Iced Earth has always been a hit and miss band for me. The thrashy American power metal institution has released a few very great, underrated records, but also some overlong and overrated disasters. The band seemed to be reborn from its ashes again with the arrival of Canadian singer Stu Block on Dystopia. The record wasn’t a masterpiece, but it sounded fresh, passionate, and straight enough to call this release a return to strength. That’s why I was eager to find out how a new singer, another new bass player, and a new session drummer might have brought a wind of change to the band on Plagues Of Babylon. The new release has, as usual, a whole lot of positive criticism from the predictable and dependent (for the label) big-name magazines and websites and not from truly independent writers such as myself.
To tell you the truth, nothing has changed at all because Jon Schaffer constantly does everything on his own. Sounds to me like he’s back to his Something Wicked storyline once again here. The new and old band members don’t really bring anything new to the sound, either. The first five songs sound old-fashioned and exchangeable. We get to hear mid-tempo to mid-up-tempo power metal with thrash metal influences that are all too familiar. Schaffer recycles some worn-out riffs, and the vocals are less unique than before, sounding like a Matt Barlow clone. The first two tracks in particular drag on far too long with unnecessary introductions. The pseudo-epic choruses are so predictable that it’s almost as amusing as a Manowar album. Fans might argue that the first five songs are typical Iced Earth anthems, but I find this rehash extremely boring.
There are a few guest vocalists on this record, but they don’t really add anything to this rather ordinary album. The background vocals by Blind Guardian frontman Hansi Kürsch are almost inaudible, and can be described as a complete waste of talent. That being said, the collaboration with Symphony X vocalist Russell Allen and Volbeat’s Michael Poulsen on “The Highwayman” is also quite faceless and ineffective. The fact that the band included two cover songs on this album, plus a laughable and completely unnecessary outro only shows off Schaffer’s lack of ideas.
The album gets a little bit more imaginative towards the middle part. I hoped that “The End?” was the end of theSomething Wicked storyline, but instead it’s a decent mid-tempo track with a few dynamic changes and an atmosphere reminding me of Iron Maiden’s epics of the eighties. This song would have been an average song on some of the band’s past efforts, but is this record’s stand-out, which tells you a lot about the quality of this release.
Some songs have a few great moments but can’t convince me as a whole. The smoothly evolving “Peacemaker”, with its diversified vocal performance and a very cool guitar solo, is almost great until the chorus is repeated way too often towards the end. “Parasite” works the other way around, and starts with another predictable and exchangeable half-ballad tone before the gripping vocals in the chorus really save this song. Many songs have similar structures, and only a few individual efforts such as the vocals and a few emotional guitar solos put these tracks above an ordinary average level.
In the end, a few good tracks in the middle of the record save this album from being a complete failure. Nevertheless, it’s already a solid candidate for one of this young year’s greatest flops. This release is for die-hard fans and collectors only. If you want to hear similar music of a higher quality, go for the last Shadow Host album.