ICED EARTH – Babylon Rising
- by Matt Coe
- Posted on 26-12-2013
My affinity for this US veteran metal act goes back to the early 1990’s. I first interviewed the band in support of their second album "Night of the Stormrider"- back when their style of traditional power metal was definitely underground within North America. Luckily the support they’ve received through the years in Europe and the Far East finally carried over to the United States- building a healthy following through their high caliber studio releases, careful attention to striking cover art and delivering the goods consistently on the live front.
The 11th studio album "Plagues of Babylon" is another fierce exercise in power songwriting, dynamics, and all-star execution. It only took a couple of listens for me to want to speak with one of the members of the band yet again- and this time vocalist Stu Block would contact me from his home in western Canada, where the temperature at the time of the interview was a bitterly -25 F (conversion to Celsius… -31.6) and the snow was steadily following in my area. Learn more about Stu’s vocal influences, his thoughts on the ever-changing music industry as well as the divide between the haves and have-nots in the world… and of course all things Iced Earth.
What was your childhood like, and what are your first memories surrounding music? Do you remember the first album(s) you heard that created the spark for you to become a vocalist?
"I didn’t come from a super-rich family, I came from two hard working parents. My father owned his own business and my mother worked in the freight boating industry. They would work 12-14 hours a day so I developed a good work ethic from them. I was sort of a rebel too growing up- but there was a lot of music in my house. They had everything from classical music to the Beatles, my dad liked Rush, there was a lot of different styles of music in my house. I started listening to music as a young child, and without music I wouldn’t know what I would be doing right now. I think I would have been going down a negative path, maybe. Music really helped me out with a lot of different stuff growing up, it molded me as a person in certain ways to the person I am today along with my mother and father.
"Some of the first albums… I remember The Beatles- Abbey Road, my dad used to play that for me a lot, Phil Collins, Genesis and stuff. 2112- Rush, The Number of the Beast- Iron Maiden, Painkiller- Judas Priest was one that sparked me to sing very high and more aggressive. Those are some albums that molded the way I wanted to do things. Even death metal albums by Cannibal Corpse."
Was Omega Crom your first original act prior to Into Eternity? What are your thoughts on your work with "The Scattering of Ashes" and "The Incurable Tragedy" as well as the years of touring you put in with the band?
"Yeah, Omega Crom was the band before Into Eternity, I toured with that band across Canada a few times, those were good times. Through that I got discovered by Tim Roth who was the main guy for Into Eternity. I’m proud of those albums, it was earlier on in my writing career. I learned a lot from Tim on how to write a hook as he was very good at that. I learned how to sing over really crazy time signatures so I was very happy with those albums. I look back at them… you are always your own worst critic and wishing you could re-record certain parts but it’s like a painting, you have to put your last brush stroke on it and walk away. It is what it is. I love what we did, as well the touring- and we are still good friends today."
The new album "Plagues of Babylon" is a half conceptual, half stand-alone record – recorded in Germany while you were performing on the European summer festival circuit. Tell us about the songwriting sessions, what you were going for musically and were there any special standout moments to you considering the tight deadlines and budget you have set up?
"There were some moments recording and writing the record. Jon and I wrote a lot of this album in Uruguay, a big chunk of it, and Jon kept writing when we left. Then when we met up in Germany, we stayed in an old institution for the disabled that was shut down but people could still rent it out for certain things and it had a church attached to it, we swore it was haunted! So we wrote the rest of the album there and rehearsed it, then went to a place called Principal Studios in Senden, Germany and recorded there. The time constraint was we only had 18 days to actually record the album, so we had to do a lot of rehearsing beforehand. We are proud of the product we got, a lot of great moments in the studio vocally, guitar-wise, drumming wise- we are all very proud of the final product."
What do you think of the continuation of the ‘Something Wicked’ theme with the first 6 songs- I think it’s a very strong continuation of what Jon has done with this story-line on previous albums…?
"I think so too, I would agree. The Something Wicked universe can be applied to different periods of history, non-fiction or fiction. It’s a really cool thing to touch upon, and it’s fun to write about zombies, don’t get me wrong- I am a horror movie guy, as is Jon."
