Review Summary: Dear Jon Schaffer,7 of 8 thought this review was well written
Hi Jon. Can I call you that, or do you prefer Mr. Schaffer? I'll stick with first names since it'll be easier to write for the next five paragraphs. My name's Rick. I know you've never heard of me before, I being just a regular person compared to the overwhelming fame you have garnered over the years, some of which were before I was even born, but I will say that I've long been a fan of Iced Earth. In fact, Iced Earth were one of the first bands of the more traditional metal styles to pique my interest. You see, I'm not too much into traditional or power metal outside of certain bands like Iron Maiden, Hell, Blind Guardian, and your band. This is through no fault of the genres themselves mind you; I've always just been further leaning towards the extreme types of metal music. The thing about your band Jon is that Iced Earth, or at least your earlier material like Night of the Stormrider and Burnt Offerings, represented to me a bridge between the cleaner and harsher sides of heavy metal. You were fast, you had energy, you had Matt Barlow and his Hetfield-on-steroids voice, and despite not being the most versatile riff writer in the world, your songs were memorable and stuck with me long after I finished listening to them. That's why the period of your band between 2002 and 2011 was so sad for me. In the blink of an eye, you lost a lot of your appeal. You slowed down, you lacked energy, the powerful vocals of Barlow were replaced with the also powerful but ill-fitting vocals of Tim Owens. I don't know what happened, but Iced Earth became boring. Not even getting Barlow back helped much, as The Crucible of Man was still a plodding waste of time.
Oh, but then you acquired Stu Block and put out Dystopia, and it was much like those older records of yours. It had energy, the vocals were great, it was a good old fashioned great album. It had a few hiccups, but overall it was certainly a ton better than everything you'd put out between The Glorious Burden and that. Lemme tell you, after how good Dystopia was, I had high hopes for your next album, something I hadn't had in you for a long time before then, and when the art for Plagues of Babylon came out, I was thrilled to pieces. I cannot express that sentiment still after having listened to your new album in full, especially considering I could barely keep myself awake throughout it's bloated 62 minute run time. For whatever reason Jon, you seem to have entered this mindset where you think that if a song is really slow and really long, it will translate to something epic and glorious. The problem with this is that, and I mean no offense when I say this dude, your slow songs kind of suck. You've always been much better writing fast, gallopy tunes that can easily be headbanged to, and there are a couple of those on here. "Cthulhu" immediately comes to mind, it being the best song of the bunch here. It may start like nearly every other song on here (see: hopelessly and somewhat annoyingly slow), but it quickly morphs into a thrashy ode to everyone's favorite betentacled Lovecraft creation. I really, really wish I could say that most of the rest of the songs are in the same vein as that one, but I can't. There are a couple other faster tunes here, like "Among the Living Dead" and "Democide", but almost every other song on here is an overly long, unimaginably slow & boring slab of wasted time.
Your riffs here, despite being the same gallops and classic metal licks they always been, just have no life to them. It's mind boggling how bereft of passion these songs are. Every single slow song on here, from the title track on through to the end, just goes on and on and on seemingly without any end in sight. Opening with the title track was one of the dumber decisions made on Plagues of Babylon, as even though I wasn't as infuriated with how boring it is as I was upon my initial listen of it a number of months ago, it was still a completely unfitting track to open an album with. It just goes nowhere, moving from motion to motion, if anywhere, with no spark of creativity lighting the way through, and the same can be said about the majority of the songs here. The only time it even sounds like you or the rest of the band is even caring is on the aforementioned faster stuff, and that's not surprising considering, as I said before, you're infinitely better with fast writing than you are with slow writing. Checking my iTunes player's timer multiple times in the first half of the album is not an indicator that you have an interesting album playing, and by the time I got to the woeful-for-all-the-wrong-reasons "The End?", I was bewildered by how long this all felt despite only being 21 minutes into the album. Hell, a number of the songs in the 2nd half of the record don't even have real endings, preferring to just stop without a conclusion. Ending on two pointless covers, one of your other band Sons of Liberty and one of Jimmy Webb, and a joke outro didn't help matters much at all, with both covers also being soulless marches through the muck from the chest down. What in the hell went wrong here, Jon? Did your unspoken contest with Dave Mustaine over who can be crazier with all the conspiracy nonsense just sap away your talent and ability to give a ***?
I will give your album a couple positive points though, Jon. For one, you didn't overload it with kooky conspiracy theory and politics bull*** to the point of overflow. You couldn't resist doing an entire album without talking about how you think the feds are coming to take your guns away personally and put you in internment camps for the free thinking or whatever it is people like you think about, so we've got "Peacemaker", "Resistance", and the Sons of Liberty cover "Spirit of the Times" here to fill that gap that I just know every fan of your band wanted desperately to be filled*. Of the three, "Peacemaker" is easily the least subtle, reading like the transcribed Western wet dream of a less mentally stable pro-2nd Amendment type. You know, the kinds that think the solution to school shootings is to arm teachers (see: Phil Labonte). The production values here, while not perfect, are the clear highlight of the record, more so than any one song aside from "Cthulhu". The guitars are a little too quiet underneath the drums and vocals for my tastes, but the bass is mostly audible and the drums of Italian skin smasher Raphael Saini are rich in organic tones and sounds. His snare's quite loud though, often distractingly so, and I wish you had it turned down before finishing the mixing. As for Stu Block, I don't know what you're thinking having him sing the way he's singing on here, but you need to stop it, preferably sooner rather than later. Stu's attempt at a Matt Barlow impression was apparent on Dystopia, but at the very least he still sounded like Stu Block. He's got a very unique, recognizable voice, one that us Into Eternity fans are very familiar with. What he's doing here barely sounds like Stu Block. Instead, it sounds like him doing his Barlow impression but with a severe case of bronchitis screwing with his voice. You've taken an amazing singer and reduced him to a parody of another amazing singer. Why exactly did you think this would sound good here? Please, I really would like an answer to that in the near future.
What I'm trying to say, Jon, is that I don't hate you like many others do. I really, truly don't. I think your political ideals are kind of nuts, but it doesn't really affect my opinion of you as a creative mind the same way it does somebody like Dave Mustaine. I think you're an incredibly tight rhythm guitarist that, when you give a *** about something, can make the absolute most of your limited abilities and create some truly excellent music. The Iced Earth albums of the 90s were testament to that, as were the albums you've done with Demons and Wizards. Plagues of Babylon is not an example of that, however. It's very clear that you either were not trying or simply did not care enough to try. It's a bad album. It's a boring, bloated, hopelessly plodding testament to the fact that you and your ever rotating travelling circus of genuinely talented musicians and singers can do so, so, SO much better. Dystopia was the proof in the pudding that when you cared, you could still create a memorable, entertaining, and fun heavy metal album. So why didn't that same spark of renewed passion carry over onto Plagues of Babylon? The only person that I think can truly answer that question is you, Jon Schaffer. I really, sincerely hope that whatever you do next, be it with Iced Earth or any other band, you do it with your mind and heart fully invested in it. I can tell from this album and the non-Horror Show Iced Earth records of the 2000s that if you aren't, it won't be worth my time, the time of rest of your fans, or the plastic the CDs are made of.
*This is sarcasm. I know people like you aren't really privy to it and tend to take comments at face value, so I figured I'd just point that out for you.