Iced Earth, "Overture of the Wicked"
Ahhhh, good ole Jon Schaffer sure knows how to rile folks. His political viewpoints have seemingly alienated half the globe while this EP has upset many fans of the band. For those not in the know, this record contains one new track and three songs from 1998's "Something Wicked This Way Comes" re-recorded with new vocalist Ripper Owens - and therein lies the controversy, as some fans of the band do not want to hear new versions of these tracks. Regardless, Schaffer set the precedent for revisiting "hallowed ground" back in 1997 when Iced Earth released "Days of Purgatory". That album featured "new" singer Matt Barlow's vocals on the old songs from the band's first two albums that were previously recorded with Gene Adam and John Greely. So Jon has a track record of updating history to suit the group's new sound. Such is his wont.
So here we are in Aught Seven and Iced Earth's latest belter, Ripper Owens, has replaced former singer, Matt Barlow (who left to pursue a career in border security), on the "Something Wicked Trilogy" (three songs, "Prophecy", "Birth of the Wicked" and "The Coming Curse" that were originally recorded for the 1998 release, "Something Wicked This Way Comes"). The musical arrangements have also been altered a bit and re-recorded as well, most notably, a somber piano intro was cut from the track "The Coming Curse" as was a prolonged Catholic church-inspired choral at the end of the song. Also of note is that the overall pace is a bit more rapid than the '98 versions. Personally, I thought the keyboard and vocal sections worked wonderfully to make "The Coming Curse" truly epic in nature, but upon listening to the new version I can hear why Jon wanted to cut out the piano and stick with the balls-out metal riffage from one track to the next as it does change the pace and makes the suite more immediate (and also serves Owen's more venomous approach to the vocals). A case of "no rest for the wicked", I suppose. The ending could have stayed as-was, though; that shit was cool, and now it's gone. Alas.
If one was to hear these new versions without having listened to the others for the past nine years, I suspect there would be no controversy. These are ball-bashin' metal anthems with tons of tempo shifts and moody atmospherics to enrich the sound. However, I'm old and have been listening to and loving those original versions for almost a decade, so I can't help but compare them. I like and respect Ripper Owens' work, but his efforts, while admirable, just don't resonate with the same passion that Barlow's did. Matt's deeper, clean tones were made all the more alluring when he began shrieking like a banshee. Tim's overall grittier style doesn't have the same impact as Barlow's switch from croon to scream because Owens shift isn't as dramatic.
Is this coming strictly from nostalgic prejudice? Quite possibly - but I think Matt's vocals were warmer and packed more emotional punch than Owens' efforts (perhaps through no fault of his own - Ripper does a decent job and great care went into the multi-tracking sections, but the Owens just doesn't compare favorable to Matt on these tracks for yours truly). So yeah, I prefer the originals, finding them more monolithic in delivery than these new versions, both musically and vocally - but I still think these three songs are some of the strongest material Schaffer has written, so this EP pales in comparison only to the original versions. If judged on their own, the new vocals and arrangements work well, and since Matt left the band, it makes perfect sense that Jon would want to have his new singer record the three prequel songs that lead into the pair of concept albums coming this fall.
So it's all good, kids - just not as good as the old stuff. Detractors from the band will note that Jon's approach to songwriting hasn't changed much in the past 15 years - so if you're looking for innovation from the band, move along and do not look back. However, if your philosophy for their sound is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", you'll still dig what they're dishing out.
So how about that new track, "Ten Thousand Strong"? Well, it's great stuff if you're an Iced Earth devotee or dig thrashy, galloping metal in general. Barlow never sang this song, so no comparison is needed on that end and Ripper does have a mighty range from his mid-range bellows to the paint-peeling shrieks. It's a great Iced Earth signature-style tune that lovers will love and haters will hate. I look forward to the new material this fall because "Ten Thousand Strong" is a promising beginning for the current line-up (as this will be the first release where the material was written with the knowledge that Ripper was going to be singing it).
In the end, I suspect that this is an EP for completists or relative newbies to the band. Old school fans that have the "Something Wicked" album don't need this EP unless they're really curious to hear the changes (go in with lowered expectations knowing that many of us codgers feel the original versions are better and you may be pleasantly surprised). As a fan of the band and someone who has all their other stuff, I'll be picking up this EP eventually - but I can't recommend it heartily as it's a new coat of paint on something that looked better before. But ya can't stop evolution (unless you're a fundamental Christian) - so I understand why Jon made this move.
Ten Thousand Strong