Iced Earth - The Blessed And The Damned
Century Media Records.
Jon Schaffer - Rhythm Guitar, Backing Vocals, Lead Guitar (Something Wicked tracks only)
Gene Adam - Vocals (s/t tracks only)
John Greely - Vocals (Stormrider tracks only)
Matthew Barlow - Vocals (all other albums)
Randy Shawver - Lead Guitar (up to Days Of Purgatory)
Larry Tarnowski - Lead Guitar (Melancholy EP onwards)
Dave Abell - Bass (up to The Dark Saga)
James MacDonough - Bass (Days Of Purgatory to Alive In Athens)
Steve DiGiorgio - Bass (Horrow Show)
Drums played by various guest musicians, namely - Mike McGill, Richey Secchiari, Rodney Beasley, Mark Prator, Brent Smedley, and Richard Christy.
Iced Earth have been the power metal scene's darlings for quite some time now. First appearing in 1991 with a self-titled debut, the band would change vocalists before settling on Matthew Barlow. With him in the ranks, starting with 1995's Burnt Offerings, they ascended to the top of the food chain in power metal. Something Wicked This Way Comes, in particular, is regarded as a modern classic. However, Iced Earth recently left Century Media, and so Century Media have seen fit to release this retrospective of the 13 years they spent with the label. Cashing in? Not at all. :)
Book 1 - The Blessed
Burning Times (5/5)
The bone-crushing opener to the album many consider as Iced Earth's masterpiece, Something Wicked This Way Comes, is reprised as a bone-crushing
The first introduction to a standard Iced Earth technique - if it sounds like a clean electric at the start, get ready for an onslaught. Like Metallica's Battery or Fight Fire With Fire, the opening here is merely a decoy for a full-tilt metal riff. There's some disgusting drums on this track - maybe not the most technical (I'm not a drummer), but certainly as fast as hell. The vocals occasionally get buried in the mix though.
The Hunter (5/5)
My personal favourite Iced Earth track. A great intro, probably Iced Earth's best lead guitar work, and more great riffs. Some of the best lyrics, too, and a great vocal performance. What can I say? It's a fantastic track.
Curse The Sky (2.5/5)
A more balladic track, this time featuring the vocals of Gene Adams. Simply put, his vocals are inferior to Matthew Barlow's in every way. It's a nice enough track, but the vocals are a stumbling block the song doesn't overcome.
Melancholy (Holy Martyr) (4/5)
Maybe the cheesiest opening couplet in music's history again gives way to a heavier track, although one with the sort of anthemic, emotional, call-to-arms vocals Barlow excelled at, and one that switches between the acoustic parts and the heavier parts more than a lot of IE songs. This is the second offering from Something Wicked This Way Comes.
This is the Night Of The Stormrider version of the track, rather than the re-recorded version featuring Barlow. John Greely, therefore, takes vocals. He's better than Gene Adams, but not as good as Barlow. I know a few people who disagree with that, but that's how I feel - Barlow just has more presence and power. Mekkalayakay disagrees with me though - check his review of Days Of Purgatory, linked at the bottom. Again, the calm intro gives way to a heavier track. This is a firm fan favourite, and although I prefer the Barlow version, I would have smacked of revisionism if his version was included, so I agree with this choice.
Burnt Offerings (4.5/5)
I love the guitars here. They occasionally sound System Of A Down-esque, which you might think would detract from the song, but it doesn't. There's plenty of changes abound through this song, giving it something of a proggy feel - and in some sections this song threatens to become black metal! One of the band's better solos, too, although the drums make it somewhat difficult to hear. The chorus sounds like a vocal trade-off between Barlow and Schaffer, although I suppose it's possible Barlow sung all of it.
Travel In Stygian (Live) (4.5/5)
This version of the song is taken from the triple-CD live album, Alive In Athens, rather than Night Of The Stormrider. If you didn't know, Iced Earth are disturbingly popular in Greece, having consistently outsold both Iron Maiden and Metallica! The sound quality is utterly superb. Matthew's vocals on this track sound more like traditional power metal, and Jon Schaffer's guitars have that Iron Maiden-trademarked galloping rhythm to them. Again, there are a lot of changes, including an acoustic section. The riffs towards the end, and a mainly tapped solo, are the highlights. Side note - this song is 9 minutes long!
Dark Saga (2/5)
The riffs here are a little tired and uninspired. Barlow's vocals are still top-notch, though (his consistency can't be knocked). Not one of Iced Earth's better songs; often this is a skip for me.
Written On The Walls (2/5)
Musically this is again fairly good, but it's ruined by Gene Adam's sub-par vocals. With him in the group, Iced Earth don't just sound like your average power metal group, they sound less than average. If you're the type of person who tries to get into bands by downloading or buying their catalogue in order, you should reconsider here.
This song begins with a very cool bassline and a choir, sounding not dissimilar to recent single The Reckoning (Don't Tread On Me). This gives way to a very cool acoustic section, played with 2 guitars. But this is Iced Earth - of course, there's heavy sections too. Not a classic Iced Earth moment, but a good song nonetheless. The piano section that closes is nice, but nothing special.
Book 2 - The Damned
Angel's Holocaust (3.5/5)
And this time, Night Of The Stormrider's opening track is reprised - although, the Days Of Purgatory version is used, which is somewhat revisionist. It kicks less *** than Burning Times, but then, most songs do. Again, a choir is used, and of course, some acoustic sections. Barlow reaches higher notes here than I've ever heard him reach. And, although the solo here shows technical skill, I don't like it. Again, Mekkalayakay disagrees, so you'll have to make up your own mind!
