The Metal Minute Awarded 2009 Best Personal Blog By Metal Hammer Magazine

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

CD Review: Iced Earth - The Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part 2

Iced Earth - The Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part 2
2008 SPV/Steamhammer
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Let me prelude this review with a little love for Tim "Ripper" Owens. I interviewed the guy three times during his short tenure in Iced Earth and also as he started his current band Beyond Fear. Certainly Ripper did the honorable thing by leaving his gig with Judas Priest when asked to step down, but The Ripper in Iced Earth at the time of The Glorious Burden was a bit of a shy gun, which is funny coming from my mouth considering I had lost my questions at go-time the first chance we had to speak and I was forced to shoot from the hip in a botched effort on my part. The second Ripper chat was on Iced Earth's bus at a highly memorable gig with the then-unheard-of Trivium opening for them. The Ripper was more relaxed, so was I; it was completely chill. Ripper also had a mini posse of supporters yelling for him in the venue parking lot, which led one to believe this gig was his, despite the honorable way Matt Barlow had long held the fort for Jon Schaffer and Iced Earth. The way Ripper commanded his space onstage for Iced Earth was very impressive and The Glorious Burden was a terrific power metal album with the near-classic epic "Gettysburg" tailored specifically to Ripper's dynamic ranges as he characterized both sides of the Civil War valiantly. Yeah, he sounded like Rob Halford and Dio, but surely any power singer worth their salt is going to have those two masters in their repertoire, if not some Glenn Hughes, to boot.

The last time around with The Ripper, I was on my way to New York City for the weekend and we'd scheduled an interview before my wife and I were supposed to catch Sweeney Todd on Broadway. It being St. Patty's weekend, we got stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel for almost two hours and I had to shitcan the interview, though later in the wee hours of the morning we hooked up with Ripper's Beyond Fear guitarist John Comprix as well two of my dearest friends in the industry, Dave and Liz. We rescheduled Ripper over the phone and what I could tell the most was that Ripper had come miles (as had I, thankfully) in terms of his comfort level and willingness to open up. While we didn't talk much about Iced Earth in that third chat, I had no reason to believe--especially since Ripper fielded the next Iced Earth EP and full-length--that anything was remiss with his position.

It's interesting how quickly attitudes shift, not only in the private space within a band, but also amongst the fanship that keeps a band afloat. After Jon Schaffer began his swirling sci-fi parable about mankind's follies and fallacies on last year's Framing Armageddon: Something Wicked Part 1, merely the first installment of a two album extension of Iced Earth's 1998 album Something Wicked This Way Comes, Schaffer and The Ripper inexplicably parted ways. Enter back into the fold Matt Barlow, who had been working in law enforcement during his departure from the band.

The chat boards lit up with people torching the Ripper and thus singing their praises of Barlow's return. In some ways, it was traitorous on behalf of the fans as it was downright bizarre that Ripper and Schaffer should part company in the middle of an ambitious project such as Iced Earth's Something Wicked epic. This instability is sad, considering Ripper blew his lungs to smithereens on The Glorious Burden and then Framing Armageddon. The argument could be made, however, that Tim Owens worked too hard to please not only Schaffer, but Iced Earth's entire fan contingency. After all, many consider Iced Earth to be the United States' answer to Iron Maiden, if not simply existing on its own accord as one of the best domestic power metal units in the country. No pressure on the mic holder, of course...

Look at these turn of events any way you wish, but the return of Matt Barlow was overwhelmingly received on a positive note and the voice of such Iced Earth standards as The Dark Saga, Burnt Offerings and Something Wicked This Way Comes is staked on The Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part 2 like a veritible reclamation.

Matt Barlow has the tendency in his equally tenacious array of vocal pitches to come off like Paul Stanley, and somehow that's oddly comforting on The Crucible of Man, the second stanza of Jon Schaffer's fantastical morality play. Whereas Tim Owens was so exuberant in his delivery he could summon the metal gods out of their chambers to wonder what the commotion was all about, Matt Barlow has a smoother, finessed polish. Sure, Barlow can strike a falsetto here and there, but never is he over-the-top or blunt about his business. Barlow assimilates himself into Jon Schaffer's galloping tempos and mega strumming throughout The Crucible of Man on songs like "Bless the Wicked Child," "Crown of the Fallen," "Something Wicked (Part 3)" and "Sacrificial Kingdoms."

