Iced Earth - The crucible of man 3/5

Reviewed: 10-24-08


1. In sacred flames
2. Behold the wicked child
3. Minions of the watch
4. The revealing
5. A gift or a curse?
6. Crown of the fallen
7. The dimensional gauntlet
8. I walk alone
9. Harbinger of fate
10. Crucify the king
11. Sacrificial kingdoms
12. Something wicked (pt. 3)
13. Divide and devour
14. Come what may
15. Epilogue

Never one to do things the easy way, Jon Schaffer chose maybe the only possible moment the hardcore Iced Earth fan base could have argued with to bring revered former vocalist Matt Barlow back into the fold. Halfway through his magnum opus ‘Something wicked’ story, the continuity between 2 CDs supposed to be looked on as a single greater work has inevitably suffered for the inglorious booting out of Tim Owens. With this in mind, one of the titles on the track listing for ‘The crucible of man’ seems to jump out – “A gift or a curse?”.

In actuality, despite a welcome beefing up of production that has been strangely thin since Barlow’s original departure, the change in vocalist has not made the huge difference to the sound that might have been expected. With that being said, and speaking as a bigger fan of Owens as a vocalist, Barlow really is the voice of Iced Earth, and absence has only made the heart grow fonder with regards to his unique tones in relation to Schaffer’s writing.

The music itself, completely unaffected by who is occupying centre stage, is more or less a straight continuation of the style from ‘Framing armageddon’, being largely epic in scope, and with songs designed to serve the overall feel and story of Schaffer’s vision rather than to stand out in their own right. There are less between-song interludes to be found than on ‘Framing armageddon’, and this is an agreeable thing. Short half-songs that run more like “Motivation of man” from the preceding CD rather than the sound effect extravaganzas of “Cataclysm” and “Invasion” make for an easier, more fluid listen. This smooth, uninterrupted flow also presents a negative side to the CD though, a criticism that has been levelled at both parts of ‘Something wicked’ and is without doubt more prevalent this time around; that the songs are all too similar in pace, construction and lyrical content to have any identity of their own.

While the condemnation has been overly harsh, the general disillusionment the CDs have received is understandable, and it is fair to say that ‘The crucible of man’ in particular is only for dedicated Iced Earth acolytes and concept enthusiasts. Absent are tracks in the mould of “Framing armageddon” and the spectacular “Ten thousand strong” (surely now an Iced Earth classic in anyone’s book), little explosions of aggression that broke from the general atmosphere of melancholy and creeping menace. While quite enjoyable as part of an overall listening experience, too many of the songs on this CD just feel a little grey and inert if taken strictly on their own terms, with hardly any discernable riffs, drum patterns or lead guitar on display.

The standout songs this time around in fact come from the opposite direction than those on part 1. Schaffer, to his credit, breaks new ground as a songwriter on “A gift or a curse?”, whose wandering bass line and chiming clean guitar (provided by former member Dennis Hayes and producer Jim Morris, respectively) would feel more at home on a prog CD. Schaffer also contributes lead vocals on this song for the first time since ‘Night of the stormrider’, trading with Barlow in an intense, bruised half-ballad. Lead guitarist Troy Seele - restricted to a mere 3 solos from start to finish - also makes a great contribution to the song, and a more generous use of his talents would surely have imbued a little more character into the CD as a whole.

The closing track before the outro “Come what may” is another entrancing slow burner, the grand epic of the entire saga, I suppose, as Set Abominae’s apocalypse nears fulfilment, and Barlow shines brighter than at any other moment on the CD as things draw to a rousing close.

In a way it is sad that the much-trumpeted return of Matt Barlow hasn’t made a more notable impact on Iced Earth’s output. Personally I have time for a CD like ‘The crucible of man’, but coming just a year after a very similar but slightly stronger predecessor, it is not exactly an essential purchase. It may prove to be the case that Jon Schaffer has left it until just a little late into his career to write his meisterwerk, or it may be that the general lack of kinetic energy on the ‘Something wicked’ saga has been an entirely stylistic choice. Their next CD may well be a riff-fest more suited as a follow-up to Barlow’s last contribution on ‘Horror show’, but I would doubt it.
“Come what may,” as the saying goes.




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