Looking at their latest work as a decade-long Iced Earth fan - and, I must boast, I managed to get this a few days before the official release date - I guess the first aspect to discuss is the vocal change from the trilogy's original form. (That was where my IE saga began - I picked up "Something Wicked" because the cover art looked cool.) Of course Tim Owens is an impressive singer but I really can't give him much more praise than that, except to say he was with them in Dallas when I saw them live for the first time. He was awesome on stage, maybe even better than his studio work because he could be a little more raw. But without any doubt, the band showed me for the second time that the sheer physical power and range and emotional fury of Matthew Barlow's voice have no equal. It's the same with "Overture," for there are times when Owens just sounds like he's not into what he's doing.
As for the music, it's much darker (less melodic) than the 1998 version of the band's first original epic. The rhythm guitar is down-tuned, and several of the lead harmonies are played at lower pitches to make the sound more ominous. Here we have a slightly extended remake - the trilogy clocks in at a minute or two shorter than the original - but the 4-minute "Ten Thousand Strong" kicks off the new edition as a prelude to the "Set vs. humanity" story. I don't want to give away much detail about the revisited material, so I'll mainly give a teaser about the opener. It's no big departure from most of their songs: it starts with an aggressive riff and pounding drums, eases up a bit between verses and during the chorus, and there's no guitar solo but Owens overlaps the background vocals with fragments of the chorus to create some interesting harmonies.
The drum work is particularly worth mentioning because Brent Smedley returns to execute stunning, machine-precision bass drum synchronization with Jon Schaffer's jackhammer-speed guitar riffs, very reminiscent of Fear Factory. This is done throughout the trilogy, whereas Smedley kept it simple in '98 with a steady (even monotonous) double-bass pattern of eighth notes. If you didn't check the liner notes, you'd think Richard Christy was still around for such perfect, beastly timekeeping. Also, the sound quality is much improved so the drums come through loud and clear this time.
The last thing to note is the addition of some exotic vocal lines (male and female) that give the final track a Middle-Eastern feel, replacing the Gregorian chant-style chorus that concludes the initial trilogy. This alteration certainly goes with the Egyptian artwork on the cover (Set's ankh), as well as that in the "Something Wicked" booklet (animal hieroglyphics, obelisks, pyramids, the Sphinx and so on).
Reflecting on the band's most advanced songwriting, "Dante's Inferno" condensed the literary masterpiece into 16 breathtaking minutes, with astonishing tempo and mood changes to signify the passage through each circle of Hell, not to mention vivid visual cues of a 185-page work (by my copy). I don't know if anything else they ever write can be as cool as that. "The Suffering" did a terrific job of scaling down the Spawn comic book a year before the movie was released, although "A Question of Heaven" is by far my favorite of that grouping. Then, after "Wicked," there was "Gettysburg," which, as an American and a major history buff, leaves me in stunned silence every time.
So while I await the completion of the two-part work Schaffer's been talking about, after hearing this three or four times I can't say I've been blown away, but (except vocally) it's leaner, meaner, tighter and pretty damn good - definitely something all IE fans should have to chart the band's evolution over the last 10 years.