Iced Earth – The Glorious Burden

Jon Schaffer and the boys of Iced Earth are back, and back with a vengeance. There's a bit of a new feel to the band since long time vocalist Matt Barlow left the band to pursue interests outside of music. Matt's departure let Schaffer pursue the vocalist he's been wanting to work with for a while now – former Judas Priest vocalist Tim “Ripper” Owens. For those of you that weren't aware, the movie “Rockstar” was loosely based around Owen's rise from coverband singer to the full time vocalist of JP. Anyways, I digress. Owens vocals give the band a bit of a different vibe, but their power is still very much intact, as evidenced with their latest release, “The Glorious Burden.” From what I have read, Schaffer (the principal songwriter and founder of Iced Earth) is quite pissed about the youth of America not having a shred of a clue about history and how important it is to where we are as a country and society. He decided to make “The Glorious Burden” with the intent to wake some people up to the fact that history is not boring and that is relevant to our lives today. I'll be the first to say that my knowledge of history isn't the strongest, but at least I've heard of all of the subjects he discusses in the songs. After hearing these songs, I must say that my interest in learning more about some of the subject matters he delves into is heightened a bit. Mostly the Gettysburg stuff. The version of the album I bought is comprised of two CDs – the first contains 11 songs on varying topics, the second holds the Gettysburg trilogy. On to the song reviews!

Star Spangled Banner – Everybody's heard the song before. If you haven't, you're not an American, and/or you're living under a rock. This is a pretty straightforward rendition of our Anthem, with a Metal twist. They didn't go all nuts and solo all over the song, which I definitely appreciate. They stick to the song, but add some nice harmonies and fill in the background with some big open power chords. Simple and powerful.

Declaration Day – This song segues in from the end of the Star Spangled Banner with a galloping double bass line, and after a few measures the Ripper lets rip for our first taste of the new Iced Earth. The song is rooted around the Declaration of Independence, and lyrically is a pretty powerful interpretation of the views of the time. Musically it's pretty strong… the drums are pounding throughout in typical Iced Earth fashion with a constant driving beat, and there's a cool harmony going throughout the bridges and choruses. The solo is pretty sweet, and rides over a a solid double-bass run. Good Jam.

When The Eagle Cries – This is a pretty big departure from the normal Iced Earth sound, but I don't care. The song is powerful and struck home as soon as I heard it. It's about the 9/11 disaster, and for anybody who watched those buildings burn and then collapse on TV or in person, it'll bring back the memories. Schaffer's patriotism is obvious in this song. The verses are very quiet and subdued, speaking of redemption and national pride laid over a solitary acoustic guitar. The choruses absolutely explode with sound – the drums kick in, bass and guitars explode, and a multitude of voices unleash for the chorus. The sound is huge. It gave me goosebumps the first time I heard it.

The Reckoning (Don't Tread On Me) – In my interpretation, this is a continuation of the theme begun by When The Eagle Cries, only but this focuses on the aftermath where the men of evil get what's coming to them – a good swift ass kicking in the name of Freedom and Justice. This song is an ass kicker too… The rhythm is absolutely crushing. Schaffer unleashes his typical triplet explosion and everyone else in the band follows suit. The chorus has kind of an offbeat feel, and throughout the song Owens gives everyone a demonstration of how high he can take his voice and stay in control. The bridge has a hella-fast double-bass/guitar run that is also hella-cool. In the middle of the song there is a slow part that adds some tension to the song, and after that they bust back into the ass kicking.

Greenface – This song doesn't seem to have a direct tie-in to historical events like most of the others, not that I can see anyways. It seems dedicated to the armed forces in general, more specifically the ground troops that kick ass in the name of Freedom. The song kicks a lot of ass too. The drum work on this song is killer. Hats off to Richard Christy for this one – the double bass is especially awesome. The rest song is quite killer too. The rhythm is heavy as hell, and the solo is pretty rad too. There's one lick that they play to tie together the verses that I just sounds friggin sweet. It seems quite simple, like a fast trip up and back down a scale, but it sounds really cool, to my ears at least. It's kind of a short tune, and it doesn't ever slow down. This is probably my favorite song off of the first disc right now.

