Artist: Iced Earth
Album: Plagues of Babylon
Released: 06.01.2014 (Europe), 21.01.2014 (North America)
Label: Century Media
Iced Earth was one of the first metal bands I was introduced to, back when I was a scrawny teenage girl trying to figure out what I wanted from music. I developed a passionate relationship with the first album of theirs that I encountered, Horror Show (2001), and have yet really to develop such a relationship with an album of theirs since. While I love “The Dark Saga,” “I Died for You,” and “A Question of Heaven,” I can’t say I ever listen to any other tracks off 1996’s The Dark Saga (with the occasional exception of “The Hunter”). Burnt Offerings (1995) and Something Wicked this Way Comes (1998) have some great tracks, and for the most part, I consider Iced Earth to be an old favorite of mine in spite of the fact that I can’t name nearly as many favorite songs from them as I can by other bands I love. Yet I love Iced Earth and I love their style. I’ve never listened to their older pre-Barlow albums, but their mid-range stuff has always had a special place in my heart. Also, once upon a time I bought a ticket to an Iced Earth meet n’ greet back in Canada (when Matt Barlow was back with them) and I found John Schaffer to be one of the nicest men in metal I’ve ever met, and very appreciative of his fans.
I was also a huge fan of Matt Barlow and I (figuratively) wept for them when they chose Tim “Ripper” Owens as a replacement. He was the Blayze Bailey to their Iron Maiden, or the… Ripper Owens to their Judas Priest. Stu Block, on the other hand, has really earned his place though. Their 2011 album, Dystopia, featuring Block for the first time, was a perfectly decent first album with some pretty good songs. Block has a solid voice, similar in style to Barlow, yet in songs like the title track, “Dystopia,” he has a bit of a Halford-style wail that he wasn’t afraid to unleash. I really enjoyed some of the tracks from that album, like “Dystopia” and “Anthem.”
So naturally I was curious about what was to come of their second album with Stu Block behind the vocal reins. Plagues of Babylon was released on January 6th, 2014 (in Europe), to mostly positive reviews all around.
Listen as you read here:
First off, since I’m big on judging album art, I’m going to start by saying that this was possibly my least favorite of their covers. It’s got the same style of characters that Iced Earth is known for, except with a grim, dark grittiness that I’m not really into. I’ve always really liked their art style, but this one fell a bit short. It’s not as sharp or clear or colorful as their other albums, and though this may be fitting for an album with a word like “plague” in the title, it looks like it’d suit black metal fans more than fans like me. However, I have never been one to judge an album by its art. Onward to the music…
The opening track, “Plagues of Babylon,” portrays just how deeply Iced Earth has been inspired by Iron Maiden. There was a definite “Powerslave” vibe to this track, a hint of Egyptian sound, and that galloping rhythm that Iced Earth is known for that is very reminiscent of Maiden. All-in-all, it’s a good start to the album.
The fast second track, “Democide,” didn’t do much to pull me in. However, I’m sure fans of much older Iced Earth might like that track a little more than I did. “The Culling,” on the other hand, did catch my attention. It has a certain taste of the mid-range Iced Earth that I loved so much (I’m going to say that it feels a bit like Something Wicked). However, when we reach “Among the Living Dead,” I was expecting to hear the featured voice of Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), one of my favorite vocalists, and I found it surprisingly lacking. While he is present, he’s very much overpowered by Block and you don’t really get what I would consider to be the full potential of a contribution by him.
“Resistance” is a rather unusual track based on Iced Earth’s usual style. It’s an interesting change-up for them with that heavy stopping guitar (is there a term for that technique?) and they manage to pull it off and it does offer a little change-up about a third of the way through the album to jolt you out of the sensation of being among familiar friends. “The End?” is a proper Iced Earth epic, and while I don’t think it has quite the spirit of some of their older ones, it certainly shows a lot of Block’s flare and it really seems that he’s come into his place with Iced Earth. While it might not be the pinnacle of their current sound, it certainly shows a lot of future potential for the band.
“If I Could See You Now” is a true Iced Earth ballad. I won’t say that it topped my old favorites, such as “Watching Over Me” or even “Ghost of Freedom,” but it is beautiful and Block shows that he’s able to be more tender when singing as well. “Cthulhu” is a really interesting track. I liked the gentle introduction – it leads so nicely into the heavier sound that is to come. Plus, bonus points for a Lovecraft-based song. The chorus also really feels like some good old-fashioned Iced Earth.
“Peacemaker” is a proper heavy, galloping Iced Earth song. I dig it. It’s probably one of the most interesting tracks off the album. It has a little more flare than most of the rest of them. “Parasite,” on the other hand, was not really within the realms of what I like from Iced Earth. It’s not offensive to my ears, but neither would I choose to specifically listen to this one. Block has a very different sound on “Spirit of the Times,” a Sons of Liberty cover. As far as ballads and covers go, this is quite well done. That big part about, “My soul is not for sale,” could’ve somehow been more powerful to me though. Also, it’s a bit strange to include a cover before the outro, though this does suit the album’s style a bit.
As a final track, “Highwayman” was a bit of a surprise. It’s certainly very different from anything else on the album, focusing less on the prior themes, and acts as a straight-up heavy metal western. It’s an unusual and interesting track, but it’s a bit out of place against the rest of the album. Turns out, it’s a Jimmy Webb cover. With that in mind, I’d again say it belongs after the outro, and not in this spot, as it doesn’t match the style of the album the way “Spirit of the Times” did.
The outro… that was just disappointing. People swearing pointlessly? I would expect more from a band like this. I have no idea why that happened but it seems to serve no purpose whatsoever other than to confuse the listeners.
Overall comments? It is worth noting that in a lot of these tracks, the verses might be a little bit lackluster, but the choruses are often reasonably powerful, and Block does them great service with his passion behind the mic. Also, I wonder if Block was holding back a bit, of his own merit or of Schaffer’s. Either way, those Halford-esque screams that I was praising in Dystopia were entirely absent in this album.
So in conclusion, I like this album. I’d be happy to put it on while I’m working and let it just slide through the background. However, as I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve had a very medium-passionate love for Iced Earth. When they’re good, they’re amazing. When they’re not good, they’re a solid mediocre. The album is a bit closer to the pre-2000s material to the albums I’ve loved. While I do think this is a good album to put on and listen to, I didn’t get properly gripped by any of the songs off it; there wasn’t a lot of oomph and I won’t be calling any of these the best tracks of 2014. However, it is a good album, with a lot of potential, and I hope they keep going up from here!
A final score? I’ll go with a 6.5/10. It’s definitely better than a 6, but I don’t know if it quite deserves a 7.
01. Plagues of Babylon
03. The Culling
04. Among the Living Dead
06. The End?
07. If I Could See You
11. Spirit of the Times (Sons of Liberty cover)
12. Highwayman (Jimmy Webb cover)