To say the history of American power metal band Iced Earth has been a tumultuous one would be an understatement of immeasurable proportions. With countless revolving musicians and several vocalists including once Judas Priest front man Tim Owens, and the fan-favorite “voice of Iced Earth” Matt Barlow, the only constant is band founder and leader Jon Schaffer. As a result of the ever-shifting lineup, the band’s sound is constantly evolving and reinventing itself with mixed results. With the recent second departure of Matt Barlow and the hiring of Into Eternity vocalist Stu Block, the band has undergone yet another dramatic musical shift with the creation of their latest full-length album Dystopia. Anyone doubters must simply give the new album one listen, as it is without a doubt the best release in well over a decade, bursting with vitality and musical inspiration. Simply put: it kills.

Beginning with the album’s title track, a quick return to the Something Wicked saga, we can hear immediately that this is going to be a different brand of Iced Earth. The song opens with a sustained growl from Stu and fast paced, melodic lead guitar. The growl is a one off, and the listeners are treated to a very different Stu than those used to his voice in Into Eternity. He sounds a lot like a fusion of the positive aspects of Barlow and Owens, with a massive range and a distinctive sound that is all his own. When singing at either extreme he sounds like his predecessors, sounding more “himself” when singing in the mid range.  The highlight of this first song is most certainly the gorgeously crafted chorus,. Lyrically this is some dark stuff, with humans living in tightly controlled city-states, subjected to mind control via microchips and vaccines. The atmosphere of this album is where it truly shines. The follow-up “Anthem” is, well, an anthem about the power of humankind’s ability to prevail in the worst of circumstances. This is a fist pumping, powerfully written, soon to be live classic. I know I’ll be pissed if it doesn’t make it onto the set list. Stu sounds phenomenal on this song. “Days of Rage” brings the heaviness up to full throttle, a short and blistering showcase of vintage Iced Earth. Stu really lets his range show in this one, with some soaring air raid style segments followed immediately by extended passages in the lower registers. Simply gorgeous.

“Anguish of Youth” is another heavy ballad of sorts about a young woman struggling with what appears to be depression or a terrible event from childhood. This track really showcases the band’s improved songwriting from the last few releases, and it is really imbued with a powerful sense of emotion compliments of both the gorgeous clean guitar work and Stu’s emotive vocals. If any long term Iced Earth fan’s think they may be seeing a familiar pattern, they would be correct. The album is structured a lot like 1999’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, with a mixture of ballads and heavy tracks that segue flawlessly into one another.  “V” is the first of several tracks based on Dystopian films, in this case V For Vendetta. While still a solid song, this is probably my least favorite track on the release. There are definitely some cool aspects like the gorgeous guitar solo smack in the center of the album, and the triumphant feel, yet overall it feels a little lacking given how much I dug the flick. “Dark City” is an absolute blast, with an eerie guitar intro punctuated by the best vocals on on the release. Stu is just all over the place, with pseudo growl shrieks, weird ascending vocal melodies and stunningly fantastic delivery. The music is highly charged, energetic, and moody. The band never sounds so tight as they do on this incredibly crafted song.

If there is a track that nearly reaches the lofty heights set by the previous song, it is “Equilibrium.” Based on the relatively obscure sci-fi flick where humans are robbed of emotion for the sake of the destruction of war, and a small group who rebel against this self-induced lobotomized human state, it, like “Dark City,” is all  about atmosphere. There is a sense of great despair and it bleeds into every word and song, particularly the well-written chorus. As has become a pattern on this release, Stu is again the star of the show. “End of Innocence” is a bit of a departure from the lyrical theme of the album, and is a tribute to Stu’s mother who is battling terminal breast cancer. This is a truly beautiful heavy ballad, and one listen is all it takes to hear the sincerity and how close a subject it is to Stu. A definite highlight. “Days of Rage” is another brief, crushingly heavy, fast paced, balls to the wall heavy metal monster that Stu is allowed to tear it up as he sees fit. This is a skull-crushing pit inducing live track if I’ve ever heard one.

“Soylent Green” follows, and as a massive fan of the seventies film, I find it difficult to be objective about this one. The song is overall a bit lower in quality than many of the songs that precede it, but has a creepy lead guitar riff and some fan-boy pleasing lyrics that have had me out it on repeat on many occasions. “Iron Will” is another motivational song about the power of humanity to accomplish whatever it wants to. Both the rhythm and lead guitars blend to create some truly inspiring musical melodies, and combined with the positive attitude of the lyrics, this is another favorite of mine. The closer “Tragedy and Triumph” returns us to the Something Wicked Saga where humanity has had enough, and have decided to use their anger and strength to rise up against their oppressors and gain emancipation. Upon my first few listens this seemed like a strange way to close the album due to its tonal difference. However, after a few spins it clicked. This is a hell of a song, just with a very different vibe. Instead of darkness, there is light, instead of despair, there is hope. After such a brooding sequence of songs it was a little jarring, yet after settling it is totally natural. This is a killer close to a killer album.

Production wise, this is pretty standard stuff for Iced Earth, and if I were to compare it to previous releases it would be The Glorious Burden. Most aspects are mixed beautifully, although I could have used a bit more crack in the drums and a little bit more volume on the bass. Despite these issues, this is a fantastic sounding record. When all is said and done, this is the album I have been waiting for since the original departure of Barlow. The albums that came after had their charms, yet the group seemed to be in a long-term funk, not quite knowing where they wanted to go. Dystopia is exactly where they need to be. To take the words straight from the closing track, Iced Earth is back, and they are triumphant and eternal.