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The New Tower of Babel - 70%

hells_unicorn, March 1st, 2008

Some here whom are experts on Christianity, be it Christian or Atheist in persuasion, are probably aware of the parable from the Old Testament known as the “Tower of Babel”, which I have used for the title of the review of this album for the sake of making an analogy. But to those of you whom are not familiar with it, I’ll briefly sum it up for you. After the whole great flood that wiped out humanity except for Noe’s family (the modern Bible spells his name N-O-A-H, probably because modern linguistics has altered the implied sounds of letters since after the rise of non-Hebrew languages in Christendom), the descendants settled in an area in the Middle East and built a great tower that would reach to heaven, but before they could complete it God confounded their language so that they couldn’t understand each other and thus they were scattered across the earth.

Now, being one who leans towards Thomism, or a balance of reason and faith as being mutually symbiotic, I prefer to treat this parable as a metaphorical representation of how humanity was first dispersed from its place of origin, something which the theory of evolution also seeks to explain. However, whether you believe in this or not, the analogy is meant to draw a parallel between the great and monstrous structure that was the tower of Babel (great in the same sense that the pyramids and the Ancient Indian temples of the Indus Valley), and the great and towering musical and lyrical effort that is this album. And like the Tower of Babel, which was built by the toil of slaves under the tyrant Nimrod, this album is built upon the blood-painted history of people who have died in the name of what this album’s primary theme is, unquestioning loyalty to something beyond yourself. It is thus necessary to treat the music and vocal performance on this CD as a separate issue from that of the highly controversial theme that it carries, in the same way that one would treat the Tower of Babel as it’s own entity and separate it from the will of King Nimrod.

My copy of this CD is the full 2 CD digipack, which contains all of the songs that were recorded during the sessions for this album. Looking at the album cover itself, one can already tell that the CD was a massive undertaking, and this is further underscored by the large collection of artworks depicting the various subjects covered in the lyrics. And the music itself, from start to finish, puts forth the same aura of an artist toiling like crazy to craft something amazing, such as Michelangelo painting the inner dimensions of the Sistine Chapel. But as my philosophical and theological inspiration St. Thomas Aquinas said, “The test of the artist does not lie in the will with which he goes to work, but in the excellence of the work he produces.”

So the question to ask about the music is simple, is it as excellent as it is being made out to be, and in this respect I answer with a resounding “Yes”. Several reviews have pointed out that this album is too vocally driven, and I agree with this sentiment, and the reason for it is actually quite simple. Jon Schaffer is not quite Dave Mustaine, his strength is playing support with his instrument while someone else wows the listener with their skill. You listen to the older thrash stuff, John Greely and Randall Shawver were the impresarios, while Schaeffer simply provided the atmosphere. This album is dominated by Tim Owens’ expressive and versatile vocals, and most of the more technically impressive stuff is handled by the drums. Musically, this album is more power metal than thrash, though there are moments when we are reminded of the thrash sound that Iced Earth possessed on their earliest releases, most notably “Night of the Stormrider”.

The rendition of the National Anthem that kicks off this album is fairly well done, and does a decent job of mixing guitar and bass activity with the military drum lines that always accompany this composition. I would just like to take a moment to state that although I have some highly charged disagreements with the politics on display on this album, but one thing that really bothers me about this release is that Iced Earth and SPV records have the alleged guts to release something controversial, and then cave in to pressure to remove part of the album just to please part of their overseas audience. This is hypocrisy of the ninth degree, Manowar had no reservations about telling the European left-wing to go fuck themselves if they didn’t like the patriotic themes on “Warriors of the World Unite”, to speak nothing of how they make fun of leftist ideals on their other releases.

The next track on here is titled “Declaration Day”, and is obviously a lyrical homage to the beginnings of the American Revolution. Musically, this song is a straight-forward mid-tempo metal anthem that puts a large amount of emphasis on the chorus. The transition from the opening track to this song is quite smooth, although I was hoping for something a bit more up tempo. Tim Owens does a decent job on the vocals, although there are so many tracks of his voice, creating such a dense layer of vocal harmonies, that it’s tough to focus on the support instruments. This is something that pretty much applies to all the songs on this album, but it is not necessarily something that destroys the music, but it does challenge your peripheral hearing and will require several listens in order to fully comprehend.

The third song on here is the most memorable, and obviously the most radio friendly of all the songs on here, titled “When the Eagle Cries”. This is basically your cliché power ballad, containing a gloomy acoustic guitar line during the verses and a load and bombastic electric guitar drone during the chorus. Tim Owens mostly sticks to his middle range, though the backing tracks fill in the top ends of the arrangement. This song is probably my favorite on here, mostly because it reminds me of how I felt on the day that the Twin Towers were attacked. I have been to New York only a few times in my life, but 2 people very close to me were killed in the name of a God created by a 7th century despot, and that memory does give me a bias towards songs that remember the evil that had been done on that day. There is a fully acoustic version of this song that is basically interchangeable with the original, except that the chorus is not nearly as triumphant sounding without the electric guitars.

