Iced Earth – Plagues of Babylon Tour

Metropool, Enschede (NL)
January 10, 2014
Review & Photo’s by: Chérie

Jon Schaffer, Iced Earth
Jon Schaffer

I have been a great admirer of Jon Schaffer’s band Iced Earth, from Florida, since The days of Purgatory (1997), when Iced Earth was still considered an underground band in Europe. I collected all their CD’s, for the music but also for the magnificent booklets. Whenever they came to play in Europe, I visited their major concerts. I especially remember the mesmerizing atmosphere of their perfomance at Wacken Open Air in 2007. But for me the book closed when Matt Barlow left for good. Matt was Iced Earth’s best singer ever. He had come and gone before and was temporarily replaced by Tim Owens from 2004 – 2007. I cannot describe how happy I was then, when I heard about Matt’s return. His final appearance at Wacken in 2011 was a deeply emotional experience to me. Meeting him there, back stage, was the highlight of my career as a metal photographer.

Stu Block
Stu Block

After that, I did not want to listen to the new Iced Earth releases for a while. However, last fall I decided to go and see them at their European Plagues of Babylon Tour in January 2014.
I went, last Friday night, to their only performance in The Netherlands, in Metropool, Hengelo, close to the Dutch-German border. This venue is spacious and modern and usually very suitable for metal concerts. It was the second performance of a 6-week European Tour and the concert was almost sold out. What did I experience?
The band was preceded by the reknown US trash metal band Warbringer. This somehow set the frame: apparently Iced Earth wanted to present themselves more as a trash band and less as a powermetal band. This also became clear from the set list: the majority of the songs was the fast and heavy kind of their repertoire. I do not know if it was me, the audience, the venue or the band, but, immediately, after the first three songs, at Dark Saga – not my favorite- I got the feeling that the magic of the early days of Iced Earth was gone. Their characteristic riffs suddenly struck me as annoyingly bombastic. Yes it was good old Jon Schaffer who I admired, a few meters away in front of me on stage. The fill-in drummer, new to me, played well, like he should.

Jon Schaffer and Luke Appleton
Jon Schaffer and Luke Appleton

A new bass player again (Luke Appleton) and of course… the “new” singer, Stu Block (ex-INTO ETERNITY),who did well, very well, I had to admit. Iced Earth played a mix of their old familiar repertoire, such Pure Evil and as Vengeance is mine, with songs from their new release, The Plagues of Babylon: the title song, If I could see you, Among the Living Dead, Peacemaker, Ctulhu. Which all sounded very simlar to previous work. Stu is an experienced and energetic metal singer, with a remarkably professional stage appearance. His voice, during that gig, was so similar to Matt’s that I was astonished. Still, I did not feel comfortable with this band. It was not that they showed lack of practice or that the sound technique was inferior – none of that.
Halfway the set, in the front rows of the audience, I could not stand it any longer and left to take a breathe. I bought the new CD and returned to the balcony, to view and listen from a distance. And reflect on what was wrong; why did I feel so peculiar about this performance? Was it because of the choice of old songs which were not my favorites, or the new songs that I was still unfamiliar with? On the balcony the sound was somewhat messy. Downstairs it had been better.

But Troy Seel’s excellent guitar solo’s still cut through my soul, like always before. Jon’s characteristic rhytms where no different than what we’ve always known of him. A part of the audience had formed a mosh pit. WTF a pit for? Iced Earth’s to me is not party musIc. But OK, if that’s what other people feel like. .. Iced Earth had clearly brought their own stagelights. Why?? Metropole’s lights are really top notch. Damn, those costantly blinking backlights are really annoying!

Iced Earth @ Metropool
Iced Earth

Later I learned that several people in the audience had gotten dizzy from them. While I was pondering, Stu anounced the next song, one that I like well, A question of heaven, and again I was struck by the similarity of the vocals to those of Matt Barlow. Until the female chorus sang and I realized that there was no chorus on stage – a tape was played. I realized it with a shock and asked myself in disbelief whether Stu might be play backing …???
(NOTE: back home I found out that Stu can indeed mimic Matt’s voice: see this analysis of Stu Blocks vocal range.)

Iced Earth had played an hour and a half and the band had given, convincingly, all they could. But at that point I hád to leave. Either I had changed or Iced Earth, but we did not match tonight.
This unfortunately, made me miss the great encore, allegedly with Watching over Me and Iced Earth. Remarkable, how a metal concert can arouse such strong, emotions in otherwise rational persons.
Returing home, on my car hi-fi I played the newly acquired Plagues of Babylon CD. Unwrapping the special Tour edition CD and DVD after the concert, had been a joyful experience: a beautiful booklet in the well known Iced Earth style. The music resembled all the better previous Iced Earth work. But Stu’s voice… now clearly audible…was absolutely not Matt Barlow’s. Barlow’s warm and dark timbre lacked.

CD Cover Plagues of Babylon
CD Cover Plagues of Babylon

The record is excellent; I enjoyed the whole CD on my one hour drive home in the night. I expecially value the last track: Highway man, a 1978 song earlier recorded by a.o. The Highwaymen:(Willy Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings & Kris Kristofferson). Iced Earth’s stage performance was good. Iced Earth is still undeniably Jon Schaffer’s creation with a large contribution of Troy Steele’s virtuosity. Stu is an excellent and extremely versatile and clean vocalist with a broad falsetto range. I absolutely advise anyone to go and enjoy Iced Earth’s current tour. Bring sunglasses though!
But I can’t help longing to hear Matt Barlow’s timbre that had given such a unique fill to Iced Earth’s sound, in the glorious past.