Wednesday, 5 February 2014

#327 Iced Earth - Plagues of Babylon

Iced Earth haven't necessarily maintained a perfect track-record over their long career, but I, for one, still feel a certain level of excitement when I hear news that they're making a new record. Particularly, it must be added, one which follows in the footsteps of Dystopia, which, if you've been keeping track, was their first record with new vocalist Stu Block, and, causation or correlation, was also quite good. It was with high hopes then, that I sat in my friends house somewhere around Christmas time as he streamed the record on Spotify. As the tracks came past, the record certainly left an impression - ambivalence, for the most part, but with subsequent further listens, I have attempted to soak myself thoroughly enough in the album to have a definite impression of it - which I shall now mash onto my screen with a keyboard, in the hope that someone, somewhere, reads the gibberish I so enthusiastically create.

Plagues of Babylon has great cover-art, and as far as I'm concerned, that's a strong start. I have more mixed feelings about the rest of the record, however - namely the sonic bit which most would consider of the utmost importance. Track-wise, there's a bit of a surplus, and as much as I love the cover of Highwayman (I have, in fact, listened to it the most, of the whole record), it could really be a bonus track. So too with "Spirit of the Times" which something of a re-working of one of Jon's Sons of Liberty tracks - it too, has a certain superfluous air which really makes the record drag a little. Indeed, the album comes to a bit of a grinding halt after about track eight. It's a shame in some regards, because a lot of the tracks before that point are rather good indeed - Democide has the galloping feel of a legitimately solid 90's Iced Earth track, with more than a subtle hint of the band's fantastic craft on the first three records shining through quite well. So too with tracks like The Culling, which, while at a lower tempo (as many, many tracks on this record seem to be) boasts the sort of massive chorus which becomes unrelentingly entangled within your brain. The issue of tempo is an odd one, as I feel like something of a dinosaur for preferring the very thrash-orientated, early Iced Earth sound to the mid-tempo approach they have had for considerably longer than the former sound, but it does feel especially prevalent on Plagues of Babylon, with many tracks having drums which feel like they want to be faster than they are; at many points there is the feeling of tempo, without the tasty sauce of speed itself - like painting the pavement to look like crazy-paving. Granted, there are plenty of speedy sections, but the mid-tempo material, of which there is more than plenty, is almost militantly mid-tempo.

I mention that the record has some massive choruses - it is indeed worth pointing out that the entire record feels extremely chorus-orientated; just about all of the songs cluster around the chorus as if it were a source of warmth on a freezing evening. Like the metaphorical radiators or bonfires in question, however, the choruses suffer a little bit from sounding rather similar to one another; there are better ones and worse ones - and granted, some of them are unapologetically great, there are a lot of instances where you listen to a song from the record and get the impression you could just stick any of the choruses available on the album in any of the chorus-slots. Indeed, the record has a bit of a kit-built feel, as if the songs were assembled from a collection of parts, as opposed to from scratch - it is, in fact, quite fortunate - perhaps also a testament to the band's competence as musicians, that such a build was as successful sonically as it is. I don't intend on being entirely doom-and-gloom about the record however, or the band; Iced Earth are a bit like that friend which everyone has - when you get used to their eccentricities, they're fairly tolerable. With Iced Earth, there are a few such eccentricities to watch out for, and they're all present on this record. Slightly confusing concept material about the Setians doing... something? Check. Something about the new world order taking away all of Jon Schaffer's guns? Check. That style of balled? Check. The vocalist either being and/or sounding like Matt Barlow? Check. Fortunately, despite all of these being true, the record is a thoroughly enjoyable one. In the last instance too, I must add that I find Stu Block to be doing great things for the band - sure he sounds not unlike their previous vocalists, but damn, he's good at it.

All in all, while the ups and downs of Iced Earth have certainly turned many away, and brought others in in equal measure, I still have something of a trust for the band; seldom will they produce a masterpiece - arguably never have the band had a magnum opus, but their ability to create a solid album is deserving of renown - Like a dogged delivery-man, they will get the package through your door, even if they broke the contents a bit sledgehammering it through the letterbox. There have been slips, of course - awful, awful Framing Armageddon flavored slips, but at the same time, when I want to hear something which just feels a bit... metal, with no frills, then most of Iced Earth's records are actually a very reasonable candidate for the task. This one is no exception.

This is a 7/10.

Iced Earth Official Site
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Iced Earth on Metal Archives