To say that ICED EARTH fans were anxiously awaiting the second part of Jon Schaffer's "Something Wicked" saga would be a gross understatement, considering that "The Crucible of Man (Something Wicked Part 2)" also marks the return of singer Matt Barlow. Reading the debates over whether Tim "Ripper" Owens (ex-JUDAS PRIEST, BEYOND FEAR) capably filled Barlow's shoes on "The Glorious Burden" and "Framing Armageddon (Something Wicked, Part 1)" or paled in comparison has been amusing, to say the least. The debate certainly became more intense after Schaeffer proclaimed that it was Ripper's voice that he had always heard in his head when it came to the music of ICED EARTH. As such, it must have been at least a tad awkward to bring Barlow back to sing for "The Crucible of Man". Be that as it may, Parts 1 and 2 are both terrific albums, even though I happen to prefer Ripper's vocals. Yet I've no problem with Barlow's performance on the new album. But on to the review.I'm a big fan of "Framing Armageddon" and think it is a stellar piece of metalwork, and this is coming from someone who never had a strong opinion one way or the other about ICED EARTH prior to the release of that album. I also think that "The Crucible of Man" is a very good album. My initial impressions were not nearly as positive about it, but that sucker really grew on me after multiple listens. So make sure to spend some time with it before passing judgment. While it does not boast a grand-slam anthem like "Ten Thousand Strong", it features several tracks, including the "I Walk Alone" single, that come close. Even though the standout tracks aren't as obvious, "The Crucible of Man" may actually have a better overall flow and perhaps a bit more consistency from one track to the next. I don't find the complaints many have uttered about the dearth of fast songs and guitar solos to be valid necessarily either, as forward momentum is maintained for the entire 59 minutes. As for the sparse amount of soloing, the one on "A Gift or a Curse" — the ballad-esque tune that is kind of this album's equivalent to "A Charge to Keep" — is extremely well done and provides a bright splash of color to the composition. Beyond that, I can hear where a few more solos might have a similar impact, but I don't see the lack thereof as being especially problematic. Each song is composed with care and rarely gives one the feeling that something is missing, which is what matters in the end. Strings and non-traditional percussion are present here too, but not to the same extent as on "Framing Armageddon", which some felt cluttered the affair (I had no issue with it). Aside from the intro "In Sacred Flames" and outro "Epilogue", texture and atmospherics are heard right where needed, including, for example, a brief female vocal on the metallically intense "Behold the Wicked Child" and the operatic touches on "Divide and Devour". On the whole, Schaffer's riffs and melodies are strong throughout and, given time, most every song stands as tall on its own as it does as one piece of the larger puzzle. Barlow sounds as good as ever and while he may not possess the same range as Ripper (though he shatters glass at one point on "Come What May"), his voice is a splendid fit for these songs. There are several song highlights and gripping moments, most notably on "Crucify the King" (featuring great alternating vocals on the verse and a triumphant chorus), "Crown the Fallen" (the other tune with a guitar solo and a sugary sweet chorus), "Harbinger of Fate", and the aggressive "Divide and Devour". In short, Schaffer knows how to write a good song and does so without sounding like every other trad-metal band out there. So the debates will continue to rage and those that have supported ICED EARTH from the very beginning will be most vociferous. What I believe is most important to remember is that "The Crucible of Man" is a finely crafted heavy metal concept album chock-full of good songs. That should be enough, but nostalgia will deafen some to the merits of the new release.
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