A guy like Jon Schaffer hasn't survived twenty years of lineup changes and a tooth-and-claw battle for survival in the music industry by being unsure of himself. As the profile of ICED EARTH has slowly increased over the years, he has finally reached a plateau where he can tackle a project ambitious enough to make most musicians' eyes glaze over — a concept album encompassing 10,000 years of history, containing his most symphonic, epic power metal and spread over two records (the second of which will be released next year). If anyone's capable of pulling it off, it's Schaffer — after all, this is the guy who delivered the thirty-minute "Gettysburg" saga on 2005's "The Glorious Burden", and who is quite used to creating heavy metal classics on a punk rock budget.
But isn't this a little overreaching, even for someone who thinks as big as Schaffer? Upon first listen, it seems so — if you're a hopeless member of the MySpace generation and a worshiper of the sound bite, this hour-plus of staid power metal is gonna seem like quite a horsepill. Even with familiarity, the sheer number of intros, between-song interludes and PINK FLOYD-esque soundscapes (see "Invasion") can seem interminable. But there's so much good stuff here, with so much care and craft put into the work, that the occasional (and probably inevitable) moments of bloat are forgivable. In all its ungainly, sprawling glory, "Framing Armageddon" is one of the year's best metal albums.
For many people, the biggest sticking point on "The Glorious Burden" was the presence of Tim Owens behind the mic — replacing the much-loved Matt Barlow, on short notice, on material written for Barlow's more rough-hewn voice, was a pretty tall order. But Owens fits in here much better, and his expressive, wide-ranging vocals seem to have freed Schaffer up to explore new melodic territory in his writing. Check out the majestic "A Charge To Keep" — Owens carries the song, along with some backing choirs in the chorus, while the guitars stay in the background, providing the framework for the vocal melodies. Owens's voice is perfect for these epics, and he enthusiastically tears into what may be the best-suited material we've heard for his vocals since his time with WINTER'S BANE.
One advantage of "Framing Armageddon" being so huge is that it encompasses something for ICED EARTH fans of just about every vintage. You want singles? "Ten Thousand Strong" and "Setian Massacre" will ignite entire soccer stadiums, and the title track brings back some of those classic galloping Schaffer triplets, along with layering and a sonic density that the band has only flirted with in the past. If you're more a fan of the midtempo stuff (you know, the songs where Barlow always seemed to be doing an unconscious Paul Stanley impression), the stirring "Order of the Rose", while "The Clouding" and "A Charge to Keep" tug at the heartstrings and provide a personal, emotional touchstone in the midst of the chaotic, far-reaching storyline. "The Clouding" in particular finds Schaffer really increasing his palette, coming up with sounds one wouldn't expect on an ICED EARTH album (nice bass work on this track!).
If there was a "representative" song on "Framing Armageddon", it's arguably "Retribution Through the Ages", a slower-paced mini-epic with a massive chorus and the martial rhythm of a true anthem. This song will fuel the complaint some have lodged, that ICED EARTH has turned into their longtime friends, BLIND GUARDIAN, a band known for sometimes overindulgent metal excess. The point is a valid one – but no matter how bombastic ICED EARTH gets (and they do get pretty out there on "Framing Armageddon"), at the core of their sound we always find Schaffer's rough-and-ready rhythm guitar, a precision riff-spitting machine with little pretension and no purpose besides hurling fistfuls of classic metal at anyone who'll listen. This mix of workingman's metal heft and classical grandeur is a potent one, and as long as Schaffer can walk that line, ICED EARTH will remain in the top tier of the world's metal bands.
"Framing Armageddon: Something Wicked Part I" finds Schaffer at his most inspired and ambitious, Owens in full scenery-chewing voice, and both men creating a masterpiece greater than the sum of its parts. ICED EARTH is bringing the dignity and overarching grace of European metal to the New World without losing the scrappy and innovative work ethic of the American scene the band formed in. This is the sound of ICED EARTH at their creative peak, and if "Part 2" can match this level of passion and quality, Schaffer's mad grandiose vision will be a feast the likes of which the metal world has rarely seen.