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Century Media (2011)
Rating: 9/10

There was a time when it felt like Iced Earth was firmly in place to receive the torch Iron Maiden will someday hand down. The band, led by guitarist Jon Schaffer, was on fire in the mid to late 90s but was derailed for a number of reasons after the band seemingly peaked with its Alive In Athens (July 1999) masterwork. Through personal struggles and constant line-up changes, the band disappeared from the metal mindset bit by bit with each passing year. This time around though something feels…different. Schaffer returns with Dystopia, an album chocked full of renewed vigour and a new line-up that will unquestionably save the mighty Iced Earth.

There are two things to focus on when talking about Dystopia. The first is, of course, the band’s new vocalist (and former Into Eternity frontman) Stu Block. Block replaces original vocalist Matt Barlow, who replaced Tim Owens, who replaced Barlow the first time he left. Anyone familiar with Into Eternity’s body of work knew this was a potentially amazing move by Schaffer but the proof is in the pudding and Block turns in a career defining performance here. Led by Schaffer’s energetic guitars, Block brings the low end better than Barlow and attacks the high notes better than Owens, but what makes him perfect here is that, for the first time, Iced Earth offer both styles…sometimes even shifting within the song multiple times. ‘Dystopia’, ‘Boiling Point’, and ‘Days Of Rage’ are among the most aggressive songs the band have penned to date. ‘Days Of Rage’ even hearkens way back to the early Iced Earth sound, before they had a budget to work with, when everything depended on translating adrenaline to tape. Block even out-n-out sings on a couple of songs.

The other thing about Dystopia is the songwriting. It feels like Schaffer really got back to business on this one. Gone are the overarching and overwhelming themes that have bogged down the last few releases and in their place are loosely tied tunes that feel like the anthems fans have come to expect from the band. The appropriately titled ‘Anthem’, ‘V’, and ‘Tragedy And Triumph’ are classic Iced Earth and will surely lead volume two of The Blessed And The Damned (and if this album is any indication of what the band still has left then there will be a volume two). ‘End Of Innocence’ even offers an acoustic base that proves Iced Earth are song driven above all else. First and foremost it does this by shining light on what might be Schaffer’s best songwriting asset, the fact that he can diversify without losing his audience. The song has the acoustic base, a heavy / anthemic part, and some 80s big ballad style lead parts that walk emotionally charged, uplifting lyrics through its forest.

Dystopia firmly re-establishes Iced Earth as a force to be reckoned with. The album holds its own squarely against Burnt Offerings (April 1995) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (July 1998), which is sure to please longtime fans that may have felt Iced Earth’s best days were behind them. Everything about this album shines and for the first time in many years, I am on the edge of my seat waiting to see what comes next!

Mark Fisher

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