Friday, February 23, 2018

ICED EARTH-Dystopia and Plagues of Babylon (2011-2014)

Post #356

A cold and snowy February calls for me to review Iced Earth once again! This time, I am taking a long-overdue look at the dawn of the Stu Block era. Stu Block had been the vocalist for Into Eternity prior to joining Iced Earth in 2011 to replace long-time singer Matt Barlow. From all I have read on Barlow's departure, between the official Iced Earth website, facebook page, and wikipedia articles on the issue, his departure from the band was amicable and seemed to be an honest retirement. (Barlow has since started a band called Ashes of Ares).

Stu Block stepped in and provided a voice for their 2011 album, Dystopia. As a long-time Iced Earth fan, I was naturally hesitant about another change of the vocalist role, but Stu's amazing range and stylistic emulation of Barlow's tone, and grit immediately put me at ease, and in the end the Dystopia album won me over completely.

Consistent with Iced Earth's recent trends, the album's title track opens with a slow anthem-like riff, and power chords that ring long and heavy. Then Stu Block unleashes a devilish scream, the tempo is kicked into high-speed, and a classic Iced Earth thrash-fest is underway...

While the title track 'Dystopia' thrashes along with the best Iced Earth classics, I cannot help be notice the uncanny, seamless transitions from deep growls to high falsettos that Block displays throughout the song. At some point this talent surpasses simple emulation of Barlow's vocal style, and approaches a 'King-Diamond-esque' mastery of range.

'Anthem' is the next track, and the clean guitar intro which transitions to a low-tempo, minor-key riff shows the listener that Iced Earth will again have all their talents on display for this album. The lyrics are a social criticism with a call for resilience among society's downtrodden classes. The plight of the homeless and poverty-stricken are present throughout. Never a band to shy away from social or political issues, it is clear that Iced Earth are also out to make some statements on this album.

Iced Earth show you their full repertoire on Dystopia, with songs that push the upper limits of intensity like 'Boiling Point' and 'Days of Rage', but balanced out by softer and slower tracks like 'Anguish of Youth' and 'End of Innocence'. Not only are the riffs impressive, but the lead guitar solos are better on this album than the past several Iced Earth albums.

Recommended Tracks:
-Boiling Point (Intense! A really fast thrasher where Block's vocals really are more comparable to Ripper Owens than Matt Barlow)
-Anguish of Youth (A slower tempo ballad with the clean-heavy-clean transitions that Iced Earth fans are accustomed to)
-V (Heavy groove. Jam-riffing, V is for Victory! "Minds awakened, rid your life of tyranny" Excellent guitar solo!!)
-Dark City (Clean intro again, vocals again are acrobatic- again reminded of KD)
-End of Innocence (A sad ballad, and true masterpiece of a song. Inspired by the illness of Stu's mother. Lead guitars add melody, acoustic guitars add texture, yet choruses are heavy. The theme throughout is about finding inspiration.)

Plagues of Babylon picked up where Dystopia left off. Another concept album, this one actually makes some lyrical references to concepts explored on the Something Wicked, 2-part album. This album opens with a slow and ominous drum beat. Again, this serves as a build-up to the actual song, 'Plagues of Babylon', which shortly morphs into the classic Iced Earth thrasher-type of song. Stu Block's versatile vocals are on display from the get-go.

Block's deep growl is in constant contrast with his upper-range screams and mid-range melodic voice, which simultaneously surprises listeners with unexpected twists and serves the needs of each given song and just the right moments. As I mentioned before, he fits perfectly as a replacement of Matt Barlow, yet also draws comparisons to Tim Owens and even the legendary King Diamond.

'The Culling' is one of the songs that seems like a direct continuation of the concepts from the Something Wicked albums. Mainly a mid-tempo grinder of a song, it also contains a breakdown segment and an impressive guitar solo.

'If I Could See You' is a sad and touching Iced Earth ballad of loss. In much the same way as 'Watching Over Me' primarily featured clean guitar melodies and a minor key tone to convey the emotions of loss and grieving, this song displays the softer side of Iced Earth and is more about losing an inspiring role model than a friend or lover.

The Highwayman is a cover of the Jimmy Webb song made famous by the country super-group The Highwaymen. Here, in similar fashion, Iced Earth performs it as a quartet with different verses sang by Jon Schaffer, Stu Block and guest vocals by Volbeat's Michael Poulsen and Symphony X's Russell Allen. The presence of such big names in the current metal scene make this the best collaboration of talent in the genre since the Big Four of thrash metal performed the song 'Am I Evil?' together on stage in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Recommended Tracks:
-Plagues of Babylon

-The Culling
-Among the Living Dead
-If I Could See You
-The Highwayman

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


Post # 355

Act of Destruction are a thrash metal band from Chicago. They write aggressive songs with fast tempos, raw production, harsh vocals, intense guitar solos, and lyrics infused with political and religious criticism. Having recently won my Independent Band of the Year poll for 2017, here is my promised review of their 2015 release Extinction.

Extinction is a well-crafted, full-length debut album, with 12 tracks counting the instrumental intro. While they are firmly fixed in the aggressive side of thrash (they don't have any softer tracks that break from the aggressive pattern on this release), they do keep things interesting with top-notch lead guitars and plenty of solos. Extinction may not be a concept album, but it is a true listening experience.

Overture of Destruction is the instrumental track that serves as an intro to the album. It starts with thundering riffs that tease with bursts of power that are allowed to ring into one lull after another. Then they hit you between the eyes with Worldwide Hate- a furiously fast thrasher! "Now the fury is unleashed, Law and Order are deceased." the lyrics intone, and the atmosphere of chaos is set. Then, ascending guitar solos shred and the song's tone shifts to a breakdown. The intensity returns to close out the number, and you know you'll be banging your head.

That mood of chaos, darkness, and aggression holds throughout the album from one song to the next. While the riffs are constantly heavy and aggressive, there is always a lead guitar in the mix, often shredding intense leads. The soloing is frequent and extensive when it comes around. The lead guitars serve to maintain an element of  melody within songs. Often there are long stretches of guitar solos that bring new dimensions to the speed metal riffs.

The guitar tones remind me of Sepultura's early works, while the vocals seem to be comparable to Exodus. In both those comparisons the aggressive and relentless tempo also is an accurate benchmark. Lyrical themes range from political criticism to occult imagery. Though the vocal delivery may be one dimensional with the constant gritty screams, the lyrics still provide insightful debates on the subjects they choose to explore.

Overall, Extinction is a successful thrash metal effort. It harkens back to the early days of thrash, when it was truly synonymous with the term 'Speed Metal'. Aside from their obvious talent at maintaining lightning fast tempos, their is no talent lost in the area of lead guitars with this band.
Don't forget to stream or download Extinction through Act of Destruction's Bandcamp page!

Recommended tracks:
-Worldwide Hate
-Death Warriors
-Disciples of the Night
-Black Reality
-Corpses of the Dead (This one contains one of my favorite lines: 'The road to hell has become far too long'!)