Iced Earth – Plagues of Babylon
Release date: Jan. 6 (EU), Jan. 21, 2014 (US)
2014 starts off with a bang, with the release of Iced Earth’s eleventh and newest studio effort, “Plagues of Babylon“. If you’ve never heard of the band or not too familiar with them, well shame on you. The outfit has been around for almost 30 years, which is a feat not many can say they have accomplished. However, this was pretty difficult to achieve, considering the numerous amounts of line-up changes, with the mastermind Jon Schaffer at the helm for the entirety. Iced Earth is a band that covers many sub-genres, including heavy, thrash, power, and even bits of progressive metal thrown in there. Even with the group’s sound changing in many directions at different times, the albums it has created are some of the most memorable of said sub-genres and you should never have a problem picking them out of the crowd.
It’s 2014, and I have to say that their latest release is the culmination of their previous years all into one, creating one of the best releases of their career. This may seem like a lot to say, considering the 2011 “Dystopia“ release was great, but at the same time inconsistent and rough. There was quite a bit of a potential within it though and I figured the band would mature and gain more experience as time went on. Listening to the newest effort now, I wasn’t mistaken. “Plagues of Babylon“ can be described as formulaic perfection.
The first and self-titled track of the album was released in late 2013 and immediately hooked me in. The first moments created a darkened and thunderous atmosphere, much like the marching of soldiers. The track progresses well and you can’t help but become fully encapsulated by the melding of the instrumentals and Stu Block’s vocals as they create a powerful and destructive sound that resonated from their previous album. This marks Stu’s second album with Iced Earth and his vocals have improved tenfold, bringing in the best of both worlds from previous vocalists Matt Barlow and Tim “Ripper” Owens. Many people were wary, and still are, about the fact that Stu took over vocal duties, but I don’t see what the fuss is all about. He brings in so much energy, ferocity, and emotion with his work that it’s unquestionable as to why he’s in the band now. The backing vocals from the other members provide another sense of atmosphere, creating this anthemic style that travels throughout the record and becomes a set theme.
Speaking of themes, throughout the first six tracks, you’ll find yourself set in the world of Something Wicked, which has been carrying through most of the band’s albums in a loose form. This “saga” of sorts is the telling of the origins of man, by their way of descending upon the primitive Setian race. The saga follows alongside similar stories from history, as well as the Bible, where man begins to fall due to the revenge of the Setians and their Messiah, Set Abominae. This concept is absolutely beautiful and gruesome at the same time and should engross anyone who loves concept ideas in music. When I first read of this concept being implemented within a majority of “Plagues of Babylon“, I was immediately hooked on the idea.
The band decides to go through more of the old school route instrumentally, being more straightforward and relying on riffs and rhythms that have been done before. However, you can’t help but be completely enamoured by how the group has stitched everything together, creating a story that is both interesting and easily listenable. Jon Schaffer provides many styles and uses of guitar on the album, alongside lead guitarist Troy Steele and Luke Appleton on bass. The trio create crunchy riffs, beautiful melodies, and crushing rhythms in quite the effective manner. The synergy is astounding. New stick-master, Raphael Saini carries the band along with his drumming talents which drive and retract when necessary. The effort pulled off by all the members is some of the most cohesive work that I’ve heard from the band in quite a while. It’s good to see a synergy working and creating results.
The second half of the album doesn’t contain much of a concept or overall idea but this isn’t a bad thing at all. I’ve never really listened to an album that was half concept and half random songs, but Iced Earth pulls it off pretty well. “If I Could See You” is a ballad in the most basic sense. Stu’s vocals dominate this track with a powerful and emotional aura. These elements are reminiscent of “Anthem” from their previous work.
The band even tune up a weighty rendition of the old Jimmy Webb classic, “The Highwayman”. The song feature backing vocals by Volbeat’s Michael Poulsen and Russell Allen of Symphony X and Adrenaline Mob.
Although I’d like to go more into detail about the record, I feel like it should be experienced first hand by listening to it. Iced Earth pull out all the stops with their story-driven songwriting, epic choruses, and head-bang worthy instrumental work. Schaffer also did a stunning job on the album’s production. If you’re a fan of these guys or just now hearing about them, check this album out immediately. Every one of these tracks stands out with its own charm. “Plagues of Babylon“ is starting the year off right with a record already worthy of the top album list and the first week is not even over yet.