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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.