Attila – This song describes conflict between the barbarians and the Romans waaay back in the day, and more specifially, Attila the Hun, leader of the barbarians. I don't claim to have a clue on what happened back then, so I'll just talk music… 🙂 The song opens up with a melodic section with some cool guitar harmonies and choral vocals with a chant kind of vibe, then the song busts into a typical Iced Earth triplet-rhythm fest. The choruses have sweet double-bass run with a broken and deliberate lead line on the guitar. After the first chorus, there's a vocal standoff between the barbarians and Romans that is pretty neat. Owens uses a growling voice for the barbarians, and a very choral sound for the romans, similar to the vocals found at the beginning of the song. Very neat. Throughout that first chorus and through the vocal standoff, and continuing through a cool little instrumental section after the standoff, Christy is going around Mach 2 on the double-bass. Insane. The song finishes with another iteration of verse/chorus. Sweet Jam.

Red Baron / Blue Max – This tune is about (duh) the Red Baron, the pilot that decimated the British in the air in World War I. The rhythm in this song is really cool with a definite Iron Maiden feel. It has a pattern in the low registers and another that mirrors it in the higher registers. Very cool sound. There's an extended part in the middle where the two guitars harmonize over a very stacatto rhythm, and it's very Iron Maiden-esque. Another insane double bass run follows the harmonies, and then the solo kicks in. The other new member of Iced Earth, guitarist Ralph Santolla, rips here. His solos throughout the album are sweet, but this one is memorable, but a bit brief. This song rocks, but at times Owens does the “holy crap someone just grabbed my BALLS!!!” vocals where he just goes from a normal vocal range all the way up to his upper limit in a short time. That sound gets a little old, but other than that, the song is sweet.

Hollow Man – In my opinion, this is the weakest song on the album. Unlike all of the other songs, there's just nothing that grabs me and makes me want to listen. Just seems kinda tired and average. Oh well, you win some, you lose some, right?

Valley Forge – This song seems to be about Jon Schaffer's disgust with the way our society has lost sight of who we are and more to the point, where we came from. He paints a portrait of a soldier at Valley Forge, broken and bloodied, but still willing to do anything for the cause he believes in. A pretty idealized vision, but a just one nonetheless. The music for the song has a cool feel – Schaffer uses an acoustic guitar while describing the soldier and his situation, and then brings in the metal when referring to the modern age. The music in both of these flavors is pretty straightforward, but the solos are what really shines. There are two solos, one long and one short. Santolla totally shreds here. It took me a few listens to catch how sweet they are, but now they're what I wait for when I listen to the song.

Waterloo – This song describes the battle at Waterloo where Napoleon suffered defeat at the hands of the British, Russians, Prussians, and Austrians (or so the song says… again, I'm clueless). The song gives an account of the battle in linear fashion, describing the various advances and strategies that were used in that battle. Very cool. The music is quite sweet too… the main rhythm is an offbeat triplet fest with an omnipresent guitar melody that makes it way through both verse and chorus and only ceases for a short time during the bridge. Very cool tune.

When The Eagle Cries (Bonus Unplugged Version) – This version of When The Eagle Cries was on “The Reckoning” single that Iced Earth released a few weeks back. It's a totally acoustic version of its namesake, and I was quite thrown off when I heard it the first time when I bought the single. It quickly grew on me though. It's not terribly different from the plugged-in version of the song, except that this is the probably the last time you'll hear Matt Barlow's voice distinctly in an Iced Earth song. He lends his characteristic bellow to the background vocals during the chorus, and it sounds perfect there. I was actually a little disappointed when I heard the plugged-in version because he's not featured there as far as I can tell. His voice was too perfect for the part, and he wasn't there. Oh well, I'm not in Iced Earth, so I guess I don't have any input.

I'm going to take a break from describing the songs to lay down a bit of background. The Gettysburg trilogy is a 32 minute opus about the three days of the battle of Gettysburg. It's a pretty epic score, and it's probably the most anticipated part of the album for me. I've known for a while that Jon Schaffer is a very passionate songwriter and will accept nothing short of his vision. So when I heard that he was putting together a 30 minute opus with complete orchestral accmompanyment, I was instantly excited. Well, the songs don't disappoint. They're very similar to Waterloo in the fact that they give a narration describing the events of the battle, but there is also a very human element to the lyrics as well. I'm going to try to do these songs justice in my descriptions, but I will fail. I simply don't have the words to describe them. The only way to appreciate them fully is to pop the CD into a good stereo and then sit back and listen. Schaffer includes his comments on the songs intermingled with the lyrics in the CD book, and it's very cool to read along while listening to the songs. It paints a very cool picture. I'll be pulling a lot of my description from Schaffer's comments, because again, I'm not the expert here.

