[6th January 2014]
01. Plagues of Babylon
03. The Culling
04. Among the Living Dead
06. The End?
07. If I Could See You
11. Spirit of the Times
I really wanted to like this album. Dystopia destroyed any uncertainties I had about Iced Earth’s future after Matt Barlow’s final departure (for realsies, this time) in 2011. Stu Block’s (ex-Into Eternity) incredible vocal prowess assuaged my worries and Schaffer’s ever impressive riff-crafting bolstered my faith in the band’s ability to continue hammering out classics. Of course, this means expectations are definitely high for the band’s 2014 follow-up Plagues of Babylon.
Feels like they might have set the bar a bit high.
The album’s eponymous 8-minute opening track pretty much sets the tone for the entire album: drawn-out and meandering, though occasionally threatening to become interesting. Bilbo Baggins said it best – “Sort of stretched…like butter scraped over too much bread”. There are flourishes here and there, reminding us that the band are still capable of quality, but ultimately never delivers. Plagues of Babylon plays out like an audio recipe for musical blue balls. Without wanting to beat the shit out of that analogy, much of the album simply feels stuffed. 5 -7 minute tracks could easily be culled and pruned without losing much to shout about.
It’s not that the album is bad. Perhaps it’s “one for the fans”, but I imagine it’ll do little to engender interest from new listeners – it fails to showcase the passion, creativity and uniquity for which the band gained their popularity. Each member is on top technical form; Block’s vocals are as powerful and commanding as ever, and Schaffer pumps out some devastating riffs and rhythms in tracks like “Democide” and “Cthulhu” – but these highlights are few and far between, and for every flash of light, there are reams upon reams of grey, sterile “riff-by-numbers” sections and aimless, wandering melodies. Hell, the harmonised guitar melodies in “The End?” even sound bored of themselves – just eager to end and disappear. The (inevitable) ballad “If I Could See You” is a definite high point of the album, but Iced Earth are hardly a band known for not being able to rip out a powerful ballad. Many of their strongest tracks are strong and pounding slower tracks, best suited to a live environment.
Even the band’s strongest attributes can’t seem to raise Plagues of Babylon to anything above mediocrity. The production is clean and solid, but even this just lends to a lifeless and sterile atmosphere. Stu’s unabashedly talented singing is undeniably impressive, but it doesn’t make the meandering vocal melodies any more enjoyable to imbibe. All of the musicianship is top-notch from a technical stand-point… but the intrigue simply isn’t here on this record. There are no surprises, few hooks and covers no new ground. Everything done here, Iced Earth have done before – and better. It’s not offensive to the ears, but it does nothing to engage the mind.
Plagues of Babylon sits placidly (perhaps even stagnantly) in the waters of mundanity. I won’t recommend you steer clear of it outright, but I couldn’t say your Iced Earth collection would be lesser for its absence.