(2017) Iced Earth: Incorruptible

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Artist: Iced Earth
Album: Incorruptible
Release: 16.06.2017
Label: Century Media

 

It’s been 3 years, which means it’s time for another Iced Earth album. There’s been some debate over the progression of the band in recent years following the departure of Matt Barlow on lead vocals. Not everyone was against Tim “Ripper” Owens (ex-Judas Priest) as his replacement, but I can’t say I was on board with him. Then, for a brief time, Barlow returned, but after his second departure, the band went with a much more appropriate replacement in Stu Block (Into Eternity). Block managed to fill Barlow’s shoes far better than Owens had, with a similar range and sound, but he also boasts a bit more vocal diversity. However, the albums since he joined the band have left something to be desired. 2011’s Dystopia started strong but fizzled out a few songs in, while Plagues of Babylon from 2014 wasn’t really much to impress. The third time’s the charm though, so I had hoped that Incorruptible would be that charm.

 

Well, first of all, I have to say that I’m pleased with their album art. I’ve always really loved Iced Earth’s cover art, with the exception of Plagues of Babylon, which maybe intentionally looked… plague-y, but it wasn’t visually pleasing and looked, in my eyes, to be a half-rate black metal album cover. So to see Set Abominae looking cool and professionally done again was a nice bonus.

The opening track, “Great Heathen Army”, starts on a deep, mildly foreboding note, that brings to mind some sort of impending Lord of the Rings -type battle, but brings in the traditional Iced Earth chants (think back to “Damian”). With a Viking-themed song, this feels pretty appropriate. Then there are… growls? They sound almost clanging, so if they are growls, they’re mixed with something else. And then Block comes in with his Halford-esque scream and the John Schaffer rhythm gallop begins! It starts to feel like real, honest-to-whatever Iced Earth, and the solo by Jake Dreyer works quite nicely if I do say so. We get some further Halfordian singing, and I like the rising guitar lines that close out the song. Not sure about the growly part in the beginning, but it feels like a pretty decent start to the album on the whole.

“Black Flag” continues with some haunting bits reminiscent of Horror Show (2001), before the guitars saunter in to pick things up. The track immediately makes me think it could’ve been from Burnt Offerings (1995) until it goes full Iron Maiden gallop about a minute and a half in. I’m also glad to see they’re not squandering Block’s Halfordian high singing at this point, much as they did on the last album. One line stood out to me instantly: “barrels of rum, black powder, and the clash of the blades” – I can’t decide if it’s just trope-y enough to be fun or if it’s a little too on-the-nose regarding pirate tropes, but Block is really emphasizing the ‘R’s in there. It certainly jumps out, as the music takes a backseat to that line each time it shows up. Nevertheless, I’ll go out on a limb and say that a pirate song that doesn’t sound specifically like a ‘pirate song’ (looking at you, Alestorm), but is simple a metal song about pirates, is pretty refreshing.

As the gentle backing music and guitar opens “Raven Wing”, the second single, I was immediately excited at the prospect of another Iced Earth ballad, and waited somewhat impatiently to see if the song would kick off or remain gentle. Block remains calm through the first verse, his deeper range sounding majestic. The guitars kick up a bit going into the chorus though, and the dream of a track-3 ballad fades, though the song remains perhaps a ballad+ (maybe ++) in speed, and appears to have at least somewhat heartfelt lyrics. It might be a bit early in the album’s flow for a gentler track at this point, but we’ll let it slide because the chill solo is really nice.

“The Veil” is another gentle and passionate starter, acting as a potentially high-oomph ballad+ with all the gusto Block offers in the chorus. I’d say at this point the flow of the album is a bit odd – a slower song followed by an even slower song at tracks 3 and 4 is a bit too soon or too much, and the album could’ve started with a bit more energy – maybe one more faster track before these. Credit for the spoken-word parts in here though, which is another Iced Earth tradition that I’d be sad to see missing from an album. Also, the flow thing is a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things.

The album kicks up again with “Seven Headed Whore” – what an odd/great song title. I wish I had the lyrics. I like the harmonizing of Block’s regular vocals with his high vocals throughout the track, as well as the solo, which I find very reminiscent of 1995-1998 -era Blind Guardian. Unexpected, but cool, especially considering the good relationship between these two bands. Ultimately, I think this was a good first single – it shows a lot of the band’s strengths currently, and while I wouldn’t necessarily call it an ear-worm, it does have some good power to it.

