Since forming Iced Earth (formerly known as Purgatory) over thirty years ago, it’s fair to say that mainman Jon Schaffer has presided over his fair share of changes in personnel. The sole remaining member of the original line-up, since 1985, the singer/rhythm guitarist is now onto his seventh lead guitarist, tenth drummer (Brent Smedley now in his fourth separate term), eighth bass player, and fifth lead vocalist.
With Schaffer the one constant in the band, his vision for Iced Earth has been single-minded and, as the title of the latest album confidently attests, Incorruptible (Century Media). Given a tentative working title of The Judas Goat, had Schaffer recorded the album a year or so earlier, it would have been a very different sounding record indeed, with his writing process at that time filled with negativity and anger due to health reasons, management shake-ups, and the aforementioned line-up changes.
However, relocating to Schaffer’s home state of Indiana and building a new headquarters called “Independence Hall” forced the fiery frontman to calm down a little and concentrate on recovering from his neck surgery while also giving the band a solid base of operations to work from. And the results are certainly positive as Incorruptible stands as arguably the band’s best work since latest vocalist Stu Block joined the ranks.
Kicking off with a song written about Norse legend, Ragnar Lothbrok, a character already known to many thanks to current TV show, Vikings, the immediate and comfortingly familiar ‘Great Heathen Army’ is a suitably solid opener. Somewhat unsurprisingly, second track ‘Black Flag’ is not about the life and times of a Californian punk band, but rather a four minute paean to piracy and adventure on the high seas, right down to an absurdly comical “black powderrrrr” vocal from Block.
With ‘Raven Wing’, Schaffer takes a very familiar Iced Earth structure and chord progression but comes up trumps again, while ‘The Veil’ is a typically dramatic slow burner. For the next track, ‘Seven Headed Whore’, the band appear to have been replaced by Slayer for three minutes of intense ‘Raining Blood’ style riffery.
Beginning with a rather laid back riff (certainly compared to the previous track), ‘The Relic (Part 1)’ builds as it progresses, while ‘Ghost Dance (Awaken the Ancestors)’, is easily the band’s best instrumental since ‘1776’ from 1998’s classic Something Wicked This Way Comes (Century Media). Things take a perhaps overly sentimental turn with ‘Brothers’, a song written about the brotherhood between Schaffer and Block. A brave move considering Schaffer’s history with vocalists…
With a chorus similar to ‘Anthem’ from 2011’s Dystopia album, and a superb vocal from Block, ‘Defiance’ ticks all the right boxes but still remains a strangely unspectacular affair, although that could be attributed to being sat behind the album’s thunderous closer. Serving as a companion piece to 2004’s hugely ambitious ‘Gettysburg’, ‘Clear the Way (December 13th 1862)’ is a nine minute epic based on the bloody story of The Irish Brigade who were reduced to just 256 men from over 1600 at the Battle of Fredericksburg during the American Civil War.
A more cohesive collection of songs than the band’s previous couple of outings, and not as sprawling as either of the Something Wicked concept albums, Incorruptible is quite possibly Iced Earth‘s finest overall effort since The Glorious Burden.