Even though the golden era of power metal has been over for years now, the double bill of Symphony X and Iced Earth can do nothing but excite someone who remembers that period fondly. From the virtuosity of Symphony X’s Michael Romeo to the precision rhythm of Iced Earth’s Jon Schaffer and the retro energy of young thrash revivalist openers Warbringer, this ticket was bound to be a lot of fun. And on a chilly Tuesday I made the trip to Charlotte, North Carolina to see these three in action.
There were probably 100 people inside the venue once Warbringer took the stage, not bad for a weekday opener in the Bible Belt. One of the bigger names of the thrash revival in the past three years were promoting their newest release from last year, Worlds Torn Asunder. While these guys were enjoyable to watch, one can’t help but compare them to their predecessors. Their performance itself was energetic, and even though their songs were solid, I think that the band will need something more to separate them from the rest of the thrash revivalist bands. How much are these guys aiming for the 80’s feel? The singer is sporting some old-looking white British Knights or Reeboks with the super long and puffy tongue. I haven’t seen that style of sneaker in years, so I can only assume he managed to find them on eBay or something. One of the kids in the audience who had to have been born some time after 1995 was also going for the retro look. He had the white sleeveless thrash shirt, black jeans, and the baseball caps where you flip up the bill in front. I tried not to stare but I couldn’t help myself given the fact that this kid wasn’t even a twinkle in his daddy’s eyes for years after this fad had ended. All in all they were a entertaining and solid opener, but Warbringer might be too worried about the past rather than looking forward into the future.
As a co-headliner for the tour, Symphony X was set to be the opener for Iced Earth tonight. Their last album, Paradise Lost, had a big push as far as touring was concerned. I think I saw them on three separate tours playing a Paradise Lost-oriented setlist. I don’t know if that’s their plan with Iconoclast, but they have dropped all but one or two songs from Paradise Lost from their current setlist and are instead playing most of the new album. They have also dropped their 25-minute epic, The Odyssey. One would hope they might fill in that time with some old favorite like “The Accolade” or “Egypt”, but no such luck this time around. Iconoclast is a great album in its own right, and definitely sticks to the more aggressive-sounding approach the guys have been going for since The Odyssey.
Russell Allen— I’m sorry, “Sir Russell Allen” — was spot-on as usual and speaking to some people after the show: Symphony X has some new fans purely on his addictive voice alone. Michael Romeo, as always, dances his fingers effortlessly along the fretboard with intensity and precision. Despite Symphony X being Romeo’s baby, he isn’t a flashy character onstage and gives the rest of his bandmates their moment in the limelight as well. Bassist Mike LePond prefers to stay withdrawn in the shadows noodling on the bass while coming up for air in the rare yet important bass interludes. Keyboardist Michael Pinnella and drummer Jason Rullo play side by side in the background, giving ample room for Russell to work the crowd. Although you can’t really put a drummer up in the front of the stage, it would be nice if Pinnella were closer as some bands have their keyboardist. I enjoy watching a good keyboardist play, but Pinnella’s stuck in the back with nowhere to go. Symphony X has their shit together in the live atmosphere, though, and that can’t be denied. And although they are touring hard in support of Iconoclast, I can’t help but want a more diverse setlist. It looks like that opportunity might happen at this year’s ProgPower USA too, so if you have the money and the desire to see a metric fuckton of quality bands playing, including Symphony X (with a varied setlist according to Romeo in a recent interview), then I advise checking out the festival’s website (http://www.progpowerusa.com). I hope that the tour solidifies an even larger fanbase for the guys and that we get a new album within the next 2 to 3 years.
Finally the band that most of the crowd seemed to be there for, Iced Earth. While Symphony X definitely had its share of fans in the crowd, there was a sea of Iced Earth shirts that filled the venue. It was a very mixed crowd with those who have probably been listening to the band as early as their first album, and those who might only be familiar with their latest release, Dystopia. While many fans were still reeling from the second loss of Matt Barlow as Iced Earth’s vocalist, Jon recruited Canadian Stu Block as the new frontman. This is a big tour for the band as they’re playing bigger venues with a vocalist that has to win over the old fans as well as generate a larger fanbase for the band. People may be familiar with his work with Into Eternity, but many wondered how he would fare as a singer for Iced Earth. Preceded by Matt Barlow and Tim “Ripper” Owens, Stu has his work cut out for him as he now has to deliver the unique style of Barlow along with the air raid highs of Ripper. In addition, he’s fighting the same battle that Owens had to fight years before, that being the legacy of Matt Barlow — not only Iced Earth’s finest period musically, but also a voice that is permanently etched into people’s minds as one of the two most important traits of the band’s sound.
Before Dystopia was released, Jon and Stu worked on a re-recorded version of the classic Dante’s Inferno. This was done to give everyone a taste of Stu’s voice with Iced Earth, as well as to get people excited about the prospect of Dante’s Inferno finally being played in a live setting, which had only been done on very rare occasions. Until this point, most people were hesitant in accepting the thought of Stu on vocal duties. But the song turned heads. It was a nice taste of what was to come. Dystopia is a solid effort with Stu and their best effort in awhile. But this is all studio work. Would Stu be able to tackle the live duties of a band with such a strong legacy?
The answer is a resounding yes. He was able to tackle Barlow stuff without much effort, and only during the last few songs did he struggle with some of the really high notes of Ripper. That gives Jon and Stu a nice range to work with in the future. I was sincerely worried about how Stu would tackle some of the beloved favorites in a live setting, but having seen both Ripper and Barlow, I believe I can safely say that the future looks bright for him in Iced Earth. And what can you say about Jon? Jon is Jon. Jon plays no-frills guitar and lets the others do their thing. At this point in his career, I doubt he feels the need to impress anyone. If you’re at the show, you’ve probably already made up your mind about Iced Earth and already know if you’re going to rock the fuck out or not.
All in all it’s a damn great bill, and it’s nice that nobody is declaring themselves as the headliner, as it’s way too difficult to tell who nailed it better that night. Asking around, even the Iced Earth fans weren’t sure who had the best performance. If you’ve missed this tour, check out any of these bands when they come near you.