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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