The Porcelain Throne: Iced Earth
Today we have the eccentrically named John here to talk about one of his favorite bands. I am in mid-hiatus for posting Porcelain Throne articles due to a cross country move, but please continue to send them my way and I will post them as soon as I can. My queue is currently empty so hurry up and get that first spot in line!
Full disclosure: I’m an Iced Earth fanatic. As in, know-all-the-words-and-sing-along fanatic. Dig-obscure-bootlegs-and-live-albums fanatic. So forgive me if I wax poetic about a band that has been equally praised and tagged “lolbuttz,” in our little community bowl.
I grew up in Northern Ontario in the 80s and 90s where I basically enjoyed meat-and-potatoes metal. My formative years consisted of religiously wearing out tapes of Maiden, Priest, Slayer, and Metallica. Since I lived in Bumfuck Idaho, Canada, I never got a taste of the more obscure bands until I was an adult. Fast forward to the early aughts when, chatting on IRC (IRC!) with a fellow metal-head, I expressed my love for both thrash and power metal. “Behold!” he exclaimed, “what if you could listen to BOTH at once?” Thus I fell down the rabbit hole of Iced Earth.
The band’s sound was honed during this classic period–rhythmic galloping riffs interspersed with thrashy solos, accompanied by Matt Barlow’s dulcet lows and ear-splitting screams. Truly, they ARE a mixture of the best of power and thrash, killer riffs and time changes, cool subject matter and epic themes. At times some of the heaviest music there is, while at other times some beautiful ballads, even with the occasional operatic or classical component.
Iced Earth was formed by figurehead and guitarist Jon Schaffer in 1985, originally dubbed Purgatory. They recorded their first demo, Enter the Realm, with Gene Adam on vocals, in 1989. Shortly after they signed to Century Media Records, released their first self-titled album, and toured Europe with Blind Guardian. They quickly began work on their second album, unceremoniously dumping Adam (who refused to take singing lessons), replacing him with John Greely. They released Night of the Stormrider, and again toured with Blind Guardian.
Night of the Stormrider (1991)
The first of many concept albums, Night of the Stormrider follows a man betrayed by religion; the dark forces of nature take him under wing and christen him the Stormrider, using him as their weapon to sow death and destruction. This is their most classically “metal” album, featuring spectacular artwork and evil, violent themes. John Greely’s wailing, sorrowful vocals suit the work more appropriately than Barlow’s later recordings. The eponymous track is the best of the bunch, featuring galloping riffs and several great tempo changes. Crank it!
Burnt Offerings (1995)
Burnt Offerings began the band’s “classic” period, followed by The Dark Saga, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and then finished off with arguably their best album, Horror Show. (In between that, they also recorded, in my opinion, the best live album ever recorded, Alive in Athens.) Greely left the band and they took a hiatus, returning with now-legendary vocalist Matthew Barlow. Their first critical success, Burnt Offerings is the band’s darkest and most heavy work, inspired by Schaffer’s own anger and frustration with the music industry. A few tracks stand out, not least of which the 16-minute epic “Dante’s Inferno”, which takes us through the nine circles of Hell. It is truly a masterpiece; I suggest sitting back with your eyes closed for this one.
The Dark Saga (1996)
Iced Earth’s second concept album is based on Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, a comic that gained popularity in the 90s thanks to its violence and mature themes. The album is a true tour-de-force; heavy, thrashy tunes like “Violate” and “Vengeance is Mine” are interspersed with the poignant, soaring power ballads “I Died For You” and what is arguably their most popular song, “A Question of Heaven.” No other album better illustrates the immense vocal range of Matt Barlow, and his ability to bring out moments of raw emotion like no other.
Metal Storm called The Dark Saga “a great album that has to be listened to entirely in order to grasp the harmonic line which gives it unity.” I agree, making choosing one track difficult. How can I not go with Matt Barlow’s finest hour?
