Metal and the concept album format have shared a rather interesting history, delving into a wide variety of subjects from the supernatural, the political, and the science fictional. Probably the oldest and most utilized theme in the metal concept arsenal is the darkness versus light, good against evil, God against Satan story. This form of storytelling goes all the way back to the age old battle between Horace and Set (after the latter had been demonized by Lower Egypt into an evil deity due to political turmoil) and further still likely into pre-history as tribal man took note of the seeming conflict between the night and day in the heavens.
Iced Earth’s magnum opus “Night of the Stormrider” brings about such scholarly thought of various historical myths on a lyrical level because it avoids the cliché of merely focusing on Christianity against Paganism and instead provides a general struggle between 2 forces that are both natural and mystical. You could insert a struggle between Zoroastrian polytheists and Muhammad’s armies or an unknown alliance of nomadic Mexican Indian tribes against the Aztec Empire and the lyrics would still fit perfectly. The story’s principle character tells of his encounters with the dark forces through a unique hybrid of a 1st person and omniscient perspective, further perpetuating the mystical side of the tale.
The style of the music that accompanies this epic tale is a very unique blend of riff driven thrash metal, classic Iron Maiden melodies, orchestral textures, and acoustic passages loosely resembling Blind Guardian’s handiwork circa 1986. Jon Schaeffer showcases a barrage of mad-paced gallop riffs that makes Metallica’s “Motorbreath” sound like classic rock and occasionally shows the same ingenuity and intricacy of MegaDeth’s mid-80s material. Randall Shawver is an apt lead player, equally as capable as most thrash soloists, yet knowing the value of playing a melody once in a while rather than shredding up the pentatonic scale for the entire duration like Kirk Hammet often did when he actually played.
The vocal work put forth by John Greely is undeniably 80s power metal in its approach, conjuring up similarities to Rob Halford, James Rivera, and occasionally Eric Adams. His versatility as a singer is notable as most thrash singers are prone to bark a near monotone melody during the verses with the occasional high wail while not being able to really pull off an actual sung melody very well. Notable sections where Greely accomplishes some really catchy melodic hooks include the chorus of “Desert Rain” and at several points in the album’s lengthy closer “Travel to Stygian”.
There really isn’t any way to pick a favorite out of these songs as they all serve the perfect flow of the whole album while shinning in their own unique way. “Angels Holocaust” and “Desert Rain” are probably the easiest to recall after first listen due to heavy emphasis on a chief melodic idea. “Stormrider”, “The Path I Choose” and “Pure Evil” are loaded with rapid fire thrash riffs and aggression, which will sit well with traditional thrash fans that unfortunately had to see their favorite metal genre systematically raped by many of its own champions the same year this came out.
This is a work that genuinely defies conventional labels and successfully walks a line between being stylistically eclectic and musically consistent. Any fan of any sub-genre of metal should be able to appreciate the quality of the music on here. This is a different Iced Earth than the one that most came to know when their star rose in the later 1990s. It carries all the greatness of the old guard in the US power/thrash scene and, unlike what many people say about the band’s material of toady, is an album that makes you think.