"Plague of Babylon"

By Dr. Abner Mality

I've been out of the Iced Earth loop for a while now. Once a mainstay with me, their last few albums have not really come across in a way that made me interested in them. In essence, they started to sound tired. Add in the fact that every band member except Jon Schaeffer seems absolutely expendable and some of the rather crass statements Schaeffer himself has made and you can maybe understand my hiatus.

The vacation has ended with "Plagues of Babylon".  This was a good choice to get off the is prime Iced Earth and while it is certainly nothing new, it shows the band at its best. Latest singer Stu Block, late of Into Eternity, is a dead perfect choice to replace long-timer Matt Barlow. His voice is similar enough to Barlow's to sooth Matt's fans, but there's a heightened range and a screaming ability to rival Iced Earth's other ex-crooner, Ripper Owens. Block's multi-tracked vocals offer tremendous melodic hooks to the powerful metal tunes here. My only fear is that Stu will be the next I.E. singer in the unemployment line...for God's sake, don't do it, Jon!

Musically, the band has always been bipolar, with tunes split between epic melodic speed metal and a more measured hard rock sound. You get plenty of both on this huge and meaty album. I've always been attracted to Iced Earth's semi-thrash stuff because of Schaeffer's incredible speed picking and riffing. "Plagues of Babylon" features plenty of that in the opening half, particularly with two outstanding tracks "Democide" and "Among The Living Dead". These are real scorchers, some of the fastest yet most tasteful I.E. tunes of all time. But songs like the huge title track (a great opener) and "Resistance" also do not disappoint.

The second half of the album veers more towards slower, semi-balladic territory and this side of Iced Earth has never excited me as much. I have to say that "If I Could See You" is one of the best ballads the band has ever done and Stu Block is amazing. "Cthulhu" is not a bad song, but any song about the Great Old Ones is much more suited to heaving death metal that than straight metal. By the time "Parasite" and "Spirit of the Times" come trundling in, my interest in the album was starting to wane...those songs are clearly not on the same level as what has come before.

Still, the execution and packaging of "Plagues of Babylon" is faultless. I can say it has put me back in the Iced Earth fold for now and anybody who has ever liked this band can buy this with full confidence.