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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)