ICED EARTH DELIVER SOMETHING WICKED WITH MATT BARLOW’S RETURN
Allow me to begin by stating unequivocally that I am a Matt Barlow fan. I know there are plenty of Iced Earth devotees out there who were (rightfully) upset by Tim “Ripper” Owens’ unceremonious dismissal and felt he was a stronger vocalist for this act as they moved onward after Barlow, who struggling with his allegiances earlier this decade involving his love of Country, dropped out to take up law enforcement. But Barlow is family (he’s married to guitarist Jon Schaffer’s sister) and, I believe, he’s the more dynamic singer. His emotive wail often resembles Fates Warning’s Ray Alder. His subdued baritone comes close to Queensrÿche’s Geoff Tate. He can also reach the searing, Halfordesque heights Owens is known for though he tends to use them more sparingly. And then he has that snarling growl which is entirely his own. Beyond that he’s much more of a performer who falls into and maintains a character the way an actor might. I don’t dislike “Ripper” Owens but he doesn’t seem to embody the people about whom or situations about which he’s intoning quite as well as Barlow. Also, in a live setting he doesn’t really possess the energy one might want out of a frontman. He has an amazing voice that served the last couple Iced Earth releases well but I’m more a fan of the band’s earlier output, such as ’95’s Burnt Offerings and ’96’s The Dark Saga.
Enough with the diplomacy, though. You’re either going to dismiss this review based on my own stated preference or you’re going to hang in there with me for a spell. The Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part 2 ends up a vital return for Barlow that, while it may fall short of Iced Earth’s classic material ends up more satisfying than its Part 1 predecessor.
The Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part 2 is the conclusion of a storyline that began with the arc of the last three tracks on ’98’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. The saga of IE mascot Set Abominae was given the full length treatment on last year’s Framing Armageddon: Something Wicked Part 1 and now wraps up with a kind of “Part 3” that’s actually labeled as “Part 2” because the original song trio was just back-story for the two follow-up albums. And that original “trilogy” was re-recorded as an EP with Ripper on vocals because Schaffer thought he would be around for the completion of the story. Since this is not the case, Schaffer now wants to re-record Part 1 with Barlow on vocals and release everything in a box set.
Confused? If you haven’t been following along as everything has unfolded in real time I can’t say I blame you. Only in metal could something this convoluted come to fruition. Well, never mind all the nonsense. Is the music of Part 2 any good? Upon initial spins my reaction was generally negative. However, this review is late because I’ve discovered that the more you keep listening, the more the album grows on you and ultimately becomes more satisfying than its predecessor. It certainly doesn’t compare with the band’s classic material, as Scaffer’s rhythmic style is no longer as inventive and vital as it once was, but from a melodic standpoint there’s a helluva lot of memorable material here that sticks with you in an almost haunting way.
There’s a full choir on hand with this venture, and that adds a lot of dramatic weight to the music. Aside from a big, impressive chorus, the first proper track, “Behold The Wicked Birth,” doesn’t really make a striking album opener but the raw, mid-tempo “Minions Of The Wrath” has a middle-Eastern undercurrent and a great vocal performance by Barlow. Yet, we’re left waiting for the speedy and intense galloping rhythms we’ve come to appreciate from Iced Earth. Things pick up with “The Revealing” somewhat but then dissolve into the lush ballad “A Gift Or A Curse.”
“The Dimension Gauntlet” is one of the most impressive and concise moments on the album with its razor-sharp riffs and a rapid, percussive bite. Even more aggressive and unrelenting is “Divide And Devour,” an all-out thrash attack and a highlight of the second half. It leads into “Come What May,” an epic number along the lines of The Dark Saga‘s “A Question Of Heaven” with its acoustic breaks and strings mixed with an emotionally dramatic melody that builds to a wailing climax as Barlow reaches for the very top of his range.
Dropping the excess of the interludes from Framing Armageddon in favor of straight-ahead storytelling and concise songwriting, The Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part 2 actually makes for an impressive late-in-their-career stand and a triumphant return for Barlow whose performance at times surpasses some of his finest periods with the band. They’re not the youthful and vibrant bunch they used to be but Schaffer’s progression as band-leader/control freak and his songwriting maturity hasn’t yet evolved to the point of growing stale and obsolete. While you may at first find this album to be a little too subdued I would recommend not writing it off altogether as subsequent listens reveal great rewards.
(Three and a half out of five horns)