Finding himself at a crossroads a few years ago, Jon Schaffer has given his latest vocalist Stu Block the opportunity to gel with ICED EARTH, so much the two are unraveling a genuine partnership as the power metal favorites unveil their eleventh project, "Plagues of Babylon". The former INTO ETERNITY vocalist knows how to navigate a winding creeper, a fundamental tool necessary to piloting ICED EARTH's frequently methodic song structuring.
Much of "Plagues of Babylon" is dedicated to the continuation of Jon Schaffer's seemingly perpetual "Something Wicked" concept, while some of the songs are standalone joints. A few songs break the ICED EARTH songwriting mold, a little, anyway. The album features not only Stu Block, but an entire gaggle of guest vocalists (most prominently ganged up for "The Journeyman") including VOLBEAT's Michael Poulsen and SYMPHONY X's Russell Allen. Schaffer brings his DEMONS AND WIZARDS cohort (also singer, bassist and lyricist for BLIND GUARDIAN) Hansi Kürsch aboard for "Among the Living Dead".
The seven-minute title track is all you'd expect from an ICED EARTH standard, moving at a mid-tempo march for the entire ride with the customary riffs and chords Jon Schaffer's made his career with. As far as setting a new bar for themselves, no, that's not the case here nor with most of "Plagues of Babylon". ICED EARTH rides their primary power metal sound that's apparently never to be mucked with. However, what "Plagues of Babylon" does well aside from unifying its newer members is to interchange now and then with some different theories.
While the title track, "Democide" and "The Culling" ride the tried and true rails with a somewhat stripped cadence, the album picks up stride with the dense and crushing "Among the Living Dead". Still carrying the trad metal crunch ICED EARTH prides itself on, the riffs are more punishing, the chords are deeper glued, the beats are heavier and the vocals are turned loose, in large part due to Hansi Kürsch. Jon Schaffer and Troy Seele work congruously on the backs of rich guitar lines that blossom into a sweet solo and then hit a majestic finale.
From this point, "Plagues of Babylon" feels more substantial. "Resistance" reverts back to the script, but Stu Block turns in a great performance with mostly his personal touches. "The End?" is weirdly placed in the middle of the album and in its understated way, the song comes off like a modest tribute to IRON MAIDEN with bassist Luke Appleton's (making his first appearance on an ICED EARTH record) lead notes and tempered progressions. This one, along with "Cthulhu", sounds inspired by MAIDEN's "A Matter of Life and Death" versus the earlier material, so take them as you will, but "The End?" belongs to Stu Block, who commandeers it beautifully.
The ballad "If I Could See You" is one of the best songs on the album, thanks to Block's poignant delivery, which the band builds upon to create true strength on the harder sections. Its kissing cousin, "Spirit of the Times", is executed in similar fashion, only plugged into a different key. "The Peacemaker", the biggest standout track on this album, deviates both from theme and vibe. As a metallic western yarn, the changeup is longed-for and well-suitable to Troy Seele's dragging fret slides and the hammering W.A.S.P. chug prevailing over the song. Stu Block hangs in a tough, grizzled range and all of it together creates the most satisfying headbanging experience to be found on "Plagues of Babylon". While the primary melody of "Parasite" adheres to the usual ICED EARTH motif, the tail end of each verse line carries a crafty and harmonious chord breeze, along with a guitar-shrieking bridge that keeps it engaging. Contradictorily, the noncommittal "Highwayman" comes off like a poke-along ACCEPT jam thrown as a party favor for Jon Schaffer's guests.
It's been long apparent Jon Schaffer, ever the astute metalhead and scholar, has a platform that he caters to for the benefit of his audience. Thus "Plagues of Babylon" delivers the goods for Schaffer's supporters, if moving the band itself forward only incrementally.
Not to harp on the past as ICED EARTH moves into their third decade, but Matt Barlow remains the finest singer to take the reins of this group. Stu Block is a welcome addition, but it's evident Jon Schaffer has the echoes of Barlow still filtering inside his creative mind, at least to the point he must have puncturing high altos and falsettos floating in overdubs throughout "Plagues of Babylon". Block has his own style, but he is called upon to replicate Barlow's propensity to plunge from mid-range to lower octaves and on "Democide", he's asked to hit Tim "Ripper" Owens' air-splitting screeches. It's not an entire rip, per se, since Stu Block takes over many of the songs without subscribing to any of his predecessors' work. In other words, he plays by the rules and accents to his own design. At least Jon Schaffer and Block have begun to form a songwriting alliance that should reap a tremendous payout next time around if Block is freer to roam within his own repertoire.