progressions and contribute greatly to the dejavu felt multiple times throughout. The amateurish and uncreative lyrics definitely don't do any favors for them, either. The prime offender in the lyrics category is easily "If I Could See You Now", how many times have Iced Earth written a ballad like this? Both lyrically and musically this song is a simple retread of the same ballad they've written time and time again.

A band can maintain their trademark sound but still evolve. Iced Earth has touched on this a couple of times with releases like 'Horror Show' and 'The Glorious Burden', but constantly fall back onto these uninspired, formulaic albums. It's like seeing a son with so much potential decide to work at a gas station in stead of becoming a pilot. Somehow I can't shake the feeling that this album was rushed out in an effort to preserve the momentum gained from 'Dystopia' (a superior album, to be sure). It's a shame when the album artwork is more memorable than any of the songs on the album itself.

There's enough on here that's good and rocks, but it's overwhelmed by forgettable material.

Dear Jon Schaffer, - 35%

Subrick, February 20th, 2014

Hi Jon. Can I call you that, or do you prefer Mr. Schaffer? I'll stick with first names since it'll easier to write for the next five paragraphs. My name's Rick. I know you've never heard of me before, I being just a regular person compared to the overwhelming fame you have garnered over the years, some of which were before I was even born, but I will say that I've long been a fan of Iced Earth. In fact, Iced Earth were one of the first bands of the more traditional metal styles to pique my interest. You see, I'm not too much into traditional or power metal outside of certain bands like Iron Maiden, Hell, Blind Guardian, and your band. This is through no fault of the genres themselves mind you; I've always just been further leaning towards the extreme types of metal music. The thing about your band Jon is that Iced Earth, or at least your earlier material like Night of the Stormrider and Burnt Offerings, represented to me a bridge between the cleaner and harsher sides of heavy metal. You were fast, you had energy, you had Matt Barlow and his Hetfield-on-steroids voice, and despite not being the most versatile riff writer in the world, your songs were memorable and stuck with me long after I finished listening to them. That's why the period of your band between 2002 and 2011 was so sad for me. In the blink of an eye, you lost a lot of your appeal. You slowed down, you lacked energy, the powerful vocals of Barlow were replaced with the also powerful but ill-fitting vocals of Tim Owens. I don't know what happened, but Iced Earth became boring. Not even getting Barlow back helped much, as The Crucible of Man was still a plodding waste of time.

Oh, but then you acquired Stu Block and put out Dystopia, and it was much like those older records of yours. It had energy, the vocals were great, it was a good old fashioned great album. It had a few hiccups, but overall it was certainly a ton better than everything you'd put out between The Glorious Burden and that. Lemme tell you, after how good Dystopia was, I had high hopes for your next album, something I hadn't had in you for a long time before then, and when the art for Plagues of Babylon came out, I was thrilled to pieces. I cannot express that sentiment still after having listened to your new album in full, especially considering I could barely keep myself awake throughout it's bloated 62 minute run time. For whatever reason Jon, you seem to have entered this mindset where you think that if a song is really slow and really long, it will translate to something epic and glorious. The problem with this is that, and I mean no offense when I say this dude, your slow songs kind of suck. You've always been much better writing fast, gallopy tunes that can easily be headbanged to, and there are a couple of those on here. "Cthulhu" immediately comes to mind, it being the best song of the bunch here. It may start like nearly every other song on here (see: hopelessly and somewhat annoyingly slow), but it quickly morphs into a thrashy ode to everyone's favorite betentacled Lovecraft creation. I really, really wish I could say that most of the rest of the songs are in the same vein as that one, but I can't. There are a couple other faster tunes here, like "Among the Living Dead" and "Democide", but almost every other song on here is an overly long, unimaginably slow & boring slab of wasted time.

