(Century Media Records, 2017)
Every metal fan has that one or two special bands that have left an indelible imprint on their psyche -- that colored their musical tastes forever. I’ll never forget the day back in late 1992, when my teenage self received a mix tape in the mail from an online penpal friend (TML’s own Craig Wisnom, BTW). In the past few years I had just getting into some of the bigger metal bands such as Maiden, Metallica, Zeppelin, Slayer, Queensrÿche, and Savatage, but I craved to dig deeper. I popped that cassette into the stereo in my room, and the first tones that greeted me were those of on angelic choir singing the melody to “Carmina Burana” over a slowly-descending metal riff. Suddenly, a furious and incisive galloping thrash riff exploded amid wicked shrieks from the lead singer. Who was this amazing mystery band that had rendered me so awestruck?
The band that opened that mix tape was Iced Earth, and the songs “Angels Holocaust” and Desert Rain” had set the wheels in motion for a lifelong obsession with Jon Schaffer’s (not so?) merry band of metal mavens. Fast forward nearly seven years, and I was lucky enough to experience my very first IE show in my then-hometown of Denver. Not only was the show itself intense and brutal beyond the bounds of mere words, but my friends and I also got to meet band members such as Schaffer and singer Matt Barlow, who were extremely cool and gracious with their time. The whole experience was surreal and amazing, and I dare say it gave all the other shows I’ve attended ridiculous standards to try to reach. My IE fandom was permanently fixed in stone. Now in 2017, after 30 years, many lineup changes, and 11 previous studio albums to their credit, Iced Earth have returned with a largely commanding statement on Incorruptible.
Before delving too deeply into Incorruptible itself, a few words should be said about Iced Earth’s musical evolution over the decades. On the early masterpieces, such as the self-titled debut (1990), the iconic Night of the Stormrider (1992), and the hugely-underrated Burnt Offerings (1995), IE’s music largely centered around Schaffer’s unique guitar riffs. His rhythm playing was thrashy but also incredibly precise and intricate, particularly with his picking hand. Those high-energy, stuttering thrash riffs collided with melodic vocal lines to create an inimitable hybrid of thrash and traditional metal. Over the years, IE has gradually streamlined their song structure, toned down some of the aggression, and emphasized lusher production values, grand lyrical concepts, and singalong vocal lines. Therefore, their music on recent albums has often been lumped in with the Euro “power metal” movement, somewhat unfairly and to their detriment. It is safe to assume, however, that the blisteringly-intense speed metal of Stormrider’s halcyon days are probably gone. For die-hard fans, the options are to accept this evolution and listen with open ears, or to move on.
Thankfully, there’s a lot for the IE faithful to love on Incorruptible. The year off they took from touring due to Schaffer’s second cervical fusion surgery seems to have provided the band a nice boost in the inspiration department. The return of the thunderous timepiece in longtime drummer Brent Smedley is most welcome, as is the addition of new lead guitarist Jake Dreyer. Not to cast shade on any of Schaffer’s former guitar counterparts, but Dreyer’s playing takes the melodies and solos to another level of technical sophistication and artistry. His solos are sufficiently flashy without devolving into self-indulgence, his phrasing and sense of melody flawless. Lead vocalist Stu Block has locked into a solid groove on his third album with IE. While his detractors likely still won’t care for his singing, he still capably mimics the rich lows of baritone Barlow and the eardrum-puncturing shrieks of Tim “Ripper” Owens. As a whole, the band sounds tighter and more comfortable on these tracks than they have in nearly a decade.
The album opens auspiciously with the promising head-ripper, “Great Heathen Army.” This speedy number alternates between some of Schaffer’s trademark palm-muted 16th notes and galloping triplets, and some infectious vocal melodies from Block. IE reduces the tempo a few notches but not the intensity level on “Black Flag,” an irresistible pirate anthem that features some inspired riffing and guitar harmonies. Another highlight is the blistering thrasher “Seven-Headed Whore;” this galloping, decapitating juggernaut recalls IE’s classic aggressive moments such as “Violate” and “Pure Evil.” “Raven Wing,” by way of contrast, is a haunting ballad that opens with a delicate acoustic intro only to take listener on a roller coaster of emotions. The pounding, accented verse riff segues seamlessly into a catchy chorus, followed by a pair of delicious solos from Dreyer. By the time IE launches into the intricate, harmony-infused interlude section, the listener just may be rendered speechless.
Other highlights include the anthemic instrumental tribute to Native Americans, “Ghost Dance (Awaken the Ancestors,” and the uplifting, Irish jig-ish Civil War epic, “Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862). Some of the other tracks are less effective, to varying degrees. Dramatic power ballad “The Veil” is catchy and pleasant enough, while “Brothers,” Incorruptible’s third ballad, seems redundant and a bit too maudlin for its own good. More middle-of the-road tracks such as “The Relic (Part 1)” and “Defiance” would sound fine for a new, unsigned band, but come across a bit flat in the context of IE’s high-quality canon.
No, Incorruptible is not a perfect Iced Earth album. But its best moments far outweigh its underwhelming ones. After all, to quote the band onstage, it’s still ICED, MOTHER, F***ING EARTH!
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot
--Tracklisting: 1.) Great Heathen Army 2.) Black Flag 3.) Raven Wing 4.) The Veil 5.) Seven-Headed Whore 6.) The Relic (Part 1) 7.) Ghost Dance (Awaken the Ancestors 8.) Brothers 9.) Defiance 10.) Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862).