If you look around, there aren't too many power metal bands who can say they staked out the 1990's as their own. Iced Earth didn't even pick up steam until the latter half of that most grunge and black metal heavy of decades, doing so on the strength of some truly unforgettable albums. The dogged determination of guitarist and mastermind Jon Schaffer prevented a revolving door of lineup changes from affecting the band's momentum.
Even after singer Matt Barlow left to pursue a career in law enforcement, Iced Earth soldiered on. When replacement vocalist Tim 'Ripper' Owens was let go in favor of Barlow's return, things appeared to be returning to the glory days of the '90's. Alas, Barlow left for good in 2011 and Schaffer once again had to find Iced Earth a voice. Former Into Eternity vocalist Stu Block swooped in and that year sang on Dystopia, a solid return to form and proof that Schaffer's vision had plenty of life left in it. Now set to release their second album featuring Block on vocals, Schaffer and company offer us Plagues of Babylon, a partial concept album continuing the engaging Set Abominae story line. Now two albums into his tenure, has Stu Block made Iced Earth his own or is Schaffer never going to be able to achieve the magic he made with Barlow?
Where Dystopia was more of a short, sharp, shock kind of album, featuring a couple of songs under three minutes in length, Plagues of Babylon sees Iced Earth edging closer to the more sprawling epics we got used to seeing from them in the past. Its as if Jon Schaffer is now fully comfortable with Stu Block's vocal talents and has decided to let his compositions breathe that much more.
There is definitely a sense that the songs on the new album were given time to germinate and find their own way, as the many seamless twists and turns within each track attest. This could not happen if the vocalist was not able to dominate these tempo and mood changes. One or two listens to Plagues, and its clear Schaffer's confidence in his singer was not miscast. Block sounds strikingly like his vaunted predecessor, and while on Dystopia he couldn't seem to match the level of emotion Barlow brought to the table – think of the pure heartbreak in classic songs like "Melancholy (Holy Matryr)" and "I Died For You" – Block has solved this issue on the far more passionate Plagues of Babylon. This is nowhere more evident than on the stunning "Peacemaker",where Stu Block showcases his ability to croon out the ballad as well as hammer out the thrash, all in one track.
What separates Plagues of Babylon from Dystopia, and arguably any Iced Earth album since Something Wicked this Way Comes, is with Plagues the magic has truly returned throughout. From the galloping grandeur of "Democide" to the Maiden-esque tones of "The End?" the level of inspiration Schaffer and company bring to bear here is incredible.
The use of multi-tracked 'epic' vocals on the choruses of many of the songs, including the aforementioned "The End?" adds a stunning component to an already catchy album jam-packed with excellent songwriting. I was skeptical that the same band that wrote songs like "Dante's Inferno" and "The Hunter" could eclipse that level of power again. Without repeating himself, Jon Schaffer has recreated the mood in some of those heart wrenching classics. "If I Could See You" is a power ballad worthy of the best moments of vintage Queensryche or Testament. Iced Earth once again shows why it belongs in the same class as the stalwarts who came before them.
The opening title track has the anthemic, sing-along chorus and powerful drumming/epic riffing that cemented this band in our hearts in the first place. This mood remains strong throughout. "The Culling" will have you belting out its epic-overload chorus for weeks, and you just might set off your own airbag slamming out the drum fills on your steering wheel. "Cthulu" goes from sounding like it could have been on Burnt Offerings to something reminiscent of The Glorious Burden.
The ardent Iced Earth fan there from the beginning, as well as the neophyte looking for the next big thing in traditional metal should be equally thrilled by this album. The guitar work is peerless, the songwriting adventurous and unafraid to wander, yet never to the point of losing focus. Turn it up and enjoy it. While we may never be able to say Matt who? 2014 shows Iced Earth sailing victoriously into the future with Stu Block firmly in command.