Iced Earth – Dystopia

Where does one begin with Iced Earth? Jon Schaffer and Iced Earth first came to my attention probably around 1993 or so; it was after the release of “Night of the Stormrider” but before “Burnt Offerings.” “Stormrider” wasn’t exactly in wide circulation at the time, at least not in Michigan where I was living. The album cover intrigued me and on the recommendation of a friend I picked it up on a monthly pilgrimage to Rock of Ages in Garden City, the heavy metal Mecca in our corner of the world. I’m glad to see Rock of Ages is still around, check ‘em out here: Rock of Ages.

When I had the cash I would drive an hour to get to Rock of Ages and spend at least another hour poring over all the metal CDs you couldn’t find back in Ann Arbor. It wasn’t unusual for me to pay $25 or more for an import from Grave Digger, Running Wild, or any number of the emerging Scandinavian black metal bands at the time. This was also the first place I came across Cradle of Filth right before “Dusk and Her Embrace” was released.

“Stormrider” included the now classic track “Angel’s Holocaust” which completely blew my mind with the whole symphonic/choir element. I was a hopeful musician myself at that time and had been thinking how metal and classical Wagnerian style music would be incredible together, and Iced Earth showed me the tip of the iceberg of what was to come in terms of symphonic metal and confirmed my theory. Needless to say Iced Earth became the new hot item in my collection.

Soon after I learned about what would come to be a trend with Iced Earth: singers are fleeting, Jon is forever. I picked up the first self-titled album next and was unimpressed by the vocals of Gene Adam. John Greely was maybe a little high pitched for my tastes at the time, but I really liked him on “Stormrider.” So I was rather disappointed when I found out the next Iced Earth release, “Burnt Offerings” featured yet another singer, some guy named Matt Barlow. It took me awhile to warm up to Matt, only because I was used to Greely. By the time “Dark Saga” dropped, however, I was firmly in Camp Barlow.

For awhile things were good, but eventually all good things must end and Matt left and was replaced by Tim “Ripper” Owens. At first I thought this a bit strange. Ripper of course had been tearing it up with Judas Priest and it seemed like maybe being a replacement singer yet again wasn’t the best move. But “The Glorious Burden” proved that it was not such a bad idea after all. Ripper stuck around a little while and then Matt Barlow returned for one more album. And then left again. The quality of the music has been pretty consistent over the years, but hearing that Iced Earth has a new singer is no longer a surprise.

What did surprise me was learning that on the latest Iced Earth opus, “Dystopia”, the new singer was none other than Into Eternity’s Stu Block. Hell. Yeah. When Barlow left again my thinking was that Iced Earth might be getting ready to jump the shark. On the contrary, they were about to explode the shark like Roy Scheider at the end of Jaws. I should know by now you can’t keep Schaffer down.

“Dystopia” is as killer an album as anything else in the Iced Earth catalog. The music is everything you would expect from Jon Shaffer. Stu Block’s amazing vocals are an amalgamation of the best elements of Greely, Barlow and Ripper while also adding his own personal touch. Not to diminish the greatness of any of the previous vocalists, but Iced Earth is still very much alive and well.

It looks like Into Eternity is expected to have a new album in the near future, but I’m not sure what that means. Is Stu going to do double duty (pleasepleaseplease) or is “Dytopia” a one-off? Or is he done with Into Eternity? I can’t say at this point, so I’ll continue to live in the moment and enjoy “Dystopia” for what it is and let tomorrow take care of itself.