The Dark Saga (Century Media)
by Scott Hefflon
Tampa Florida’s power metalheads Iced Earth return with a strong melodic metal release, The Dark Saga, and a concept album at that. Based entirely on the comic book Spawn, with cover artwork by series creator Todd McFarlane, and “Depths of Hell” lyrics penned by Al Simmons, the real-life person upon whom the lead character is based, The Dark Saga is a rather thorough concept album. However, Iced Earth is not, as the label claims, the first band to realize such a gimmick. Metal and comic books are a rather obvious pairing: both are larger than life entertainment, use tougher-than-thou clichÚs, and are usually accompanied by garish, often gaudy, color illustrations. Multitudes of bands, especially metal, have used famous artists for their covers and have culled their writing inspiration from comics and movies, in metal’s case, horror movies. So the statement “It’s the first time that any top-selling comic series has lent their artwork for use in retail stores” is flat out wrong. Ever heard of Entombed’s Wolverine Blues? I somehow think X-Men are considered a top-selling comic no matter what rating system you use. To milk the comparison, the unholy agreement behind Wolverine Blues involved such small-timers as Marvel Comics, Columbia Records (a division of Sony Music), Earache Records, artists Nicke A. and Alx H., producer Tomas Skogsberg, and, of course, Entombed. That CD was also carried in comic shops as well as record stores, and the stench of the hype generated by the Sony superpower lingered for months. (The next time you have your pick of special abilities/strengths, having mega-conglomerate resources at your disposal beats out lightening bolts from your eyes by a long shot.) Wolverine Blues has a nine-page comic and lyrics lettered by one of the artists. The Dark Saga is said to have a CD booklet that folds out into a poster, and the vinyl is said to have double-gatefold illustration(s). I wouldn’t know. I have only this promo wallet piece of shit with no lyrics, a skimpy bio, no production credits, and a couple pages of rather unhelpful information – the typical gushing label praise, and false claims about the exclusivity of a mundane gimmick. My apologies for the petty bickering over details, but giving proper credit where it’s due, and re-phrasing claims that conveniently neglect another’s efforts, are rather important elements in forming an educated opinion with any sense of perspective.
With all that said, Iced Earth’s actual music is, as always, tight, complex, and well-crafted. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “melodic speedmetal,” especially in the case of The Dark Saga, I would use the phrase melodic powermetal without hesitation. The twin guitar attack contains elements of the down-and-dirty powerchug, the dramatic long embraces of powerchords, the harmonious lead interplay in both solos and melodic riffs during the chorus, as well as the dreamily fluid acoustic tinkerings shown most beautifully in the closing track “A Question of Heaven.” (Petty, coincidental note: Wolverine Blues ends with a song called “Heavens Die.”) Vocally, Matthew Barlow struts his stuff in a wide variety of wolf’s clothing. While most of the material takes a tough, or tough-turned-momentarily-sensitive, approach, there are manly sensuous whispers, ominous breathy transitions, and a penchant for inflecting words similar to Geoff Tate without being such a damn fashion victim. Other songs contain almost Paul Stalney-esque yelps, and the closing track has some of the better falsetto screams I’ve heard without laughing my ass off. Monkish choruses, choirs of angels, and gutsy snarls probably allow such dated, pansified shenanigans to exist in small quantities and within certain contexts so as not to cause uncontrollable giggling. Being able to pull off such a stunt is extremely admirable to my eyes. While powermetal is not the most stylish music at the moment, Iced Earth not only remain true to their roots, they continue to push aspects of the genre, tip their hat to their predecessors, and create strong, powerful music.