Sunday, March 3, 2013

Iced Earth - The Dark Saga (1996)

As you may know, I live in New Zealand. And New Zealand is pretty far from anywhere else, and our musical diversity/availability is not great. Nowadays the internet has basically superceded the need for music stores at all - with a combination of Amazon and Itunes putting many of them out of business or at least making them struggle for profits. Even before then, if you wanted the more obscure acts (which includes most European heavy metal) you had to either go to specialist stores or order them in specially. Becoming a true metal head became a dedicated feat. Since you could not discover new bands via the touch of a button, I instead resorted to good, old fashioned penfriends. At one point I had around six penfriends - there was Mikael in Sweden; Nathan in Wisconsin; Carl in Florida and Jeffrey in Washington state; also Howell in Utah and Tim in Auckland, NZ. Jeffrey is the only one I still have contact with - he now owns a fish store in Seattle and we have met up on two occasions - one being when he came to New Zealand, bringing with him a suitcase full of cds for me to listen to and the second being when, some ten years later, I finally made it to Seattle.

Anyhow, through these penfriends (except Howell, who was in prison and made beautiful art) I traded mix tapes and was given a few originals - Carl gave me all his Iron Maiden cassettes when he acquired them on CD. And Nathan, I think it was, gave me a handful of samplers he had received whilst working on a fanzine. This was one of these samplers. As such, I just have a cardboard sleeve and information that it still technically belongs to Century Media. I don't think they'll be wanting it back anytime soon. Besides, Nate may have reviewed it, but now I finally shall.

Iced Earth hail from Tampa, Florida, which seems to be home to many pretty heavy acts. At the time this was released, the vocalist was Matt Barlow. After the September 11 attacks, Matt decided that he wanted to do something more meaningful with his life, and eventually became a police officer, also joining the First State Force Band (composed of law enforcement people) which performed to schools and gave kids a positive message. His brother-in-law, Jon Schaeffer, is the guitarist of this band, and also performs in Demons and Wizards with Hansi Kusch of Blind Guardian. I am not sure who is the demon and who is the wizard!

This album is based on the comic book Spawn. It is described as more simplified and melodic than their previous stuff so lets see if that's true - not that I have any previous stuff to compare it with, although I'm pretty sure I've heard the song "Burnt Offerings" at least. Just not sure where it is! The cover is very comic-book esque - a ghoulish, skeletal figure, wrapped with chains and with tattered wings - or maybe a cloak. Fire rages in the background, yellow and orange against the purple background.

It opens with the title track "The Dark Saga" - haunting guitar beating ominously, whilst vocals loom over it. This is not an introduction, but more a summary track, as the narrator - Al Simmons - mourns how everything, all his deeds, have more-or-less backfired and ended it tragedy. After his death on the battlefield (due to a betrayal), he makes a deal with the devil to see his wife one last time. However, things do not work according to plan... He is sent back, certainly, but as a decomposing corpse, with a living cloak.
Barlow has a fine voice - with some nice, deep, low and strong, switching within a few lines to a higher, somewhat menacing snarl.

 From some website somewhere:
Barlow is most known for his dark, verismo tone and powerful highs. A high baritone, he is often confused for a much lower voice type due to his hefty dramatic timbre and gravelly delivery.
I'm jolly well going to teach myself about octave ranges!

"I Died for You" is another haunting number, in which the narrator grieves the life he has left behind and how his wife, his love, has moved on without him (it has been several years). Barlow's low vocals are quite chilling, and powerful, enough to make hairs rise on the back of your neck, even as he screams over himself.

I saw the movie shortly after hearing this album, and I wish it had been the soundtrack - that would have kicked arse. I cannot even really remember the movie, but it was over ten years ago. And according to my husband, not very good. I believe I thought "Iced Earth did it better".

A rather more aggressive number, "Violate" has the pounding drums and racing guitars, whilst over them Barlow howls forth the anger and wrath of the terrible clown, the Violator:
I'll beat you with your spinal cord, split your skull in two. I'll feast on your intestines, there's nothing I can't do. I'll rip your heart out of your chest, watch it beat as you cry. I revel in your agony. I violate and make you die!

The menacing "The Hunter" follows it up; slow and ominous it begins, the instruments swelling and surging into a stampede. From what I can gather, the Hunter is an angel sent after Spawn.

"The Last Laugh" is another brutal track, with slamming verses and raging drums.

Slower but no less brutal and dramatic, "Depths of Hell" allows Barlow's highly diverse vocal talents to take hold once more - with the low baritone intertwining with the menacing screams and raw edged howls. His despair is easily apparent in the tension and frustration of the music.

 With its ominous and brooding opening rifts, "Vengence is Mine" threatens just that. Raw, wild aggression. Short and savage, it is followed by the even more brooding "The Suffering Scarred". Slower, steady with haunting echoes of guitar floating like a savage caress above the beat. Barlow's voice is low and rich, filled with power - like Geoff Tate in his finer moments,

Heavy on the angst and self-accusation, "Slave to the Dark" is heavy with tortured vocals and dark instruments. It merges into the haunting and beautiful, sorrow-filled "A Question of Heaven".

This is a fine album, heavy and slow, filled with brooding and a healthy dose of self-loathing. The lyrics are haunting and there are some beautiful melodies. The atmosphere is tense, but resigned and slightly lost.

I rank it 9/10.

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