Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Review: Iced Earth - The Glorious Burden (2004)

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The Glorious Burden

The first month of 2004 witnessed the release of one of the most anticipated albums of the year, Iced Earth's The Glorious Burden. Iced Earth  has become, over the past decade, a leader of the American metal scene and so it came as a shock last year when singer Matt Barlow announced his departure from the band to concentrate on his studies. Since joining the band for their third album, Matt had come to symbolize Iced Earth  through his distinctive voice and stage presence. Mainman Jon Schaffer wasted little time in finding a replacement - Tim "Ripper" Owens, formerly of Judas Priest. I wasn't very impressed with Owens' performance while he fronted Priest, so it was with nervous excitement that I received my copy of The Glorious Burden - hyped as Iced Earth's most ambitious album to date.

Before getting too far into the review, I want to say that a vast majority of the lyrical themes on The Glorious Burden are patriotic in nature, dealing with events in American history as well as the current state of affairs. If this puts you off, then do everyone a favor and skip this album instead of throwing your hat into the ring to bitch about the overabundance of patriotism. I have read works from several reviewers (American, Canadian, and European) who focus less on the music and instead devote most of their efforts to bashing Jon Schaffer for writing about American history and, in particular, the events of 9/11. Passion is the source of inspiration, and it's well known that Jon is a history buff so why is it so surprising that he writes about what he loves? What's worse is these same reviewers slam bands for writing about "lame" subjects like swords and dragons, lamenting on the lack of substance in the lyrics. I guess for some it's just all too easy to be hypocritical. Ok, my ranting is done - for now.

As I first mentioned, the foremost concern I had prior to listening to The Glorious Burden was with the vocals. Although he can never "replace" Matt Barlow, could Tim carry his own weight and not disappoint - like with Priest? After one listen my concern was alleviated, as Tim kicks some serious ass on every track. From the softer vocals of "Hollow Man" to his ball-crushing wails on "Green Face", Tim hits the notes with emotion and ease. Matt has left his mark on Iced Earth, but the band has definitely not suffered for his departure.

Ralph Santolla is also a newcomer to the band, replacing Larry Tarnowski on lead guitar. Clearly a student of the George Lynch school, Ralph delivers in a big way. Handling the majority of the leads and solos, his axework is first-rate. Gaining experience with bands such as Monarch and Eyewitness, not to mention a solo career, Ralph shows his professionalism throughout the album.

One could say, and it has been said, that much of The Glorious Burden can be heard on Iced Earth's previous albums (particularly Horror Show). To a degree this is true, as much as it can also be said of Iron Maiden's career. There is simply a sound that defines Iced Earth which is ever-present here, and that is not at all a bad thing. Jon's riffs are heavy and punishing, while Richard Christy's furious and complex drumming is stellar. While the core sound is intact, The Glorious Burden far surpasses what was offered on Horror Show, where the writing and execution seemed sterile and lacking in emotional magnitude. The majority of the songs on The Glorious Burden are filled with genuine emotion, from the songwriting to the vocals to the outstanding solos from Ralph. Having said that, this album is far from a rehash and offers a substantial number of standout tracks.

Topping the list is the Gettysburg Trilogy which comprises the last three songs on the album ("The Devil To Pay", "Hold At All Costs", and "High Water Mark"). Integrating the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra for a full-blown metal symphony, Jon has created one of the best metal-orchestral compositions I have heard. The depth of sound is awesome, effectively capturing the ebb and flow of the battle. I've listened to this trilogy repeatedly and have yet to tire of it. Words honestly cannot do this justice; it is a work that must be experienced to be appreciated. Another highlight of the album is "Green Face", a tribute to the Navy SEALs. Jon's locomotive riffs drive this song, and Richard's drumming is fantastic. This song has my vote to replace Godsmack's "Awake" as the official Navy recruiting anthem. Released as a single last year, "The Reckoning (Don't Tread On Me)" has a very catchy chorus and jackhammer riffs that just don't let up. Tim's vocals are at their grittiest here, contrasting with the operatic chorus.

There are a couple of weak spots on the album, namely the tired-sounding "Red Baron/Blue Max" and the ballad "Hollow Man", but they don't tarnish what the remaining songs achieve. Packaged with a superb booklet filled with awesome artwork by Leo Hao, The Glorious Burden is a classic album and a kick-ass way to start off 2004. Fans of Iced Earth must own this disc, and those unfamiliar with the band should most definitely start here.

Track Listing
1 Star Spangled Banner
2 Declaration Day
3 When The Eagle Cries
4 The Reckoning (Don't Tread On Me)
5 Green Face
6 Valley Forge
7 Attila
8 Hollow Man
9 Red Baron / Blue Max
10 The Devil To Pay
11 Hold At All Costs
12 High Water Mark

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