ICED EARTH – Revitalize with Dystopia
Jon Schaffer has been a man with a strong vision for Iced Earth. Surviving the 90’s era where power metal truly was an underground phenomenon in North America, he set his sights on touring abroad and slowly building up a fervent following for the band. The 2000’s would see Iced Earth attain headline status in their home country, as well as a series of vocal shifts as Tim Owens and Matt Barlow would take turns as the front men of this veteran outfit.
Now in 2011 the time has come for Iced Earth to re-engage their following with a new singer, Stu Block. Many may know Stu’s killer range in the Canadian progressive death metal act Into Eternity, and probably wondered if he would be the man to deliver the goods for the band. Based on my continuous playbacks of their new album "Dystopia", there was no better choice than Stu- he has all the power of Matt, the high screams of a Rob Halford as well as a confidence about him that could take Iced Earth to new heights of popularity.
Calling from Honduras guitarist Jon Schaffer appears excited for the next touring onslaught Iced Earth will participate in – so read onward to learn more about the developments behind the band.
Most people familiar with Stu Block’s work in Into Eternity are aware of his impressive death vocals and killer high range pipes- how did you know he would also develop this amazing mid-range that works so well for Iced Earth on this new album Dystopia?
"I didn’t know until I auditioned him. That was the defining moment in the audition, to see if he could do that. I looked at the videos that he has with Into Eternity. I really liked the fire in his eyes, the attitude- I felt that he must have a big range because he was doing the Halford highs and the clean, melodic choruses but I didn’t know about the mid-range voice that Iced Earth is all about. So I had to make sure he could do it. When he came to audition it was pretty clear to me that he was going to have the right attitude to try everything, to be coached, to be produced and a pretty clear understanding of what Iced Earth is all about. He knew about the different dynamics that our music has, from the epic parts to the raging thrash parts to the melodic, Maiden-ish type parts- it’s a roller coaster ride of emotions and any vocalist has to be able to convey that. He’s done a great job – I’ve seen vast improvement in him since we’ve started together in March. For the first album of him singing in this new way, he did an amazing job and he continues to get better. He’s stepping into some big shoes- and this is the kind of music I feel he should have been doing all along. He’s got the tools to do it. We’re pretty psyched, we have a great time hanging out together, I love Stu- he makes me laugh."
One of the aspects I love about Dystopia is the variety of arrangements and material on display- there is plenty of harmonization for fans to sink their teeth into, as well as a couple of shorter songs like "Boiling Point" and "Days Of Rage" that really evoke the early Iced Earth days. Do you feel a revitalization of Iced Earth and the need to prove to the world you can still be heavy this many years into the group?
"Totally- but I think we’ve always been heavy. The difference is the energy behind this record is from a revitalized, new love for Iced Earth that was missing for quite a while. There was so much inconsistency with the last 10 years- we haven’t had committed front men since Matt left after "Horror Show" and even when he came back he was on a part time basis and we agreed to that. I thought we could make it work but it just didn’t work out because the music industry is changing so much. When I had my awakening and a clear understanding of what’s going wrong in the world and why we are here, that energized me and made me appreciate Iced Earth more. I had such a change of perspective, there’s a lot of positive energy behind this album and it’s culminating in the songwriting. Stu is a very positive guy, you add that to the mix and it allows for that kind of thing to happen. I told Jim Morris when I was starting the songwriting for this next record I wanted to strip it back, the arrangements and production to be a kick ass metal record and I am not telling a story with orchestration and vocal stacks, harmonies… of course we can still do that, but I wanted a balls heavy metal record. Stu was very involved with the melodies, lyrics, and some of the stuff he did on his own- we just really gelled as a writing team. You can feel that Iced Earth is back and we mean business. Stu is 10 years younger than me so he’s kind of like a little brother, he’s got an energy that he’s brewing that’s infectious. It will be obvious when people see us live that we are back with a vengeance."
Were there any particular challenges you encountered with the writing or recording of this record?
"Not really, Matt. After 25 years I know pretty much what I am doing. There’s not really any surprises, you just go in and you do it."
What can you tell us about the bonus tracks that will be appearing on the special editions of Dystopia? Is it a tough decision when record labels and different forms of digital media ask you for this extra material- or something you know comes with the territory to ensure better sales?
"Yes, it’s something in the past I was very resistant to but now with the dire straits the music industry is in you have to work with the label to help them sell product. That’s what it boils down to- they have to come up with a box set with the belt buckle, the patch, all of that stuff to get people to buy those editions of it. Labels are going bankrupt all over the place, retail stores are going bankrupt, the bands are forced to tour more because they have to supplement their income and this is not just metal- it is music in general- and the digital age where people are downloading music instead of paying for it. Times are changing, it’s something we have to do to help out until the new model is figured out-which I think will be better for the artists in the long run- but until that happens it’s sort of a difficult transitioning period. It’s not as hard for Metallica and Iron Maiden, but it’s difficult for mid-level bands and it’s definitely difficult for the baby bands just starting out. I think the two songs we left off the main album are strong as well- I felt like the album flowed better if those two songs were out. "Iron Will" is a cool song, very different than anything else heard on the album. It’s got a positive message to it lyrically and it’s really melodic, it’s actually our drummer’s favorite song. "Soylent Green" is based on the movie from the early 70’s, that one is cool also… I don’t think they are filler tracks, but maybe not as strong as the songs that made the album. Century Media told me what they needed and I picked a couple of songs that were bonus tracks."
