Sunday Old School: Iced Earth
Band Photo: Iced Earth (?)
Power metal is a genre which almost certainly is most popular in mainland Europe. The continent has given birth to many of the genre's greatest acts such as Blind Guardian, Hammerfall and Gamma Ray and continues to book such acts for their biggest festivals. However, that is not to say that the United States has had no input into the development or popularity of power metal. Indeed, one of the field's most beloved groups hail from Tampa, Florida. A band by the name of Iced Earth.
The seeds of the group were sewn in 1985 when guitarist, Jon Schaffer formed a band named Purgatory. As would be a common theme in the life of Iced Earth, member changes were frequent, with Schaffer remaining the only constant. In 1988, they decided to change their name from Purgatory to the moniker we all know today, which was suggested by a friend of Schaffer's who passed away after a motorcycle accident. They soon caught the attention of record labels with their second demo, "Enter the Realm," which earned them a deal with Century Media. Schaffer, along with drummer Mike McGill, vocalist Gene Adam, bass player Dave Abell and guitarist Randall Shawver, entered the famous Morrisound Recording studio, renowned for producing many of the greatest death metal albums, to record their self titled debut. The album was met with a somewhat mixed response, though it allowed them to perform in Europe for the first time as a support act to Blind Guardian.
They wasted little time in getting to work on a sophomore record, though not without making a few changes first. Mike McGill was replaced with Richey Secchiari and perhaps most notably, Gene Adam was fired from the band after he refused to take singing lessons, his place being taken by John Greely. This new incarnation of the band went back to Morrisound to record, "Night of the Stormrider," which faired a little better with the critics, though remains a very popular entry in the Iced Earth catalogue with their fans. The album also took a little longer to be released in the United States than it did Europe, as the American branch of their label was worried that the album would compete against their debut.
Following another European tour with Blind Guardian, the band were faced with a number of problems which caused them to remain inactive for almost three years. They were reportedly on the verge of splitting up but eventually resurfaced with another new drummer, Rodney Beasley and a new vocalist, Matt Barlow, perhaps the most beloved of all their singers. The new members introduced themselves to fans with the 1995 release, "Burnt Offerings," which is today considered one of the heaviest albums Iced Earth have ever done, with the aggressive tone on the record stemming from Schaffer's frustration with the music industry. It was also one of their most ambitious albums, not least for the sixteen minute epic, "Dante's Inferno," which was divided into three parts on some copies. The record garnered the best reviews they had received yet and the critical acclaim continued a year later when they released their fourth album, "The Dark Saga," a concept album based on the comic book, Spawn. It was considerably more melodic than their previous releases and the recording sessions had a more positive vibe than "Burnt Offerings." It was to mark the end of another chapter for the band however, as bassist Dave Abell left the group soon after the album was finished and was eventually replaced with James MacDonough.
MacDonough made his recording debut with Iced Earth on the 1997 release, "Days of Purgatory," a two disc album which consisted of re-recordings and remixed of old songs, which was partly designed to introduce new fans to their older work. After this, they began writing a new studio album, which would be their first without guitarist, Randall Shawver, who decided to leave the band before they entered the studio. The lead guitar duties were handled by Larry Tarnowski, who was credited only as a session musician and the drum tracks were recorded by Mark Prator. The resulting album, "Something Wicked This Way Comes" was something of a debate amongst critics, with some arguing that it was the best work Iced Earth had produced thus far, while others felt it to be rather weak. Although it polarised some people, it was generally agreed upon that some of their best songs could be found on the album, such as the opening track, "Burning Times," "Stand Alone" and the live favourite, "Watching Over Me." After the release of the album, Iced Earth released their first live record, a three disc collection recorded in Greece entitled, "Alive in Athens."
After recording an EP named, "The Melancholy," which was more or less shelved by their label, the band recorded another concept album, this time based around famous works of horror such as Dracula, Wolf Man etc. The album, "Horror Show," hit the shelves in the summer of 2001 and is considered their most power metal styled album to date, shedding much of the thrash sound that they had incorporated into their music on previous releases. It was another hit with critics and fans alike and marked the debut of new drummer, Richard Christy, as well as the only Iced Earth album in which Steve DiGiorgio performed the bass tracks, before James MacDonough returned to the fold. They followed the album with a box set entitled, "Dark Genesis," which included a covers album, "Tribute to the Gods," which saw the band performing songs by the likes of Iron Maiden and Kiss, amongst others.
