I take no small measure of comfort in knowing that someday, when the white belts and skinny jeans have faded from memory, when the fads and fashions of the day wither away like so much blackgaze on a hot afternoon, Jon Schaffer will still be making new Iced Earth music, and said music will fiercely stick to its guns, brandishing solid, chunky heavy metal with a level of sincerity and commitment that hasn’t wavered in over 25 years. The sound is nigh incorruptible, and it just so happens so it the title.
Incorruptible, that is…
My connection to Iced Earth came around 2000, when I was just getting back into metal after a prolonged sabbatical in the wilds of indie rock and punk. I couldn’t have picked a better primer than the massive Alive In Athens triple disc set. Spanning everything up to the then new release Something Wicked This Way Comes, it was a blast of everything I had loved about the metal of my youth in the 80s ratcheted up an aggression and polish that spoke to me in a similar way Iron Maiden’s Live After Death did so many years ago.
That heritage of epic songwriting, mid-paced precision and theatricality, the calling cards of not only Maiden but Judas Priest and others that hooked me to the genre at a young age. Moving between the live track that introduced me to the music to the original versions, particularly the tracks from the self titled debut and Night of the Stormrider (still my favorite) and they differed from the ridiculous power brought to the songs by Matt Barlow and Schaffer’s then-current touring band was something I could spend hours and hours on. Despite the consistency in the music I bailed after hearing Ripper Owens and The Glorious Burden – there was something about his vocal delivery that didn’t sit with me, and the inconsistency both in singers (Barlow coming back for an album) in the long promised continuation and conclusion to the Something Wicked story suffered from a bloat that no amount of fan-wishing was going to change. So when Schaffer changed gears again, bringing on Stu Block from Into Eternity my curiosity was piqued: here was a very different type of vocalist from a band I loved…how was Schaffer going to utilize his particular set of skills? With a wicked precision as it turns out, because 2011’s Dystopia was the band’s most brutal and tight album in over a decade. Another live album followed (more dissecting of styles!) as well as 2014’s Plagues of Babylon, leaving Iced Earth in the rare position of heading into a third album with the same vocalist and a band largely intact (Brent Smedley coming back into the fold on drums).
So how does all this shape Incorruptible, Iced Earth’s 12th studio album? It’s never been a secret that Jon Schaffer IS Iced Earth, so how an album works rises or falls on his ability to craft the songs and direct his band how to execute. And jumping right into opener “Great Heathen Army” it’s clear that not only is everyone in the band committed to delivering his vision, but that the’re demanding of him a vision and songcraft worthy of their abilities. And dammit he delivers in spades. Abandoning epic narrative sweeps in favor of shorter (well, closer “Clear the Way (December 13th 1862)” is still almost 10 minutes long), punchier songs that punch you in face before helping you up to head-bang as brothers. Between “Great Heathen Army” and “Seven Headed Whore” Iced Earth crafted two of the heaviest songs in their career, and how those raging moments play against the more tempered moments like “Raven Wing” and the fantastic “Ghost Dance (Awaken the Ancestors)” show an acute understanding of pacing that was missing from some of the earlier, longer ones (insert your own version of the Woody Allen “early funny ones” joke here).
I don’t want to say Incorruptible is the album where people stop asking if Matt Barlow is ever going to join the band again, because if there’s one thing you can count on it’s metal fans lamenting an imaginary golden past, but Stu Block here is simply amazing. Schaffer always demands an insane variety of vocal mannerisms in order to convey his lyrical themes, and I can remember early interviews during the Dystopia release where he would talk about working with Block to tone down the high pitched histrionics that were a mark of his time with Into Eternity and work more in the lower registers. And while Block to my mind has never turned in a bad performance (I’ve seen him live and he kills it) his performance here is exemplary. And it’s a good thing, too: the guitar work is top notch, Schaffer is probably pound for pound the tightest, best rhythm player in metal, and here he’s making sure every riff, every verse and chorus grabs you. There’s an economy and leanness, even in the more epic tracks like closer “Clear the Way (December 13th 1862)” that make the songs stand out a little clearer, even when compared to earlier Iced Earth.
Some things never change. Iced Earth have stuck to a formula of subtle refinement of a very specific and niche genre that doesn’t always get the respect or press it deserves. And that’s a shame, because with Incorruptible Iced Earth have shown that you can take music, sharpen it to a razor’s edge, and deliver one of the best albums of your career 25, 30 years down the line. This is a good one, folks. if you dropped off the Iced Earth bandwagon it’s definitely time to get back on, lest you miss one of the killer albums of 2017.