Album Review: Iced Earth - "Plagues of Babylon"

For more than twenty-five years now, Iced Earth has represented both the undying spirit of heavy metal and its penchant for rhythmic technical flair. So it is that the metal world pauses for at least a brief moment to bear witness to the birth of a new Iced Earth record, this time called “Plagues of Babylon.”

This new record, originally scheduled for release in the fall of 2013, is sort of hybrid – an album that half stands alone and half continues the “Something Wicked…” concept that began with the album sharing the same name back in 1998. Veteran Iced Earth fans may have heard all they needed to right there, but there’s a lot more ground to cover nevertheless.

Off the hop, there is a certain disappointment when looking at the lineup of Iced Earth. It’s not that the two new musicians, bassist Luke Appleton and drummer Jon Dette are deficient, far from it, it’s just that headman Jon Schaffer told us not two years ago that the membership of Iced Earth was as solid as it had ever been. Anyway, with forty percent of a new band, Iced Earth bravely carries forward into this new record, their eleventh studio record.

“Plagues of Babylon” sees us face a back to basics version of Iced Earth, but it’s back to the basics of heavy metal, rather than the basics of Iced Earth. Here the tenets of rhythm and riff ae made paramount over the concepts of high-flying theatrics. The title cut play out like a seven-minute homage to the earliest days of metal, the grooves manifesting those classic ideals of tone and placement.

If that makes it sound like “Plagues of Babylon” is a product of a late-night encounter between Iced Earth and Grand Magus, well, that’s not so far off. As the album wends along, “Plagues of Babylon” gives in to greater and greater dramatic flourish, vocalist Stu Block riding high for the big choruses of songs like “If I Could See You.” The longer the records spins, the more the tones of classic metal, so heavily influenced and designed by rock and roll, come to the fore.

The tone and technical execution of “Plagues of Babylon” is excellent, and Schaffer lays down precision rhythms which are both fitting and infectious. The lead overlays, as played by axe-man Troy Seele make an intriguing and enjoyable distraction out of genuinely fun songs like “Democide.”

But then, good though those elements might be, the ideas we’ve discussed above aren’t necessarily why someone listens to Iced Earth, are they? Therein lies the hang up with this new record. While nothing is wrong with it, the entire experience feels very safe. The bombast of older albums like “The Dark Saga” or the original “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is missing, which leaves “Plagues of Babylon” technically complete, but spiritually lacking. Sure, there’s a trampling romp like “Cthulhu” here and there, but they quickly become the outlier among the entirety of the offering. More often than not, we see a situation like the song “Peacemaker,” which could have been greater if the band had unleashed the full potential of their imagination. As it is, many of the songs are acceptable, but they don’t move the needle like one would expect, resulting in an amiable but noncommittal shrug from the listener.

I like “Plagues of Babylon,” but I find I’m not compelled by it. It’s a pleasant enough listen, even if it is given to trying to capture too many ‘big’ moments. It’s hard to define, but the record seems to be missing the forthright musical courage of previous albums that made Iced Earth the name it is. Pinpointing what would have made the record feel more complete is difficult; perhaps more stress on the lead guitar, perhaps more sheer volume and punch, perhaps less drama and more grit. None of those feel like perfect fixes, but they’re certainly circling around the right idea. Anyway, try it out if you’re a completest, but don’t be surprised if you feel like “Plagues of Babylon” leaves something to be desired.

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