Review Summary: Even with the return of Matt Barlow, Iced Earth still manages to release their worst album yet. Somewhere out there, Tim Owens is laughing.Framing Armageddon
was a bit of a mess, there's no doubt about that. Though not exactly awful, the record was a dull representation of Iced Earth's (read – Jon Schaffer's) talents. The song writing was pedestrian, the concept was extremely silly, and for the most part, it sounded like nothing more than an attempt to recapture the epic-ness of The Glorious Burden
and various 80s Iron Maiden songs. Despite the mediocrity, Tim Owens' Halford-esque vocal talents managed to make songs like "Ten Thousand Strong", "Setian Massacre", and "Something Wicked Pt. 1" at least listenable. That said, the album was largely seen as a colossal disappointment, so in effort to save face, Schaffer fired Owens. His replacement was none other than Matt Barlow, who if you remember correctly, left five years ago because his heart was no longer in the band. Predictably, Iced Earth was back in the good books of a lot of people, with some even going as far as praising the move as a return to the "true Iced Earth sound".
Even more predictably, it isn't.
But then again, most everything is predictable about The Crucible of Man
. Barlow merely replaces Owens behind the mic as the album's sole bright spot. His versatile style has hardly changed since he left the band; Barlow can hit high notes fairly well (though he'll never beat Owens in this department), and in "Divide and Devour" he utilizes a thrashy bark, but his real strength lies in his low ranged singing. "Gift or Curse" highlights Barlow's talents in this field (though Schaffer does contribute vocal harmonies), taking the listener on an introspective journey through the protagonist's conscience. He isn't perfect of course, and at times the vocal lines are obviously geared towards Owens' talents (ironically, Tim faced the same issues on The Glorious Burden
, which was written with Barlow's style in mind), but Matt does well with what he's given.
But as good as Barlow is, Schaffer is the primary songwriter in Iced Earth. And his writing is certainly not up to snuff. The Crucible of Man
is a carbon copy of the two albums which preceded it, only this time there is no "Ten Thousand Strong", "Attila", or "The Devil to Pay" to even things out. The aforementioned ballad, "Gift or Curse", is as close to a highlight as The Crucible of Man
gets. Unfortunately, it is startlingly similar to "Ghost of Freedom" from Horror Show
, which really detracts from the power it exudes. Schaffer's riffing borders on thrash metal in "Something Wicked (Part 3) but aside from this, as well as lead parts in "Gift or Curse", and an absolutely blistering solo in "Crown of the Fallen", much of the guitar work revolves around slow, galloping rhythms that almost completely drown out lead guitarist Troy Seele. The lack of guitar solos has hardly been an issue in previous Iced Earth compositions, but given the monotonous, recycled song structures in The Crucible of Man
, some lead work would likely have at least breathed a little life into the album.
Even with the return of Matt Barlow, Iced Earth still manages to release their worst album yet. The same problems which plagued Framing Armageddon
and, to a lesser extent, The Glorious Burden
continue to make a nuisance of themselves on The Crucible of Man
. Though the LP does get interesting on occasion, such occurrences are more of a rarity than ever before on an Iced Earth album. The rest is simply bloated, uninvigorating, and lacks focus. And though most of the pointless interludes have been removed from the tracklist, the album's flow is still lacking. It's essentially an hour of D-grade power metal, which is a shame considering the material Schaffer used to pen.
Somewhere out there, Tim Owens is laughing.