Along with earlier pioneers like Jag Panzer and Helstar, Florida’s Iced Earth was responsible for a somewhat uniquely American vein of power metal, taming the histrionics of certain European strains of the stuff and putting a snarling wail on top of speed-obsessed, clenched-knuckle tight heavy metal crunch. By this particular writer’s estimation, Iced Earth has produced at least three indispensable albums: Something Wicked This Way Comes, Horror Show, and, of course, the maniacal Night of the Stormrider. Ever since 2001’s Horror Show, though, Iced Earth’s career has been a decidedly mixed bag, with the increasingly substandard musical output eventually overshadowed by ping-ponging vocalists – Matt Barlow to Tim Owens, then back to Barlow before Stu Block took over for 2011’s Dystopia – and mainman Jon Schaffer’s increasingly rantish anti-government lyrical focus.
With the completion of the monumentally ill-advised extension of Something Wicked into a trilogy of albums, and the fresh blood from Into Eternity’s Stu Block, plenty of still-hopeful Iced Earth partisans had high expectations for Dystopia. The problem is, the album was loaded with plodding dreck and almost entirely lacking in the fire that used to animate the band. The verdict on Iced Earth’s brand-new album Plagues of Babylon has both good news and bad news, of a sort: the good news is, if you liked Dystopia’s plodding dreck, there’s plenty more of it here; but the bad news for the rest of us is that the new album is pretty much the same as Dystopia, only much worse.
The reasons that Plagues of Babylon is so disappointing are hardly artful or interesting, either; this is no spectacular flameout or wildly ham-fisted stylistic left-turn. Simply put, the album is dull, plodding, and lifeless. The album-opening title track takes nearly two minutes of bored chunking before it tips into an actual riff, but once it does, it’s such a bog-standard midpaced slog that it hardly matters. The band’s session drummer sounds almost literally bored to death throughout the album, and although both Hansi Kursch (Blind Guardian) and Russell Allen (Symphony X) provide backing vocals, you’d be really hard-pressed to tell exactly where. But more so than any one particular gripe, the real flaw here is global, in that very little of what used to make Iced Earth an exciting band is present here – whip-smart and hairpin taut riffs, endlessly memorable choruses, and a keen throughline of both grandeur and aggression.
“Cthulu” could have fit neatly on Horror Show, but it would have been easily among the worst tracks – it’s got a pretty decent chorus, but then it beats it into the ground… and then some. The ballad “If I Could See You” is one of the album’s brightest spots, because it reminds the listener that Stu Block really does have a great voice, with a large range and powerful expressiveness. It’s just a shame he isn’t given much to work with here. A later ballad, “Spirit of the Times” (which is actually a “cover” of a song from Jon Schaffer’s side-project Sons of Liberty) is a tepid, outlaw-patriotism-by-rote exercise that fares much worse, and the injection of a bit of Allman Brothers/Lynyrd Skynyrd Southern rock flair on “Peacemaker” – while admirable in its desire to mix up the formula – just can’t convince.
If you’ve enjoyed where Iced Earth has been for the past four or five albums, then nothing on Plagues of Babylon will shock or dismay you, but neither – I suspect – will it set you ablaze with passion. At its best, Plagues of Babylon is a decayed, third-generation photocopy of Iced Earth’s storied past; at its worst, it is almost aggressively uneventful.