Tag Archives: Stu Block

Iced Earth – Incorruptible – Album Review

Press_Cover_01

Artist: Iced Earth

Album Title: Incorruptible

Label: Century Media Records

Date Of Release: 16 June 2017

The phrase ‘only time will tell’ features a lot in music reviews, certainly in mine. Over the years, I’ve had to listen to hundreds of albums and put pen to paper in double-quick time to submit my thoughts in time for the deadline. All too frequently, I have to make a snap decision about whether I like something and sometimes I’ll add in the caveat ‘only time will tell’ to buy myself a little breathing space regarding a record’s long term status and whether it’s a classic or the band’s best. Sometimes, I get my reviews right and sometimes I get them wrong.

When it comes to Iced Earth, I have to hold my hands up and admit to getting it very wrong. I’m a long term fan of the Indiana metal band, discovering them in the late 90s via ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. This is the album lauded by many as the band’s best and I certainly hold it in high regard. However, with interest piqued, I delved into the back catalogue and I also enjoy the vast majority of their earlier material, favouring ‘Night of the Stormrider’ if my life depended on it. In terms of the post- ‘Something…’ era, I lapped up ‘Horror Show’ and ‘The Glorious Burden’, both of which are fabulous records. Their unique blend of classic metal, power metal and thrash has proved to be a potent formula amongst their ever-growing army of fans, myself included.

More recent output, beginning with 2007’s ‘Framing Armageddon: Something Wicked Part 1’ and ending in 2014 with ‘Plagues of Babylon’ garnered very positive reviews from me in the pages of Powerplay Magazine. However, as time has told, I don’t return to them as frequently as I thought that I would. If I want a fix of Iced Earth, I’ll tend to go for something older. In fact, as I type, I’m hard-pressed to remember very much from any of these more recent albums.

Many will point to the instability of the line-up and, in particular, the frequent changes of the vocalist. However, I think that’s unfair. Matt Barlow will remain a fan favourite since he stood front and centre over some of the best material of the band’s career. That’s unavoidable. However, Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens did an excellent job on a couple of records including the aforementioned ‘The Glorious Burden’ and then, after a brief return for Barlow with ‘The Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part 2’, Iced Earth have since 2011, turned to ex-Into Eternity vocalist Stu Block to deliver their diatribes. And make no mistake; he does a very good job, sounding very similar to both Barlow and Owens when delivering in the lower and higher registers respectively.

The revolving door syndrome that has affected almost every other position within the band is not entirely to blame either, although it can’t have been the most conducive atmosphere in which to create high quality music. Neither can Schaffer’s ongoing medical problems which fortunately have never drastically curtailed his endeavours. At the end of the day, this is Jon Schafer’s band; he founded Iced Earth and he remains the central creative force, creating most the material and having a say in just about everything else.

With that said, all of the albums between 2007 and 2014 have some very good material on them and I’m in no way saying that they are bad. It is just that they haven’t stood the test of time with me.

This time around however, with no deadlines or time constraints, I could listen in more detail and form a much firmer opinion over the material. And the material in question is the ten songs that feature on ‘Incorruptible’, the twelfth album in the Iced Earth discography.

The accompanying press release sees the ever-confident and bullish Shafer referring to this album as one of their strongest and whilst I approached this hyperbole with caution, I now must agree with him. Having allowed this album to burrow deeper into my brain than many others, I feel much more confident in delivering a very positive review of ‘Incorruptible’. I shall go so far as to stick my neck out and venture that this record is the best material to emanate from the Iced Earth camp since ‘The Glorious Burden’, possibly even longer. Indeed, alongside vocalist Stu Block, in-out drummer Brent Smedley, bassist Luke Appleton and new lead guitarist Jake Dreyer, Schaffer has clearly hit a rich vein of form with ‘Incorruptible’.

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What I like about this album so much is that it manages to blend powerful riffs and heavy music with plenty of melody and strong choruses to make the music truly memorable and rather addictive. Add in to the mix a sense of theatrics, drama and storytelling for which Iced Earth have become known and synonymous and suddenly things start to stack up in the right way.

