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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.