When Florida power/thrash metal band Iced Earth brought their renowned live performance to Dublin’s Button Factory in January, an overreliance on material from their latest release put a bit of a dampener on what was an otherwise admirable performance.
Unfortunately it wasn’t just a lack of familiarity with ‘Plagues of Babylon’ that was the problem. The album is suitably filled with typically thrashing guitars and squealing power-chords that Iced Earth fans should expect, but lacks any real depth. The album chugs along at half-pace, never really letting loose or doing anything particularly memorable.
In an approach that echoes Rush’s ‘2112’, the album comes divided neatly into two distinct parts. The first half is a series of interrelated concept tracks, the second a diverse collection of standalone numbers. Unfortunately neither approach is really effective.
The conceptual first half sees Iced Earth channelling a familiar tale of apocalyptic doom and plagues of the living dead. It is fairly predictable metal stomping ground, and even in recent memory it’s been done better, Anthrax’s ‘Worship Music’ (from 2011) for example. The second half of the album doesn’t do much to set things back on track, with Iced Earth veering into a weird blend of classic rock/ southern rock balladry on If I Could See You and Peacemaker.
Vocalist Stu Block (on his second studio outing with the band after 2011’s Dystopia) seems more comfortable here than on his Iced Earth debut, but with the familiarity is also a deal less experimentation. There much less of an attempt to channel the range of his predecessors, and he stays firmly set in maintaining deeper, thrumming vocals that lack variation. The titular Plagues of Babylon sees him push his voice into epic sweeps, rising from a booming depths to a high-pitched animalistic shriek, but it is almost a tease as it’s a feat that is rarely repeated.
This only serves to highlight the best moment on the album, guest appearances from two European vocalists: Hansi Kusch of Blind Guardian on Among the Living Dead and Michael Poulson of Volbeat on Highwayman. Both tracks inject some much needed life into ‘Plagues of Babylon’. But it’s more of a gentle push than the lighting jolt that ‘Plagues of Babylon’ needed to really get it alive and kicking.