Given the dark album cover complete with the ubiquitous Set Abominae character, I was expecting something more along the lines of ‘The Dark Saga’ with this record. But what I actually get is more of a ‘Something Wicked…’ vibe, where just about every track delivers something that makes me bang my head, smile or reach for the repeat button. There will no doubt be some who suggest that Iced Earth are cynically trying to recapture the magic of ‘Something Wicked…’ but I humbly disagree. Of course there are some similarities but on ‘Incorruptible’, I hear some of that magic that has imbued all classic Iced Earth material, whatever the era, whoever the clientele.

Kicking off with a dark and theatrical, almost cinematic intro, ‘Great Heathen Army’ offers fans of this band a thoroughly rousing and raucous opening salvo. Block screams and croons with gusto, the rhythm section pounds away and those trademark fast-picked rhythm guitars of Schafer create some tasty riffs. The chorus is a bit of a grower too, blossoming into a full-blown anthem after a few spins.

One of the most ear-catching aspects of Iced Earth on this record though, is the lead guitar work of newbie Jake Dreyer. His lead breaks litter the opener but they have a genuinely melodic edge to them, transforming the solos into something more nuanced than just a gratuitous shred-fest. To further illustrate this point, just check out the fabulous ballad-esque ‘Raven Wing’, complete with lush acoustic guitars. It is here that Dreyer indulges in some lead work that is full of depth, subtlety and bluesy soul, as well as the necessary all-out shred. It doesn’t do any harm that the entire song itself is a well-crafted monster, but it is the lead work alongside the changes in pace and heaviness that leaves the greatest impression.

The variety of the music is also a definite strength of ‘Incorruptible’ too. This is not a one-dimensional album and it benefits greatly as a direct result. You get the mid-tempo stompers like ‘Black Flag’ which in itself is a muscular metal track laced with plenty of melody. And there are the more sombre and brooding compositions like ‘The Veil’ which arguably features my favourite chorus on the record, one that I find myself humming at the most unexpected of times, unable to dislodge it from my head.

Then there’s the short, sharp and intense thrash blitzkrieg of ‘Seven Headed Whore’ with its intro riff that’s instantly reminiscent of Slayer in their prime followed by the potent combination of machine-gun drumming and matching riffs. In contrast, ‘Brothers’ is imbued with a satisfying groove that’s infectious as hell.

‘Ghost Dance (Awaken The Ancestors)’ is an instrumental but far from being a snooze-fest, it is actually one of the most intriguing tracks on the record. I find the tribal vocals fascinating and a really nice touch whilst I’m genuinely taken by the pronounced, powerhouse drumming that is a firm feature of the track.

And ‘Incorruptible’ ends in fitting Iced Earth style with a slightly longer track, ‘Clear The Way (December 13th, 1862)’. At just shy of ten minutes, it isn’t the longest epic that Schaffer has ever penned but it does still pack a punch. Complete with occasional Celtic overtones, a certain amount of quiet homage to Iron Maiden and the sounds of war, it tells a story within the Battle of Fredericksburg to great effect. It’s a glorious romp and the perfect way to end such a glorious album.

Mind you, I’m struggling to pick out any of the songs on ‘Incorruptible’ that demonstrate a lessening of the quality as I genuinely like them all. In that respect, this has to be the most consistent record from Iced Earth for a significant number of years. In fact, as I alluded to earlier, this is without doubt their best release since ‘The Glorious Burden’ and it pushes the likes of ‘Horror Show’ and ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ as one of their best ever releases. In short, ‘Incorruptible’ is unmistakeably the sound of Iced Earth firing on all cylinders and I love it.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.25

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:

2015 reviews
2016 reviews

Anathema – The Optimist
Solstafir – Berdreyminn
Dream Evil – Six
Avatarium – Hurricanes And Halos
Ayreon – The Source
Until Rain – Inure
MindMaze – Resolve
God Dethroned – The World Ablaze
Bjorn Riis – Forever Comes To An End
Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Ancient Ascendant
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day

