Iced Earth's tenth album Dystopia, released in 2011, marked the beginning of a new chapter in the band's career with the entrance of former Into Eternity vocalist Stu Block. Their new album Plagues Of Babylon is volatile proof the accolades Iced Earth received for Dystopia weren't a case of beginner's luck. Then again, guitarist/founder Jon Schaffer has trusted his blood, sweat and steel hard conviction rather than luck over the last 24 years to get the band to the level they're at now.
"This is a very cool period in the history of the band," says Schaffer. "Plagues Of Babylon is a sign of how we've gelled. I'm very, very proud of it."
Plagues Of Babylon is arguably the strongest Iced Earth album since Something Wicked This Way Comes from 1998, which yielded fan favorites such as 'Burning Times', 'The Coming Curse', 'Blessed Are You' and 'Disciples Of The Lie'. It hits hard and fast with the title track (almost 8 minutes in length), quickly pulling the listener into a fast moving six-song horror/science fiction tale (in classic Iced Earth concept fashion) before launching into five stand-alone songs and an unexpected cover to cap things off. It's the logical in-your-face follow-up to Dystopia, but darker, heavier and bigger overall.
"This album is a bit more epic compared to Dystopia," says Schaffer, who produced the album himself. "When I was working on the Dystopia stuff I just felt that was the way to go, and I don't think Plagues Of Babylon is far off from that. I think this album has a couple more songs that are a bit more epic in terms of the writing. One of the things I wanted to do was make it heavier and give it a live feel. I wanted to make sure it wasn't over-produced. I got really good takes out of everybody but I wasn't so anal as to make sure that everything was 100% perfectly in tune and perfectly on time. I really wanted to capture the essence and energy of a band that has been touring its ass off. I think I accomplished that from a production standpoint."
Schaffer took on the traditional lion's share of the songwriting for Plagues Of Babylon, composing songs with Block as well, and in some instances leaving Block to write lyrics on his own. It was the same formula used for Dystopia and the results are clear cut.
"I felt more relaxed this time out because I'm not the new kid anymore," says Block. "When we first started writing Dystopia I felt a bit nervous, but with this second record for me, both Jon and I knew what to expect from each other."
Block is, of course, following in the footsteps of Matt Barlow and Tim "Ripper" Owens (ex-Judas Priest), meaning that phoning in his performance was never a consideration. His attacks are vicious, echoing Schaffer’s razor-edged riffs ('Democide', 'Cthulhu', 'The Culling'), and his ballad voice has become stronger ('If I Could See You', 'Spirit Of The Times'), giving Block an identity of his own. Iced Earth is a band, however, and not a two-man show.
"It's not just about Stu and I, it's about everybody in the band doing the best they can," says Schaffer. "It's my job to push them to do their best. A lot of people can't handle the pressure, a lot of people don't have the ideas; these guys do."
Iced Earth has always been and always will be Jon Schaffer's baby. The band would not and cannot exist without him. With that in mind, he turns out every Iced Earth album with a song he considers particularly special and Plagues Of Babylon keeps on with this tradition.
"For me one of the highlights of the record is 'Highwayman', where I have my closest friends in the music business on the song singing lead vocals. It's a cover of the song originally done by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. It's me singing with Russell Allen (Symphony X, Adrenaline Mob), Stu, and Michael Poulsen (Volbeat). We're singing in that order, each of us doing a verse. Also my long time friend, Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), also does guest vocals on the record on some of the choruses and lead vocals on 'Among The Living Dead'. I have my best friends in this business on this album and it's so fucking cool! We had a great time, and having Russell and Michael on 'Highwayman'... I wouldn't have done it without them. I've been talking about doing it for a few years and we were finally able to make it happen. I'm totally thrilled about that."