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1998)
Thus begins Jon Schaffer’s Magnum Opus: the journey of Set Abominae. See that cool looking dude on all the band’s album covers? That’s Iced Earth’s mascot, Set. The Something Wicked saga turns the conventional biblical origins of man on their head, postulating that humanity was an invading force from another world, subjugating and eventually wiping out the native Setian race on Earth. The story is long and winding, but suffice to say Set Abominae becomes the biblical Antichrist, hiding behind many great moments in history, using advanced magic to get revenge on humanity for their crimes. Heavy stuff.
This album is heavy. While every track has merit (including the ballad “Watching Over Me”, which the entire crowd sings along with at every show), I simply must include the Something Wicked trilogy. When listened to as one unbroken song, it paints an unbelievable picture, sung from the point of view of Set himself. Listen in particular for the gorgeous classical piano intro to “The Coming Curse”, which then crashes into one of the heaviest riffs you’ll ever hear!
Horror Show (2001)
Horror Show was another concept, but clearly a “fun” one, recalling the classic monsters of cinema. No mistake about it though, maximum effort was still put forth, and the result was arguably their most popular album, the one casual fans point to when they think Iced Earth. A rollercoaster of gentle and hard, a killer thrash track like ‘Jack” followed by the non-stop screaming of “Dracula”, and culminating in the epic “Phantom Opera Ghost”, an amazing duet performed with Yunhui Percifield.
I wanted to post that duet, as it’s an unbelievable miss-mash of operatic vocals and stage performance, ending with a huge Barlow scream and a killer solo. You can almost picture yourself sitting in a theatre watching as it unfolds. Please go listen. But how can I not deliver “Jack”, Iced Earth’s heaviest song?
Shortly after this period, 9/11 happened. Barlow decided he wanted to contribute to the “real world” instead of living the illusion of a “rock star,” and left to become a cop. Iced Earth, however, had long had a revolving door policy for membership, Schaffer being the only constant. Tim “Ripper” Owens was hired to finish another concept album, The Glorious Burden. The album was divisive, diverting away from the band’s supernatural themes, focusing instead on the American Civil War. Reviews were mixed, the album more somber, with more ballads and less screaming and thrashing. Schaffer was unapologetic, being an unabashed patriot. I personally was not a fan either, so I’ll just skip it.
This was followed by Something Wicked Part 1 and Part 2 from 2007-2010, concept albums finishing the Something Wicked story. Again, they were less than universally acclaimed, being rather long and drawn out and repetitive. Many felt Ripper was criminally underused, spending too much time on slower, plodding lyrics and less time screaming his throat off as he was known for. With perhaps an even bigger kick in the teeth, it was announced Matt Barlow would return to the band, and promptly RE-RECORD Something Wicked Part 1. Schaffer, an obsessive perfectionist, felt a 2-part album should have the same vocalist. Owens was out.
Ironic, as Barlow again left the band in 2011 due to family commitments. This marked another change in their style and themes, as Schaffer hired Into Eternity frontman Stu Block to lead the band, releasing Dystopia later that year. This album featured a slightly grittier, heavier sound, bolstered by Block’s remarkable “Ripper meets Barlow” vocals. It focused on dystopian themes, with call-outs to films like Dark Cityand V for Vendetta.
Plagues of Babylon (2013)
The boys released their eleventh studio album, Plagues of Babylon, in 2013, and really seem to have hit a new, relaxed stride that you often see in older metal bands. The latest album is plenty thrashy, and takes on themes both small and large, from zombie infestation to the big guy himself, “Cthulhu.”
They’ve had their ups and downs, but with a huge discography and a varied lineup, anyone is bound to find something enjoyable. Truly, has any metal band covered as much subject matter as Iced Earth? Concept albums about a force of nature rebelling against religion, a comic book character, classic horror movie characters, and their own sprawling, multi-album epic, spanning thousands of years with an alternate, alien history of the Antichrist!
Just my opinion of course, but I think they’re worth the effort of a listen. It’s taking all my self-control not to post another ten or twelve killer songs!
Thanks to John for his wealth of Iced Earth knowledge, and as always, check out The Official Porcelain Throne Guidelines.