Album Review – Iced Earth – Plagues of Babylon (2014)
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Replicating a slow rhythmic heartbeat, Iced Earth draw in the listener in Plagues of Babylon with an image of the slaves slowly maneuvering themselves with a heavy weight on their shoulders, electric guitars long, drawn warring distressed, yet melodic. Then the drums pick up a determined pace, as if there is a change in the air, a revolution. Musically reminiscent of melodic metal, they direction is altered drastically to a fusion of heavy metal and power metal, the vocalist having a darker tone to the vocalists that have come before in that sound, touching lightly on death’s notorious growls.
Transforming quickly into speed and slash, Stu Block seems to be paying a subtle compliment to the ranges of Justin Hayward (Moody Blues, War of the Worlds), with a sympathetic, mournful cry when control is taken away, similar to Hayward being the voice of the people as the Martians invade Earth in Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, demonstrating the subjectivity of slavery and oppression.
Soft tremors of the drums, with the first moving of the guitar strings introduce Demoncide, the harmonizing wide-ranging production simulate the sound of horse hooves stampeding, the volume of the thunderous slams growing louder, as if growing closer or perhaps a metaphorical reference to growing inner strength. Following on is a sudden change in musical direction, speed metal like structure, with a distant chugging in the background. Block’s vocals are not quite death metal, there are hints of heavy metal, there is a light gruffness. Quickly, his depth darkens with elements of vocal octaves found with Meat Loaf on tracks such as Bat Out Of Hell, and Do Anything For Love; harmonizing with him are traits from other metal genres, power and progressive metal, sampling segments heard in progressive rock bands, Genesis and Yes.
Culling’s electronic guitars with a unique fusion of humming (similar to that of orchestral piece The Flight of the Bumble Bee, one of the fastest creations in classic music) with soft chugging, with the drum beat starting off slow, but joins them in competitive speed. The vocals of Stu are mournful, and harmonious similar to the genres of speed, power, and melodic metal. They can also be compared to David Draiman of Disturbed and Device in Genesis’ cover Land of Confusion, and his own Haunted.
He speaks of the corruption of the times, whether that of present or past tense that is for the listener’s interpretation, being that the contemporary theory of slavery has evolved since its foundations to be of economical. Seele speaks of a time coming to an end, which implies that the control of the people have to endure is coming to a close, like a chapter.
Introducing elements of hard rock and classic metal, Among the Living Dead ventures into the distinctive instrumentals of Steve Hackett, and Piotr Grudzinski of progressive metal band Riverside, a prolonged, rhythmic, warring sound. Then suddenly, the rapid chugging, reminiscent of fast paced surf rock, where there is strong, yet subtle pull of the guitar strings which make the sound echo.
Returning to the adapting octaves of Meat Loaf, with gentle hints of Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, touching heavily on the growling vocals of death metal, but clean cut to demonstrate the distress of the protagonist of the song’s narrative. Block then screams, transforming the sound creatively to different volumes, like a speaker switching back and forth, similar to the production make it so that one speaker the other has sound coming through it, while the other hasn’t, eluding to a physical phenomenon.
Resistance comes in with an interesting twist of metal and hard rock instrumentals, the soft trills of the drums beings closer to a percussionist, while allowing the electronic guitars to have the fore, Seele baritone vocals lacking in the growls, replacing them for cleanliness to illustrate the determination of the oppressed, his chosen sound having closer associations with Dickinson, unlike the previous track.
Following this, is a falsetto ranged scream which has a distorted croakiness, not dissimilar to the vocal ranges found in glam rock, comparable to Steve Tyler of Aerosmith. This interlude is quickly disturbed by fast speed metal like chugs, complimentary to the rhythms seen in metal concerts with the audience and the band members swirling their hair in helicopter motion, transforming is an elongated guitar solo of forever changing notes, usually seen between lyrical breaks; while the guitarist is proving his skills, finishing with a high-pitched squeal, not unlike to the antics of Brian May of Queen, or Joe Perry. Drastically, there is a change of direction again as Iced Earth return to a progressive rock/metal root, a military like approach to the soft guitar chugs and the trimmer of the symbols, found in classic rock groups Genesis’ The Knife (Trespass, 1970), with it all growing louder, stronger, as if coming to a crescendo, like the famous classical piece about the Roman dynasty.