Gettysburg – I. The Devil to Pay – This song opens up with another rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, only with instruments more native to the time – flute, snare drum, bagpipes, and a banjo. Once that has completed, the narration begins over an acoustic guitar with a flute (?) lending a melody. Owens describes the scene that will take place over those three days, and then the music changes and the events of the first day come to focus. The first thing I noticed is the very deliberate pace to the song. There are no double-bass or triplet-rhythm heroics here – very straightforward and constant, much like an army marching. The orchestra is prevalent as soon as this music change takes place. There's a brief lead section with the guitar, but then Iced Earth falls into the rhythm role while the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra steps in front and center. The choruses in this section have a very big, full sound that gave me goosebumps when I first heard it. This section describes Confederates initial attack upon the town, the Union's valiant defense under heavy fire, and the demise Union General John Reynolds. The music stops briefly and is replaced by a rolling snare drum, and a solitary guitar playing a version of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” This is Schaffer's tribute to Reynolds. The solitary guitar turns into two harmonized guitars after a few iterations through the melody, and after another couple iterations, the orchestra makes its presence felt yet again. This is a very powerful point in the song for me. More goosebumps here. The melee returns with a cannon blast and a more focused rhythm line and an extended orchestration portraying the continuing battle between the Union and Confederate armies. The narration returns with the same musical feel as in the first half of the song, and it describes the overwhelming of the Union army and their eventual retreat from the town. The chorus then plays again, and both the song and day one of the battle close out.

Gettysburg – II. Hold At All Costs – This song opens up with a passage showing the human aspects of the conflict – two friends on opposite sides of the battle, and their struggle to retain both their loyalty to themselves and their nations. The rest of this song describes a single portion of the second day's conflicts – the 20th Maine's defense of the Confederate attack at Little Round Top. The music underlying the narration is just Iced Earth and is again very straightforward and direct, although Schaffer does add some of his trademark triplet-riffing to the mix. Because of this, it's probably the most 'Metal' out of the three, but by no means the most powerful or intense. The choruses again have a very large sound, as though an entire army is singing along with Owens. The orchestra returns after the first chorus for an extended instrumental section, but then falls away when the narration returns and Schaffer begins riffing again. This portion outlines Col. Chamberlain's bold strategy to charge the Confederate army after they've run out of ammunition and defeat is near. Both desperation and determination are portrayed in this section quite well. The chorus plays again, and the song ends with the sounds a large cannon volley. This sounds very cool on a nice stereo.

Gettysburg – III. High Water Mark – The cannon volley at the end of Hold At All Costs is translated into an army of tom Drums at the beginning of the song while both Iced Earth and the orchestra lay down an ominous track that serves to foreshadow the events of the third day of battle. The music then stops and is replaced by a conversation between General Lee and his second in command, General James Longstreet. Lee describes his plan to charge the Union line at its center, while Longstreet shows his opposition for the plan. The music then resumes with a very cool harmonization between a solitary guitar and the string section of the orchestra, which builds into a very moving piece of music, which sets a very appropriate mood for the descrption of Pickett's Charge. The pace of the drums quickens over time, much as the pace of charging armies quickens as they get closer and closer to clashing in battle. It's very easy for me to imagine soldiers charging across the open plain, with musket blasts and cannonfire erupting all around them. Very moving piece of music. The pace and feel of the music change many times over the next few minutes corresponding to the events of the battle. The music again becomes more deliberate and focused, corresponding to the final Confederate charge and eventual defeat. Following the defeat, the msuic and lyrics depict a remorseful General Lee after he realizes the folly of his plan and the massacre that ensued. The music after this section is very powerful, and, in my eyes, serves to accentuate the grave struggles and sacrifices so many men made for the causes they believed in.

Holy crap. I've been typing for like three hours now. Not many things can make me stay focused like this, but Mr. Schaffer and the guys in Iced Earth have given me one of those things. The highlight of the album for me was defintely the Gettysburg trilogy, but the rest of the songs save Hollow Man are all excellent as well. I would have paid my $20 for either of the discs in the the package, but getting them both is a treat. This album is definitely their most ambitious venture musically, and they nailed it. Nothing short of spectacular. I was leary of how I would like Tim Owens as the voice of Iced Earth, but I'm nothing but pleased. He fits in perfectly. I'm very exicted for the future of Iced Earth. I'm sure that we'll hear many more great things out of these guys in the coming years. Hats off to you guys! Grade: a whole-hearted A+.

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