Your riffs here, despite being the same gallops and classic metal licks they always been, just have no life to them. It's mind boggling how bereft of passion these songs are. Every single slow song on here, from the title track on through to the end, just goes on and on and on seemingly without any end in sight. Opening with the title track was one of the dumber decisions made on Plagues of Babylon, as even though I wasn't as infuriated with how boring it is as I was upon my initial listen of it a number of months ago, it was still a completely unfitting track to open an album with. It just goes nowhere, moving from motion to motion, if anywhere, with no spark of creativity lighting the way through, and the same can be said about the majority of the songs here. The only time it even sounds like you or the rest of the band is even caring is on the aforementioned faster stuff, and that's not surprising considering, as I said before, you're infinitely better with fast writing than you are with slow writing. Checking my iTunes player's timer multiple times in the first half of the album is not an indicator that you have an interesting album playing, and by the time I got to the woeful-for-all-the-wrong-reasons "The End?", I was bewildered by how long this all felt despite only being 21 minutes into the album. Hell, a number of the songs in the 2nd half of the record don't even have real endings, preferring to just stop without a conclusion. Ending on two pointless covers, one of your other band Sons of Liberty and one of Jimmy Webb, and a joke outro didn't help matters much at all, with both covers also being soulless marches through the muck from the chest down. What in the hell went wrong here, Jon? Did your unspoken contest with Dave Mustaine over who can be crazier with all the conspiracy nonsense just sap away your talent and ability to give a shit?

I will give your album a couple positive points though, Jon. For one, you didn't overload it with kooky conspiracy theory and politics bullshit to the point of overflow. You couldn't resist doing an entire album without talking about how you think the feds are coming to take your guns away personally and put you in internment camps for the free thinking or whatever it is people like you think about, so we've got "Peacemaker", "Resistance", and the Sons of Liberty cover "Spirit of the Times" here to fill that gap that I just know every fan of your band wanted desperately to be filled*. Of the three, "Peacemaker" is easily the least subtle, reading like the transcribed Western wet dream of a less mentally stable pro-2nd Amendment type. You know, the kinds that think the solution to school shootings is to arm teachers (see: Phil Labonte). The production values here, while not perfect, are the clear highlight of the record, more so than any one song aside from "Cthulhu". The guitars are a little too quiet underneath the drums and vocals for my tastes, but the bass is mostly audible and the drums of Italian skin smasher Raphael Saini are rich in organic tones and sounds. His snare's quite loud though, often distractingly so, and I wish you had it turned down before finishing the mixing. As for Stu Block, I don't know what you're thinking having him sing the way he's singing on here, but you need to stop it, preferably sooner rather than later. Stu's attempt at a Matt Barlow impression was apparent on Dystopia, but at the very least he still sounded like Stu Block. He's got a very unique, recognizable voice, one that us Into Eternity fans are very familiar with. What he's doing here barely sounds like Stu Block. Instead, it sounds like him doing his Barlow impression but with a severe case of bronchitis screwing with his voice. You've taken an amazing singer and reduced him to a parody of another amazing singer. Why exactly did you think this would sound good here? Please, I really would like an answer to that in the near future.

What I'm trying to say, Jon, is that I don't hate you like many others do. I really, truly don't. I think your political ideals are kind of nuts, but it doesn't really affect my opinion of you as a creative mind the same way it does somebody like Dave Mustaine. I think you're an incredibly tight rhythm guitarist that, when you give a shit about something, can make the absolute most of your limited abilities and create some truly excellent music. The Iced Earth albums of the 90s were testament to that, as were the albums you've done with Demons and Wizards. Plagues of Babylon is not an example of that, however. It's very clear that you either were not trying or simply did not care enough to try. It's a bad album. It's a boring, bloated, hopelessly plodding testament to the fact that you and your ever rotating travelling circus of genuinely talented musicians and singers can do so, so, SO much better. Dystopia was the proof in the pudding that when you cared, you could still create a memorable, entertaining, and fun heavy metal album. So why didn't that same spark of renewed passion carry over onto Plagues of Babylon? The only person that I think can truly answer that question is you, Jon Schaffer. I really, sincerely hope that whatever you do next, be it with Iced Earth or any other band, you do it with your mind and heart fully invested in it. I can tell from this album and the non-Horror Show Iced Earth records of the 2000s that if you aren't, it won't be worth my time, the time of rest of your fans, or the plastic the CDs are made of.

Sincerely yours,
A fan.

*This is sarcasm. I know people like you aren't really privy to it and tend to take comments at face value, so I figured I'd just point that out for you.