“The Relic (pt. 1)” then sounds a bit like a story song, with some very cool guitar parts yet again – I’m finding myself very on board with Dreyer’s performance on lead guitars. Of note, interestingly enough, there is not a part 2 to this song – or at least not immediately evident. A new story could be starting, perhaps? In vibe, this feels a bit like “Damian” but shorter – I love “Damian” but it’s awfully long sometimes, so this is working for me pretty well.

“Ghost Dance (Awaken the Ancestors)” is catchy right off the bat and the first song to truly pique my interest from the get-go, with its clear Iron Maiden influence, yet still sounding oh-so-Iced Earth. The long soloing intro works very well, and truly, this band’s rhythm section – not just Schaffer, but Luke Appleton (bass) and Brent Smedley (drums) – are really shining through. After a vocal-less chorus, I realized that this is, in fact, an instrumental track – not common in Iced Earth to my recollection, but definitely a song I’d like to hear live if Block needs a break midway through a show. There is a vocal part a little over halfway through though, and I can’t say if I like it or not – I’m not even sure if they’re words or sounds being sung, but they’re a little strange. Since the song’s title seems to sound somewhat Native American (for example), and there are some similar-styled flutes here and there, I’ll have to assume that chanting is meant to sound like a Native ritual or something of the sort. ‘Vocally’ it’s a bit odd, but musically, this song is an instant favorite.

“Brothers” brings the vocals back, and the song progresses in a fairly simple, but I’m happy to say effective manner, with a pretty cheery, brotherly (appropriate, no?) chorus. This could be the theme song for any two people taking on pretty much anything together, talking about trust and strong bonds. This could be a pretty basic example of the effectiveness of ‘less is more’ in music. I didn’t realize that this song is actually about Block and Schaffer, which makes it pretty special in that context. The song pretty much hits the peak limits of brotherly love just barely without crossing into the romantic zone; it’s cheesy, but I’m not gonna lie, I kind of love it.

A nice little solo/riff starts off the second-last track, “Defiance”, and on the whole this just feels like a straight-up good Iced Earth track. Nice energy, decent lyrics from what I can tell, a pretty good solo, and such wonderful rhythms. Few bands can really center themselves around the rhythms and pull it off the way that Iced Earth can. Block is nicely dynamic and it feels good to listen to this song. Actually, this might be the first song that got stuck in my head and feels like it’ll be really good to sing along to. Next tour to come here, I hope to hear this!

The album closes out with “Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862)”, and I had to look up what that would be about. The answer is, the Battle of Fredericksburg, and the Irish Brigade in particular. Clocking in at 9½ minutes, this is by far the longest track on the album, and works really well, so very well, as an Iced Earth epic. “Forward clear the way!” chants in the background as Block leads the charge with his vocals. The guitar breaks feel really organic and the song progresses really nicely – you’d hardly know the story was a tragic one because it’s so powerful. There is a straight-up Iron Maiden solo at about 4:45ish, and I can’t deny that I appreciate how much you can feel this band’s love for Iron Maiden, without ever really feeling like a rip-off. That influence is ever-present, but never feels cheap or unoriginal. The song then slows down with some bagpipes, shouting, and war drums (forgive my lack of drummer lingo, but are they the snares?), and then the song kicks back into overdrive. This song definitely closes out the album on a really high note, leaving the listener wanting more – exactly as the last song should!

 

At first I was wondering if what Iced Earth lacks these days is the emotional pull of songs like “Ghost of Freedom”, “The Dark Saga”, “A Question of Heaven”, “Watching Over Me”, and so on, but that really doesn’t seem to be the case. Iced Earth has always been at their best telling stories (making me again very sad that the press copies don’t come with lyrics because otherwise I’d have made this review much more interesting), and they certainly rock the stories on this album; there are lots of great lines and passionate parts on Incorruptible. But while this album on the whole is very good, it still lacks a few stand-out tracks. There aren’t any immediate ear-worms on this album (something Iced Earth has been missing since “Dystopia” and “Anthem”). That said, the album is actually very satisfying – I can listen to it both actively and passively, and in fact, while listening passively, more songs started to reach out and grab me, and I wouldn’t say there are any total duds either. I think it has some of the old things you loved about Iced Earth from the 90s, while it still embraces the newer members and has evolved in a positive manner. The album’s got a bit of a slow burn, but I do recommend giving it a few goes before making up your mind. I think, ultimately, you’ll find yourselves quite satisfied with it. So yes indeed, third time’s the charm!

Rating: 8.5-9/10, 4 stars

Tracklist:
1. Great Heathen Army
2. Black Flag
3. Raven Wing
4. The Veil
5. Seven Headed Whore
6. The Relic (part 1)
7. Ghost Dance (Awaken the Ancestors)
8. Brothers
9. Defiance
10. Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862)

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