Pantommind – Searching For Eternity – Album Review

Pantommind cover

Artist: Pantommind

Album Title: Searching For Eternity

Label: Spectastral Records

Year Of Release: 2015

691. That’s the current number of ‘likes’ that progressive metallers Pantommind have on Facebook. I know very well that social media is in no way the only measure of an artist’s success and neither should it be. But like it or not, it is a snapshot; a barometer of the popularity of a band. And so 691 likes for a band of this quality? That’s unbelievable. But crucially, I think things are about to change in the near future. Let me explain why…

Pantommind are, I think, the only Bulgarian band that features in my music collection, although I stand to be corrected of course. The quintet from Gabrovo in Bulgaria can trace their roots all the way back to 1993, when a group of friends came together through a love of music and called their band ‘Lavender Haze’. In 1995, the name changed to Pantommind, but it wasn’t until 2005 that debut album ‘Shade Of Fate’ was released. 2009 then saw the release of sophomore effort ‘Lunasense’. I have both albums and enjoy the music contained within them, although I wouldn’t have referred to Pantommind as one of my very favourite prog metal artists. As with most bands, line-up changes have played their part, most notably with the departure of drummer Dragomir Minkov to devote more time to surrealist painting. This departure led to a temporary disbanding of Pantommind and so it has taken around six years for the third album to see the light of day. ‘Searching For Eternity’ is the title of this record and, simply, it is a game changer.

Pantommind have not drastically altered their approach to songwriting and execution on ‘Searching For Eternity’. Listeners are still treated to complex and technical progressive metal with melody and atmosphere but the entire band have honed their skills in all departments thus creating an album that delivers a huge step up in terms of overall quality and enjoyment. I’ve lived with this album for about a week now and I have to say I’m hugely impressed with what messrs Tony Ivan (vocals), Pete Christ (guitars, bass keyboards), Ross (guitars), Drago (drums) and Sunny X (keyboards) have to offer.

Photo: Ivelin Andreev

Photo: Ivelin Andreev

Whether or not you’ll enjoy this album will largely depend on whether you’re a fan of technical musicianship and huge keyboards within your music. If the answer is no, I suggest you’d be better served listening to something else. If the answer is ‘yes’, read on.

What I personally love about the overall genre of progressive music is that, in general, there are no rules and so musicians are afforded the freedom to pursue their personal visions, unconstrained by convention or prevailing trends. In the case of Pantommind, they have taken no heed of the fact that in 2015, guitar solos are not ‘de rigeur’ and instead deliver song after song chock full of blazing examples of six-string prowess. Some may consider it self-indulgent or over-the-top but personally, I love it. The guitar work is fast and complex but it is also very precise, melodious and expressive. Yes there are fast runs through the scales but there’s so much more on offer than that. A prime example of this being ‘Lost Lullaby’ where the speed is decreased in favour of a much more emotive and thoughtful tone, underpinned by some lovely acoustic guitars and subtle keys. The guitar riffs themselves are also well thought-out and executed with plenty of satisfying chops and headbanging fodder at regular intervals. There’s even room for a few bass flourishes courtesy of Pete Christ which is a nice touch from my point of view.

The aforementioned synths play a huge part in the Pantommind sound, as they bathe every composition in a rich, warm glow, whilst softening the edges and creating depth and atmosphere at the same time. I also rather like the vocal delivery of Tony Ivan. His is a very accomplished clean tone that offers a good range, enabling him to hit both high and low notes without any apparent effort or strain. At times, whilst in the higher register, his vocals are reminiscent of Stu Block (Iced Earth) from his Into Eternity days.

Speaking of reference points, I have to say that there is a definite old-school feel to a lot of the material throughout ‘Searching For Eternity’. As such, I hear elements of early Shadow Gallery, Crimson Glory, Cloudscape and Suspyre alongside hints of 80s Bay Area thrash such as very early Metallica, particularly when Pantommind wheel out the acoustic guitars and slow things down a touch.

References aside, what I particularly like about ‘Searching For Eternity’ is the way in which the technicality never takes over. At no point do I find myself thinking that the music is merely a directionless or disjointed exercise in technical posing or muscle-flexing. Instead, each composition has a clear structure and is held together via some strong melodies, particularly within the choruses. The likes of ‘Moon Horizon’, ‘Tell Me’ and the epic title track are particularly noteworthy thanks to their power and infectious nature. That said, ‘Searching For Eternity’ is a surprisingly consistent record where the quality rarely dips below being excellent.

