June 19, 2017 Iced Earth – Incorruptible (Album Review)
For long-time fans of traditional Heavy Metal, few groups carried the torch into the new millennium with as much resolute focus as veteran American outfit Iced Earth. The creative entity of Riff-Master Jon Schaffer, Iced Earth plied the waters of vintage Heavy Metal as far back as the mid-1980s. It was not until 1990 that they began releasing full lengths, quickly forging a reputation for zero compromise, unshakable creative integrity, buoyed by Schaffer’s unwavering focus through a storm of lineup changes and label problems. Becoming and remaining a true Heavy Metal force in the decade of Grunge and Nu-Metal could not have been an easy task, but Iced Earth prevailed and are here to deliver their twelfth studio album, the aptly titled Incorruptible, in June of 2017 via Century Media Records.
As hinted at above, the road for this band has never been an easy one. Overcoming severe neck issues, Schaffer appears healthy and energized, as lo and behold Iced Earth has now made three records with former Into Eternity Vocalist Stu Block. Hired in 2011 to replace the beloved Matt Barlow, Block’s efforts on the microphone would need to win over a polarized fan base that had – in places – only grudgingly accepted the Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens years. Two thousand and twelve’s Dystopia and 2014’s Plagues of Babylon showcased a band that seemed to be searching for something. Both were good albums, especially the latter, and truth be told, appear to be holding their own in the canon of Schaffer’s creative efforts. But some of Block’s vocals appeared a little bit forced on those albums, the songwriting ever so slightly stilted in places.
By contrast, the Iced Earth of the mid to late 1990s literally cast spells over the devoted, the quality of the material culminating in the superb Alive in Athens album of 1999, a monument to what live albums could and should aspire to be; was it all fated to be a moment in time only? After half a decade with Stu Block at the mic, classic era Drummer Brent Smedley back behind the kit, and even the same bass player (Luke Appleton) in the fold for four straight years, could Iced Earth reach down deep and extract the sonic gold that endeared them to millions of fans pre-millennium?
The choral chants placed at the beginning of “Great Heathen Army” immediately set a mood from those elder days, when the Set Abominae story line ruled the day. As the song blasts off with a powerful shriek, Block carries the melody in the wheelhouse he has proven to be most suited for; the song’s melodic punch starts things off with a devastating opening blow. Just listen to the guitar leads opening “Black Flag.” This is that classic sound Schaffer nailed back in the 1990s! Block does not sound like he is trying to fill Barlow’s shoes anymore – it is a new pair entirely, and they fit so well fans will want to run up mountains with them.
Two songs in and the immediate uptick in arrangement quality is obvious. Smedley on the drums provides such a confident back-beat, its shades of Nicko McBrain back there. The solos are as magnificent as Block’s vocal performance, each member of Iced Earth sounding keyed in and 150% on task.
Schaffer has a certain style when he writes a power ballad, one seemingly made for Barlow’s voice. “Raven Wing” begins with that acoustic guitar, and a tender touch by Block which shows him every bit as emotive and adroit as his predecessor ever was. This is not stated lightly. Block has never sounded this good. Reminiscent of “I Died For You” off of 1996 Dark Saga or “Melancholy (Holy Martyr)” off of 1998 Something Wicked This Way Comes, this song stuns and uplifts throughout its six plus minutes. Good luck, listener, getting that chorus out of your cranium.
After this opening triad of songs, “The Veil” is a bit of a loss of momentum. It never really delivers, despite some more of those well wrought leads peppered throughout the album. Is it an automatic index finger on the ‘next’ button? Probably not, but if anything it acts as a ramp up to the shot to the nose that is “Seven Headed Whore.” Remember “Violate” from Dark Saga? This one is just as deliciously demonic. Block proves he can carry the high-pitched shriek like a champ. Again, Smedley sounds like a man possessed. “Seven Headed Whore” could amicably share elbow room with a Testament rager. Look for this one to incite mosh pits wherever it is played.
No more dips in quality to be found, Incorruptible dazzles on with “The Relic (Part 1).” All the catchy melodies are there, yet another infectious chorus led by Block’s masterful voice interspersed with the best example of the softer side of the man’s versatile larynx.
For some reason, Native American music works so well when it is synthesized properly into Heavy Metal. “Ghost Dance (Awaken the Ancestors)” is one of the finer instrumentals this side of the ones Iron Maiden made in their classic period. Led by lilting solos and stolid melodies, Schaffer and new Guitarist Jake Dreyer (ex-White Wizzard) combine for a mood of majesty and tribute, the Native flute and voices mixed in to solemn perfection. The song rivals Iced Earth’s own “1776” from Something Wicked This Way Comes in its panache and delivery.
“Brothers” has that Manowar quality of, literally, brotherhood and honor, but focused through the decidedly less cheesy lens of Iced Earth, will set the heart aflame. “Defiance” has the riffs and the muscle right from the get-go, the song bleeding what its title conveys. Schaffer opts once more for the punchy verses and the melodic, considered chorus, to magnetic effect.
By the time one reaches the last song of the album, it becomes apparent that Incorruptible was building up to this moment. “Clear The Way (December 13th, 1862)” is one of those Jon Schaffer war epics he pours so much of his spirit in to create. The slow build up at the beginning resolves into a Smedley drum intro, riffs galore, and a lead to set the heart once more aflame. A proper Heavy Metal stormer, this is one for the ages. The chorus, a double whammy of chest-beating fury and epic gallantry, the song’s drum roll cadence about 3:50 in only adds to the war-epic feel. The guitar/drum trade-off right after is reminiscent of Iron Maiden – the whole record, in fact, has a very Maiden-esque feel to it – and the song simply hits a stratosphere of automatic grace rarely achieved. Schaffer was possessed when he penned this one, and let us pray the demon never leaves him. The harmonica, the drum roll cadence, and the shouts of the dying, it all rolls into a song that is better described as an experience. One more verse and chorus from a furious Block, and the glorious lead follows him to the conclusion.
Overall, Incorruptible is the best Iced Earth album since 1998’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, by many considered the pinnacle of this band’s journey. Whatever was in the water in the studio when they wrote this one, they need to bottle it and take it with them everywhere. CrypticRock gives Incorruptible 5 out of 5 stars.