2/8/2008 - Review by: Etiam
For those few who still may not have heard, Matt Barlow has officially rejoined Iced Earth. Jon Schaffer’s statement on the matter were largely professional, but it was easy enough to read between the lines and see how reinvigorated he is, now that Ripper Owens has been ousted (rather unceremoniously). As such, it seems that critiquing Owens and ‘Framing Armageddon’ is something of a moot point, since we are unlikely to hear from Owens again in this role. In fact, it seems entirely possible that the reunited duo of Barlow and Schaffer might eventually pull a ‘Days of Purgatory Pt. II’ and re-record this album and ‘The Glorious Burden’.
For now, though, Owens is Iced Earth’s most recent voice on record, and that record is ‘Framing Armageddon—Something Wicked Part I’. After 10 years, Schaffer has decided to revive the story begun on the album ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, which remains one of the band’s most well-regarded albums to date. Unlike most sequel albums though (which have a habit of falling short by inevitable comparison) the composition of ‘Framing Armageddon’ and vocalist are significantly different from the original, helping it to stand alone as a musical composition.
Most notable of these changes (aside from Owens himself, of course) is the format. While Iced Earth have never been afraid to lay down epic tracks, ‘Framing Armageddon’ attempts to be epic from start to finish, with 19 total tracks, including a (too) generous handful of interludes. Some serve as introductions and would pass unnoticed unless one looked at the track listing; more, unfortunately, are filler ambiance that drag the album’s momentum down dramatically. One might call it ‘Nightfall in Middle Earth’ Syndrome—a number of good songs surrounded by relatively dead space.
From a songwriting perspective, ‘Framing Armageddon’ is similarly hit or miss, as is nearly all of Iced Earth’s discography. (I have long mused that Iced Earth’s comprehensive ‘Best Of’ will be one of the best heavy metal has seen, but that new fans will be disappointed once they pick up the full lengths.) Some songs are top-notch anthems with inspired, powerful vocals and Schaffer’s patent machine-gun triplets firing along through clever, driving riffs. Other songs are directionless, with perplexingly average riffs, and some embarrassing lyrics. Some even combine both ends of the spectrum—alternatively ripping and dreary—and these are the most frustrating of all.
Another sticking point for ‘Framing Armageddon’ is Owens himself. This is less his fault and more the fault of the songwriting that fails to accommodate his strengths. Owens’s detractors have called him emotionless or weak, and when compared to Barlow’s immediate and forceful delivery, most vocalists would. However, Owens is unfairly victimized here. Songs like ’10,000 Strong’, ‘A Charge To Keep’, ‘Infiltrate and Assimilate’, and the title track are exemplary performances, where he belts out air-raid sirens to rival Bruce Dickinson and takes command of up-tempo, energetic verses. Unfortunately, those siren calls are often placed too low in the mix, unfairly diminishing his admirable power. Conversely, his weaker side as a vocalist is made most evident on softer songs, such as the misguided ballad ‘The Clouding’, where his voice cannot compete with Schaffer’s beefed-up guitar. One might argue that Barlow had an easy enough time keeping up, but his different timbre and lower register worked in his favor, and after seeing how Schaffer dealt Owens out of the group so brazenly, it seems fair to suggest that he wouldn’t care too much to prioritize Owens’s vocals over his own guitar.
Indeed, few elements of the album are strong throughout (except perhaps the production, if not the mix), and the balance between them all seems to shift with each successive track. Schaffer has delved more into Middle Eastern influences for this album, but their impact is minimal outside of forgettable segue tracks. The alleged Pink Floyd influence on ‘The Clouding’ is also transient, fading to the background after 90 seconds and making few other appearances, unless ‘The Domino Decree’s rock ‘n’ roll organ was intended to evoke them as well. Altogether, it seems that Schaffer has an ambivalent relationship with change—he is intrigued by it and the challenge it presents, but has a difficult time embracing it fully. As a result, the quality of ‘Framing Armageddon’ suffers, as did Owens’s career with the band. Hinting at brilliance and then smothering it, ‘Framing Armageddon’ is a true mixed bag.