Released: 2008, Steamhammer/SPV
Over the last several years, the metal community has been offered the return of several classic vocalists to the bands that they helped make important. However, the results have been rather mixed. When Rob Halford rejoined Priest, fans were offered the substandard and uneven ANGEL OF RETRIBUTION. When Bruce returned to Maiden, though, the fans were rewarded with an instant classic, BRAVE NEW WORLD. For many metal heads, the return of Matt Barlow to Iced Earth is of similar importance. The question that remained for all, though, is whether or not the anticipation would be worth the wait. Finally, the verdict is in, and the outcome of this prodigal vocalist’s return falls somewhere between the aforementioned albums with just a bit of a lean towards the success of Bruce’s return to Maiden.
Like its predecessor, FRAMING ARMAGEDDON, THE CRUCIBLE OF MAN has an epic scope and the songs are strung together to reflect the conceptual needs of the story. There are some absolutely smoldering and killer cuts on this album, though. “Behold the Wicked Child” blasts the album off with sheer intensity calling to mind the kick ass start to HORROR SHOW, “Wolf.” “Divide and Devour” is incredibly visceral in its blistering approach, reminding listeners of songs like THE DARK SAGA’s “Violate” or SOMETHING WICKED’s “Disciples of the Lie” with a bit of Blind Guardian influence creeping through. For fans who remember the soaking emotion of “A Question of Heaven” the album ends with its masterpiece, “Come What May,” an epic song with a classic Iced Earth chorus. The softer side is also shown with the ballad, “A Gift or Curse,” which employs some beautiful guitar interplay in the verses before shifting gears to the heavier side of things as the song progresses. Perhaps the most Barlow-era Iced Earth sounding song, though, is “I Walk Alone,” easily sounding like it could have been on any of the last three albums he sang on.
The main shortcoming of the album lies, however, in its adherence to the concept and the needs that such a concept places on the journey. The SOMETHING WICKED idea is getting tiring and this type of composition is not suited to what Iced Earth does best. With Barlow, Iced Earth succeeded when they were writing straight ahead songs with big choruses like the stuff on THE DARK SAGA and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. The reason that THE DARK SAGA, also a concept album, worked is because it was mainly a collection of individual songs that shared a lyrical connection. By the time you get to the end of THE CRUCIBLE OF MAN, though, you forget several of the songs because they share a mid tempo pace that fails to differentiate them from each other as they simply advance the story but do not have legs of their own outside the concept.
At this time, though, we need to take a minute to thank Pyramaze, for dragging Matt Barlow back into the world of metal and getting the ball rolling on this reunion between him and Jon Schaffer. Since most, or all, of this music was written before Matt was back in the band, here’s to hoping that this partnership will endure this time around and result in future albums that are not burdened by concepts that detract from the magic that happens when Jon writes straight up metal tunes that compliment Barlow’s Paul Stanley-sweet vocal delivery. In the meantime, enjoy THE CRUCIBLE OF MAN as it is an enjoyable ride as whole with several high points to bring you back for repeated listens.