Jon Schaffer's original brain child ICED EARTH has gone through a number of deaths and rebirths, probably the most auspicious of these being the one that occurred between "Night Of The Stormrider" and "Burnt Offerings" where the band first introduced us to Matt Barlow and began severing ties with 80s Thrash orthodoxy, and the one that occurred in the 2000s when former JUDAS PRIEST replacement Tim "Ripper" Owens replaced Barlow. The latter half of the 2000s has brought the band through even further lineup turbulence, though the successful resurgences were not there to be found. So now with a new band and just coming off a newly born second side project, Schaffer has returned yet again with an all but completely different flock of musicians to give ICED EARTH yet another chance at rebirth.
For all the low expectations that many should have after the extremely bland second part of the recent "Something Wicked" series, "Dystopia" proves not only to be a solid return to form, but also a logical successor to a recent trend in Schaffer's sociopolitical interests. While the overt patriotism that was worn on a bloody shirtsleeve in "The Glorious Burden" and "Brush-fires Of The Mind" has been greatly toned down here, the obvious themes of the individual versus an oppressive totalitarian regime implied in the album's title is a dominant theme, featuring some well crafted lyrics with an eye for pithy cohesion. But for all the lyrical evolution that has gone on since the early days of ICED EARTH's stereotypical 80s Thrash theological critiques, the rest of the format has retained a solider-like consistency, in spite of seeing an uptick in quality.
Perhaps the most telling sign of this album's goal to maintain the general character and sound introduced when Barlow first entered the band is the performance given by Stu Block. Through his various works with INTO ETERNITY, he has established himself as something of a master imitator, capable of straddling the Extreme Metal meets traditional divide that is often dabbled in by the likes of IHSAHN and WINTERSUN. On here he proves capable of not only providing some never before heard harshness to the ICED EARTH school, but also perfectly imitates the baritone bellows of Barlow and the Halford-like wails of Owens, almost as if the two were both present for a duet. There are also occasional interludes into something a bit more unique to Stu's voice in the form of a plain tenor, drawing comparisons to a number of prominent Power Metal vocalists, but not really sounding completely like anyone else.
For all of the innovation to be heard in the lyrical and vocal department, the musical presentation is much more conventional. If nothing else, the familiar format of fast song to slower half-ballad pacing is almost wholly derived from the original "Something Wicked This Way Comes" formula. The ballad work is a bit less light, but ultimately shades of several well known songs from "The Dark Saga" and "The Glorious Burden" shine through in the likes of "Anthem" and "The End Of Innocence". There's also the usual collection of shorter, gallop heavy Thrashers in "Boiling Point" and "Days Of Rage", and occasional mid-paced, vocal oriented songs in "V" and "Dystopia". The only real divergence from tradition that really grips the ears is "Equilibrium" (based on Christian Bale's greatest action movie, mind you), which throws a little bit of everything at the ears, including a very impressive guitar solo. In fact, throughout this entire album, Troy Seele proves to be the most distinctive and technically impressive lead guitarist this band has seen since Randy Shawver disappeared from the scene.
While not quite the most original and mind-blowing album to be put out by this band, let alone this genre, this is a definite return to better ways from a band that has been struggling to maintain itself amid an endless sea of lineup changes. This is the sort of album that is sure to keep the core base of ICED EARTH's audience very happy, and maybe even rope in some more modern Power Metal fans who like a less conventional vocal approach mixed in. But for the most part, Jon has established himself as in opposition to the notion of trying to reinvent a genre every time a new album comes out, and from the contents of this album, it's an approach that can continue to work despite any overt familiarity to past accomplishments.
(Online January 1, 2012)