Once again Iced Earth have nipped into the studio and walked out again with another fine album, taking listeners on a journey through a new concept from the evil metal mind of band leader, principal songwriter and guitarist Jon Schaffer. This time it is the turn of the Zombie Apocalypse to be focused on, dissected and reformed with some big fat riffage.
No doubt inspired by vocalist Stu Block’s love of all living dead things, Schaffer has put together a 6 song arc for the first half of the album that explores this theme, before going into more generic territory and finally, capping the album off with a somewhat unexpected cover that many metalheads would no doubt love to see recreated live given the names who joined in the recording session.
So to the album then, Iced Earth’s reflection of George A Romero’s work is like the Riff of the Living Dead, or perhaps The Rocking Dead. Don’t like that? OK, for the more cult movie fan, this is Zombie Girl: The Musical. The band are firing on all cylinders throughout, not since Dante’s Inferno has an Iced Earth album featured such dark riffs and tones, opener and title track ‘Plagues of Babylon’ sucks you in slowly with an intro that will no doubt be used as the band’s intro tape on the tour (they should DEFINITELY call that the Denim of the Dead Tour) before picking up the pace slightly and rocking your ears hard for 8 minutes. This is followed by ‘Democide,’ which I am reliably informed by the internet means “the murder of any person or people by their government”, not as you might hope the destruction of all local bands’ shit first CDs.
By the time you reach ‘The Culling,’ you can’t help but notice how comfortable Block seems, not that he had anything to prove on previous opus “DYSTOPIA”, but you can probably imagine he felt he did. Now after extensive touring with the band, his vocal lines appear to be more about serving the song than blowing away the listener and a fine job he does too, even getting the opportunity to write several of the album’s lyrics himself.
Schaffer has said he was looking for a more live sound to this record so kept the production values to a minimum and it definitely pays off, the album overall sounds fresh and like it has been recorded by a band with all the enthusiasm of one just starting out.
Another 7 minute track – ‘The End’ – closes the story portion of the album, lulling you into a false sense of security with some clean tone courtesy of Schaffer and Troy Seele, before unleashing a brutal staccato riff that cause a zombie to kill itself due to the sheer force of brain meeting skull whilst headbanging.
Power ballad ‘If I Could See You Now’ recreates the feeling you got the first time you heard the band play ‘Watching Over Me,’ but it is ‘Peacemaker’ that is the indisputable album highlight. So cheesy it requires crackers and Port, it epitomises everything great about Iced Earth. Uplifting lyrics, quiet parts into loud ones, big triplet riffs, some ridiculous footwork by drummer Jon Dette and a chorus so big no one can wait to sing it in a field in the summer.
Now, about that cover. Many moons ago a few unheard of poor musicians by the names Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson got together and recorded a song called ‘Highwayman.’ Now you can hear Iced Earth give their interpretation with Schaffer and Block being joined on vocals by Russell Allen of Symphony X and Mike Portnoy’s band for five minutes Adrenaline Mob. It’s a great track and fits with the rest of the album well, but it takes on a whole new life when after a false ending the unmistakable vocals of Volbeat’s Michael Poulson take over for the final verse, a truly excellent closing to another excellent Iced Earth album.