Desert Rain (4/5)
Another Days Of Purgatory track. There are some great guitars here, with an almost Eastern flavour. The solo here has some great sections to it; again, it sounds like an exotic scale is being used, but I'm too tired to work it out. :)
Watching Over Me (5/5)
Iced Earth's best ballad. This song was written by Schaffer about a close friend of his who died. Although the lyrics are somewhat basic and cliche, they are written from the heart, and Barlow pulls them off with enough conviction to transcend that. The acoustic sections are great, with some beautiful arpeggio fills. And the chorus melody is probably the most catchy thing Iced Earth have ever done. An outside contendor for Iced Earth's best song.
Pure Evil (Live) (4.5/5)
This is the version from Alive In Athens. It begins with Barlow playing the crowd - it's stunning just how loyal the crowd is, and just how many of them there are. Almost makes me want to move to Greece. The guitar intro is great, before leading into another galloping riff. The drumming here is pretty good too. This is one of my favourite Iced Earth songs, and is my favourite pre-Barlow song. I prefer this version to the Stormrider version, mainly for the crowd participation and, of course, Barlow's vocals.
The Path I Choose (3/5)
This song opens with a riff easily mistaken for the one on Pure Evil. Programming errors aside, it's not one of Iced Earth's better songs.
I Died For You (4.5/5)
Opening with acoustics (yes, Iced Earth song structures can get repetitive), and some very well produced, atmospheric drums. The chorus riff is not very heavy, and Barlow's vocals remains restrained and dignified. This, for one, is one of Barlow's best vocal performances, because there's a wealth of emotion to be found in a singer who holds back like this. The lyrics aren't far removed from pop, but that's not a problem for me - they're still good. A highlight of the second disc. It's a shame it's so short.
Disciples Of The Lie (3.5/5)
By contrast, Barlow goes for it here. The riff doesn't grab me at all here - it's very energetic, but also very repetitive and rhymically uninteresting. The organ section, with (fairly) fast drumming behind, initially seems out of place but adds a lot to the song. A decent effort spoiled by the guitars. The song deals with Schaffer's upbringing in a Catholic school.
When The Night Falls (2/5)
Days Of Purgatory version. A very nice guitar opening again gives way to a pretty standard thrash riff. It's getting a little tiring by this point. There's not enough of Barlow here, and to be honest, it sounds a little like he's trying to imitate the vocalists who came before him. The instrumental sections here are lengthy but uninteresting; listening to this next to the measured and powerful crunch of a track like The Hunter is an odd experience, but one that illuminates how much Schaffer's songwriting skills have developed.
The intro slams straight out of the gates - great bass, by the way! - and doesn't let up. Barlow, in places here, sounds like 'Smoky' from Sepultura. The lyrics are some of the best on the album, and this is easily a return to form for the album after When The Night Falls.
Iced Earth (2/5)
This is the original version. If you have ever seen Bo Selecta, you will NOT be able to take this seriously. At all. The singer, Gene Adam, here sounds just like - and I mean, EXACTLY like - 'Vernon Kaye, from Boltuuuuhhhhhhnnn!!!' You'll be saying that to yourself as you listen. Again, the long, fairly pointless instrumental sections are evidence of the early '90s Schaffer's youthful enthusiasm and immaturity as a songwriter. Do not file with 'Iron Maiden' by Iron Maiden.
Violate (Live) (4/5)
It seems odd that Iced Earth was not used as a finishing track, seeing as it shares the band's name. Then again, Century Media may have felt this was a weak ending, and may well view the concert in Athens as Iced Earth's greatest achievement. This was the song that closed that concert. It features some very cool riffs, and of course that crowd. A much better closing track than Iced Earth, that's for sure.
The track-by-track reviews will have given you enough things that are right with it, so here's what's wrong with it. Firstly, it gets very tiring - both discs are around 80 minutes long. This is excellent value for money, but it helps to bring out Iced Earth's weaknesses. Firstly, Jon Schaffer's riffs are formulaic. They're not bad for the most part, they just tend to follow a formula that gets tiring when stretched to 2 discs. If you listen to this album all the way through, you'll eventually get to a point where Barlow is the only thing keeping you listening. Possibly due to the revolving-door line-up, the lead guitar work is inconsistent and sometimes, downright boring. I don't have enough Iced Earth albums to judge whether this something that happens from album to album, but on this album, the quality levels go up and down from track-to-track, pretty much. And whenever there is a good solo, it's never mixed high enough, which is something you have to get used to. The album can be a little disheartening, too, since Barlow is the best thing about it, and he's now retired from music. He has been replaced by Ripper Owens, and on the recorded evidence we have so far, even he can't fill Barlow's shoes. Final thought on album flaws - some tracks from Tribute To The Gods would have been nice. A well-chosen cover (Highway To Hell, Number Of The Beast, Black Sabbath, and God Of Thunder were all covered) would have broken up the mood of the album a little bit and given a hook for newcomers.
The liners are excellent, and the artwork is among the best I've ever seen on a CD. It looks like Century Media put a lot of thought into the cover - although, don't be fooled into buying both covers. The booklet inside is actually reversible, and the two covers are on the same booklet, so you can choose whichever cover you like.
The lyrics are included in the liners - although this is a fault in previous Iced Earth albums (the lyrics can get pretty cheesy), here it's a masterstroke - it allows you to follow the songs and does a hell of a lot to stop the album becoming boring and repetitive.
Overall it's a good introduction to Iced Earth, but it can definitely be too much of a good thing! Any IE newcomers approaching this album are advised to take it in chunks.
Within The Genre
Outside The Genre
PS - I'm sorry if I came off here as a Matthew Barlow fanboy. Re-reading it, I certainly sound like one!