F U L L . R E V I E W S
As the first album with Matt Barlow back on vocals following a four-year absence and the third installment of Iced Earth's heralded 'Something Wicked...' saga, 'The Crucible of Man' is Iced Earth's most loaded LP since Ripper Owens' vocal debut on 2004's 'The Glorious Burden'. Much has been made of Barlow's return, and it is undeniable that his punishing bombast is more at home in Iced Earth than Owens could ever be. The latter contributed some great performances, to be sure, but as Jon Schaffer says, he and Barlow are "spiritual brothers", and the chemistry between those two was never recreated with Owens. So, with the dynamic duo back in action and the mojo of the Wicked One behind them, the band's 10th LP was primed to dominate.
Unfortunately, it seems that the gears haven't clicked yet in the Iced Earth camp, as 'The Crucible of Man' spins its wheels more than it burns rubber. Barlow seems to love brooding these days more than he does (ironically) ripping things up like the days of yore. Now few and far between are performances like the excoriating 'Disciples of the Lie', or the power/thrash hybrid found on 'Burnt Offerings'. After fifteen tracks of mid-tempo multi-layered leads, the trademark choir of Barlows in grandiose choruses, and nearly constant doubling of his verses, one quickly becomes fatigued and begins to wonder whether Ripper was really so bad a fit after all.
Musically, 'The Crucible of Man' is far less triumphal than its predecessor. Schaffer might call it sinister, but it can more bluntly be described as flat. It's as if Schaffer wanted to return to the dark flavor of the 'Burnt Offerings'/'Dark Saga' days, but lacked the inventive songwriting and riffing that helped make up for those albums' overwrought Gothic overtones. Perhaps a better comparison for 'The Crucible of Man' is 'Horror Show', but minus the good half--the driving vigor of 'Wolf', the palpable tension of 'The Phantom Opera Ghost' and riff-rocking drama of 'Jeckyl & Hyde'. Largely absent of these qualities, this album relies too heavily on self-derivation, repetition, and a plot that most of us never really cared that much about to begin with. To be sure, a handful of songs here have promising foundations, and the collective experience of Barlow and Schaffer ensures that 'The Crucible of Man' is no embarrassment. It just doesn't live up to their former pedigree. It's telling that this albums' press material spends most of its time focusing on the album's concept, saying next to nothing about the music itself, and only in the last paragraph is mention made of Barlow's return.
Iced Earth do deserve kudos for, if nothing else, streamlining this epic a bit more than its predecessor, which was frequently bogged down by interludes and forgetful ballads (this album's 'A Gift Or A Curse?' might actually be more tedious than the last album's 'The Clouding', however). Though a few choral processions are used to frame the action here, Schaffer shows credible restraint in developing this more than decade-old saga by typically adhering to straightforward arrangements. (This presents its own issues, which are explored later.) The performances on 'The Crucible of Man' are tight as usual, with Schaffer's guitar rendering the bass practically superfluous, also as usual, and a new lineup providing competent if somewhat interchangeable support. The drums are a bit over-triggered, but sit fairly well in the mix and are never an annoyance. It would be nice to say more about the supporting cast here, but they frankly cannot compete with Iced Earth's erstwhile star power of Steve DiGiorgio, Richard Christy, Ralph Santolla, and Bobby Jarzombek, all of whom are long gone.
Also frustrating are the needless interlude sections that pop up in a number of songs, repeating main verse riffs without vocals, sometimes in support of a lead, and almost always without variation. Some of these sections are slapped-on codas that plod on towards an arbitrary ending. They would be bewildering if they weren't so clearly an attempt to stretch out songs that struggle to pass three minutes. Frankly, not a one of these songs can legitimately stand with those of Iced Earth's glory days. The riffs are telegraphic and drab, and while Schaffer's triplets are as tight as punchy as ever, no amount of production chunk will turn a boring riff into a memorable one. 'The Crucible of Man' isn't decidedly bad; it just isn't much of anything.
All that said, the album does end on promising notes. 'Divide and Devour' is this album's 'Infiltrate and Assimilate', and is one of the few times Barlow lives up his legacy. 'Come What May' features a new melodicism that breaks Schaffer's stereotypical mold of either hyper-masculine metal or contemplative acoustics. Combined with Barlow's sky-scraping cries (seriously impressive), the elements of would have been a welcome change of pace on the rest 'The Crucible of Man'. If these ending themes are developed on subsequent releases, then the Barlow/Schaffer duo will indeed be dynamic, breathing life back into this a shell nearly thirty years old.
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