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Iced Earth - The Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part 2

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Friday, September 5, 2008 @ 0:23 AM


(SPV)

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After 10 years, three albums, two singers and more than three hours of music, power metal icons Iced Earth finally bring their sprawling, exhausting "Something Wicked" saga to a close.

The Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part 2 comes, comparatively, quickly on the heels of 2006's Framing Armageddon: Something Wicked Part 1, which was actually the opening chapter of the climax to 1998's original Something Wicked The Way Comes - you follow? It also reunites band leader and main creative force Jon Schaffer with long-time vocalist Matthew Barlow, who sang on Something Wicked This Way Comes, but not on Framing Armageddon, having left Iced Earth to pursue a career in, of all things, law enforcement - still with me?

Though he apparently will continue to carry a badge, which will force Iced Earth to tour more sporadically, Barlow has retaken the mic from Tim "Ripper" Owens - a.k.a. the guy who replaced Rob Halford in Judas Priest - apparently because diehard fans had been pestering Schaffer to bring him back. Well, they got what they wanted - which ain't such a bad thing.

Like Judas Priest, Iced Earth sound more natural and on their game without Owens trying to follow in someone else's already large and well-established footsteps, while at the same time vying to inject his own personality into the mix. And that's no real knock on Owens, whose vocal abilities are unquestioned. He walked into a couple of unenviable - arguably no-win - situations and did yeoman's work. It just wasn't "the same band" with him singing - and let's face it, in metal change, more often than not, is frowned upon.

Owens has a new gig now with temperamental guitar wanker Yngwie Malmsteen, who changes singers like some people change their underwear, so that may end up being a better fit because there's no legacy - at least when it comes to vocals. Time will tell.

But back to the album at hand. While The Crucible is every bit the epic as Framing Armageddon, it seems less ostentatious and has a much better flow. There are none of the momentum-killing instrumental interludes - not counting the intro "In Sacred Flames" and the epilogue, fittingly enough titled "Epilogue" - that bogged Framing down and made it sound more like musical theater then a metal opus. And the theatrics - the HUGE choruses, choir-like accompaniments and bombastic arrangements - that were so overblown on Framing, as well as parts of its windy predecessor This Glorious Burden, are kept within reason here, which certainly owe something to Barlow's vocal style. Though graced with a fine set of pipes in his own right, Barlow is more about command, control and nuance than drama and histrionics. And that provides a steadying influence here, allowing Schaffer to better focus his songwriting instead of just throwing everything he can think of into the pot, which makes for a tighter overall album.

Thus, The Crucible seems less like a monumental conceptual work and more like a typically grand Iced Earth album. As was the case with the original Something Wicked, the material here - while tying up the various ends of Schaffer's "Stars Wars" meets "Battlefield Earth" sci-fi storyline and, I guess, bringing it to a close - is not so tied to the context as Framing's was, allowing the individual songs to stand on their own.

And there are some real standout tracks, notably the full-throttle "Behold The Wicked Child" and "Divide and Devour" - the album's two real sustained bursts of speed metal - and the crunching anthems "Minions of the Watch" and "I Walk Alone," which many of you may already have heard when it was issued as a single a few months back.

The Crucible makes for a rock solid book-end to this "Something Wicked" trilogy, saga, whatever the hell you want to call it, allowing it to finish on a high note after stumbling under sheer weight of Framing Armageddon. Schaffer obviously is more comfortable working with Barlow, and it shows in spades here - it probably also helps that drummer Brent Smedley and guitarist Troy Seele have carried over from Framing, which had something of a clinical vibe thanks to the session-like nature of the ensemble. Iced Earth sound like a genuine band on The Crucible, and the results speak for themselves. So enjoy it while you can as Schaffer's control-freak ways could make for big changes down the road. You never know.

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