Review: Iced Earth’s ‘Plagues Of Babylon’ Borders on Parody

Iced Earth are metal. Really metal. Like seriously, super amped up metal. They call into mind young men, clad in jean vests with band patches, all pushing forward, fists in the air, screaming the lyrics and head banging into the night. If not that, then Iced Earth are so metal you must think of storming a castle. A castle in a frozen kingdom protected by black creatures with powerful maws of teeth, and harshly armed ice soldiers. It’s undeniable. Iced Earth are metal.

Within this metal juggernaut is a generous helping of band drama. Run with an iron fist by rhythm guitarist and lead songwriter Jon Schaffer, Iced Earth has endured multiple line-up changes, most famously involving lead singers. After the turnstile spit out Gene Adam, John Greely, Matthew Barlow and Tim “Ripper” Owns (the guy fired from Judas Priest), Stu Block stepped in, debuting on 2011’s Dystopia.

Now Block, Schaffer and the rest of Iced Earth return with Plagues Of Babylon, an album narrating the fall of society via zombies, disease, and lots of evil. Like I said. Very metal. Iced Earth exists for the epic. Everything they do starts at ten, goes to ten, and ends on ten. Guitars shred, drums are awash in double bass, and Block growls, barks, and raises to a near-falsetto when the songs call for a really beast-slaughtering high point.

Bringing all these elements to a boil, the destiny of Plagues Of Babylon comes down to your dedication to power metal. I won’t lie, this genre rides a thin line between aggression and parody. Power Metal exists smack dab in the middle of the most bombastic elements of metal. The problem is, when all your songs are horse galloping epics of swinging swords and fists raised to the Gods in rebellion, it can get to be a bit much. This is the Achilles Heel of Iced Earth. All the songs on Plagues bleed together by the halfway point. While the riffs are huge, packed with punch, and often seriously catchy, they tend to do the same thing over and over.

Most of the jams on Plagues, are built of off riffs that follow a specific blueprint. One song is a gallop, the other a straight thrash riff, then a halftime jam. Opening title track is halftime, “Democide” is a straight thrash riff, “The Culling” is halftime, “Among The Living Dead” a gallop, and so on. I’m sure if you’re a discerning member of the Power Metal elite, you can argue why these songs have their own unique signature or merit. The rest of us just hear the same thing repeated with a solo thrown in. For all its metal excitement and bravado, Plagues Of Babylon is really, really boring.

Not helping matters is Stu Block. While some enjoy his input, I find his work edging too close to parody. Block has maybe two types of phrasing he uses, and he repeats them over and over. It wouldn’t be so awful if Block’s lyrics weren’t so ridiculous. In the “Plagues Of Babylon” he wails, “Your eyes are blind to the raging storm/will they cleanse the earth of humanity/unleash the plagues of Babylon”. On “Cthulhu” Block alerts us to a “Dark soul of the elder gods/spawns evil from the ocean’s floor/shape shifter fools all mankind/To manipulate this world”. Then there’s “Highwayman”, with the golden words “Across the river deep and wide/where steel and water did collide.” By the end of the album I’d lost count of how many times Block used the word “storm”. It all sounded like lyrics culled from the back of a high school notebook, or the recordings of a lengthy D&D game. Either way, it was hard not to giggle.

Rounding out the failure is the thin production. Musically everything is flat, and saturated with so much high end as to not really ever become “heavy”.  Coming across as a band driven by aggression and might, you’d expect Iced Earth to go for a deep low end vibe. Nope, everything is tinny, and has little in the way of dynamics. With all of the power, fire, solos, wails, double-bass and songs of pestilence, death and zombies, Plagues Of Babylon goes nowhere.