“I’m tired of the whole Owens-Barlow” debate, it’s bullshit. Matt’s not coming back, Tim has done a fantastic job on the last two albums and he’s here to stay.” (Jon Schaffer in Terrorizer Magazine, Xmas 2007 edition)
Yeah right, Jon. Fast forward a few months later and we have the third instalment in Schaffer’s Something Wicked trilogy, with none other than Matt Barlow behind the mic. Look, I have nothing against his vocals but I was one of the few who didn’t jump for joy when his return to the ICED EARTH fold was announced late last year. Not only did Jon go back on his word and boot out a perfectly capable frontman (who possesses a far more powerful set of pipes than Barlow IMO), but poor old “Ripper” had yet again become the fall guy; fucked over by band politics and an indecisive back-paddling guitarist. But that’s all water under the bridge now, and as I popped in “Crucible Of Man” I hoped that it would at least be an album that would vindicate Jon’s callous move somewhat. Sadly it is not. See, the problem is that these guys haven’t put out a truly great album in many years – the last IE album that I enjoyed wholeheartedly was “Something Wicked This Way Comes” back in ’98 (!), with all the following albums ranging from moderately disappointing (“The Glorious Burden”) to vastly disappointing (“Horror Show”), and even though “Framing Armageddon” was by no means a great album I have grown to enjoy it more over time. If that album showed glimmers of that old IE magic, then most of the material on “Crucible Of Man” does nothing but trample and piss on any notion that these guys still have “it”. It was all just a false dawn.
I have listened to “The Crucible Man” about seven times now and my initial impression still stands: this album is nothing more than a haphazard collection of “Framing Armageddon” B-sides. With the exception of tracks like “A Gift Or A Curse”, “Crown Of The Fallen” and “Come What May” nothing on here matches the standard set by its predecessor let alone surpass it. There’s a tangible sense of torpor hanging over the majority of the songs on here that makes it clear in my mind that Jon’s creative well has well and truly dried up. The riffs on “Behold The Wicked Child” and “Something Wicked (Part 3)” are so lazy and unimaginative that it’s criminal. This band really shouldn’t be peddling stuff this easy and safe. The fact that the entire album is firmly rooted in the slow end of the spectrum doesn’t help either and it only further solidifies my suspicions that this album is a lazy rush-job. If I wanted sonic Valium I would’ve listened to Drone Doom, Jon! The absence of speed and biting riffs really sinks this album and I have to concur with many out there that this is probably one of the most languid and anticlimactic concept albums ever. Great concept albums like “The Crimson Idol”, “Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son”, or “Operation: Mindcrime” carried the necessary grit and emotional gravitas to ensure that a certain sense of resolution/catharsis is achieved. “Crucible Of Man”, meanwhile, ends the “Something Wicked” trilogy on a crippling whimper.
Not all is bad though, as songs like the abovementioned “A Gift Or A Curse” and “Come What May” are great semi-ballads with some beautiful guitar work and powerful vocals. The anthemic choruses of “Crown Of The Fallen” and “I Walk Alone” are also of a high standard and perfectly fit Barlow’s expressive vocals. Speaking of Barlow, he does a fine job on here but you also get the feeling that he’s holding back in many places, a far cry from the high-octane approach utilized by Owens on the previous album. These are the only redeeming moments of the entire disc as the rest just plods along aimlessly, doing nothing to assuage any fears that these guys are quite past their prime. Though this album is far from the worst musical offense of the year it is nevertheless one of the band’s weakest albums and definitely not the place to start if you’re new to IE. Barlow does a fine job but he never reaches the level of brilliance he did on tracks like “A Question Of Heaven” (still my favourite ICED EARTH song) or “Melancholy”. Jon, though, should really sit down and not gather his ever-fluctuating troupe of musicians for a recording session until he has a collection of truly kick-ass riffs and arrangements because albums like this only drags his band down to the second-tier of American Metal.
(Online September 20, 2008)