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ICED EARTH: Dystopia (2011)

–ICED EARTH: Dystopia (2011)

Jon Schaffer has plenty of reasons to smile these days. Iced Earth’s primary songwriter rhythm guitarist/musical visionary has survived, and ultimately thrived, through a hugely successful-yet-turbulent 25-year career in the music industry and has emerged among the top of the infinitely-crowded heavy metal heap. Schaffer, a true American patriot who is sometimes stubborn and enigmatic, but always passionate and charismatic, stands as the sole original member and indefatigable leader of one of the world’s most beloved metal bands. Iced Earth’s metallic journey has not always been smooth or easy, and the last decade of its career has tested mightily the mettle of the man and his singular musical vision. But Iced Earth’s maniacal fan base is nothing if not loyal; this writer can personally attest to that fact. Now we have been well-rewarded with Dystopia, it’s newest release: and sublime resurrection.

As for a little personal background to this rather icy story, it has been nearly 20 years since this Iced Earth fanatic (what, does that make me an “Ice Head”?) was first introduced to the inimitable Florida/Indiana-based melodic speed/power metallers. Back in late 1992, a good friend of mine in the nascent days of email (via the Prodigy bulletin board service–anybody remember that bad boy?), Craig Wisnom, now of metalcdratings.com, sent me a mix tape of obscure metal bands of the day. Now, as a 16-year-old metal maniac just cutting my teeth on bands like Metallica, Queensryche, Savatage, and LOTS of Iron Maiden, I was extremely eager to hear something new and different that nobody else knew about. The first two tracks on the cassette were “Angels Holocaust” and “Desert Rain,” both off Iced Earth’s now legendary second album, 1992’s Night of the Stormrider. After just one listen to these two songs, IE’s razor-sharp aggression-meets-silky-smooth melodies were the pied piper to my teenage metal-headed/muddled brain. I loved the speedy, galloping and ultra-precise, eighth note-triplet rhythm guitarwork of Schaffer, the unique arrangements and dark ambience, as well as the rough-yet-tuneful vocals of then vocalist John Greely. Needless to say, I was hooked. It would be a year-and-a-half later before I finally found the Stormrider CD at my local Best Buy store, but it was only the beginning of a long obsession with the unique power/speed metal masters.

Huge in Europe, but remaining relatively obscure in its native United States, Iced Earth released album after masterful album until the untimely departure of popular vocalist Matthew Barlow in 2003. Enter ex-Judas Priest singer Tim Owens, whose Halford-esque high-range vocals lent even more traditional metal credibility to the albums The Glorious Burden (2004) and Framing Armageddon (2007). The unceremonious dumping of Owens in December ‘07 immediately following a successful European tour to allow for the return of Barlow, only to see Barlow quit again three years and one lackluster album (The Crucible of Man) later led some, myself included, to scratch their heads and wonder if Schaffer’s relentless Terror Train was finally running off the tracks. Indeed, the now-brittle Iced (Earth) berg seemed to be melting faster than the polar ice caps.

That was then; this is Dystopia. Featuring the phenomenal talents of new vocalist Stu Block (ex-Into Eternity), and offering an aggressive and gloomy soundscape still somehow ripe with hope and plenty of sweet melody, Dystopia delivers the obligatory kick in the nards that the IE faithful have been clamoring for. This album successfully fuses the best elements of all of IE’s past work, combining the razor-sharp speed of Stormrider with the dark brutality of Burnt Offerings with the stylistic balance of Something Wicked. Lyrically, while not a concept album per se, Dystopia is certainly a thematic record, focusing on a dismal, perhaps not-so-distant future when corrupt societies, governments, corporations etc. try to oppress and control ordinary human beings and their destinies. While this may feel like a bit of residue from Schaffer’s politically-minded side project Sons of Liberty, the lyrics here are still partly based on fantasy and offer plenty of room for interpretation. The X factor here undeniably is Block, whose brilliant vocal work alone has given IE a new lease on life. Block’s tonal quality is impeccably crystal clear, yet he can deliver the guttural shouts and hit the most stratospheric highs (not unlike Owens) while capably approximating Barlow’s mid-range rasp. But Block’s got a signature voice all his own, and his brilliant performance rivals that even of Greely on Stormrider.

Musically, Dystopia offers IE’s trademark blend of high-precision speed-metal riffing, Maiden-esque guitar harmonies and ultra-catchy vocal melodies, but it’s all updated with a healthy dose of refreshed optimism. Those who like their metal depressing or nihilistic, or if they are turned off by sentimental optimism or sometimes sticky-sweet vocal melodies would best stay away from Dystopia. Case in point: the opening title track, which serves as a good microcosm for the rest of the album. The intro, highlighted by drummer Brent Smedley’s marching snare drum beat, swirling guitar harmonies courtesy of Schaffer and lead guitarist Troy Seele, and capped by Block’s primal scream from the depths of the caveman gods, morphs into a lightning-quick, blistering barrage of intricate rhythm picking from Schaffer that sets the tone for this speedy and dramatic track. Meanwhile, Freddie Vidales’ fluid basslines lock in well with both the rhythm guitar and drums. The crushing verse and sinister pre-chorus give way to a euphonious, borderline maudlin chorus that sings out, “The nightmare unfolds before my eyes/I will resist ’til the end of time/A spirit born free has to break these chains/We’re lost, we must find our way/We will find our way!” This furiously-dynamic opener sets the tone for the rest of the album, which features pummeling thrash (“Boiling Point,” “Days of Rage”), mid-tempo power crunch (“V”), blistering rhythm gallop-meets-fantastic guitar harmonies (“Equilibrium),” and emotive yet hard-hitting ballads (“Anthem,” “Anguish of Youth” and “End of Innocence.” The most epic tracks such as “Dark City” and the breathtaking finale, “Tragedy and Triumph,” combine all the best elements of the Iced Earth sounds mentioned above.

Quite frankly, I’m done writing about it, and I’m sure you’re more-than-done reading about it. So if you love Iced Earth, buy Dystopia NOW. If not, to quote the immortal Bruce Dickinson in the Maiden England concert video, “Go blank off and listen to some other blank.”–Jonathan Kollnot

–Tracklisting: 1.) Dystopia 2.) Anthem 3. ) Boiling Point 4.) Anguish of Youth 5.) V 6.) Dark City 7.) Equilibrium 8.) Days of Rage 9.) End of Innocence 10.) Tragedy and Triumph

 

 

 

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~ by jonnyboyrocker on February 29, 2012.

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