Although they had since released "Dark Genesis," Matt Barlow found himself rethinking life after the tragic events of September 11th and decided to contribute back to society, announcing his departure from Iced Earth to become a police officer. His resignation was not immediately accepted however and Barlow did record vocals for their next album, but Schaffer was far from impressed with them, feeling that they lacked passion and so decided to let him leave after all. Vocals for the new album were instead recorded by Tim "Ripper" Owens, who had become famous for replacing Rob Halford in Judas Priest. He was still a member of the legendary group at the time and his contribution was initially considered a favour, however after Halford reunited with Judas Priest, Owens gracefully stepped aside and became the new, full time vocalist for Iced Earth. The new album, "The Glorious Burden," also featured another metal favourite as a session musician in the form of guitarist Ralph Santolla of Millenium and later of Deicide and Obituary. "The Glorious Burden" was another concept album, though this time inspired by military history, particularly that of America, though it did also examine Atilla the Hun and the First World War. It was another critical triumph but, as seems to be the case with Iced Earth, soon saw them saying goodbye to another member, when James MacDonough left the group to join Megadeth. They also hired a new guitar player, Ernie Caletti, though he was soon let go after being charged with rape and kidnapping and was replaced by Tim Mills, who also did not last long.
By the time the band entered the studio, they consisted only of Schaffer, Owens and drummer Brent Smedley, with session musicians brought in to complete the record, which was finally released in 2007 under the title, "Framing Armageddon: Something Wicked Part 1." It was another concept album, this time based on the "Something Wicked" story that Schaffer had introduced on the "Something Wicked This Way Comes" album. It once again earned them some great reviews, though it would prove to be the final album with "Ripper" Owens. Although his contributions had been approved of and appreciated by many Iced Earth fans, the fanbase still clamoured for the return of Matt Barlow. Their wish was granted in December 2007, although in somewhat controversial circumstances, as Owens claimed he was told that he was being relieved of his duties, "thirty seconds before the news hit Blabbermouth," and he was hurt the decision had come two weeks before Christmas.
Barlow's first release with the band upon rejoining was the single, "I Walk Among You," which contained one new song, as well two songs from the previous album resung by Barlow. The "Framing Armageddon" sequel was released in 2008 under the title, "The Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part 2," which was originally set to be named, "Revelation Abomination." Another box set, "Box of the Wicked" was released soon afterwards, containing both "Something Wicked" albums as well as live tracks recorded at the Graspop Metal Meeting festival amongst other gems. Barlow's second tenure in the band would prove to be short lived however, as he announced in 2011 that he would be retiring from the group for a second time, though he still took part in their summer tour, which saw them performing at some of the biggest festivals in Europe.
His place was taken by Into Eternity vocalist, Stu Block, who made his first Iced Earth recording contribution on a re-recording of "Dante's Inferno," before the band released their first full length album with Block on vocals, "Dystopia" in 2011. It wasn't a concept album as such, though it did feature numerous songs inspired by movies such as V For Vendetta and Dark City, amongst other works centred around a dystopian future, reflecting the political views of Jon Schaffer. They also once again entered Greek speaking territory to record a new live album, "Live in Ancient Kourion," which was recorded in Cyprus and released in the summer of 2012. Since then, the band has been busy at work on their new album, "Plagues of Babylon," which will be released through Century Media on January 6th in Europe, before taking to American stores on January 21st. With the recent addition of Jon Dette on drums, the future of Iced Earth seems as twisting and unpredictable as ever, which, second only to their music, makes them one of the most interesting bands still going today, one which has truly cemented their place in the annals of heavy music history.
Iced Earth - "Burnt Offerings"
Iced Earth - "The Dark Saga"
Iced Earth - "Burning Times"
Iced Earth - "Dracula"
Iced Earth - "Declaration Day"
Iced Earth - "Ten Thousand Strong"
Iced Earth - "Dystopia"
Ollie Hynes has been a writer for Metal Underground.com for four years and has been a metal fan for ten years, going so far as to travel abroad for metal shows.
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