Reliable if nothing else - 80%

captaincrunchy, February 15th, 2014

Iced Earth has a distinct style that, since their distant self-titled debut, they've largely stuck with; Iron Maiden-style melodic metal with a dose of thrash and some progressive tendencies. When Jon Schaffer seemed to grow tired of producing extended epic songs, he instead turned to his series of concept works- the so-called Something Wicked story. This is continued here, and perhaps with more flair than Iced Earth has shown for a number of years. The largely uneventful Owens era (while it has its devotees), as I see it, did not quite match up to the quality of the stellar Barlow period. Then the generally mediocre second half of the Something Wicked double-album effort returned Barlow, unfortunately to little effect.

Dystopia introduced current singer Stu Block, whose ridiculous pipes made him able to mimick the Halford style shrieks of Owens and the more powerful, lower barks of Barlow. Dystopia is a record that tears the fanbase, and if you hated it, you may find something new to enjoy here. Plagues of Babylon is more ambitious than the previous record; the initial six songs follow a concept (again), and yet also manage to be the most progressive pieces of music that the band has turned out since Horror Show. The second half is composed of some more varied material that add additional flavor to the record.

As far as the first half, the thrash portion is notably greater than it has been recently; the eight-minute title track possesses some meaty riffing and aggressive vocals. Democide and Among The Living Dead are full of muscly guitar work as well, Democide in particular calling to mind Burning Times from 1998's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Jon can't help but let his political stripes show on a couple of these tracks, undoubtedly using the lyrics as a metaphor for Obama or government organizations of some form or another. The End? closes the concept portion of the album, playing like a traditional Iced Earth power ballad with a bit more theatricality to it.

The second half isn't as focused and includes two covers, one of Jon's shamelessly patriotic side project Sons of Liberty and another of Jimmy Webb's country-rock song Highwayman, which brings in guest vocals from Volbeat frontman Michael Poulsen (who I've learned is quite a fan of the band) and Russell Allen of Symphony X (which this reviewer freely states he is very much a fan of). While the roster is interesting, neither cover is particularly noteworthy. It also includes the fairly predictable but enjoyable power ballad If I Could See You, the more proggy and quite excellent Cthulhu, metal-western Peacemaker, and melodic thrasher Parasite. An outro of what I believe to be Stu Block cursing and joking around in studio was probably tacked on as a band in-joke.

The overall band performances are solid, if not altogether spectacular. Jon's chugging riffs haven't lost their luster, Stu is a little grittier than on Dystopia (which works well), session drummer Raphael Saini does a satisfying job with some creative fills, but no awards are likely to be handed out. Lead guitarist Troy Seele's leads and soloing have been steadily improving and continues to do so here, to his credit. Bassist Luke Appleton isn't very present and seems to mostly just follow the rhythm guitar, which is unfortunate. Some powerful, galloping bass would have significantly benefited some of the more midtempo heavy songs.

In conclusion, Plagues of Babylon is no opus, but it is solid and enjoyable Iced Earth album with some unique flavor to it that has kept me returning fairly regularly since I got my hands on it. Longtime fans should not expect anything (Iced) earth-shattering, but it is a good addition to their growing back catalog. Newbies can find worse places to enter, as all of Iced Earth's typical bases are covered here. As a fan of classic Iced Earth and of the newer material, I can say I'm happy with the record overall.

Highlights: Plagues of Babylon, Democide, Cthulhu, Parasite

Of stock riffs and reclaiming magic - 64%

Andromeda_Unchained, January 20th, 2014

As far as I’m concerned, Iced Earth’s previous opus Dystopia fixed a lot of what had been going wrong with the band since The Glorious Burden. It put the darker themes and pugilistic riffs right back at the forefront, showing the band in their best light since their glory days; before the exodus, return, and subsequent exodus of fan favourite vocalist Matt Barlow. Plagues Of Babylon sees Iced Earth unveiling their second opus with Stu Block helming the Jon Schaffer vehicle, and despite a decrease in good songs, shows Stu securing his place as the voice of the band.