You’ve been performing "If I Could See You" live in Europe recently from the new album when opening for Volbeat, and also rolled out a couple of new songs online such as the title track and "Among the Living Dead" for fans to get a preview of what to expect. How challenging is it to decide which songs to roll out- and walk the tightrope between the younger fans who believe music should be a ‘free’ entity versus offering a complete package for consumers to buy into as far as the album, the artwork, liner notes, photos, etc…?
"I think you have to give the fans something. We had an opportunity because we were out with Volbeat we were able to reach new fans. The core group of Iced Earth fans weren’t there when we did these dates, so "If I Could See You", "Plagues of Babylon", and "Peacemaker" – we were playing a lot of this new stuff to these new fans. We wanted to see how these fans would react to the new material given they were not necessarily Iced Earth fans. Now we did have some Iced Earth fans out there and we gauged their reactions too. We also sold an EP on the tour, a vinyl EP with these songs- a limited edition thing. We hope to sell the rest on the next headlining run. It’s an okay thing to do for the fans because the music is going to be out there- ultimately with either music videos or live videos, it’s going to get out there on You Tube. If you give them a little something they are going to be more inclined to come out to your live shows, buy t-shirts… it’s now about that for the bands. Not a lot of heavy metal bands are making money these days off of their album sales, maybe a handful. Eventually the way the industry is going, we have to be touring more, offering a different selection of shirts for the fans, merchandise, and not compromise our art and still write the music that we are going to write. I think it is okay to give some music to the fans before the release date of the album. The next world tour run, we are going to be playing a lot of material from this record."
Now that you’ve had a couple of years to live with it, how do you view "Dystopia" in regards to the long discography of Iced Earth?
"I think it’s another Iced Earth album, a piece of our history. I tried to sing my balls off and do the best job I can. Jon really guided me in a great direction, I was working with Jim Morris the producer at the time a lot. It is a great album, there is a lot of great Iced Earth albums so I’m not going to compare it to any one specifically. It was the 10th studio album, well received by the media and by the fans. We were glad it was a hit with the core group of fans. I was the new singer and there were some challenges but I think overall we are very happy with it."
How do you feel about the different eras of Iced Earth through the years- and do you try to stay as true as possible to the work that Jon Greeley did on "Night of the Stormrider" as much as the high octane melodies Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens did for "The Glorious Burden" material as examples?
"I try to do my own thing of course but I am a fan of Tim Owens, Matt Barlow- Greeley was a great singer too. I think I am more of a Matt and Tim kind of vocalist, that’s sort of where I lay. Then I add my own signature on there. If it’s a Matt song, I try to figure out what kind of emotion he’s using and go with that. If you are bringing out the emotion in a low end vocal and not mimicking it will come out as an influence."
What would surprise people to learn about Jon Schaffer now that you’ve been involved with the band for a few years?
"What would they be surprised to know? People that know Jon know that he is a straightforward guy. There is a stupid illusion out there that he is a real hard ass and he just has a vision for the band- he’s been doing this for almost 30 years. He’s a great songwriter, a great arranger, a great producer- he’s got the total package. I look at it as I’m working with one of the best musicians in the heavy metal field. It’s really a humbling experience, I’m learning so much from him. He’s very fair to all the band members- I’ve been in Iced Earth almost 3 years now and he’s always been fair to us- always giving us input and always wanting every band member to give our input. He just loves this band, he’s the leader and there are a lot of hard decisions that a leader of a band this long has to make and people have to understand that. People twist it around, twist his personality and I don’t agree with that. I’ve seen the guy take off his hoodie and give it to a homeless man on the street in the winter- he understands humanity. He doesn’t put crappy products out or compromise, he’s proud of what he’s built over the years. I call him one of my best friends right now."
Does Iced Earth switch up the tour set lists in headlining situations between overseas and North America at this point? I would imagine you must pull your hair out deciding what stays in and what has to go with the number of albums under your belts…?
"Yes we are rehearsing a bunch of songs right now and we will have a European set list and may switch up the North American one."
Are there any particular rituals or routines you maintain to keep your voice and body in shape for these long road tours? Especially in headlining situations where the set lists are 90 minutes or more?
