Iced Earth’s 1999 live recording “Alive in Athens,” and in particular its 2006 DVD release, is an important point of reference for me, not only for the rest of the band’s 26-year body of work, but for melodic metal in general. For close to three hours, the band danced the line between power and thrash metal, negotiating their way through blistering rhythm guitar attacks and hymnal choruses as if it were the easiest thing in the world. In the vanguard of the assault were a snarling Jon Schaffer (hairy; sleeveless shirt) and a glowering Matt Barlow (hairier; no shirt), two masters of their craft at the top of their game, exhibiting twice as much fire and passion as on the studio recordings of the same songs. More than a great concert recording, it was a sort of Platonic ideal of heavy metal music; if one were to represent the virtues of power and thrash metal in a Venn diagram, the “Alive in Athens” recordings of “Dante’s Inferno” and “Travel in Stygian” would occupy the minute point where all of the circles intersect.
It’s because of this that I think of Iced Earth with a certain melancholy these days; everything they’ve done since that high point has been like watching the stars come out of alignment. Barlow cut off all his hair, and left, then came back, then left again. Their lineup has become a conveyor belt with Schaffer as the single fixed point (of the members present on “Plagues of Babylon,” lead guitarist Troy Seele has been with the group for 7 years, vocalist Stu Block for 3 and bassist Luke Appleton for 2). Listeners’ reactions have become more pronouncedly indifferent with each new release – my own last dalliance with the band’s output was 2008’s sleepy-sounding “The Crucible of Man.” 2011’s “Dystopia,” which I skipped, was hailed by some, however, as a partial return to form.
I can’t speak to the veracity of that claim, but if “Plagues of Babylon” is anything to go by, they certainly seem to have regained a certain virility of late. Tempos are back up to running pace; songs seem to be animated by anger and venom rather than dour solemnity. It doesn’t sound like it needs a zimmer frame to move without breaking both hips. All of those things are a step up from “The Crucible of Man” (not to mention last year’s offering from spin-off band Ashes of Ares), and sure enough, “Plagues of Babylon” edges into the territory of “pretty good.”
In spite of everything, Iced Earth have always managed to retain a sound that’s distinctive and characteristic even at their lowest ebb. Part of that is Schaffer’s unmistakable brand of riff, threatening minor-key constructs with judiciously placed open-string notes, tense and urgent and hungry. One of the biggest criticisms laid at the guitarist’s feet over the years has been the extent to which he has rehashed his own work, writing on autopilot, but when he’s firing on all cylinders, his rhythm guitar has a rigour and density to it that puts to shame most contemporary American metal. Examples of his good work can be found throughout “Plagues of Babylon;” “Democide” plays like a well-tuned machine ideally calibrated to incite mosh pits, and the superb centrepiece, the seven-minute “The End?” sees the band momentarily return to those glorious “Alive in Athens” heights, a great cathartic rush of riffs where every bar is placed with architectural precision. “Resistance” and “Parasite,” more mid-paced numbers, nevertheless pack a steel-gauntleted punch. Appleton and session drummer Raphael Saini’s solid-but-not-showy performances give Schaffer’s riffs the appropriate girth and mass, and combined with Seele’s slick harmonic leads, you have a band that mesh like a military unit – at its best moments, “Plagues of Babylon” moves like a sleek, optimised mechanism, lean, propulsive and powerful, every moving part finding its place with a gratifying click.
At its best moments, that is. That’s the other side of the coin; for every moment the band spend with the pedal to the floor, delivering a vicious, well-honed power/thrash attack, there’s a moment where they idle along in third gear, teasing out intros and interludes to breaking point. The flabby title track is one such offender, spending seven minutes beginning without ever seeming to actually start. “The Culling” is similarly adrift and rudderless, based mainly on lingering, foreboding chords that don’t provide a sound foundation for a song. The ballad “If I Could See You” relies on slow, sombre clean guitar melodies that sound rehashed from “The Dark Saga” (an album that came out 16 years ago), as does the maudlin and uneventful “Spirit of the Times,” a cover of a song by Schaffer’s side-project Sons of Liberty (surely I can’t be the only one who thinks that covering a song you yourself wrote is cheating?). “Peacemaker” is frankly pretty dreadful, a chirpy, upbeat tribute to pro-firearms legislation, which, regardless of your politics, I think we can all agree seems out of place in an album that sets out to evoke scenes of epic biblical horror with a title like “Plagues of Babylon.”
Singer Stu Block turns out to be a boon to the record. I remember being sceptical when I heard the announcement in 2011 that he would be filling the vacant position following the tenures of Matt Barlow and Tim “Ripper” Owens, being familiar with his rather reedy and powerless performance in prog-metallers Into Eternity. He seems to have addressed concerns such as mine by putting on the best Barlow-impression he can, and if his impersonation of that antiheroic baritone isn’t quite as deep and full as the original article, it’s still the ideal complement to Iced Earth’s theatrically dark take on heavy metal. He completely sells the huge chorus hooks that animate “Among the Living Dead” (where he harmonises with Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kürsch), enough that it can be added to the list of hits rather than misses, as well as the excellent “Cthulhu.” In the interest of full disclosure however, the vocal moment that struck me the most on the album was on the cover of Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman,” and when I looked it up in the liner notes, I realised it was actually a guest appearance from Symphony X’s Russell Allen. Make of that what you will.
The better moments on “Plagues of Babylon” are worth hearing, and prove that Schaffer and his crew aren’t completely out of gas yet. A glance at Ashes of Ares reminds of how much worse it could have been; there are good songs and good performances here, they’re just packed in together with gallons of uninspiring filler and fluff. If Iced Earth want to regain the adulation they once earned in earnest, they need to drop the saccharine balladry and the torpid sequences of buildup that forget to pay off and focus on what they do well; savage, hungry riffs with a larger-than-life sensibility. “Plagues of Babylon” demonstrates that Iced Earth still have teeth; I just wish they’d bare them more often.
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)