Iced Earth – Plagues Of Babylon
Reviewed by Kylie McInnes
Let me start by saying that Iced Earth’s Something Wicked This Way Comes was my first foray into the metal underground. Before that point, the only metal I really followed was Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Megadeth. More than anything, Jon Schaffer’s riffs hit me like a ton of bricks, as I was primarily a rhythm guitar player and Jon had these riffs that thrashed faster and harder than anything James Hetfield showed me. I was hooked, and for a short time, Iced Earth was “my band.” There was this epic vibe, and even some great storytelling in the “Something Wicked” trilogy.
However, it seems that Jon’s riff well has run dry. 2001’s Horror Show was the last album that really connected with me. It still felt fresh, albeit in a b-movie cheese kind of way. With the (first) departure of Matt Barlow, I felt that The Glorious Burden was Tim Owens absolutely ripping it up over Jon’s scrapheap of riffs (ok, “Gettysburg” rocked). The long-awaited fleshing-out of the “Something Wicked” plot was more snooze-inducing metal-by-numbers (“Ten Thousand Strong” being about the only track I bother going back to), and 2011’s Dystopia was still even more “Generic Jon Schaffer Song #2,397,641.”
Surely Jon just needed a little more time to gel with vocalist Stu Block and get some more solid ideas. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case. Oh sure, there are promising moments strewn about, but between songs that feel incomplete (the title track) to that one song with “that Jon Schaffer riff” and the other 5 songs also with “that Jon Schaffer riff”, the eagle is still stuck idling in neutral, rather than taking off in a blaze of glory like it did on the first six albums.
It’s painfully obvious at this point that Jon needs another Randy Shawver (Iced Earth’s lead guitarist from ’88-’98) to act as a secondary songwriter. From a technical standpoint, Plagues Of Babylon is phenomenal. Stu Block absolutely kills it, and every riff and drum beat hammer away with razor-sharp precision. However, this is like using the finest stationery, the perfect pen, immaculate non-oxidizing ink, and flawless calligraphy to make out your grocery list. Save for a few minutes of scattered inspiration, this is just another generic mix of songs where no guitar part, drum pattern, or vocal melody would feel out of place on any of Iced Earth’s recent output.
But unlike most generic power metal (though we consider Iced Earth to be power-thrash, but let’s not get too technical here), it’s all mid-tempo drek, rather than something fast that can at least make for something interesting. “Peacemaker” is about the only standout here, as it doesn’t seem to rely so much on Jon’s “galloping for the sake of galloping”, and is actually driven by the vocal and lead guitar melodies.
It seems that the days of a faster, thrashier Iced Earth are long gone, and we are left to accept the offerings of a plodding assembly-line riff factory totally void of inspiration. I can’t even give points for effort here (other than to Stu, since he still sounds like he cares). This isn’t a bad album in as much as it is just plain boring. No heads will be banging, no necks will be thrashing, no fists will be pumping. Even “Peacemaker” is only slightly-faster-than-mid-tempo. Not even Hansi Kürsch’s barely-there guest vocals will warrant further listening.
While this doesn’t take away from their past, I don’t see a viable future for Iced Earth if they choose this path to follow. I shouldn’t have the same feelings about a thrashy power metal album as I would a doomy prog release (ie, boredom and weariness). Sadly, it brings me a great displeasure to announce my first disappointment of the new year.
2.25 // 5