Friday, April 26, 2002

Interview: Jon Schaffer of Iced Earth

For a decade, the power metal outfit Iced Earth have stayed true to their roots while the music scene changed around them.

Their sound - which mixes the precise lightning-fast riffing of early Metallica with the melodic sensibilities of bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest - has taken a backseat to grunge and nu-metal on the hard music scene. But now, they're hoping to step up to the big leagues.

Iced Earth has recently released a boxed set, "Dark Genesis," which features remastered versions of their first three albums, their original demo "Enter the Realm" and a set of cover tunes from some of their biggest influences - including Iron Maiden, Kiss, Alice Cooper and others.

The band is on the second U.S. leg of their tour in support of the 2001 release "Horror Show," a concept album based on classic horror movie monsters and a few from the real world. Guitarist and bandleader Jon Schaffer says the album is a return to roots.

"The horror theme goes back to the early days of the band," he says. "When I was a teen-ager, one of the things I wrote about most was horror movies. When the band got signed, I moved away from that. This was a kind of return to roots, lyrically and musically as well. There are a lot of elements from the first three albums on `Horror Show.'"

One song that doesn't seem to fit on the album is "Ghost of Freedom," a powerful song from the viewpoint of a soldier who has given his life for his country.

The song has taken on new meaning since Sept. 11, but it's not the first patriotic song the band has done. Their 1998 release "Something Wicked This Way Comes" included a song called "1776."

Balancing patriotism with a largely non-American audience can be a challenge, Schaffer says.

"We've always been a patriotic band, but I was always kind of reluctant to show it in the music," he says. "There are a lot of places around the world that are not America-friendly.

"The first time I did it was on `1776.' It's an instrumental, but there are some very patriotic themes in it. Every American who sees that title, will know what it's about. We just took it one step further on `Ghost of Freedom.'"

Schaffer says much of his patriotism stems from seeing what life is like in the rest of the world.

"Touring the world in the last couple of years, I've grown to really appreciate what we have here," he says. "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's people (complaining) about America when they have no clue. I wish more Americans would visit other places, so they could see just how good we've got it."

Despite his patriotic stance, Schaffer's homeland hasn't always been as good to him as other places in the world. Iced Earth fans on the European tour got a blistering, nearly three-hour set in a packed arena with elaborate stage designs and theatrical elements. In America, they play on cramped stages in small clubs, with a much lower budget.

"I really wish we could bring (the show) to the States, and we will be able to some day," he says. "Our history is in Europe. We've been touring Europe since 1990, and the status of the band is 10 times bigger there."

The reason for the difference, he says, is the way the American music market is set up. The problem for Iced Earth is that many fans just don't know about the band and its music.

"It's controlled by dollars,"Schaffer says. "Here in the States, the way to promote your band is through radio and MTV, and that costs big, big, big money. Over there, the support of the underground is what makes you."

As far as today's American metal scene goes, Schaffer says he hasn't heard much of it - and what he has heard doesn't appeal to him.

"If you're talking about nu-metal, I think that stuff's a joke," he says. "Metal to me should be very intense, very powerful, very dark and also very melodic. Unfortunately, I think that's typical of our society, flooding the market with a trend."

Schaffer is interested in doing something more ... interesting.

"I think we've got a lot more work to do before we reach the arena level in the U.S., which is our goal," he says. "But I'm sure whatever ends up happening, it's going to be a big step forward."

Tuesday, April 9, 2002

Review: The Crown, "Crowned in Terror"

Take the early sounds of Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer, throw them in a blender and turn it on the fastest speed. What comes out will probably sound a whole lot like The Crown.

"Crowned in Terror" has gotten a very positive reception in the extreme metal community, and it's easy to see why.

The band launches a full-out assault from the first cut, the title track. Guitarists Marko Tervonen and Marcus Sunesson alternate between edgy Slayer-like licks and chunky thrash riffs, while the vocals of former At the Gates screamer Tomas Lindberg shred the listener's eardrums.

The strength of "Crowned in Terror," though, is the foundation the music is built on - the drumming of Janne Saarenpaa.

Saarenpaa's skill and stamina is undeniable, and the listener can't help but be impressed when he cuts loose. But it's that same skill that causes a problem. There's a temptation to make the drums the featured instrument.

On songs like "Speed of Darkness," there are spots where the drums take over and drown out everything else. That's a shame, because some of those songs have a lot going for them.

But for every one of those, there's an "Under the Whip" or "Out for Blood," where Saarenpaa's furious double-bass attack lays the perfect foundation.

Surprisingly, the band really shines when they throttle down, though.

The slower riffs are crisp and impressive with a classic metal sound. One of the strongest songs on the album is also the slowest, "World Below." The tune chugs along at a pace that's practically lethargic by comparison, but displays some of the band's tightest musicianship.

Overall, "Crowned in Terror" is a solid album, but it is admittedly an acquired taste. The Crown is certainly not for everyone.

Get "Crowned in Terror."

Tuesday, April 2, 2002

Review: Arch Enemy, "Wages of Sin"

While the hard rock and metal arena has become more open to female performers over the past two decades, the more extreme end of the spectrum has still been pretty much an all-boys club - until now.

When Arch Enemy vocalist Johan Liiva departed, the band raised some eyebrows by choosing a woman, Angela Gossow, as his replacement. In a press release, guitarist Michael Amott said the choice was a no-brainer.

"She's really one in a million, musically, as well as visually," Amott said.

On receiving their new album "Wages of Sin," my first thought was, "a death metal band with a female singer, that's a great gimmick." Then I popped the CD into the player. About halfway through the opening song "Enemy Within," my opinion changed.

Gossow is the real deal. Not only does she kick the door down for women in extreme metal - she stomps that sucker into splinters and starts a raging bonfire with it.

Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles, one of the leading metal magazines, said of Gossow, "Her performance is nothing short of staggering, giving many of her peers serious competition if not putting them to shame entirely." I can't disagree.

Arch Enemy's sound could probably best be described as progressive death metal. That may sound like a contradiction until you hear how the ethereal opening lead and dark grinding verse of a song like "Shadows and Dust" work together.

Musically, the band has more in common with early Dream Theater than Slayer, but Daniel Erlandsson's furious double-bass drumming and Gossow's feral snarls are pure death metal. Their arrangements are satisfyingly complex, but still unrelentingly heavy.

Songs like "Heart of Darkness" and "Ravenous" are burners that show the incredible technical prowess of the band, but they're also shot through with intriguing, catchy melodies and musical hooks. Soft, but dark interludes - like the opening of "Enemy Within" and the instrumental cut "Snow Bound" - are sprinkled liberally throughout the album.

The most interesting songs on "Wages of Sin" come when the band throws the listener a curve. "Savage Messiah" opens with a twangy lick that sounds like it came straight out of an old Western movie. The main riff of the song shows shades of early thrash, with an artsy chorus and a classic-sounding twin guitar lead break. Likewise, the groove of "Behind the Smile" seems a little out of place, but it works well.

Even the obligatory death metal standards like "The First Deadly Sin" have melodic elements that set Arch Enemy apart from their peers.

If you don't believe girls can play extreme metal, give "Wages of Sin" a listen. It just might change your mind.

Get "Wages of Sin."