Yeah, if anything can be said about Plagues Of Babylon, then it’s that Stu absolutely owns the album. From the aggressive Barlow style lower registers, all the way up to the glistening, layered highs which ensure the atypical, anthemic Iced Earth choruses hit their mark. There’s also some instance of Stu’s extreme vocal styles a là Into Eternity, for better or worse. You have to be Jens Carlsson levels of special to pull this type of fare off - mixing clean and extreme - although I’d say Stu does a bang up job, and one which isn’t too obtrusive to Iced Earth’s general sound.

Speaking of general sound, here I feel Iced Earth try in reclaiming some of the atmosphere created in their earlier albums. At times they do manage a good job of dishing out some Dark Saga vibes, or hell even Burnt Offerings; although in others it doesn’t quite work. One thing which in particular hurts the album, is Jon Schaffer’s riff set which is about as stock as it gets. He’s always been somewhat of a one trick pony, but compared to the fist-pumping, head-flailing vigour displayed in Dystopia it’s underwhelming to hear him mindlessly galloping away, or pulling out some half baked, post-thrash Metallica chug. You’ve heard all these riffs before, and likely played with more furious conviction. On the last album I heard Jon wanted to cut back on all the “epic” crap, and make a balls to the wall metal album – which they did. Here I can imagine an intent of becoming “epic” again, or like aforementioned; in reclaiming some of the old school Iced Earth magic.

Returning to what I was stating about atmosphere, I guess taking a look at the likes of “Democide” and “Among The Living Dead” would be necessary. These numbers, which happen to be the finest on the album show Iced Earth channelling familiar theme and motif, with “Democide” sounding like a lost outtake from Dark Saga, and the evil sounding riff ushering in “Among The Living Dead” giving me some serious Burnt Offerings flashback. It goes further, with “Cthulhu” which sounds as though it was missed off from Horror Show (and unfortunately failing to live up to what a song about Cthulhu should), and of course the soggy ballad “If I Could See You” would fit in with Something Wicked’s ballad/crunch approach.

As for performance, I think we all know what to expect from Iced Earth now. This is very professional and well produced, with some choice backing vocals provided by the master Hansi Kürsch. Troy Steele’s lead guitars are excellent, as they were on the last album, and I still stand by thinking he’s the finest of the many Iced Earth lead players. Sadly, great performances do little to benefit mostly tepid material. Outside of the aforementioned “Democide” and “Among The Living Dead”, the only other tracks which stand out to me are the Iron Maiden style “The End” and the surprisingly cool “Peacemaker”, which at times feels like they’re trying to capture some Queensrÿche magic.

For the most part though, if you’re at all familiar with Iced Earth or Jon Schaffer’s playing, then I can assure you won’t find much new here. Hardcore fans of the band will doubtlessly lap this up, and to be fair; I’d rather listen to this than The Glorious Burden, or any of the Something Wicked sequels. It’s just a real fucking shame that they couldn’t deliver the follow up to Dystopia I was hoping for. That album had energy and crunch in spades, and whilst it wasn’t exactly anything new for the band, it reaffirmed everything good about Iced Earth. Plagues Of Babylon reminds me of a time I’d approach an Iced Earth album with extreme caution. I guess it looks like the future will hold more of the same after all.

Catch the Plague! - 77%

sadun_tryst, January 19th, 2014

Iced Earth or rather Jon Schaffer have brought us new Iced Earth record cheerfully named Plagues Of Babylon. Preceded by generally accepted Dystopia, which was definitely a step forward compared to the boring and annoying The Crucible Of Man, an album that may have sounded well in Jon’s head, but in practice the story was somewhat different.

Dystopia, with few average songs and with decent amount of decent songs and a moderate length, was rather enjoyable record. Plagues is quite bloated album, over an hour in length and well over 10 songs, does the bigger also means better at the same time? Yes and no. The Plagues’ sound is more coherent than its predecessor, or better yet, it sounds a bit less forced. Dystopia sounded like it was so desperately trying to move away from its bad predecessor unlike Plagues Of Babylon which has far more traces of the old IE. Even Stu Block sounds far more like Barlow, definitely more that he would (probably) be willing to admit. Also, he never sounded better, just for the record.

