Sound: Where do I begin in trying to describe a band like Iced Earth? They've been through so many lineup changes that they're beginning to make Megadeth look like a stable band. But surprisingly enough, this hasn't slowed the group down at all, it seems. Just recently, vocalist Matt Barlow departed (for the second time), and the band acquired Stu Block of Into Eternity to take his place. Stu has some pretty big shoes to fill, as Barlow is seen by many as the iconic Iced Earth singer, similar to Bruce Dickinson in Iron Maiden. Now, the last time I listened to Iced Earth was back in 2007 when "Framing Armageddon" was released. I was highly intrigued by the storyline so I decided to check it out. But I felt like the music couldn't live up to the hype (I just couldn't get into it), and they fell off my radar for the next few years. But fast forward to 2011, and "Dystopia" may have actually changed my mind about this band.
"Dystopia" starts off with the title track, with anthemic leads playing over a marching drum beat. It isn't long before the thrash influence becomes apparent, with pounding drums and fast riffing quickly taking the stage. Now, for those of you who aren't familiar with Iced Earth, the first track of Dystopia only offers a glimpse into what they're all about, it's the proverbial tip of the iceberg. They're a peculiar band to me, genre-wise. I'm the type who likes to be very precise in his library with tags, but Iced Earth presented a problem to me. You see, I've never been satisfied with simply labeling a band as "heavy metal" unless it was Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, or something similar. But that's as far as I can really get with Iced Earth. Yes, they do have thrash elements and their moments of power metal, but at the core, they are pure heavy metal. For beginners of and strangers to Iced Earth, the easiest way I could describe them is a heavier, faster Iron Maiden.
Even with that in mind, however, to say that that's all they are wouldn't do Iced Earth justice. There's just so much more going on in "Dystopia" than that. "Boiling Point" is full of furious thrash riffing, and actually reminds me of Megadeth's Take No Prisoners with its call-and-answer vocal stylings. But then right after that, you get "Anguish Of Youth", which sounds more like an 80s hard rock ballad (albeit with some melancholic metal overtones). It's not all about being fast and heavy, and the variety presented in "Dystopia" pleases me. After "V", halfway through the album, I had already made my mind up. I was enjoying Iced Earth more than I had ever thought I could. Then Dark City started, and things just kept getting better.
What I love about Dystopia is how epic and uplifting the music sounds. The riffing is aggressive, yet in a positive way. John Schaffer seems to be back in top shape. Even underneath the solos, he's still busy taking care of business. The choruses are absolutely massive. I haven't wanted to sing along to a metal song like this in a long time. And the guitar solos have so much energy in them that I actually find myself able to enjoy guitar solos again. I'd been listening to so much modern metal where guitar solos are abused just to prove a point that I had grown tired of them, but it's different here. Troy Seele has outdone himself this time. His solos are tasteful and never out of place or excessive.
The album hits a low point, in my opinion, with the song "Days Of Rage". I just found the track to be boring and unnecessary. Technically, there's nothing wrong with it, but it just seemed a little lacking when compared to the rest of the songs. The only redeeming quality in my opinion is a nifty little bass solo about halfway through the track. The next two tracks, however, wrap up the album beautifully. The "End Of Innocence", while being one of the lightest tracks on the album, ends up being one of the most powerful; given that Stu wrote it for his mother, who is terminally I'll with cancer. The soft-natured track gives you a little bit of time to breathe before the epic that is the aptly titled "Tragedy And Triumph". The end of the album starts the same way the beginning did, with melodic lead lines played over a battle march. But the atmosphere is completely different. This track does a great job of capturing the essence of Iced Earth and is nothing short of a success when it comes to making me feel like a champion. That's a win in my book. // 8
Lyrics: The main question that's been on everyone's mind is, "Can Stu live up to Matt?" Well, I guess I should say that's been the question that's been on everyone else's minds. It isn't much of an issue to me, as I was never what you would call a hardcore Iced Earth fan. I've never become as attached to Barlow as most other IE fans. My life story aside, I think Stu is incredible. He has quite an impressive range, and a demanding voice, at that. He can go from a deep throaty yell to an ear-piercing falsetto like nobody's business. John Schaffer really made a good choice for replacing Matt.
One of the most addictive things about this album is the vocal melodies. Generally, they're very melodic and uplifting, but Stu Block can get down and dirty if needed. Songs like "Anguish Of Youth" and "End Of Innocence" also showcase a mellower side to Stu's voice. Lyrically, the themes on this album are common to many other metal bands, specifically power metal bands. Things like triumphant victories, overcoming obstacles, etc. There are a few tracks, though, which are a little deeper than that, most noticeably "End Of Innocence". As I said earlier, it was written by Stu for his mother, who is terminally I'll with cancer. Also, the first and last tracks both feature the return of Set Abominae, the protagonist from the "Something Wicked" series. Overall, though, the vocal performance on this album is spectacular, and Stu Block has definitely earned his keep in Iced Earth. // 9
Overall Impression: "Dystopia" is a dark horse album for me. I didn't know what to expect, but needless to say, I was quite impressed. It's been a while since I've come across a metal album featuring predominantly clean vocals that I've found to be this good. Songs like "Boiling Point", "Dark City", and "Anguish Of Youth" were what sold me to the album, but "Tragedy And Triumph" was definitely my favorite track. Iced Earth have seen many members come and go, but it's a cycle that helps keep things interesting. Matt Barlow will be missed by many, but Stu Block has made his home in the band, and many fans seem to agree. A few lineup changes can't slow this band down; they'll continue to crank out metallic anthems as long as there's someone to carry the torch. // 8
- Jay Brown (c) 2011