This album has always inspired a dual sense of euphoria and frustration in me. ICED EARTH came into the position of being the most viable force in America’s Metal underground, as they had essentially stuck to their Thrash roots a good 3 years after they had started to fall out of favor, in big part due to the influence of METALLICA’s “s/t” and PANTERA’s latest offerings. While the later stands fairly well on its own, it also inspires frustration as it tells the listener that it can be more than what it is, but simply chooses not to be. The dark guitar sound, dense atmosphere and strong remnants of aggression hearken back to the glory days of the late 80s, but everything is so stripped down structurally and so predictable that it essentially slashes its own throat with the impressive Metal edge it carries.
It isn’t so much that the riffs on here are extremely simplistic, repetitive and tend to serve the atmosphere rather than spearhead it. It also isn’t that Barlow is holding back vocally in order to put forth something that can easily be sung along to, sacrificing the flash heard on “Burnt Offerings” in the name of a sense of emotional complexity that comes off as overdone and melodramatic. It’s isn’t that Randall Shawver’s solos have been sliced up into mostly cliché melodic breaks that IRON MAIDEN mostly utilized just before or just after blazing up the fret boards. It isn’t that the pacing of this entire album is incredibly flat, slowed down, and subdued. It’s the culmination of all these changes, which as a whole have essentially morphed an album that could have been just as good as the previous one into a half-hearted Metal assault that is tailored specifically for mass accessibility.
In essence, this album had the right idea, all the way down to the last detail of lyrical description. The story behind the “Spawn” comic series is probably the most metallic concept ever put together. A person who is essentially alienated from both authorities presiding over the events of the universe, rising from being a pathetic anti-hero who can’t accept what has happened to him and becoming a warrior who essentially hands both sides their asses, one subordinate at a time, is one of the most direct and epic ways of portraying the individualistic ideal of man versus society, man versus nature, and ultimately man versus himself. With such powerful themes at work, mixed with a good amount of emotional turmoil, you have a great deal of expectations that had better be met if you plan on being the composer for any musical retelling.
“The Dark Saga” effectively does the opposite of what an effective approach to writing a concept album is, and that is rely almost completely on the vocalist and an atmospheric backdrop to carry the album. What results is something that doesn’t really fail or succeed musically, but sort of coasts in between the two, being enjoyable enough to follow to the end but is far too careful and doesn’t rivet the senses with every punishing blow. Power Thrash is essentially nothing more than the marriage of the raw aggression and vileness of Thrash and the melodic structural nature of the NWOBHM. Essentially what emerges here qualifies as mostly a pre-Power Metal variant of Heavy Metal, loaded with slow ballad sections akin to early 90s IRON MAIDEN, and extremely bare sounding riffs ala early 90s METALLICA.
The results of this approach manifest in a collection of songs that sound fairly good when being listened to, but don’t really have a whole lot of staying power. “I Died For You” has really poignant lyrics and a heartfelt vocal performance, but just plods musically. The title track “Dark Saga” and “Depths Of Hell” essentially listen the exact same way, but also come across as story narratives rather than songs due to meandering vocal melodies. “The Last Laugh” is faster and harder edged, but still has this sense of meandering slowness due to stagnant riffs and abrupt ballad-like sections. Essentially half of the album is stuck in a “Black Album” mentality, but lacking distinctive riffs and instead relying on Barlow’s large sounding voice to maintain interest. If there’s one song out of this batch of mid-tempo filler that really stands out and can be grabbed onto, it’s “The Hunter”, which has at least some semblance of guitar activity beyond static power chords and rehashed MAIDEN melodic interludes guising as solos.
Things get much better when Schaefer finally decides to get things moving, showing some remnants of the band’s Thrash Metal past. “Violate” really throws out some nasty sounding riffs and a fairly dynamic vocal performance out of Barlow, as he imitates the sepulchral demon voice hidden behind the clown character’s exterior quite effectively at key points. “Vengeance Is Mine” is better still, finally breaking out of the sub 4 minute ceiling that this album is trapped under, and all but fully mimics the Bay Area sweetness meets MAIDEN melodic contours heard on “Burnt Offerings”. Barlow ceases with all of the complex emotions of guilt, agony and sadness and gets back to what this style is supposed to be about, unfettered and righteous anger. We even get to hear some of his higher range for more than a few seconds finally.
If there is a part of this album where we actually get the sense of buildup, climax and release that is expected from a concept album, it’s the song cycle that occupies the last 3 tracks on here. Jon Schaefer essentially established the formula of ending his albums with a towering epic on “Burnt Offerings” that pays homage to and is titled after “Dante’s Inferno”, but it wasn’t until this album that he adopted the practice of separating the 3 songs out rather than having one lead into the next. This epic isn’t nearly as spellbinding or as intricate as its predecessor, but it towers over most of the rest of the album. The first part “Scarred” basically keeps things relatively slow and subdued, but maintains a good balance of atmosphere and melodic power. When “Slave To The Dark” comes in we are treated to another Thrash song that is somewhat similar to “Vengeance Is Mine” from earlier on, but with Shawver actually getting a worthy guitar solo for a change.
For all of the damned time that this album takes to get going, when the final part of the epic closing trilogy commences, there is a sense of reward for the effort. “A Question Of Heaven” is among the best of Schaefer’s endless well of similar sounding ballads since the exodus of John Greely. The instrumental work sees a fair level of activity, and thankfully this song does not spend half the time caught in an acoustic break. Angelic backup vocals are provided by Matt Barlow’s sister, and give the song something of a church-like quality. Combined with a fairly solid set of NWOBHM ideas mixed in with a set of METALLICA and TESTAMENT riffs circa 1988, things fall well into place and provide Barlow with the chance to truly shine. In spite of not quite matching his amazing performance on “Burnt Offerings”, this showcases a level of passion to be reckoned with. It’s a good sized constellation to anyone who spent the first half of this album trying to decide whether or not to hit the stop button and give up completely.
This is essentially where ICED EARTH started to lose me. Half of this album sounds like it could have been written over a weekend and the other half is a slightly watered down version of what this band was capable of just one year prior. It still carries enough remnants of previous work to be recognizable, but this is to past works as METALLICA’s “Black Album” was to its predecessors. This isn’t Power Metal as far as I’m concerned, as there is a definite power deficit going on here. Classics are never brought forth by holding back, I don’t care what style you play in or what you’re singing about, and this album and the several that followed it are among the most blatant examples of it.
(Online April 20, 2009)