Reasons for this could probably be found in songwriting, with song structures giving more space for him to explore different singing styles. Not that he started to sing opera, but at least he’s not yelling all the time and sounds a lot more relaxed. A a little bit of this, a little bit of that and there you are – over an hour of material from which they could easily deduct 10-15 minutes. This way, album is packed with great moments, but at the same time is also plagued by average ones.

“Peacemaker” is one of the songs that quickly evaporates from the head despite the rapid pace and good solo, as well as two unnecessary cover songs that are closing the album. I mean, the man released cover of his own song and it doesn’t sound bad, but come on, who needs that? In fact, the first half of the album seen as a whole seems like A side of the record, while the other half seems like a B side. While listening it, you can simply feel the decline in the quality of the songs and I find it hard to believe that you will not use the repeat button when few songs ’till the end.

On the other hand, “Democide” sounds like it was dropped from Burnt Offerings album and it’s good enough that I don’t even mind the stupid name. “The Culling“, with its slow rhythm and brutal vocals pulls toward genius chorus and solo that eventually make it a very pleasant listening. And most importantly, Jon was able to write down riffs worthy of old IE, both here and on few other songs, partly because they so irresistibly reminiscent of some good old days. I will not describe all the songs, there is no need for that. Plagues Of Babylon sounds like a hybrid between the old and the new, and a good one too. Whether you are IE veteran or 15 year old school boy that just discovered this band, you will not be disappointed. Only problem is that very few people will be genuinely thrilled with this album. But, in the end, there’s enough quality material here to proclaim an album worthy representative of Iced Earth’s discography. If their sound continues to evolve in this direction I will not complain, just as long as they don’t return to the Crucible era. Year 2014 has started well, now we just need to hope it will continue in this direction.

Originally written by me for Worldwide Metal

Not horrible, but could have been better. - 70%

mjollnir, January 8th, 2014

I really wanted to hate this album. The first time I heard it I was very disappointed. I found it to be uninspired and after "Dystopia" was a huge letdown. I've been a fan of Iced Earth since the mid 90s and have seem them 4 times, including their stint with "Ripper" Owens (which was not THAT bad IMO). We all know that Jon Schaffer and company have not been the most consistent band in metal. Iced Earth has created some of metal's best albums....and some of metal's biggest turds. That being said, this album has actually grown on me after subsequent listens. At times it does seem as though Jon has run out of ideas and at other times it seems like his formula fits perfectly.

The album begins with the title track which clocks in at a rather drawn out 7:47. It's a bit drawn out in the beginning and could stand to have a few minutes knocked off. Once it gets going it becomes much more enjoyable and is a typical Iced Earth tune. The shining star on this and other songs on the album are the solos. Troy Steele is the best lead guitarist that the band has had since Randall Shawver. The lyrics are trying to hard to be dark and gloomy but come off as a bit silly. "Demoncide" picks the pace up a bit and reminds me of classic Iced Earth with Jon's signature riffs used moderately as not to become redundant. The chorus is catchy and the lyrics are much better than with the previous song.

One thing that I find myself thinking when listening to this album is that it reminds me of bits and pieces of their previous albums....turds included. "The Culling" is a slower song that seems to just prod along with not much direction. The solo is very catchy but doesn't really make the song that much better. "If I Could See You" is a ballad that is just completely forgettable. "Resistance" is so inconsistent it rocks in places then plods along in other. "Peacemaker" starts off sounding like "Simple Man" then picks it up as the song goes on. The lyrics are Jon's pro Second Amendment statement. I'm not sure what to make of it. "Spirit of the Times" (Sons of Liberty cover) and "Highwayman" are just bad.

Then songs like "Among The Living Dead", "The End?", "Cthulhu", and "Parasite" almost take me back to classic Iced Earth. Not ALL the way back, but almost. Again, the shining star of this album is Mr. Steele. I'm not sure what to make of Stu Block. Does he really sound like Barlow or is he going out of his way to do so? Sometimes it feels the latter is more accurate. I'm just not sure what he's trying to do. I guess it works in places and not in others.

I think Jon and the boys are at a crossroads right now. This album is not awful but it's also not as good as I know they can be. Has Jon completely run out of ideas? Could be...but he can still pull a few goods ones out of his hat....or du-rag.

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