As a huge supporter, it sort of pains me to review this release in the Iced Earth catalogue. For some people, myself included, the return of long-time (and for many, only) singer Matt Barlow after the two previous albums with Tim "Ripper" Owens was merit enough on its own to warrant giving advance praise to this album. However, even Barlow's talented pipes alone are not enough to have an entire musical experience ride on. After all, Iced Earth is, and always has been, Jon Schaffer's vehicle for creativity. That being said, we have to remember that this is still the second piece (the companion to part one's Framing Armageddon) to the Something Wicked storyline, and that the songs are weaving a tale, the music itself being perhaps secondary to that.
Let's start with the positives. Firstly, to answer the burning question: yes, Barlow's vocals sound as good as ever, if a bit processed. During the melodic passages, his voice soars like it always has, and during the few aggressive passages, he is able to go back down in his register for powerful, bellowing shouts. The only complaint I have, something that is no fault of Barlow himself, is the trend that Schaffer has been employing since Ripper joined the band. All of the chorus sections seem to be overdubbed to make his voice sound huge. While they may have been necessary and arguably worked for Owens, Barlow's voice is one such that it is powerful enough to stand on its own, the massive, "epic" overdubbing only serving to detract away from that.
It is worth noting that I personally enjoyed the drums on this album. Brent Smedley's double-bass syncopation is one of the few qualities that really shined on The Crucible of Man. The way his kick patterns dexterously weave in and out of Schaffer's riffing is one of the few aspects that made the songs interesting.
Production-wise, the album is nearly flawless. The kicks are punchy and clear, the snare cracks and accents through the wall of guitar, and the rhythm guitar is crunchy and warm to a fault. However, this is a double-edged sword. The album is so perfect, it isn't interesting. It is the "blemishes" from an imperfect take that add character and variety to the sound of an album, something I feel The Crucible of Man (and its predecessor) is missing. By this I don't mean that the sound has obvious mistakes and is lacking in musicianship; more that certain aspects like mildly off-pitch vocals or slightly out-of-key guitars - the things that are stamped out in mastering - add a sort of personality to the recording. In a word: it sounds sterile.
The album suffers the most from songwriting. A lot of the songs start off with what would be a potentially catchy riff if fleshed out fully. The riffing is simplistic and un-varied, much of which, along with the lyrics and phrasing, feels like it's been done several times before. It also feels that Schaffer's famous, machine-like, picking hand has slowed down. None of the classic sixteenth-note triplet patterns can be heard anywhere in the album, even in a sections that could have easily accommodated them. The songs are by no means "bad," they're just boring with no one track distinguishing itself from the rest or coming close to the caliber of the band's back catalogue. On the plus side, the annoying "segue tracks" from the previous release are all but gone on this one with the exception of the intro and outro tracks.
Ultimately, this is an average-sounding offering from a historically non-average band. I feel that Schaffer was too intent on telling a story with these past two releases and let the music take a backseat to that vision. It's one thing to have a theme consistent throughout an album (like Horrow Show, for example), but only a few bands (Dream Theater, Queensryche, come to mind) can pull off one, let alone two, full-blown concept albums tastefully. It was well-done in the Something Wick This Way Comes album because it was relegated to a trilogy that actually contained killer songs. There just simply isn't enough material or familiarity of story for the typical listener to care about the plot more than the music itself. Sorry Jon, stick to writing balls-out riffs and leave the Set Abominae story for the comics that will inevitably be coming out.