The Crucible of Man
2/8/2010 - Review by: Etiam
As the first album with Matt Barlow back on vocals following a four-year absence and the third installment of Iced Earth's heralded 'Something Wicked...' saga, 'The Crucible of Man' is Iced Earth's most loaded LP since Ripper Owens' vocal debut on 2004's 'The Glorious Burden'. Much has been made of Barlow's return, and it is undeniable that his punishing bombast is more at home in Iced Earth than Owens could ever be. The latter contributed some great performances, to be sure, but as Jon Schaffer says, he and Barlow are "spiritual brothers", and the chemistry between those two was never recreated with Owens. So, with the dynamic duo back in action and the mojo of the Wicked One behind them, the band's 10th LP was primed to dominate.
Unfortunately, it seems that the gears haven't clicked yet in the Iced Earth camp, as 'The Crucible of Man' spins its wheels more than it burns rubber. Barlow seems to love brooding these days more than he does (ironically) ripping things up like the days of yore. Now few and far between are performances like the excoriating 'Disciples of the Lie', or the power/thrash hybrid found on 'Burnt Offerings'. After fifteen tracks of mid-tempo multi-layered leads, the trademark choir of Barlows in grandiose choruses, and nearly constant doubling of his verses, one quickly becomes fatigued and begins to wonder whether Ripper was really so bad a fit after all.
Musically, 'The Crucible of Man' is far less triumphal than its predecessor. Schaffer might call it sinister, but it can more bluntly be described as flat. It's as if Schaffer wanted to return to the dark flavor of the 'Burnt Offerings'/'Dark Saga' days, but lacked the inventive songwriting and riffing that helped make up for those albums' overwrought Gothic overtones. Perhaps a better comparison for 'The Crucible of Man' is 'Horror Show', but minus the good half--the driving vigor of 'Wolf', the palpable tension of 'The Phantom Opera Ghost' and riff-rocking drama of 'Jeckyl & Hyde'. Largely absent of these qualities, this album relies too heavily on self-derivation, repetition, and a plot that most of us never really cared that much about to begin with. To be sure, a handful of songs here have promising foundations, and the collective experience of Barlow and Schaffer ensures that 'The Crucible of Man' is no embarrassment. It just doesn't live up to their former pedigree. It's telling that this albums' press material spends most of its time focusing on the album's concept, saying next to nothing about the music itself, and only in the last paragraph is mention made of Barlow's return.
Iced Earth do deserve kudos for, if nothing else, streamlining this epic a bit more than its predecessor, which was frequently bogged down by interludes and forgetful ballads (this album's 'A Gift Or A Curse?' might actually be more tedious than the last album's 'The Clouding', however). Though a few choral processions are used to frame the action here, Schaffer shows credible restraint in developing this more than decade-old saga by typically adhering to straightforward arrangements. (This presents its own issues, which are explored later.) The performances on 'The Crucible of Man' are tight as usual, with Schaffer's guitar rendering the bass practically superfluous, also as usual, and a new lineup providing competent if somewhat interchangeable support. The drums are a bit over-triggered, but sit fairly well in the mix and are never an annoyance. It would be nice to say more about the supporting cast here, but they frankly cannot compete with Iced Earth's erstwhile star power of Steve DiGiorgio, Richard Christy, Ralph Santolla, and Bobby Jarzombek, all of whom are long gone.
Also frustrating are the needless interlude sections that pop up in a number of songs, repeating main verse riffs without vocals, sometimes in support of a lead, and almost always without variation. Some of these sections are slapped-on codas that plod on towards an arbitrary ending. They would be bewildering if they weren't so clearly an attempt to stretch out songs that struggle to pass three minutes. Frankly, not a one of these songs can legitimately stand with those of Iced Earth's glory days. The riffs are telegraphic and drab, and while Schaffer's triplets are as tight as punchy as ever, no amount of production chunk will turn a boring riff into a memorable one. 'The Crucible of Man' isn't decidedly bad; it just isn't much of anything.
All that said, the album does end on promising notes. 'Divide and Devour' is this album's 'Infiltrate and Assimilate', and is one of the few times Barlow lives up his legacy. 'Come What May' features a new melodicism that breaks Schaffer's stereotypical mold of either hyper-masculine metal or contemplative acoustics. Combined with Barlow's sky-scraping cries (seriously impressive), the elements of would have been a welcome change of pace on the rest 'The Crucible of Man'. If these ending themes are developed on subsequent releases, then the Barlow/Schaffer duo will indeed be dynamic, breathing life back into this a shell nearly thirty years old.
The carousel of characters revolving in and out of Iced Earth's caustic cauldron continues in 2008 with the release of The Crucible of Man (Something Wicked Part 2) as the revered Matt Barlow is back behind the mic; Tim "Ripper" Owens now off to sing for Yngwie Malmsteen (for a short spell I'm sure!). It's a welcome return despite a superb performance on Framing Armageddon (Something Wicked Part I) by Mr. Owens.
For the uninitiated, this "double" concept album has roots that go way back to the trilogy found at the end of 1998's Something Wicked This Way Comes. The story found there is now fully fleshed out over the scope of 2 albums with 2007 seeing Part 1 released while "Ripper" was still singing with the band, and now Part 2 concludes the tale in 2008. But that's not all diehards, Jon Schaffer has intimated he intends to re-record Part 1 with Matt on vox, and clean up a few minor details in the production/mix of that release, only then to be issued in a "box set" with Parts I & II together. Get out your shillings so you can purchase these albums, again!
Anyway, despite that bit of annoyance, what we have here is an average Iced Earth album and nothing more. I can't believe things turned out as such as I, like most, see Barlow as the rightful vocalist to front this band, but something here is missing, and after many months of listening to this I think I can finally put my finger on it. There just isn't that mean snarl coming out of the mix like in the past. We know Jon can write concept albums, just look to The Dark Saga for a stellar example, but here things feel a bit uninspired, and like I said, there just isn't that viciousness heard from the music (or Matt) that we've heard in the past. Everything is in place here too, which just makes things that much more of an enigma; great crunchy riffs, instantly recognizable as being Jon and his style, epic constructs, majestic movements with lots of shading, Matt's vocals spot on, and a grand mix to boot. "I Walk Alone" and "Harbinger of Hate" are definite live fare, as well as the grandiose climax of "Come What May", yet, despite all this, I'm still liking Part I better, the songs there being more memorable and a bit more dynamic.
This isn't a bad album, all the elements that make up the power metal periodic table are here and in place, but Iced Earth can and has done better. Maybe it's because this was all written before Matt returned, hence he didn't have as large a hand in the shaping of the songs and melodies this time out. Maybe I'm just getting jaded with this genre, or the whole "concept album(s)" idea in general. Whatever the reason, it's a decent release, but here's hoping that Jon and whatever gang he ends up with next time around pares things down and get back to giving us a nasty power metal kick in the pants!