Album of the Week 09-2013: Iced Earth – Dystopia

When yours truly was 13 years old, he worshipped Jon Schaffer and Iced Earth’s ‘Alive In Athens’ was his gospel. But new Iced Earth albums have been somewhat of a bittersweet experience for me in the past decade. After a few years with Tim Owens, a good singer, but not the right man for the job, the return and subsequent second departure of ultimate Iced Earth singer Matthew Barlow and a couple of albums that seemed to have a stronger focus on bombast than coherent songwriting, ‘Dystopia’ is the first fantastic Iced Earth album since 2001’s ‘Horror Show’. A new masterpiece in American Power Metal.

At the microphone, there is “new kid” Stu Block, formerly of Canadian Prog Metallers Into Eternity. Although I was a bit wary at first, thinking his voice would be too “light” for Iced Earth, Block is actually one of the redeeming factors of ‘Dystopia’, possessing a versatile set of pipes with Barlow’s passion, Owens’ Halfordian screams and gruff territory formerly hardly explored. Also, Jon Schaffer has abandoned most of the pompous bombast of the former albums and has just written a bunch of powerful, American Heavy Metal tunes with all of his trademark high speed palm mute riffs and anthemic choruses.

The album’s opening track was the first song that surfaced and it immediately made me hopeful; Block sounded better than I could ever imagine him, the song was Heavy Metal to the bone and the melodies were strong. Luckily, that line was continued throughout the album. There’s catchy Power Metal anthems (‘V’, funny enough the fifth track on the album, and closer ‘Tragedy And Triumph’, which took some time to sink in, but quickly became one of my favorites), strong power ballads (‘Anguish Of Youth’ and especially ‘End Of Innocence’), obvious Iron Maiden references (‘Equilibrium’ and the epic album highlight ‘Dark City’) and even two scorching Thrashers (‘Boiling Point’, ‘Days Of Rage’). The bombast still isn’t gone (the album’s weakest track ‘Anthem’ lodges quite a bit of it), but the center of attention is Heavy Metal here.

Getting the limited edition of ‘Dystopia’ would be the only way to fully experience the album’s brilliance. Besides a redundant extra version of ‘Anthem’, there are two extra tracks, which are easily among the album’s best. In fact, ‘Iron Will’, is the second best track on the album, second only to ‘Dark City’. It’s a passionate, melodic and distinctly American Heavy Metal track. As such, a required listen.

Starting with ‘Dystopia’, Iced Earth seems a band again. A collective, contrary to the almost megalomanic Schaffer-led Rock operas of the past decade. Stretching out the brilliant ‘Something Wicked’ trilogy over two long albums was a bad idea, whereas ‘Dystopia’ is full of great ideas. This is what Heavy Metal is supposed to sound like and we can only hope that this lineup can be held together – although bassist Freddie Vidales has since left te band – to create many more masterpieces like this one. I for one welcome Schaffer back to the place where he belongs: the Olympus of American Heavy Metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Dark City’, ‘Iron Will’, ‘Dystopia’, ‘Tragedy And Triumph’

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