By Carl Begai
It’s been a long, long, long time since Iced Earth has done anything for me, with Something Wicked This Way Comes from 1998 standing as the last knock-down no-holds-barred skull basher in guitarist / founder Jon Schaffer’s catalogue. There have been some noteworthy moments since then – ‘The Phantom Opera Ghost’ from Horror Show and ‘The Reckoning’ from The Glorious Burden being the mindblowing faves – but nothing that dug its hooks in down to the bone for the space of a full album. With that in mind, the usual industry hype that preceded the release of Dystopia sounded like smoke-blow for the hopeless fanboy, automatically setting my expectations on the low side as a failsafe against disappointment.
The first spin through Dystopia yanked jaw to floor. Repeated listens since then – again and again… and again – have convinced me that Iced Earth is back in the game and capable of surpassing the brightest moments of The Dark Saga / Something Wicked… breakthrough era from over a decade past.
Dystopia’s charm and staying power stem from the fact that Schaffer has dialled back his penchant of the past five years for delivering music in epic and sometimes too-big-to-be digested portions. By no means is this a sign he’s lacking in ambition these days; it’s just being channelled in a new (old) way. And, Schaffer should be applauded for stripping things down and keeping focus on the bloody point. The lead off title track is old school bombast diehard fans came to expect of Iced Earth long ago – without a grand lyrical display or truckloads of musical nuance gumming up the works – ultimately setting Dystopia’s tone. Big on singalong hooks, ‘Anthem’ and ‘V’ are custom built for the stage, while the crushing ‘Days Of Rage’ and frantic pair ‘Dark City’ and ‘Boiling Point’ play the opposite end of the spectrum, the last clocking in at a mindboggling and thoroughly enjoyable less than three minutes. Dystopia’s crowning glory, however, may well be the oddly upbeat punk-flavoured closing track, ‘Tragedy And Triumph’, which shoves its message home as much through the music as the lyrics.
It’s worth remembering that Schaffer has been taken to task in the past for seemingly ripping himself off by recycling song arrangements, and Dystopia features two glaring (real or imagined) examples; the ballad-esque ‘Anguish Of Youth’ and crusher ‘Dark City’, which come off as newer renditions of ‘I Died For You’ and ‘Slave To The Dark’ respectively (both from The Dark Saga). Whether this was a conscious move or not, Schaffer is guilty only of following the example set by AC/DC and Iron Maiden, and both tracks in question are stand-out pieces of work.
In the end, new vocalist Stu Block (Into Eternity) should be credited – particularly by those us who have been fence-sitting for over a decade – for bringing the raging intensity back to Iced Earth’s music (circa the Night Of The Stormrider record). The perfect cross between on again-off again singer Matt Barlow and longer-gone Tim “Ripper” Owens, Block’s previously untapped lower range turns out melodies that are lush yet gritty, and his high end shrieks are as potent as ever. Schaffer’s decision to take Block in was pure (evil) genius, and his writing is the proof in the pudding. Plenty of high points to choose from in Block’s performance, with ‘Anthem’, ‘Dark City’, ‘Tragedy And Triumph’ and ‘Boiling Point’ being the faves of the moment. The icing on the cake is that Block doesn’t cap off every phrase with a growled “ah!”, an agonizing tick that was Barlow’s one unfortunate trademark.
Dystopia is a unexpected surprise for the doubters and a gift for Iced Earth’s long term fans. Still, it’s a safe bet the faithful didn’t see a pounding of this magnitude coming their way.
Check out my recent interview with Block here.