Iced Earth has released their eleventh studio album Plagues of Babylon. As most of us know Iced Earth is Jon Schaffer’s band. He is the guitarist and main creative mind. Plus over the band’s almost 30 year history, he has changed band members more than Dave Mustaine on a drunken religious power trip. However on their newest release, Schaffer has stuck with much of the lineup that made 2011’s Dystopia so great. Luke Appleton and Raphael Saini were added on bass and drums (Jon Dette took over on drums shortly after the album was recorded), but the amazing guitar work of Troy Seele and vocals of Stu Block are still present. Block’s vocal style fits with the band probably better than any of their past vocalists. His vocals have that very old school metal feel as he can go from low register to high pitched power shrieks with ease. He even adds in some occasional contemporary metal vocal styles that seem to channel the likes of Matt Heafy of Trivium and M. Shadows of Avenged Sevenfold. All this mixed together gives Iced Earth their most unique singer to date.
Although Iced Earth has usually been associated with US power metal for much of their career, Plagues of Babylon leans more heavily on traditional heavy metal much like their last record. With that said, the new album has something for almost every type of metal fan. There are elements of power metal, some faster thrash pacing, some catchy grooves, old school Dio style metal and subject matter, some NWOBHM guitar harmonization and even very very occasional somewhat harsher vocals. Like Block, the band as a whole mixes in some slight updated metal influences to complete the entire package.
Schaffer is once again at the top of his game with excellent song subjects and tightly written arrangements. The first half of the album is a concept based on Schaffer’s “Something Wicked Saga” that has made its way through the albums Something Wicked This Way Comes, Overture of the Wicked EP, Framing Armageddon, I Walk Among You and Crucible Man. The latter half contains some great stand alone songs. “Plagues of Babylon” is the perfect tune to kick off this next chapter in the saga with its ominous start, excellent drumming and overall epic sound. Other top tracks include the thrash driven songs “Democide” and “Cthulhu”, the slightly groovier “The Culling”, the traditional/power style of “Resistance” and the more present-day patterned tunes “The End?” and”Parasite”.
As usual Iced Earth includes a couple of slower paced/acoustic style tracks. For me these type of songs have always been very hit or miss over the course of the band’s many albums and that is very evident with the two slower songs on Plagues of Babylon. “Spirit of The Times” is a bit misplaced on the record. I’m all for mixing in some contemporary metal styles, but this one seems to go a bit too far in that direction and borders on being overly ballad like. Block’s attempt at squeaky clean vocals just does not work here. On the other hand it could be argued that “If I Could See You” is the best song on the album and one of the best of the band’s career. The verses are slower with some acoustic guitar while the chorus contrasts with a nice heaviness and Block’s best vocal performance on the album. The lyrical content is spectacular. The song is extremely well written with amazing execution on the drums and guitars. This song represents everything that makes this album great. It is the central point that brings all the various sounds and influences together.
In addition to all the positives that the album has to offer is the fact that it contains twelve musical tracks that all offer fairly long run times. Seven of the songs clock in at five minutes or more with the rest being in the three to five minute range. These were traits that I had continued to look for in albums released in 2013 and for the most part I was usually disappointed. Most metal albums these days are ten songs or less and have run times around forty-five total minutes. It’s refreshing to see so many well written, epic tracks. The only complaint I have is that I wish the guitar solos from Schaffer and Seele had been a bit longer on each track. They were all so well done, but felt so abrupt that they left me wanting more.
Between the great writing, epic arrangements and spectacular musicianship, this is easily the first must own metal album of the year. This is already in the conversation for a top ten metal album of 2014. With so much to offer, Plagues of Babylon will certainly not disappoint. Hopefully this is a good sign for things to come in metal this year.
For those of you looking to check out the album before you commit, the band has allowed the album to be streamed via Spotify.