It's very rare these days to pop a new CD in for the first time, and immediately get sucked right in, singing and headbanging along as if it was an old friend that you've been enjoying for many years. Well, that's exactly what happened with Dystopia, the 10th album from veteran metal act Iced Earth. As we've come to expect with this band, there has once again been major changes to the line-up, as on again, off again vocalist Matt Barlow now has seemingly retired from the band for good (I'll believe it when I see it), and in his place come young hotshot singer Stu Block from Canadian progressive death metallers Into Eternity. Along with founding member Jon Schaffer, the rest of the band is now comprised of Troy Seele on lead guitar, Brent Smedley on drums, and bassist Freddie Vidales.
From top to bottom, Dystopia is packed with memorable heavy metal songs. It might not be the heaviest album they've ever done, or the most adventurous, but the impact of just how good these tunes are is immediate. I was singing along and raising my fist in the air from the very first listen, so that tells you something right away. The majority of the tracks here are classic metal anthems, and ironically the first supreme song here is also titled "Anthem", and it's a great one. Raging power metal thrashers like "Boiling Point", "V", "Dark City", the title track, and "Days of Rage" perfectly mesh with the more emotional and melodic numbers such as "Anguish of Youth", "End of Innocence", and "Tragedy and Triumph". Not since Dark Saga and Something Wicked has the band been able to stock an album with this much variety and make it all so catchy and memorable. Block fits right in, and those worrying that his death metal growls and screams will be taking over the Iced Earth sound need fear not, as Stu gives great homage to both Barlow and Tim 'Ripper' Owens here, sounding eerily like Matt on the gruff mid range stuff and Ripper on the high pitched falsetto wailing. Throughout, Schaffer and Seele provide plenty of massive crunch as well as tasty leads, while Smedley and Vidales hold down a steady rhythmn. Musically, this is top notch stuff, and from a lyrical perspective, Schaffer utilized his interest in dystopian themes in music and movies for these songs, and while it's not an out and out concept album, there are some connections in themes here without it being overblown.
In short, this is Iced Earth's best album in years, and arguably one of their best overall. Besides the fact that there are plenty of excellent headbanging moments, so many of these songs just stick in your head for hours and days at a time. Great to see Schaffer back to writing more song based material as opposed to the relentless epics and concept pieces in recent memory, and adding Stu Block to the mix is just the tasty icing on the cake. Excellent stuff!
03. Boiling Point
04. Anguish Of Youth
06. Dark City
08. Days Of Rage
09. End Of Innocence
10. Soylent Green [Ltd edition bonus]
11. Iron Will [Ltd edition bonus]
12. Tragedy And Triumph
13. Anthem [string mix] [Ltd edition bonus]