Iced Earth

Plagues Of Babylon

Written by: AP on 06/01/2014 19:55:23

Some would argue that Iced Earth is no longer Iced Earth, given that lead guitarist Jon Schaffer remains its sole original member. During their 29 years of existence, this iconic band has been a veritable revolving doors, hosting no less than a whopping 32 members in that time, five of whom have been vocalists (including current frontman Stu Block - also of Canadian death metal act Into Eternity - who joined Iced Earth in 2011). Somehow though, Schaffer has managed to conserve the sound and style of his brainchild and to keep the critics satisfied, Block's debut and this latest album's predecessor "Dystopia" even earning regard as one of the band's best albums. As such, the bar was raised high for its successor, "Plagues of Babylon".

Schaffer once famously said that Iced Earth "have every dynamic from Pink Floyd to Slayer", and listening to this eleventh studio album "Plagues of Babylon", that statement remains truthful. There have been numerous adjustments and experiments applied to the basic formula of course, such as the keyboards, piano and choral arrangements incorporated into the sophomore effort "Night of the Stormrider" (1991), or the significant increase in heaviness heard on "Burnt Offerings" (1995); but by and large Iced Earth have always tended to subscribe to some notion of a fusion between heavy, thrash, power and progressive metal, and that is what you can expect to hear on this record as well.

While half of the songs featured on "Plagues of Babylon" stand alone, the other half continue to explore Schaffer's fictional "Something Wicked" saga, which was first conceptualised on "Framing Armageddon" (2007) and since on "The Crucible of Man" (2008), and discusses humanity's evil intentions that begin to backfire in its last days leading to self-destruction. The story is of course more complex than that, but it would be too troublesome to outline it in the space of a review; those interested can read about it over at Wikipedia. Whichever the category of song, however, they unite under the canopy of almost preposterously grandiose music stretching from mighty power ballads to punishing speed and thrash metal.

That "Plagues of Babylon" is going to bode soundscape nearing the magnitude of Manowar's collective ego is spelled out early by the eponymous first track, which opens the proceedings with all the power and bravado of an ancient army pounding its spears at the ground in anticipation of the oncoming charge; before unleashing its aptly enormous chorus, "So if you're asking yourself, 'why?' / Your eyes are blind to the raging storm / Will they cleanse the Earth of humanity? / Unleash the plague of Babylon?". This is heavy metal of absolutely monolithic proportions, and above all metal in which the suffix heavy truly deserves its adjective role; its melodic heroism fed by a thick foundation of teutonic thrash that, in the likes of "Democide", sends my thoughts toward the likes of Destruction, Kreator et al.

At over an hour, "Plagues of Babylon" is not the shortest or easiest listen, but on the other hand, as the huge variety of stylistic directions at play goes to show, Iced Earth have such experience in writing diverse and instantly compelling songs that this never manages to become an issue. Whether it's the breadth of Block's pipes - he masters the heroic style of singing customary to bands like Blind Guardian, the raspier approach familiar to fans of Essence, Kreator and Testament, and the all-piercing howls of one Rob Halford (which, by the way, are used to unforgettable effect in the aforementioned "Democide"; the constant movement between the Manowar- and Judas Priest-esque megalomania of the likes of "The Culling" and "Resistance", the Maiden-style gallop of "Among the Living Dead", and the empowering magnificence of the ballads à la "If I Could See You Now" and "Spirit of the Times"; or simply the consistently awe-inspiring musicianship, "Plagues of Babylon" offers intrigue throughout.

One could of course discuss in length the quality and originality of the riffs on display - for fine examples, check out "The End?", "Cthulhu" and "Peacemaker" in particular - or of Block's natural intuition when it comes to the employment of his vast array of vocal approaches, or even of the production, which finds a perfect balance between the crisp and sharp mix of modern times, and the more organic and human style of days past. But we are not in the business of writing novellas; and really the easiest way to find out if I'm an utter ignoramus for labeling one of the best albums to appear in the genre in recent times or not, is to stream it or spend the dime on the CD or vinyl. On "Plagues of Babylon", Iced Earth may well sound every bit as they did in the 90s, probably rendering it irrelevant in the eyes of those fashioning themselves forward-thinking. But aside from the other legends that still persist, you will not find heavy metal as authentic, colossal or memorable as this.

It does of course have its nuggets of weakness as any album would, such as the little too pompous cover of Jimmy Webb's "Highwayman" and the utterly forgettable "Parasite". But queue virtually any of the other tracks and you'll soon be on you way to grab a patched denim vest and possibly a sword, reminiscing about the good ol' days of heavy metal.

8

Download: Plagues of Babylon, Democide, The Culling, Cthulhu, Peacemaker
For the fans of: Blind Guardian, Grave Digger, Judas Priest, Primal Fear
Listen: Facebook

Release date 06.01.2014
Century Media

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