Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Iced Earth Delivers With A Dystopia

When Matt Barlow said he was leaving heavy metal band Iced Earth again last March, it really wasn't clear whether the band could survive another reincarnation despite Jon Schaffer's continued persistence to keep it alive. Dystopia quiets any questions.

The best days for Ice Earth may be ahead of them, with the band finding a perfect match: Vancouver metal vocalist Stu Block. Block, who most recently fronted the inventive and progressive metal band Into Eternity, also known for a revolving lineup, is one of the most versatile metal singers out there.

And while more than one person has rightly pointed out that Dystopia doesn't open Block's full range, the stylistic differences help distinguish the sound between where he has been and where he is now. It wouldn't make sense for Block to make Iced Earth sound like Into Eternity, especially since the release of Sandstorm. (Into Eternity started soliciting for a touring vocalist in November).

Dystopia sets the stage for a reinvented Iced Earth. 

The title track sets the tone (even if it isn't the best track on the album), but it's everything else that scales up this outing. The website is revamped. The world tour is their most extensive. The online coverage, helmed by bassist Freddie Vidales, is consistently down to earth. And the album is one of Schaffer's most thought out, with some fans even recognizing it as a benchmark classic for the band.

Although the track Dystopia is front and center in promoting the album, it isn't the best track. There are plenty to skip ahead to before considering the entirety of the album.

The mid-tempo Anthem is traditional metal, trudging along with throaty lyrics that ask people to take a chance, break away from their sordid past, and seize a new destiny. Boiling Point is a semi-restrained smasher, with even-paced vocals over furious guitar work. Dark City is also steady and heady, one of the most mature compositions of the band, unshackling souls from the oppression laid out in Dystopia.

As much as Dystopia sounds familiar, the album shows that Iced Earth is ready to stretch its legs. Hints of this can be heard in the previously mentioned song Dark City, which owes some of its influences to German power metal; Anguish of Youth revives more emotive, chorus-heavy metal; and Tragedy and Triumph is a departure for the band, carrying an uplifting tone that conveys how Schaffer attacked much of the songwriting with Block.

Dystopia delivers the message without a concept album. 

While the underlying theme of the album twists some of the darker notes from Schaffer's Somethin Wicked storyline, settling into a message to stand up against an established charade, a dystopia that has been slowly enslaving people. At the same time, Dystopia can be called anything but a dark album. Schaffer himself has said that he wanted to convey that it is not too late to turn things around.

These changes, although perhaps too subtle for some to notice, is what makes Dystopia one of Schaffer's best composed albums. He wants people to wake up. He wants people to have hope and triumph (without the cheese). And, above all, he wants to make the music more accessible than ever.

Throughout the album, expect to hear plenty of solos from Schaffer and Troy Seele. There is some fine drum work by Brent Smedley too, even if he isn't always noticed behind the strong strings. All in all, Dystopia is definitely a revival for the band, easily one of the better traditional metal albums this year.

Iced Earth Delivers Dystopia Heated To 4.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Dystopia does put Iced Earth back on the map while reviving the idea that traditional metal adds something to music. While the freshness and enthusiasm mostly comes from Schaffer's work on Sons of Liberty, Block punctuates the evolving direction with a commitment to the band and a willingness to explore a broader range.

Although Dystopia doesn't carry Soylent Green as a bonus track on iTunes, it does include a mediocre cover of Mob Rules (Black Sabbath). At Barnes & Noble, look for the CDDystopia by Iced Earth is also on Amazon. Their next video, centered on the song Anthem, is expected to be released soon. It was filmed on Dec. 7. The tour is going strong, with new dates frequently added on the band's website.
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