Iced Earth, "The Blessed and the Damned"
Century Media has released this nicely packaged, budget priced two CD "best of" (labeled as a "greatest hits" collection on the promo sheet, but "hits" isn't really a good term for a metal band that's never charted, is it?) in honor of Iced Earth leaving the label. Although I'm definitely a fan of the group, I don't know the gossip about why they left their home of a decade, and while band guru Jon Schaffer is outspoken in just about every interview that I've read with him, I can't recall any specific beefs he had with Century Media (I suspect it was over money). However, my memory sucks, so maybe there are all kinds of reasons that everybody knows about but me. Why I'm going on about this, I don't know. I guess label soap operas intrigue me - even if I do forget the details.
So, if you're unfamiliar with the band, they play traditional, epic American power metal. Imagine a thrash version of Iron Maiden with lower, gritty vox and you won't be too far off. Schaffer loves his ultra-speedy triplets and crunchy power chords as well as songs that build to crescendos (thus the "epic" quality of their work). There are 23 tracks on this collection spanning the first six studio releases and the double (or triple, depending on where you live) live CD. Songs are long and arranged well, and while the compositions are often very similar, there's enough range in tempo and melody to make them memorable as separate entities. Three vocalists are featured; original singer Gene Adam who had the typical 80s style nasally rasp, Mark Greely, who has a good gritty voice but wasn't so hot when crooning was required, and Matt Barlow, a hugely talented dude who could sing, scream, sneer and roar. Listening to the trio on here, it's evident the cycle that Schaffer went through to reach Matt, who was the perfect foil for Jon's compositions. Adam was okay, Greely was better, and Barlow nailed all of it. Matt had a powerful, emotional range that got better with each subsequent release, but he quit the band to battle terrorism after 9/11, feeling he needed more meaning for his life beyond singing in a metal band (Say what? What could possibly be more important than metal?!) - so yet another reason why I hate Al Qaeda. I like Ripper Owens and what he did on Iced Earth's latest release, but listening to this collection makes me pine more for ole Matt, whose warmer tones really fit the music well (many people compare his vibrato-laden approach to Kiss' Paul Stanley, which is fair, but Barlow can do so much more behind the mic than the glamster ever could). So c'mon, dude - let the army take care of the terrorists - get back behind a microphone! To Schaffer's credit, he did reveal after Barlow left that Matt really didn't work on the songs much and the guitarist wrote all of the vocal melodies, which is very evident when doing side-by-side comparisons with the older material. So Iced Earth is very much Jon's vehicle. Oh, one more thing, alotta people were pissing on "Horror Show" when it was released, but the tracks from that record hold their own against every other "classic" on here - so a mighty pblllllt to all the "Horror Show" haters.
The twenty-page booklet is filled with a timeline and old musings (before Barlow vacated) from Schaffer regarding each release. It's an interesting read and illustrates the sacrifices Jon made to get this band where they are. Also included are the lyrics to each song and a flipbook cover, allowing you to choose whether you want to display angels or devils (the booklet is set up so the devils are the actual cover - but if for some reason you want to see battle angels, you can). As a fan of the band, I have all the material on here, but it's still a nifty thing to add to the collection thanks to the nice packaging (and cheap price) and for the uninitiated curious, it's a must have item that will give you solid insight to what the band was and is about. Highly recommended to everyone save for those who only listen to extreme metal.