The settled candor Barlow brings back to Iced Earth allows Schaffer to play to his own his pace, which might've been the answer as to the division between he and Ripper, the fact that Ripper's presence was so overt, while Barlow nestles into this album, which keeps Schaffer in a comfort zone to write strongly, since The Crucible of Man decidedly ends up being the better half of the Something Wicked venture. Barlow is poetic in his tempered sways, his extensive note holds and his rocker's edge that makes The Crucible of Man sound like the heaviest and most intricate Kiss album they never recorded. Maybe this is inherently what Gene wished for with The Elder...

Schaffer, in response, writes gallant tunes to extend his narrative into the repercussion territories suggested on Framing Armageddon. As Schaffer's prophesized celesial apocalypse threatens to sentence a human race so consumed with itself it's obtuse to looming annihilation, The Crucible of Man responds accordingly to Schaffer's inflictive whims. Filled with orchestral and choral supplementation as on his previous installment, the difference maker once again is Matt Barlow, who expertly dramatizes The Crucible of Man without sending it into screeching tailspins. Considering Schaffer has a propensity to write double-timed power marches, Barlow raises his voice excitedly, but with restraint. Not to harp on his likeness to Paul Stanley, but it is truly remarkable to hear a song like the stamping and climactic "Divide or Devour" be given the Stanley touch before the song moves furiously and elegantly with Barlow mixing his octaves from hard rock to modified gravel.

That being said, The Crucible of Man is reflective of all of Iced Earth's previous work. The difference maker is Tim "Ripper" Owens' remarkable wind tunnel versus Matt Barlow's refined piper's calls. In some ways, Barlow possesses more soul on The Crucible of Man, particularly on the frequently soothing "Come What May" or "A Gift Or a Curse." It doesn't mean, however, Barlow isn't obliged to get dirty on the crunchy agro metal of "I Walk Alone" or to flex his varying vocal modes on "Crucify the King."

With Schaffer penning and performing the majority of his Something Wicked excursion, it's hard not to turn the light away from his sophisticated writing and muscular execution and focus upon the grossly apposite leads on both albums. The difference between Ripper and Barlow is even more startling when playing both of these albums in succession. Time will tell if the forced use of two different singers will mark Schaffer's personal best work as the stuff of legend instead of infamy...

Rating: ****


DPTH International said...

I was thrilled to hear that Matthew Barlow was back in Iced Earth. I found Ripper to be compitent enough and by no means a slouch behind the mic, I just really like Barlow.

I often hear the Paul Stanley reference with Barlow's vocals, but in all honesty, I cannot hear the similarities one bit.

Great review and a great shout out to Ripper Owens too. I'm looking forward to this album big time!

David Amulet said...

Wow--you turned a review into an essay on the value of lead vocalists and the merits of (in)consistency. Quite a post. I've appreciated both singers, so I'm curious about this new album.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

Dpth, if you're talking Paul's high altos and falsettos, then Barlow doesn't have those, but the mid-range Paul, oh, absolutely. Call it having spent my childhood around Kiss that perhaps makes my ears sensitive to that octave. Barlow's the only guy I've ever thought to compare to Stanley. Thanks for the hails and enjoy the disc; it's cool.

David, always grateful for your compliments, sir!

Rhodeislandrock said...

I have had the advance for a week or so and I have been really enjoying Matt Barlow's return to Iced Earth. Framing Armageddon has been a grower for me, it didn't really strike a chord like Something Wicked did when I first heard it in '98. It's definitely not Ripper's fault because, as you mentioned, he sang his lungs out. I think I was burned out on Iced Earth after close to 6 years of disappointment with Horror Show, Tribute To The Gods, & The Glorius Burden. The Ripper did a solid job on TGB but I thought the album was an overblown disappointment.

My Iced Earth fandom is rejuvenated and I have to give the Ripper his due, he was a solid choice for Iced Earth but the Matt Barlow reunion has been hanging over his head since he joined. I wish he would continue with Beyond Fear and not be a singer-for-hire, his next album with Yngwie could be ugly.....because it's Yngwie!

viagra online said...

Anyway everybody loves iced earth at all!