I feel like you could literally take the entire album and bring it to life in your live set- how difficult will it be to decide what goes in the Iced Earth set list with 10 studio albums to choose from? I know that many European crowds are excited that the epic "Dante’s Inferno" from Burnt Offerings will be making a return to the set list…
"Dude, it is a constant pain in the ass I can tell you that. It’s harder all the time- this album is going to get a lot of play because it’s a new era and I just think that the songs are so hooky. Even if they haven’t heard it by the time we go on tour- they are going to understand the songs very quickly. We are going to play between 5-7 new songs every night, we are going to dig back into the catalog too. We have sort of been stuck in nostalgia mode since Matt came back because we really haven’t been able to rehearse like we should- we were doing so many one off gigs and the costs of getting everyone together because we are all over the country. Now we are going to do real touring we are going to get together a week before the tour starts in Germany and we have a lot of songs picked. It’s going to be a good shot in the arm for people who have been wanting to see some more variety for an Iced Earth set list. I made the decision to include "Dante’s Inferno"- we would have done it a year ago, the last time we played it live was during the "Alive In Athens" show and we had to take a keyboard player over to do it. We don’t have the kind of budget to take a keyboard player over for one song. We know how much people wanted to hear the song- we had to re-record it with new keyboard parts and now the band can sync up with these new parts."
What was that final show with Matt Barlow like for you and the rest of Iced Earth at Wacken this year?
"Well, I mean it was sad, it was fun, it was an emotional time. I got choked up a few times, I know Matt did. It’s the end of an era, man. It was a great day, it was very positive, we had a big party afterwards. Matt and I will very likely do music together again, we talked about it- future projects. You are going to hear Matt do other things, it couldn’t work in Iced Earth because we have to function as a touring band- he’s limited on how much he can commit to on music."
It’s a tumultuous time for the music industry- what are the keys for Iced Earth to survive and thrive?
"I think it’s to plant seeds in new markets, which is what we are going to do with this record. We are playing Eastern Europe, Russia, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, a real world tour this time. It’s about really staying busy and staying focused and on point. Building up a database because there will come a time where we will deal directly with the fan base- the writing is on the wall for the record industry. That’s important for us to stay viable because in order for us to exist we have to have income. I know there are people who think all of this should just happen without income but it’s a business and we have to make money to function in order to record albums. The paradigm is shifting- I am a survivor and I refuse to be a victim, I’m trying to think ten years ahead and how things are going to change and stay on the pro-active side."
Do you feel like you have to work that much harder in terms of physical conditioning due to your previous back and neck injuries to make it through Iced Earth’s intense world touring schedules?
"Yes I’m going to have to, that’s for sure. I have a physical therapist going on tour with us for that purpose, and I have been doing a lot of conditioning in the process. Getting ready for the tour- it’s a matter of being smart on stage and not getting caught up in the moment. I can’t bang my head like I used to, that’s what caused all the problems. Realizing that I am not the youngest guy in the world anymore and that I have to take care of my body."
I’ve read in recent interviews you are happy to have the Festivals Of The Wicked DVD on the market as a true representation of the band playing the European festival circuit, but still haven’t released the definitive Iced Earth live DVD. What could fans expect on the next DVD to make it even more special than this last release?
"I think what is special about "Festivals Of The Wicked" is that it’s the end of the era. You have the fans that love Tim, and you have the fans that love Matt- and they have a little bit of something on there for both. It is the end of the inconsistency and lineup problems- those days are behind us now. What I really want out of an Iced Earth DVD, and I’ve tried to get this for years with the "Horror Show" tour- but believe it or not Century Media didn’t believe in the DVD format back then- that tour should have been filmed, the stage show was a killer. I want to have a proper headline show filmed by a crew that knows the band’s music and can work with us for a few weeks before the actual event to practice filming it. It wouldn’t be us playing a festival where we have limited control over what can happen on stage and a generic film crew. If it’s a planned event, you can avoid a lot of the production hassles. So our plan is after the next studio album, once we have two studio albums with Stu out, we will focus on another DVD with those albums and everything from "Horror Show" onward, probably with a couple of the classics. We need some time to rebuild the band, we know we’ve lost some status over the last 5-6 years because "The Glorious Burden" was the biggest selling album and touring we’ve done in America certainly to date. After doing this world tour it’s going to give me a good indicator of where we will go to do the headlining show- it could be Sao Paulo, Brazil."
Would you ever consider doing any special shows where you perform a classic Iced Earth album front to back in its entirety?
"We’ve talked about that, it’s in the realm of possibility. But I don’t know if it’s going to be the same to do "The Dark Saga" with Stu as the singer- as much as I know he’s capable of doing it, it’s not going to have the same feel with Matt. It’s like Iron Maiden trying to do "Powerslave" or "Somewhere In Time" with Blaze Bayley- they wouldn’t have done that. We’ll just have to see how that rolls out."
It seems like the core lineup within Iced Earth is one you are very happy with these days. How important is personal chemistry in the dynamic of a band’s growth- and do you think the fans can sense bands who struggle to actually get along and remain professional with their music?
"I’m sure they can sense that. It’s important- it depends on what the band’s goals are and the spirit is frankly behind the leadership of the band. I’m very happy with this lineup we have a lot of fun together- Stu fits right in and he understands our sense of humor, he hasn’t missed a beat. The chemistry on a personal level, we enjoy each other’s company and that will always translate well on stage."