Though Jon Schaeffer’s peculiar fetish with rerecording songs with different vocalists has been getting a bit tiresome of late, this is probably among the more purposeful instances of a band dipping back into their catalog and give the sound an update. The primary thing that kept me from obtaining and listening to this until only recently was the fact that it was released right smack in the middle of ICED EARTH’s low period. Coupled with the fact that there was a heavy population of remixes of material from “Burnt Offerings” on the original 2 disc release, I had assumed that this releases contained a collection of classics that had been butchered by being integrated into a “The Dark Saga” style of soft ball drudgery. But getting the single CD version without the meaningless remixes for $4 is another matter altogether, and upon hearing this compilation’s contents I was pleasantly surprised.
The important thing to be clear about this release is that despite it having similar comic book album art like “The Dark Saga”, this is still fundamentally rooted in the old epic Thrash ICED EARTH that many have fond memories of. Sure it’s pretty formulaic, there’s enough chugging riffs to give every college fraternity in America alcohol poisoning, and the amount of galloping is probably akin to the collective horsepower of every episode of “Speed Racer”, but it’s a solid chunk of Metal from start to finish. Barlow’s vocals are, surprisingly enough, free of most of the depressed Paul Stanley moments that he started exhibiting on “The Dark Saga”, save a brief section on “Winter Nights”, which is the most Power Metal oriented song on here. The production values on these albums are a bit uneven, as most of the instrumentation has remained intact, save some reworked drum and bass tracks on the “Enter The Realm” material, which does well to improve the sound and bring the production value up to par with the “Night Of The Stormrider” material.
Whenever you talk to the average ICED EARTH junkie, the conventional wisdom is that Barlow is the end all, be all of the band and that the original two singers were crap, which is extremely frustrating as many of these people probably haven‘t heard the “Stormrider“ songs without Barlow. A small minority view Greely as the superior vocalist, while an even smaller one that you’ll very rarely encounter think that Gene Adam was the voice of the band. If one goes solely by vocal versatility, then Barlow edges out the other two because he generally has an easier time singing clean without sounding like he’s whispering. However, when it comes to doing dirty Thrash growls or shattering windows with Halford inspired banshee wails, Greely runs circles around Barlow. This becomes immediately apparent when comparing the original version of “Angel’s Holocaust” with this version. Barlow pulls off the ballad sections quite nicely, but the minute things turn up the pitch frequency, his voice does not cut through the glass with the same sharpness and intensity that Greely’s primal shrieks did so masterfully.
By contrast, all of the old Gene Adam material has seen a sizable improvement. I never really saw this band’s original vocalist as being bad the way some do, but he was definitely a few steps behind Greely and Tim Owens, and perhaps a single step behind Barlow. The remakes of “Iced Earth” and “Colors” in particular are absolutely solid. If they’d stuck to material like this after “Burnt Offerings” and not tried to compose a bunch of half-Metal, half-Rock symphonies I’d probably have a higher opinion of their later material. The amount of melodic material that comes forth from the “Enter The Realm” demo still gives the album a very 1988 feel to them, despite the fact that the drums and bass have been redone to bring it more in line with their 90s material. There are some definite parallels with late 80s Bay Area bands like “Testament” and “Death Angel” at work here, which when combined with Barlow’s husky baritone range makes for a very interesting variation on an older style.
Occasionally when we delve into our local CD store bargain bins we come out with a few pieces of precious Metal, and this is basically one of them as far as I see it. It’s not quite an essential purchase, as the band’s first 2 albums and “Burnt Offerings” would be, but it is something that will nicely supplement your collection if you have enough interest in the band to be curious about how different the dimensions of a song can change when you switch out the lead vocal slot. It definitely won’t win over any of the band’s detractors, but it will please even part time fans that mostly take interest in their older material, most notably Power/Thrash fans who really liked the band’s “Enter The Realm” demo and their 1st album.
(Online April 15, 2009)