Well, after years and years of anticipation, we have the completion of the Something Wicked Saga. My feelings on Crucible of Man are more mixed than they were about Framing Armageddon. With Framing Armageddon, my only reservation was with Owens at the helm as vocalist, but I quickly got past that and loved the album, realizing that it was written with his vocal styling in mind. Framing hit hard musically and gripped me right away. Crucible isn't the same album at all. Whereas Framing felt like it was more about being a straightforward, high tempo metal album, Crucible slows the pace a tad and seems to focus more on telling the story. For me this comes as a mixed bag.
Let's get this out of the way first... I f***ing love Matt Barlow. Along with Chuck Billy from Testament, he is my favorite metal vocalist and I am so glad to hear him back on this album. I'm not sure how much of Crucible was written with Ripper in mind, but I can't see his vocals delivering the emotion or mood that Barlow brings to this half of the saga. Ripper's vocals were great for the up tempo Iced-Earth anthems like 10,000 Strong, but I believe Barlow was truly meant to helm this band and this saga. And Barlow hasn't lost his touch either; he still has all of the great range, from low singing to high tempo growling. He sounds better now than ever.
With that said, and speaking of 10,000 Strong, how come there's really not a song like that on this album? Most of the songs here are mid tempo and while they're not bad at all, there's not as much here that has the punch in the gut like Setien Massacre and 10,000. There are a couple of high tempo tracks at the end; Sacrificial Kingdoms and Divide and Devour are fast and the former is especially a fast Iced Earth track like I remember, but still not quite as memorable as 10,000 from Framing or Attila from Glorious Burden. BUT... While Framing may have been a little more rocking, it felt like a bit of a disjointed experience. There was too much filler and a lot of that filler I tended to skip every time I listened to it. Crucible doesn't really have filler. Each song flows seamlessly to the next and I really have no desire to skip any tracks at all, even if some of them are a little repetitive. I came to realize as I listened to it; this is not your typical Iced Earth album. Every track has a purpose and are put in the only order that they can make sense.
As far as the story of the whole saga goes, it is well thought out and pretty interesting. The artwork to accompany the story in the album booklet is awesome. I mean really awesome. If Schaffer really does get around to making a graphic novel of Set, I look forward to reading it.
I'm not going to go over each individual track, as with this album it would be almost pointless, since it almost feels like 1 hour long track. But a few standouts are Minions of the Watch/The Revealing (I put those 2 together because the first time I heard them, I thought they were one song), Sacrificial Kingdoms (fast and awesome), Something Wicked pt 3, Divide and Devour (also fast and awesome, if this album were Dark Saga, this might be Violate), but there's not a bad song in the bunch. The album starts with some killer stuff, seems to taper a tad in the middle with some songs that sound too much like each other, and then really picks up at the end. The instrumental intro and outro and interludes throughout the songs are haunting as well. Overall, it's a pretty consistent listening experience.
In conclusion, I like this album. It's not as kick me in the face amazing as I would have hoped it to be, but it provides a nice contrast to Framing Armageddon, a lighter tempo yet darker album than it's predecessor. Schaffer once again proves his worth as a song writer and guitarist as well. Some people have complained that the two albums having different vocalists makes it inconsistent, but I disagree. I actually think it's cool to have two albums, each with their own singer and their own flavor tell one solid story. Ripper deserves some credit, and I would actually be just fine not hearing Framing rerecorded with Barlow at the helm.
I eagerly await to see what we get next when Shaffer and Barlow are truly working together as a team again. Long live Iced Earth!