As I said before, this album could be the game-changer for this group of talented eastern Europeans. Frankly, it deserves to be. Admittedly it will appeal in the main to a niche market but with the right promotion, there’s no reason that ‘Searching For Eternity’ couldn’t propel the name Pantommind into the conscious of a much wider audience of music fans who appreciate high quality heavy progressive music.

The Score Of Much Metal: 8.75

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

2013 Is Not Finished Yet (Part 2)

My initial look at what was to come in the remainder of 2013 was based purely around albums that had confirmed release dates, that we knew would see the light of day over the next few months. But I inevitably missed a few out and in addition, I’ve been hearing a few rumours from various sources about possible releases on the horizon. So, here’s possibly a more intriguing (and potentially inaccurate) quick second part of my look at what’s to come later in the year.

For those who missed the original post, it can be found here: 2013 Is Not Finished Yet.

Fleshgod Apocalypse – “Labyrinth”

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Just around the corner, Italian extreme symphonic metal band Fleshgod Apocalypse are due to release their third full-length release, “Labyrinth”. I’ve already heard this for reviewing purposes and can confirm that if you’re looking for an unrelenting and extreme metal listening experience with plenty of overblown cinematic bombast, this could be the album for you.

Iced Earth – “Plagues Of Babylon”

iced earth

Where the hell is the hype for this? Maybe it is because the last album from the US power metallers was only released last year and therefore no-one expected a follow-up so soon. Whatever the reason, I only stumbled upon this by accident whilst researching something else.

“Dystopia” was the first to feature ex-Into Eternity vocalist Stu Block after the comings and goings of Matt Barlow. The guy did a great job on his debut outing with Schaffer and Co., fitting the band like a glove. The music itself was strong and so I naturally have high hopes for “Plagues Of Babylon”. Certain sources suggest an October release date, although this has yet to be confirmed.

Vanden Plas – “Chronicles Of The Immortals – Netherworld”

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A new album has been written and recorded. There’s a track-listing too. However, no artwork has been unveiled and there’s no official release date according to the band themselves on their official website. Personally, I hope we see the new material sooner rather than later as the last couple of albums, “The Seraphic Clockwork” in particular, are fantastic slabs of crunchy, bombastic and epic melodic prog metal.

Pain Of Salvation – “Falling Home”

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Now this is a mysterious one.I had heard definite rumours of a new album on the horizon and went off to investigate. However, any buzz seems to be muted and there is little by the way of official confirmation, aside from a small post on the band’s facebook page. Nevertheless, it appears we’re in for an acoustic album in a shared CD/DVD format.

I must admit that the last few albums from Daniel Gildenlow and Co. have left me a little cold. Pretty much abandoning their more metallic roots, Pain Of Salvation have ventured down a much lighter path, to the farthest reaches of prog rock, where inspiration has been drawn from many different genres along the way. However, the band’s earlier material is so magnificent that it is hard not to be interested when there’s talk of a new album.

Devin Townsend – “Casualties Of Cool”

devin townsend

The workaholic genius that is Devin Townsend inevitably features in this list. When was the last year that he didn’t I ask you?!

“Casualities Of Cool” is apparently a dark acoustic project, stylistically somewhere between “Ki” and “Ghost”, featuring vocalist Ché Aimee Dorval. As always, I’ll be interested in anything the mad Canadian produces, although my heart is set on a second instalment of “Ziltoid” and I’m hoping it sees the light of day soon.

Ayreon – “The Theory Of Everything”

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Arjen Lucassen is, much like Devin above, a musical workaholic. His latest offering has been announced as being another trip into the world of Ayreon. I’m a fan of pretty much everything that Arjen has created over the years but Ayreon is arguably my favourite project.

There’s no official word yet on a release date or just as significantly, little knowledge on which other musicians are involved in the project. However, with a bit of luck, a range of some of the most talented and recognisable rock and metal vocalists will play their parts just as they did in previous episodes of Ayreon. Fingers crossed.