“The Reckoning” is definitely a homage to Painkiller era Judas Priest, I would say it’s fairly comparable to the faster songs heard out of Primal Fear nowadays. Some great thrash riffs on here, although once again Owens is dominating the fold. “Green Face” is a more thrash oriented song, loaded with heavy guitar riffs and a rather neurotic set of screams by Owens. “Attila” is one of the more epic tracks on here and reminds a good deal of the songs on Iced Earth’s previous album “Horror Show”, though with better vocals. The evil death sounding choir depicting the Huns and the more traditional male chorus depicting the Romans are a nice counterpoint in the arrangement.

“Red Baron” is another quasi-thrash track with some rather impressive vocal acrobatics, however, this is where the album starts to lag a bit. The riffs are a bit dry and vocals actually are a tiny bit over-the-top, even considering the subject matter of the song. “Hollow Man” is another ballad that is a bit similar to track 3, although not nearly as powerful. Not quite worthy of the skip button, but nothing really exciting going on here, especially considering that Tim Owens’ vocal performance up until now has been an unrelenting assault of banshee screeches. “Valley Forge” is basically a carbon copy of track 3, though slightly more powerful than it’s predecessor. In my experience putting 2 ballads back to back is not a good idea, and so far Axel Rudi Pell has been the only one to prove me wrong. We then close the first CD with the Iron Maiden-like anthem “Waterloo”, which doesn’t vary much musically, but has all the necessary hooks to make it memorable, and another solid performance by Owens.

Now, onto the second CD we go, to experience Jon Schaffer’s homage to the Civil War dubbed “Gettysburg”. It is basically an epic trilogy, telling the story from both sides both through singing and narrative lines. There is no super-fast section loaded with double bass madness on this one, but instead a series of rather nostalgic references to Iron Maiden’s sound, both acoustic and electric. There is a strong amount of orchestral presence on here, in addition to a series of military drum sounds, both the modern snare line and older tom driven tribal beats. It is a good thing that Schaffer elected to separate this into 3 parts, because truth be told, it is difficult to find time to listen to something this long.

All in all, I do agree with the sentiment that this album is cheesy, it is loaded with all the musical clichés that defined the 80s traditional and thrash scenes. For the most part, Iced Earth has never really been about innovation, they’ve been about doing the same thing that Hammerfall and Kamelot do, keep the older sound going in this new age of advanced digital recording technology. I don’t share the urge to see huge leaps and bounds in the metal scene that some hope to see, what I seek is the credibility and musicality of it to survive all of the fly by night trends in popular culture, and musically this album succeeds in that respect.

Now, to address the political controversy that the alleged patriotic themes of this album possesses, as they have no doubt stirred up questions amongst the people questioning whether or not to purchase this release. I don’t know if the German release of this CD contains the explanation Schaffer gave on the album I have, but if it does, I recommend that everyone who owns the CD read it because it offers some very revealing facts as to how Schaffer views American history, and thus how this album came out the way it did, particularly in terms of lyrics.

I will not quote Schaffer’s entire explanation, but instead sum up and paraphrase his sentiments. His thoughts are essentially that of history divorced from logical criticism, which is the pedestrian approach to history that most people tend to take. I take Schaffer at his word that he has been diligent in his study of history, however, I question what books he has been reading as it appears that they are the status quo variety that gloss over some of the specifics of certain historical figures.

Basically, the kind of patriotism at work here is not the kind that I practice, it is not a rational love for your country because you have benefited from the liberties it allows you and the rights that you enjoy because of it’s government’s practice of protecting them. The kind of patriotism on display on this album, unlike what was on Manowar’s 2002 release, is that of loyalty without question, of doing things that contradict your own principles because of some sick, altruistic love of country divorced from your own interests and the people you care about. That is essentially what started in 1861 in America, when men of honor and the dearest of friends were propagandized so thoroughly that they would end up slashing each other to pieces on the battlefields, absent from their minds the question of "What kind of Union is worth preserving if it asks us to do such things?".

This album is a magnum opus in terms of it’s musicality and structure, much as the Tower of Babel was probably a magnificent site to behold. But be wary of the message it carries, and question everything that it passes off as fact in terms of politics and philosophy. For those of you whom are still in school being fed a mixture of half-truths about the history of our country, apply this same form of intellectual scrutiny and curiosity to what your teachers tell you, don’t take anything at face value. I can recommend this album to fans of power metal, and to fans of thrash who don’t mind having the vocals highlighted and there being an orchestra supporting it. It is mostly a good album, despite having some rather large skeletons in it’s conceptual closet.