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Culling the Herd

Culling the Herd: Iced Earth – Framing Armageddon & The Crucible of Man

When I started considering double albums for this series, one of the rules I gave myself was to avoid concept albums. After all, there is a difference between a band stretching the limits of their self-indulgence and a band releasing a two disc storyline where every song is meant to be part of a greater narrative. The Wall may technically have a couple fillers but there’s no way in hell you can listen to “Young Lust” without the doldrums of “Empty Spaces” preceding it.

I already broke this rule when I analyzed Judas Priest’s Nostradamus but the Something Wicked duo by Iced Earth is another concept that could stand to go under the knife. 2007’s Framing Armageddon and 2008’s The Crucible of Man aren’t bad albums but they’re definitely messy efforts. As if the idea of extending the famous trilogy off 1998’s Something Wicked This Way Comes wasn’t unnecessary enough, the execution is incredibly awkward as the two albums don’t even have the same singer on them; Tim “Ripper” Owens sang on Part 1 while classic vocalist Matt Barlow briefly returned to helm Part 2. In addition, both albums are full of songs and interludes that contribute nothing to the narrative beyond mid-tempo triplets and redundant lyrics rephrasing the same themes of human enslavement.

While these two albums are near impossible to make as good as Night of the Stormrider or even Dystopia, there should be a way to at least make the Something Wicked saga digestible as a single album. There are a bunch of songs that deserve a classic status, even if I can’t tell whether Ripper or Barlow should be the one singing on all of them. I’ll leave that decision up to the reader. Even though I’m a much bigger fan of Matt Barlow, I must admit that with a few exceptions, these songs sound the most natural with Ripper fronting them.

1. Setian Massacre
So many concept albums start with an overture or an interlude but I find it better for this concept to just go for the throat straight from the get go. After all, the Setian Massacre as depicted in the song sure sounded like it came out of nowhere. At any rate, this song makes for a pretty great opener thanks to the aggressive riffs, soaring chorus, and vicious vocals that manage to avoid sounding too abrasive.

2. Reflections
The Something Wicked albums had way too many interludes on them, especially Framing Armageddon, but keeping a couple of them does help with pacing. While “Reflections” serves as a short breather between the crushing anthems to let the weight of everything sink in. It also helps that this interlude reminds me of the two short acoustic tracks that popped up on Night of the Stormrider.

3. Ten Thousand Strong
“Ten Thousand Strong” seems to be the most enduring track from these albums, and it’s pretty clear as to why. Ripper’s bookending shrieks give way to some of Jon Schaffer’s most triumphant sounding gallops, as well as one of the catchiest choruses to ever appear on an Iced Earth album. In addition, the lyrical theme of determination and overcoming adversity with a sci-fi backdrop are textbook power metal in the best way possible.

4. The Clouding
If “Ten Thousand Strong” is the most famous track here, then “The Clouding” is easily the best written. The meat of this nine minute song is one of the most emotional Iced Earth ballads ever, surpassed only by “A Question of Heaven” and “Ghost of Freedom,” that transitions to an effectively aggressive climax. While the Ripper has never been known as an emotional singer, this song is easily the best performance of his career as he perfectly portrays the melancholic confusion of the human condition as well as the Setians’ wicked gloating once the story shifts perspectives. Even if you hate everything to do with these albums, this song is mandatory listening.

5. The Domino Decree
Not much really happens in Framing Armageddon once you get past “The Clouding.” Songs like “Retribution through the Ages” feel pretty half-baked, as the music only stands out for eccentric vocal patterns and lyrics just echo the Setians’ manipulation of human history without ever going into specifics. “The Domino Decree” is of a similar nature, but I give it more points for creativity. Its structure does have an awesome buildup and the organ solo is really cool. If only they all could’ve been this interesting…

6. Framing Armageddon
The lyrics may still be more of the same but Framing Armaggedon’s title track is definitely one of the most powerful songs on either disc. Much of that power can be attributed to the vocals as the verses put in rapid fire layers while the choruses opt for drawn out wails that build up to hair raising screams at the song’s climax. It’d make for an awesome album closer, but it works as well in closing out the first half of this concept.

7. In Sacred Flames
It’s a little sad that this two minute instrumental prelude turned out to be the most awesome sounding thing on The Crucible of Man. Thankfully it serves its purpose well thanks to distinct choral lines flowing well with the building guitar and heavy atmosphere. The composition has a very film score-type feel and I get the feeling that Schaffer wrote this as a heavy metal answer to The Omen’s theme. I’d say he succeeded.

8. Behold the Wicked Child
Fortunately, the buildup from “In Sacred Flames” explodes into a strong power metal number. It isn’t quite at the anthem level of “Ten Thousand Strong,” but it does feature a rushing rhythm and vocal acrobatics alongside a comparably slowed down but still catchy chorus. Add in the choir’s periodic intrusions and you’ve got the concept’s second half keeping the energy alive. I imagine this sounding even better in Ripper’s hands, but Barlow does a pretty good job with it too.

9. Minions of the Watch
“Minions of the Watch” and “The Revealing” are an odd combination of tracks, neither one quite long enough to feel like standalone songs but too developed to be mere interlude filler. I do give “Minions of the Watch” props for its climbing mid-tempo riff accompanied by rather orthodox vocal phrasing. The two minute length also keeps the track from overstaying its welcome.

10. The Revealing
“The Revealing” works a little better as a standalone track compared to its predecessor thanks to its fast-paced riffs and commanding vocal line. I always feel like it should be a bit longer but it works well enough in this format as well. Think of this as a condensed version of “The Clouding” that got split up into two tracks for some reason.

11. A Gift or a Curse?
Another power ballad, “A Gift or a Curse?” isn’t on the same epic scale as “The Clouding,” but it’s a lot less formulaic than Iced Earth’s other ballads. The subtle tribal percussion in combination with the layered vocals courtesy of Schaffer and Barlow really gives this song an otherworldly vibe. The building structure also works well with the narrative, gaining more momentum as Set Abominae, the narrative’s protagonist as well as the band’s undead pharaoh mascot, realizes his power and destiny.

12. Come What May
Unfortunately, there’s really not much to say about The Crucible of Man once “A Gift or a Curse?” finishes up. As with the second half of Framing Armageddon, most of the songs consist of interchangeable mid-tempo drags with eccentric vocal lines while the lyrics are the same old boasts about humanity being led to destruction without specifically stating how it is happening. The album’s story even ends on an anticlimax as Set Abominae ultimately decides to leave humanity alone to decide its own destiny. Not the best decision by a figure who proudly declares himself the Antichrist and personally kills Jesus…

With this in mind, the closing epic song “Come What May” can leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth but it is still a solid song. The verses build over drawn out vocals, an uplifting yet somehow melancholic chorus, and an exotic instrumental break. It isn’t quite a grand closer, but it works in the given context.

Overall, the Something Wicked albums don’t quite live up to the potential of the ideas behind them, yet there’s not really much that calls for outright revulsion either. Considering how well Iced Earth made themed albums like The Dark Saga and Horror Show work in the past, it is a shame to see them stagnating in a two-album format. Hopefully this compilation will give listeners the chance to see the good that these albums had to offer amidst their filler and I’ll be curious to see what tracks people favor.

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