Yes, Iced Earth’s 2001 album Horror Show is probably as obvious a choice for a Halloween album as one could ever hope to find, but here’s the thing: it’s also a pretty kickass heavy metal record. Having capped off a string of solid-to-excellent albums in the 90s with the sterling Something Wicked This Way Comes (although 1991’s Night of the Stormrider remains Iced Earth’s high water mark), and still riding somewhat high off the magnificent live document Alive in Athens, Jon Schaffer brought together what is probably his single finest line-up for Horror Show, with Richard Christy on drums and Steve DiGiorgio on bass.
Having largely exorcised the pure need for speed on earlier albums, Horror Show finds Iced Earth at its most power metalish, though power metal of a recklessly stout and chunky American variety, with Schaffer’s rhythm work being every bit as essential to Iced Earth’s sound as Hetfield’s for Metallica. With each song (save the saccharine but well-intentioned salute to the American armed forces, “Ghost of Freedom”*) based on a celebrated character from the annals of horror such as Count Dracula, Dr. Jeckyl, Jack the Ripper, and so forth, it’s hard not to enjoy the less serious approach taken. But none of this means dick unless the songs can bring it, on which count we can gladly report Horror Show excels and then some. Sure, as on any Iced Earth album there are a few tunes that fail to thrill completely (“Im-Ho-Tep,” “Frankenstein”), but they’re more than made up for by some real rippers. Matt Barlow is in particularly fine voice on the flashy “Wolf,” and successfully pulls off a few different voices on “Jeckyl & Hyde” to accurately reflect the subject matter. The true show-stoppers, though, are the lengthy epic “Damien” (based on The Omen films, and complete with Latin chanting) and the so-much-fun-it-ought-to-be-illegal closing duet of “The Phantom Opera Ghost.”
Is this actually a scary album? Of course not. But of course the classic Universal Studios horror / monster films which inspired the majority of these songs (i.e., Dracula, The Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, The Phantom of the Opera, and Frankenstein) are not particularly frightening by today’s standards. Neither, however, are those films generally cartoonish or schlocky, and Schaffer’s sturdy and insidiously catchy songwriting throughout Horror Show sets a similar tone, more a winking acknowledgement of the melodramatic dread of Victorian horror than an over the top slash-n’-gore-fest. This is the kind of metal record that you could conceivably crank up to spook the neighborhood children when they come trick-or-treating without necessarily bringing a local SWAT team crashing through your windows as if, say, you decided to hand out toothbrushes and blast some Gnaw Their Tongues while bathing yourself in soy sauce on the front lawn.
*Final note: Someone really ought to do a mash-up of former Attorney General John Ashcroft singing over The Glorious Burden’s “When the Eagle Cries.” The horror, the horror…