Review – Iced Earth (Dystopia)

Iced EarthDystopia
Released 2011
(Power / Thrash Metal)

Iced Earth is a band with a lot of history: Founded as Purgatory in 1984 and then renamed to Iced Earth, 11 albums (excluding the Live albums) and six different vocalists (counting Matt Barlow twice). Dystopia is the debut of the sixth named Stu Block after Matt Barlow unfortunately retired a second time. How does the Canadian fare following the footsteps of his predecessor and the legacy he left behind? The other question is: how’s the music now, after the two Something wicked-storyline concept albums Framing armageddon and The crucible of man, which, in their own right, have been good, but different and somehow like a musical, figuratively.

The intro to the first song Dystopia sounds somewhat familiar and, to me, creates an association with a march on something. That may stem from the intro to The glorious burden although this one is heavy on guitars. After 62 seconds Stu puts an end to this with a nice roar that starts the main part of the song. Fast drumming and Schaffer style rhythm guitar remind me of Creator failure, only in fast, which makes me hope this continues throughout the remaining tracks. And it does! Boiling point and Days of rage make my heart leap-frog at the pure energy and speed.

But as we all know, Iced Earth is not just about speed and thrashy riffing but also slow titles with a catchy chorus. This is where Anguish of youth and End of innocence come in. The first shares similarities with Melancholy where the latter can be compared to Ghost of freedom which makes them both a typical Iced Earth song, only catered to a different voice.

Halfway through the songs you get a good enough picture for a short comparison of the previous one-and-only voice of Iced Earth and the new one. The biggest thing I noticed is that Matt and Stu sound quite similar on those low and strong parts. Since those make up the majority of the songs this is a big win. Where Stu falls short is the soft and sentimental songs (take End of innocence as mentioned in the previous paragraph and listen to Ghost of freedom afterwards). He can sing for sure and it sounds well but this is where Matt really shined and why his songs are a legacy (in a rhyme? *scnr*). Last thing to mention are the high screams and, although Stu is capable of going up high, Matt wins this one too. I like his screams much better. They have more charisma, more power. I can’t imagine Dracula sung by any other than Matt Barlow. But given Stu’s background I’d really rather prefer Iced Earth incorporate more rough edges and utilize his growling capabilities occasionally.

This album is a step back and forth at the same time. Forward, because of a new vocalist (the third in a row). Forward, because the music is a step away from the previous concept albums being the step back at the same time. It’s a step back to the kind of music that defined the band the years before. After the two heavy-weight predecessors this feels light-weight, energetic and fresh. Without discrediting Jon Schaffer and his recent work – which I really like – one might say he found back his manhood. The overall tone of the music is dark, very similar to Burnt offerings, but much more accessible. The sturcture of the songs is more simple, only at a faster pace.

Although the second half of the album isn’t stuffed with outstanding songs like Boiling point or Days of rage it is still solid and entertaining quality music. One thing that I am missing are iconic riffs and extended instrument-only parts such as in The coming curse or Travel in stygian. As a matter of fact, songs of such complexity are completely missing. But this is also why this album feels fresh. It is simple and straightforward. Another thing that “bothers” me and that draws a comparison to another album which introduced a new vocalist after Matt Barlow leaving, is the technique with which the vocals are recorded. The way Stu Block and Tim Owens emphasize words is very similar in every song. Even though each song is different – as was the case on The glorious burden – there’s a sense of repetition to all of them.

I definitely hope Stu Block stays. He’s done a good job and already proved to me that he can do it live on stage, too. Not just his stuff, but also Tim Owens’ songs and all the Barlow classics! I’m looking forward to next year’s release which is scheduled for february. The band had enough time to get used to Stu’s style of singing which may result in more diversity and maybe even the comeback of the complex songs.

(Summer Breeze Festival 2012 – Germany)

This being back to the roots I award: 6 of 10 heavy riffs

Tracklist and links:

Review Ratings Explained

  1. Dystopia (6 Heavy riffs)
  2. Anthem (6 Heavy riffs)
  3. Boiling point (8 Heavy riffs)
  4. Anguish of youth (7 Heavy riffs)
  5. V (7 Heavy riffs)
  6. Dark city (6 Heavy riffs)
  7. Equilibrium (4 Heavy riffs)
  8. Days of rage (7 Heavy riffs)
  9. End of innocence (5 Heavy riffs)
  10. Soylent green (6 Heavy riffs)
  11. Iron will (5 Heavy riffs)
  12. Tragedy and triumph (6 Heavy riffs)
  13. Anthem (String mix) (7 Heavy riffs)

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