As if a band as unstable as Iced Earth doesn’t already imply this… LONG STORY SHORT:
The “voice of Iced Earth” Matt Barlow is once again out of the ranks, evidently retired, this time not being replaced by “that guy who filled in for Rob Fucking Halford” Tim Owens, but very surprisingly by Into Eternity’s Stu Block. And after a wildly cool tribute to monsters and Halloween (Horror Show), that (in)famous post-9/11 album, and two bloated-but-somewhat-underappreciated continuations of Jon Schaffer’s “Something Wicked” story, the big question was: will Block’s first album with Iced Earth see a return to just kicking ass with normal power/thrash albums?
With Dystopia, the answer is both yes and no. While the overall album lacks a lone cohesive theme, there are threads of conceptual material. Included are a couple of new additions to the “Something Wicked” story (since we were all clamoring for that…), several songs inspired by dystopian movies and books (because, ya know, Jon Schaffer hates the fucking government), and a few other stand-alone songs. So there are themes, and yet there are not, a confused state made worse by the tossed-together nature of the track order. However, a faulty track order can be ignored if it is made up of great tracks, and therein lies the problem…
But I seem to be getting ahead of myself. First we have the matter of one Mr. Block.
Much has already been said of how Stu does a Barlow impression on the title track single, and his efforts to fit into the skin of former Iced Earth frontmen permeates much of Dystopia. Be it Barlow’s deeper emotive tendencies or Owens’ banshee wails, Block attempts both throughout, usually quite admirably. And while Block is quite the capable vocalist, he is not Matt Barlow or Ripper, not by a long shot (and no one should be ashamed of falling short of those men… at all), and as such, the oft-imitating style he delivers can be quite distracting to long time fans. His best moments come when he is delivering his own style, such as on the chorus of the aforementioned title track. (That song, by the way, is likely the album’s best moment, so it’s all downhill if you didn’t like the sound of it.) Did Stu imitate Barlow and Owens on his own or did Schaffer make the call? Probably the latter, but the means are insignificant when discussing the ends. The bottom line is that it’s an immediate hindrance to the success of the new lineup.
However, the problems of Dystopia, they do not belong to Stu Block…
In fact, even with Stu mostly aping his predecessors, if everyone in the band showed up with as much passion as he did, Dystopia would likely be a far stronger record than it is. To put it simply: This is just not a very powerful collection of Jon Schaffer-penned metal songs. A good amount of it is decent, but even the best material seems to need an asterisk to signify some sort of condition. “Boiling Point?” Just a new version of “Red Baron.” “Dark City?” A boring song made acceptable by a killer, instrumentally-heavy second half. “Tragedy & Triumph?” A quality addition to the “Something Wicked” story that manages to beat its hook into the ground worse than Kiss did on “I Love It Loud.” (YouTube it.) Basically, even the album’s strongest tracks pale in comparison to the lesser songs on Iced Earth’s classic work (think “Reaping Stone” or “The Last Laugh” – both weaker songs on their respective albums, and both kick the dick out of this entire platter). As a result, the lesser moments on Dystopia, such as the strangely Manowar-ish “V” or the almost embarrassingly-anthemic “Anthem” (presented in two versions, the bonus “String Mix” being far better) are complete energy drains, exposed because they aren’t surrounded by the unhinged heavy fucking metal we used to expect of this band.
This lack of energy is one of the album’s biggest problems. Schaffer’s signature 8th-note / 16th-note riff patterns are stock and all-too-safely delivered, the songwriting seems scared to deliver anything at all risky, and by god if Brent Smedley’s drumming here isn’t amongst the most phoned-in ever on a professional record by a veteran band. (Wherefore art thou, Richard Christy?) Also, what the fuck happened to the thrash side of Iced Earth? Jon Schaffer used to be just as obsessed with Spreading the Disease as he was with Piece of Mind, but now it seems like he’d rather mix the latter with a massive dose of Hail to England, only without the self-aware camp, boisterous machismo, and (that’s right) songwriting chops that Manowar possessed. Further halting any momentum is how Schaffer thought it necessary to include another two versions of the same ballad he’s written 20 times in the image of “I Died for You,” and their tired formula is only moderately saved by Block actually being himself.
Finally, there is a subject I very, very rarely tackle: lyrics. Considering the fact that most of these songs came from readymade stories or themes, it is extra-embarrassing that Schaffer and Block could not come up with better words than those that plague “Anthem,” “The Age of Innocence,” or (really gotta hear this one) bonus track “Soylent Green.” It is hard to say whether the lyrics are any worse than in the past, or if Block just doesn’t have the knack for delivering anything and everything in the vocal-god manner that Barlow did. All that can be said is that the words can be extremely distracting at times, even to a guy like me who typically cares more about the quality of delivery than what is actually being delivered.
To be honest, most of Dystopia can be enjoyed by fans if they put forth a little effort, but that’s the logic NFL teams use to justify blacking out local games. It’s up to the producer of goods to make the effort, not the consumer. Fans owe Jon Schaffer fuck-all, and he owes them everything. Unfortunately, even his most blatant attempts to provide “what fans want” fall short. The upside here is that Dystopia lacks the bloated concept filler that plagued the Something Wicked duo; the downside is that it also lacks the four or five new classics that those provided. And that right there is the crux of the issue: there is simply zero classic material herein. Every other Iced Earth album – even the weak debut or much-maligned The Glorious Burden – had a few absolute barn-burners that fans itch like a Soho whore to hear live. Here? None whatsoever.
Bottom line: Dystopia is merely serviceable, further feeding the hate fires of all who have long given up on this once great band.