In 2011, ICED EARTH said goodbye to fan-favoured vocalist Matt Barlow (again). A potentially disastrous situation for a band that had clawed and carved its way to something pretty damn close to the top over two decades, but they were given a second chance (again) with the entrance of INTO ETERNITY frontman Stu Block. His Iced Earth debut album, Dystopia, went over a storm compared to its cold and dense predecessors - Framing Armageddon ('07), The Crucible Of Man ('08) - and the world tour that followed cemented Block's position as the band's singer. Iced Earth's new album, Plagues Of Babylon, doesn't exactly pick up where Dystopia left off in that it comes off as darker and more aggressive - and hell, more epic - but it most certainly matches Dystopia for intensity and being a solid no-bull fan friendly package.
"Sometimes you hit things right on the mark for the fanbase, other times you do what you feel like as an artist as much as for the fans," says guitarist/founder Jon Schaffer. "I don't think it's a contrived thing. This album is a little bit more epic compared to Dystopia, but the writing period was the same length as it was for Dystopia. I was going through a very difficult time in my personal life and a lot of shit happened, but somehow I was able to put together a really strong record in spite of everything that was going on. With Dystopia, I just felt that was the way to go and I don't think Plagues Of Babylon is too far from that direction. I think Plagues Of Babylon has a couple more songs that are a bit more epic in terms of the writing, sure, but we stayed on the course set with Dystopia."
"I produced this album, and one of the things I wanted to do was make it heavier and give it a live feel," he continues. "I wanted to make sure it wasn't over-produced. I got really good takes out of everybody but I wasn't so anal as to make sure that everything was 100% perfectly in tune and perfectly on time. That's a trap you fall into as a producer. I wanted to capture the essence and energy of a band that's been touring its ass off and I think I accomplished that."
Schaffer is and has always been the creative force behind Iced Earth, but the singers he's chosen to front the band over the years ultimately were saddled with the responsibility of bringing his vision to life. Iced Earth is big on conceptual songwriting, don't forget. Asked just how much Matt Barlow, Tim "Ripper" Owens and Stu Block influenced his writing between the first spark and final studio recordings, Schaffer says it's a grey area.
"They're all very capable singers; very talented and all very different. I'm proud of all the records I've done with Stu, Tim and Matt. And even John Greely, because Night Of The Stormrider ('92) was a big album for Iced Earth when we were starting out. Stu contributed more lyrics and melodies than any of the other singers that have been in Iced Earth, and we just work really well together. Just how much they influence my vision, I think that's something people will speculate over forever."
For Plagues Of Babylon, Schaffer gave Block plenty of room to breathe when it came to bringing his own ideas and influences to the table.
"Jon gave me creative freedom right from Day 1," Block says. "When I tried out for the band we wrote a song together ('End Of Innocence') so I was able to prove that I could write lyrics, good cadences and melodies. Jon is great writing cadences and melodies, so when you put two people that can do that kind of stuff together things go a little bit quicker. I was given the same amount of freedom for Plagues Of Babylon and I was more relaxed this time out because I'm not the new kid anymore. When we first started writing Dystopia I was nervous - how could I not be? - but with this second record for me, both Jon and I knew what to expect from each other. We had a great time with it, bouncing ideas off each other and experimenting with different things."
"Of course we discussed what Stu’s voice should be like during any given part of a song, and it's the music that dictates that," Schaffer adds. "The arrangements of the songs always tell you what direction you should take. We always discussed how the music was speaking to us individually, and we talked about the storyline as well. Some songs I wrote by myself, Stu wrote all the lyrics for some of the songs, and we wrote a few together. It was a mix, and that's exactly the same thing that happened on Dystopia. We used the same formula because it worked really well. It was just a matter of Stu growing more and finding himself more and finding those new spots in his voice. Whether we're doing a demo or doing a song for real, we discovered new things that he can do in another colour with his voice. It's great to have that."
According to Schaffer, other factors that influenced the way Plagues Of Babylon turned out include the 150 shows for Dystopia under Iced Earth's collective belt, and the band's current line-up.
"Troy (Seele/guitars) has been in the band a long time now, too, and Luke (Appleton/bass) is a great talent on the bass. He came up with some great bass lines and took things to a whole new level. It's not just about Stu and me; it's about everybody doing the best they can. It's my job to push them to do the best they can. A lot of people can't handle the pressure, a lot of people don't have the ideas."
"We did a lot of touring for Dystopia so I had the chance to find my voice and build it up, to find what I can and can't do," Block offers. "As that developed, going into Plagues Of Babylon I knew there was some new stuff that I wanted to try."
As Iced Earth albums go, the conceptual aspect has been dialled back compared to previous records. The first six songs tell a zombie apocalypse-flavoured tale, beginning with the title track and wrapping up with 'The End?'. The ballad 'If I Could See You' leads the listener into an equal number of stand-alone tracks.
"We were talking one day about writing a song about zombies, and I said that if we were going to do that we had to make it really cool," Schaffer says of the zombie storyline. "I didn't want it to be cheesy because a lot of zombie movies and shit like that are really bad. We decided to bring the horror and science fiction vibe into it."
"'Cthulu' is the first song Stu and I worked on when we were in Uruguay writing for the album. I had the music prepared but I didn't really have any lyrical ideas. We were out on the beach one night getting wasted, it was 4:00am and we're staring up at the stars, and we came up with this idea about Cthulu rising up out of the ocean and enslaving humanity. Stu thought it was a great idea so he went online, found a book on Cthulu, read it, and we ended up with the song."
And as proud as he is of the conceptual piece(s) on Plagues Of Babylon, it's two of the individual songs that Schaffer tags as having a special place in heart.
"The song 'If I Could See You' I wrote about my grandfather who passed away in 1994 because he was a really important part of my getting Iced Earth started. He's the one that believed in me and sort of pushed me out of the nest; he told me that if I didn't get out there and do what I need to do i was going to end up in prison (laughs). That was a hell of a lot of faith to have in a 16 year-old kid, to say 'get out of here and make your dreams come true.' For some reason it was time to write that song. I connected with those emotions from my past and wrote it."
"For me the highlight of the record is 'The Highwayman'," Schaffer admits, "where I have my closest friends in the music business on the song singing lead vocals. It's a cover of the song originally done by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. It's me singing with Russell Allen (ADRENALINE MOB, SYMPHONY X), Stu, and Michael Poulsen from VOLBEAT. We're singing in that order, each of us doing a verse. And Hansi Kürsch (BLIND GUARDIAN) also does guest vocals on the record on some of the choruses and on 'Among The Living Dead'. I have my best friends in this business on the album and it's so fucking cool. We had a great time, and having Russell and Michael on 'The Highwayman'... I wouldn’t have done it without them. I've been talking about doing it for a few years and we were finally able to make it happen. I'm totally thrilled about that."
Block calls 'Cthulu' and 'If I Could See You' his two favourite tracks on the new album. It's hard to resist putting him on the spot, however, and asking him to pick his fave Iced Earth pre-Block era songs now that he's been living with them for a few years.
"We do the song 'Iced Earth' every night and I think I've made that song my own," says block. "People really seem to enjoy it. We're doing 'A Question Of Heaven' and I absolutely love singing it, 'Burning Times' is great, and I do my own thing with 'Dante's Inferno' which I really enjoy. Jon puts me to work between tours saying 'Learn this song' or 'Learn those five songs' so I think I've got something like 50 under my belt."