Review Summary: Made for Wacken and the big arenas of the world, but not a living room rocker.
When a band is on their 11th full release, and 26 years into existence, it's not inconceivable that they seem to lose a little of their languor. Historically speaking, most bands release their best music within their first five albums, and from there on out, it either goes downhill or just stagnates. None so more often does this occur than with metal, and more specifically the genres of power, speed, thrash, and death metal. The formulaic equation only allows so much room for artistic expansion, and inevitably bands settle for lesser ingenuity and for more influence driven, or comfort zone driven sounds. That brings us to Iced Earth.
Iced Earth is a veteran heavy metal band, with a long history of gaining and losing members. They've had 5 different vocalists, including current lead singer Stu Block, and have historically only been bolstered to their roots by guitarist Jon Shaffer. Their sound really only changed once their name was changed from Purgatory to Iced Earth in 1988, which is now 26 years ago. Their first two albums, "Iced Earth", and "Night of the Stormrider", are highly regarded as masterpieces in the power/thrash arena of metal, and have often been cited as their best works. After 1995's "Burnt Offerings", the band fell into a quicksand pit of complacency, releasing lackluster album after lackluster album. In 2011, "Dystopia" was released, and it quickly divided fans into two categories. Those who thought it was their best in over a decade, and those who thought it was even worse than their previous work.
Now, just a mere two years later, Iced Earth have released a new album, entitled "Plagues of Babylon". Two years in musician years is different than two years in non-musician time. After you release an album, most of that year, and the next if it is released later on in the year, is spent touring in support of that. By the time you're done touring, it's already at least a year and a half later, and you begin the process of writing and arranging new material. Smarter bands like to take at least a few years break in between each album, so as to not burn out and release terrible new material. Iced Earth apparently do not subscribe to this dogma, and would rather pump out mediocrity at best and worst than take some time to arrange excellence.
"Plagues of Babylon" is very much same of the same old for Iced Earth. There's a dramatic pounding introduction, and than quick, slicing staccato riffing. There's not much ingenuity or newness to the music whatsoever. It's very much the same thing as what they did 2 years ago, and 5 years ago, and even 10 years ago. This formula may work for a three chord band like AC/DC or Nirvana, but Iced Earth are in a totally different stratosphere musically. Metal requires much more creativeness and utilization of new ideas than grunge or rock ever do, or did.
Opener "Plagues of Babylon" is introduced with a highly dramatic drum and palm muted riff, which will used as an excellent concert opener as well as an album one. The problem is that it's the best track on the album, and it shouldn't be that way. It's only the first song. "The Culling" is an arena metal sing-along tune, one that European and American crowds can chant and sing along to at Wacken Open Air and Bloodstock. "Cthulu" sounds very much like trademark Iced Earth, with minor hints of influence from Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, which at this point is a given for almost any band of the genre. "Peacemaker" is a ballad type affair, with an eventual pick up. Again, a great chorus, and you can close your eyes and almost see it being performed live in front of 30,000 people and they're all singing along. Iced Earth seem to know what they're doing. Writing music that will be performed well, and will translate exponentially more effective when in a live setting.
The problem is, these songs do not translate on record. I can see this album sounding like an absolute masterpiece live, with the lights and the crowd and the dramatics. This is an album made for live music presentation, and when you create an album with the intention of it translating well into a live performance, the problem arises that it may not come over quite as clear when listening to it in your living room. There's no surprise that Iced Earth's previous release was a live album "Live in Ancient Kourion", and if I had to rate that right now I'd say it was a 4.8 out of 5. It was a live album, and it showcased the band doing what they do best. Playing live. "Plagues of Babylon" was clearly written for the festival and arena show, but as a standalone record, it falters greatly from the trap of experience and immersion than presentation on wax.
"Plagues of Babylon" is an album that suffers from the problem that most good to great bands face. They've perfected their live music to the point their studio work is half of what it could be. There are many bands that cannot even present their music at all in a live setting (power metal colleagues Dragonforce come to mind), but Iced Earth are a live band, and they know that. They wrote this album in preparation of an arena tour, and than the upcoming major summer festivals in Europe.
I personally would love to see these songs be performed live, because I hear the potential for some truly great tunes. But as a record alone, it fails to capture that same intensity and dramatic feeling that power metal can evoke while in a crowd of 50,000 people. And that's just a shame. My best advice is if you enjoy the album, get your tickets now, because you'll certainly love it even more when you're in the third row. Maybe that's the way they want it to be.