Review Summary: A very dark, yet complex and epic power metal record that will surely stand the test of time.
Wow. If there's one band that doesn't have a stable lineup (except for Jon Schaffer), it's this one. You never know what people Jon is going to add next, or fire next. This album, however, still has the best vocalist in IE history (Matt Barlow.), and it has Jon Schaffer. Of the current lineup, only Jon, the band founder, is still there. But guess what? With the old lineup, they produced one hell of an album, and a classic power metal album that can stand the test of time for years to boot.
Since I acquired this album, I haven't been able to quit listening to it. I play it almost every day, or at least songs from this album. Now, why is that? First of all, because IE rhythm guitar is seriously one of the sickest things, the most catchy things, the most evil things I've ever heard. On almost every track (except The Pierced Spirit), Jon shows off his awesome riffing skills. It drives the whole record forward in my opinion: not in any song is there a moment where the riffing gets boring. It's all excellent stuff. Deep, dark, heavy, apocalyptic, just like the mood of the record. And we're not even talking lead guitar here. The solos are pretty decent, although not as numerous or excellent as the kickass rhythm guitar behind it.
The second thing, is Matt Barlow's vocals. For a power metal vocalist, he has a rather deep voice, more in the baritone range than the high tenor range, as opposed to most vocalists. And he sounds really, really, really good for a guy singing in your back garage. From downright evil growls (the end of Dante's Inferno), to insane FALSETTO passages (the end of Creator Failure), to emotional singing (Last December), Matt gets almost every different kind of emotion across, in almost every possible singing style. And it all fits with the tracks.
The other parts of the rhythm section, the bass and the drums, do their job, especially the drums stand out. It's not just double-bass whacking, it's incredibly complex drum patterns all over the place to accompany the guitar riffs. The bass is definitely audible, but it doesn't really do much: Abell plays root notes end story. Not special, but it gets the band where it's supposed to get, and besides, this album isn't a progressive metal album. Satisfactory enough.
Another part of this album that stands out is the incredibly dark, apocalyptic and moody lyrics. Varying from a quest through the nine plains of hell (Dante's Inferno), to unrecognised love Romeo & Julia style (Last December), to vampirism (I think that's what Diary's about, anyway), to the lies of the christian religion (Brainwashed), to a failed creation leaving a monster (Creator Failure), to the Garden of Eden (Burning Oasis), to a vicious attack on the music industry (Burnt Offerings), everything (except The Pierced Spirit), is extremely angry, evil and dark in nature. Lines such as "Cast their bodies to the flames" or "Spill your blood, give me good omen" illustrate the nature of the record, which was said to be written during a period of Schaffer's greatest inner turmoil. I wish he was angry more often, then you get kickass records like this.
Individual standout songs are the 16 minute plus epic Dante's Inferno, which is one of the most moving and intricately written pieces I have heard, could go right up there with all the Dream Theater epics, just slightly more moody and power metal style. Going from evil, to heavy, to mellowly acoustic, to Gregorian chants, this is one of the best songs metal has ever produced. Hall of Fame song for me.
Also excellent is Brainwashed, which is almost heavy throughout, except for the short acoustic interlude, containing some kickass vocal lines (LIES, FOOLISH LIES, BEHIND YOUR BRAINWASHED EYES), with some excellent guitar riffs.
Last December's chorus still singes through in my head, the unrecognised teenage love made out to be precocious by the parents haunts me still. Matt Barlow's vocal lines again steal the day. Pretty short for an Iced Earth song, but nevertheless effective.
All the other songs have their merits too, though. No song here is out of place, not even the acoustic "The Pierced Spirit", everything fits perfectly, I can listen to this album in its completeness without skipping tracks, and that is really good; with most albums there's always one track I hate: here, there is none. Iced Earth have not only created eight good songs, they've made it into an album, with slow/quick processions, tempo changes, hard/soft contrasts, from completely mellow to just evil guitar lines, complete with the apocalyptic lyrics.
Is Iced Earth just your average happy power metal band? I think not. Is Iced Earth just speed and grit? I think not. This is a very clever album, inspired by the dark side of human nature, not yet satanic, but very critical as a whole. I think that this album will easily stand the test of time as one of Iced Earth's best records, if not their best, and is definitely a recommended buy for every metalhead, even if you're not into power metal. This has to be one of the best records I've acquired lately, and for good reason: it's simply one of the best metal discs out there. Do yourself a favour, and pick this up.