by Thrash-head

Iced Earth is a band that at this point has a long, storied history and it is to the point where one could say they have a certain, identifiable sound that is only shared by the occasional side project of mainman Jon Shaffer. To call him a metal visionary certainly seems fitting at this stage in his career. Iced Earth's albums have run the gamut of arguably instant-classic collections of uber-riffage, all the way to overambitious power-thrash epics with enough brains, brawn, and heart to carry them over the threshold and stay with the band's diehard followers, if not bringing them new fans along the way.

The elephant in the room with this release is obviously the second departure of Matthew Barlow, a powerhouse of a vocalist with a timbre so easily identifiable as his own that his records he's done with the group are often thought of as Iced Earth's finest. One needs to remember that in Iced Earth lore, the marriage of Shaffer's vicious right-hand attack and cutting-midrange guitar tone alongside Barlow's mixture of dramatic dynamics and bark equals metal if you're Jon Shaffer, how do you deal with it when your musical soulmate is gone? How do you replace someone that you couldn't even suitably replace the first time with a former vocalist for Judas freakin' Priest?

Enter Stu Block of Canadian prog-metal wunderkinds Into Eternity. Being in that band requires a singer with an almost unparalleled range, not to mention versatility (often going from growling/screaming to scorching falsettos), but that doesn't exactly equal perfect fit when you're dealing with a tried-and-true sound such as Iced Earth's. Not many folks, least of all the skeptics, saw Block's middle-of-his-range roar coming. Flat out, his voice fits this music like a glove. He gets in the occasional screech and falsetto that he's built his own career on, and whereas when Tim Owens was in the band his style seemed to be the proverbial sore thumb, Block's meshes and mixes into the music as a means of completing it, never going over the top for the sake of going over the top.

Music-wise, as mentioned previously Shaffer has a tried-and-true formula. He gets to showcase his awe-inspiring, Hetfield-destroying right hand on numerous occasions, but even he knows when to hold back. Many of these tracks on "Dystopia" tend to be more mid-paced, but still very much metal through-and-through. He can simplify things until it's almost along the lines of something a teenager's first band might write, but it never sounds dated or uninspired. You can always tell it was meant to be written that way, that he heard it in his head, put pen to paper, and then played it on record with so much confidence, and that is why his simplest stuff even works this well. First single "Anthem" and power ballad "The End of Innocence" are prime examples of this. It acts as a nice little pace breakup in the midst of the Shaffer-staple galloping lines of tunes like "Days of Rage," "Boiling Point," and "Equilibrium." Fans of "The Dark Saga" and "Something Wicked This Way Comes" records will also notice a familiar pace set by the track "Anguish of Youth," which bears more than a little resemblance to past Iced Earth classics like "I Died For You" and "Melancholy." These tracks are heavy, super-catchy, and very listenable while retaining qualities the diehards look for.

Add to this some perfectly well-suited performances by rhythm section Brent Smedley and Freddie Vidales, who one could never claim are virtuosos at their respective instruments. These guys know their roles though; they understand that these tunes need precision and adding in anything just a smidgeon too intricate or left-of-center throws the focus off an amazing Iced Earth track and instead rests it squarely on the performer in question (remember when Richard Christy was playing drums for this band? exactly my point). As for lead guitarist Troy Seele, I have to confess that it's taking a little getting used to hearing the occasional sweep arpeggio and shred moment in Iced Earth, but one can't argue he does it incredibly tastefully and the guy has earned his right to be here.

This CD doesn't make me nostalgic at all. It makes me look forward to the future of Iced Earth. Isn't that what a new album is supposed to do?