The mighty Iced Earth return with a new album for the new year, 'Plagues Of Babylon', and what a stormer it is too.
This album is twelve tracks in two parts and the first six tracks are the latest instalment in the 'Something Wicked' saga; the next six are standalone songs that include a spellbinding cover of 'Highwayman', originally written by American songwriter Jimmy Webb.
For those who are unfamiliar with the 'Something Wicked' saga, I will be doing a large feature explaining the whole concept in depth during 2014 but in a nutshell, it is a tale that begins with the origins of man, by way of descension upon the primitive Setian race, all the way to its downfall as paved by the Setians' act of vengeance.
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It discusses humanity's evil intentions that begin to backfire in their last days, with the Setian messiah Set Abominae serving as the catalyst to its self-destruction. The 'Something Wicked' tracks are spread over several Iced Earth albums and the saga started in 1998 with three songs from the 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' album.
Events parallel to those in the Bible (similarly the Tower of Babel), and elsewhere throughout history, occurred in order to further bring about humanity's downfall.
Spine-tingling stuff and the perfect soundtrack to this epic and ongoing story starts right here with album title track 'Plagues Of Babylon' which underlines how far Iced Earth have come since Stu Block took over vocal duties and enabled the band to tour full-time.
The title track is sinister, anthemic and gripping and followed up with 'Democide' with it's menacing intro and scorching riffery. The band are on superb form here and Jon Schaffer is becoming a top producer as well as iconic leader of Iced Earth.
'The Culling' sweeps you away with it's speedy and ferocious intro before a chorus of power simply takes over your senses. This track is one of the highlights of a great album.
The dark mood of 'Among The Living Dead' subtly turns into a celebratory one and here is another chorus that will carry you away with it's hook while 'Resistance' and 'The End?' are more than worthy to be part of the story.
I've purposely not commented on the lyrical content of the six 'Something Wicked' tracks because as mentioned above, they form part of the saga and we will be producing the definitive guide to 'Something Wicked' in 2014.
But I will say that I love the question mark at the end of the sixth track. The End? No, definitely not. Jon will carry on this saga and it will probably never end. Which is great.
And so to part two of the album and we begin with 'If I Could See You', which reminds me of 'I Died For You' in it's speed and tempo changes. It's a highly emotive number with a hard middle eight and a blistering build up to the chorus and is sure to become a live favourite.
One thing I love about this album is that Iced Earth have not played it safe and stuck with familiar templates. They have instead stepped out of their comfort zone in several places and on 'Cthulhu', this is demonstrated in full. It's got a different feel to the more established material and this is testament to how the band have risen during this last two years.
'Peacemaker' is a stunning track and here again the band have kicked and screamed their way out of the comfort zone and done something very different to all that went before. There's clearly a great story behind this track so next time we speak to a band member, we'll get the lowdown on that. For now, muscially this is the track of the album.
The guitar solo in 'Parasite' stands out for all the right reasons and 'Spirit Of The Times' is a 'lighter's in the air' rousing moment that will surely go down as an Iced Earth classic when it is aired on the forthcoming world tour, the dates of which are below.
I had a listen to the original 'Highwayman' by Jimmy Webb (with Mark Knopfler) before I played the Iced Earth version and there is simply no comparison. Iced Earth have taken this track and totally metallized it and made it infinitely more listenable. Jon Schaffer takes the lead vocal here as well, which is very noteworthy indeed. A great album closer.
All in all, this is a seriously great album that marks the latest step in the band's journey.
Spotify are currently streaming 'Plagues Of Babylon' in full.
1. Plagues Of Babylon
3. The Culling
4. Among The Living Dead
6. The End?
7. If I Could See You
11. Spirit Of The Times
Iced Earth are:
Jon Schaffer - rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar, lead guitar, backing vocals, lead vocals on 'Highwayman'
Troy Seele - lead guitar
Stu Block - lead vocals, backing vocals
Luke Appleton - bass guitar
Raphael Saini - drums
'Plagues Of Babylon' was recorded at Principal Studios in Senden, Germany and was mixed at NHow Studios in Berlin, Germany.
Guest vocals on 'Highwayman' were laid down by Volbeat frontman Michael Poulsen and Symphony X/Adrenaline Mob singer Russell Allen.
Guest vocals on 'Plagues Of Babylon', 'Among The Living Dead', 'Democide', 'Resistance' and 'If I Could See You' are by Blind Guardian vocalist Hansi Kürsch. The cover and additional artwork was created by Eliran Kantor.