Iced Earth - Plagues of Babylon (Century Media)

Everything you want from an Iced Earth album...
Release Date: 
20 Jan 2014 - 11:30pm

It’s very hard to actively dislike Iced Earth. Whatever your standpoint on their vocalist turnover over the years (of which more later), if you like solid, honest, traditional heavy metal then there MUST be at least a small place in your heart for Jon Schaffer and his ever increasing crew of fellow travellers.

Me? I’m a comparative newcomer to the standard, although I’ve dabbled since the very start. But (and I know this is a heresy almost on a par with preferring Dio and even Tony Martin to Ozzy-era Black Sabbath) I’ve never really been a fan of Matt Barlow as a singer. Sure, there are some absolute all-time metal classics amongst the early albums he sang on, but when Barlow had it away on his toes to become a copper, to be replaced by Ripper Owens… that’s when my real relationship with Iced Earth began. 

And now we have Stu Block. To my mind Block is just about the perfect singer for this band. I’m not going to say he’s the definitive object, but to my mind he marries all of the best bits of Owens and Barlow into one formidable package. And he writes songs too (he had a hand in eight of the tracks included here)! And it’s Block who really stars on Plagues… putting in a versatile performance that never dips below top notch; The scream he emits at the end of second track Democide is, frankly, a scream that the Ripper could only dream of, whilst his utterly convincing performance on the hair-raisingly good Among the Living Dead lets you know we’re in the presence of a latter day legend. You’ll come back to listen to this album a lot in the future, and it will always be the performance of Stu Block that brings the first smile to your lips, I guarantee it.

Of course, a singer is nothing without a song, and Plagues of Babylon carries on the good work in that department started by last album Dystopia. Most Iced Earth albums have been cursed with a couple of stinkers to hamper the good work done by the classics, but I can honestly say that there’s nothing here that even has a hint of stankonia about it. Even at its least good it’s never less than solid, and mostly even the more by-numbers rifferama have a flash of brilliance somewhere – whether it be some tasty axe interplay between Schaffer and his partner in crime Troy Seele, or another blood-curdling scream from Block – or, as on Resistance, a little bit of spoken word drama to break things up a little. And when they hit true paydirt, as they do on the absolutely fantastic The End, a melody-rammed anthem of Maidenesque splendour and might – then you get the feeling that there might not be anyone in this theatre of operations that can touch them on this form.

There’s a more relaxed, ‘tight but loose’ feel to Plagues… (which extends  to a fine cover of Jimmy Webb’s The Highwayman featuring Russell Allen of Symphony X and Michael Poulsen of Volbeat) which would suggest that this unit is getting very comfortable as a recording entity; If it can stay together, then I’m going to call it now and predict that even better albums await, but for now there’s a nice feeling around Iced Earth – let’s hope it lasts…