Following on from Resistance, is a lyrical change in direction, the vocal ranges of Block at the start of The End?, can be equal to the sound of Peter Gabriel in his early years, and the vocalist Nad Sylvan, who appeared as a guest on Hackett’s Genesis Revisited II album in October 2012. There’s uneasiness to the voice, as if pressured or under stress which works well with the looming instrumentals, sampling death/doom metal.
At 0:57, there is a return of harsher vocals, not quite growling but brusque, hitting lower octaves in the traditional style of heavy, and death metal; while the guitars’ instrumentals somehow remain softer in contrast, following the panache of classical rock, while demonstrating hints towards power metal. Clarification of this comes when Block harmonizes with the other band members, prominently Troy Seele, who has taken to stance of backing vocalist for this album. It flows straight into a collision of sounds, distinguishable in symphonic metal, metal and speed metal. As the rhythms of speed metal are established, screams comparable to punk, nu-metal and “screamo” collide with the playful chugs and squeals of the electronic guitar, suggestive of old school rock, before reverting back to heavier sound. Uncharactisically of previous tracks, an acoustic stance takes it place, fading out tranquilly into church bells.
If I Could See You initiates a softer beginning, a rock power ballad entwined with alternative metal, as Stu Block sings clearly, the strength of his vocals touching the known vocals of Marko Saaresto of Finnish alternative rock band Poets of the Fall, similar in their debut Late Goodbye. It maneuvers rapidly to a balance of power and speed metal, and the pattern repeats from 2:05 – 2:22 minutes, with the drums being intricate and defined, while the guitars are allowed to play around with countless solos, the guitarists demonstrating their style.
Musically, Cthulhu’s construction format resembles greatly of classical progressive rock storytelling, with the introduction of Genesis’ The Musical Box, a light acoustic play of the strings, with Stu Block’s brooding vocals, and beneath a vague, even distance congruent of male chanting voices. The falsetto screech returns to instigate harder sound, complimenting the eighty’s metal scene. It leans towards to diverse sound of bands Dio, and later Judas Priest.
Peacemaker, proving a drastic change for the album, has Iced Earth experimenting with country rock, intermixed with Mexican electronic or synthesized instrumentals, with the drugs, as with the introductory song, matching the rhythms of a cantering horse. It can be said that Peacemaker can be used in a stereotypical or classical Western themed film (Ghost Rider for example). Throughout Block switches back and forth with clean-cut, to strained, metallic vocals.
Excelling with a fast-paced death/doom metal with nu-metal twist – similar to the early sounds of Korn and Linkin Park – Parasite, the direction is turned back to a darker prospective, the vocals mourning and festered with self-hatred. Lyrically, the narrative of the creature is symbolic of humanity’s inability to control our inner-demons, which if left, can corrupt our society. Rhythmic drums, and strengthening guitars lead to song into a heightened crescendo, with Jon Schaffer free-styling, and putting angered pressure onto the strings, which emphasizes a kind of triumph of the protagonist.
Spirit of the Times focuses highly on the vocal capabilities of Stu Block, listening to reach notes that demonstrate his character’s anguish, while the instrumental at first is quietened, to bring him to the fore. It is at 0:56 that Schaffer leads the song to a strikingly severer melody, with the vocals escalating into a hiss, and then becomes a shadow of Block, duplicating the patterns of his voice. Piotr Grudzinski and Mariusz Duda (vocalist of Riverside) share a similar kind of partnership, perhaps patterned by Iced Earth. From time to time, Block reverts back to a ballad styled cry, before allowing the instrumentals to take over into powerful fusion.
Accompanied by Danish guitarist Michael Poulsen (Volbeat, Dominus) and singer Russell Allen (Symphony X, Star One), Troy Steele steps up to role of leading vocalist for Highwayman, lyrics written by Jimmy Webb, and contrasting to the previous elements of this album, this song is exclusively up-beat, bringing forth the hinted triumph of the struggles of the protagonist(s) had shared throughout the narrative.
Outro is, to put it simply, a playful exert. You can hear how relaxed the band is within their element, and how confident there are in mucking around while recording, making each other laugh, and that reflects the honest relationship they share with their fans. Because they are not ashamed to show a side of themselves that many professionals are reluctant to show.
Overall, an intriguing album. Admittingly, this is my first time listening to Iced Earth (outside the review that is), and by no means do I regret taking up the position to review this particular album, because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed their sound, and the chemistry in not just the instruments, but with the band members themselves. Will be looking forward to looking back on their career, and future projects.