"A lot of sleep and water. I have to warm up as well before the shows. I try to have a hot steamy shower before I go on stage."
At this point how does Iced Earth handle lineup changes, which can be inevitable given changing personal priorities for musicians? Do you think the fans really care as long as the style and songwriting/ performances they’ve come to expect are consistently on a high level?
"As long as Jon Schaffer is in the band! (laughs). He is Iced Earth, the stuff that he does makes it an Iced Earth album. The people he chooses to work with and surround himself with, if they want to work hard they can do that. If they want to have a good attitude they can do that to, he’s more than willing to embrace them and call them his brother. As long as he’s doing it, there will be Iced Earth, that’s the bottom line."
What would be your dream festival lineup to play on the same stage with Iced Earth at this point in time? Also, what is the best concert that you’ve personally taken in purely as a metal fan through the years?
"The dream one would be us, Ghost, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Wintersun, for me Amon Amarth and Black Country Communion if they were still rocking and Rush…you really want me to keep going? (laughs). As far as a metal fan attending a show… well I’d have to say because I don’t get to see a lot of concerts due to being on tour so much, so that sucks. I would say when my wife and I went to see Iron Maiden a couple of years ago in our part of Canada, that was the last killer concert. I wanted to go to Roger Waters when he was performing "The Wall", but I never got to see it."
How would you describe your personality to someone meeting you for the first time? Do you feel like there is a certain area of your life you would like to improve upon in the coming months/ years?
"I would have to say I’m pretty easy going. Don’t lie to me and I won’t ever lie to you. Depending on the dynamic of the relationship, if we are respectful and honest, let’s hang out and have a good time. In my life, there are a couple of things I would like to definitely work on. I don’t want really to talk about it, but one of them is making sure to not be so judgmental and let people in my life a little bit more. I’m sort of closed off a little bit, so I need to give people a little more of a chance.
You mention your love for Daniel Heiman/ Lost Horizon as an influence on your singing in previous interviews. Can we start a campaign to have him rejoin LH for a third studio album, as the first two just weren’t enough for the power metal fans to savor…?
"I think there is a campaign on Facebook for this. I would love that, this would be amazing… he only did two albums. Let’s get a third album out there, he was doing this band called Heed, I wasn’t super into it and I got a Japanese release of it. I don’t know what he’s up to, let’s get that going."
What types of hobbies or interests do you pursue in your downtime from music?
"Well, there isn’t a lot of downtime for music, so if I am home I am rehearsing or practicing new material for the next tour, or coming up with lyric ideas for the next album. I like to go running, watch horror movies, and I am a clean freak. Since I don’t work a day job I can work from home doing interviews and things for the band. I try to make sure things are in order, live a normal domesticated life because I know soon I will be on a tour bus for 3 months living an opposite life."
Now are you a die-hard Vancouver Canucks fan?
"I am not a die-hard hockey fan, but there are some crazy people around here that memorize all the stats on all the players. I have been to a few Canucks games, I remember the Vancouver riots in 1993 and a lot of great Canucks moments. What I do remember is if you are a Canucks fan it is an emotional rollercoaster. (laughs)."
What concerns do you have about the world in 2013?
"I’m concerned by the financial crisis that is ahead of us by a lot of the nations. The rise of poverty and the rise of the political figures that are puppets for the banking system. I hope that people become a little more awake and aware of what’s going on. 2013- I’m afraid, and interested to see what’s going to happen to the music industry in the next little while, or next few years. How the labels try to re-calibrate and bounce back. I’m so consumed with touring and making music for people, we touch on this in our music. I don’t like the way the governments deal with the financial system by overprinting money and the Federal Reserve is a scam, the value of money is going down. People are losing money because of their investments taking a plunge due to the greedy higher-ups who are doing whatever they can do to make sure their pockets are lined. Almost 99% of the world’s wealth is owned by 1% of the population, and that’s very scary. They are drunk on power and they don’t care who they strap onto to get their end game or goals met. You can’t lose sleep about it, we are all worker ants and we all have things to do. There is a lot of stuff we can do as musicians to speak out against this stuff, and make people more aware and awake, pro-active. I’m glad that Jon has taught me a lot about this, we can awaken people through the power of music. We vent through our music."