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Jon Schaffer Discusses Iced Earth's Latest, 'Incorruptible'

Jon Schaffer Discusses Iced Earth's Latest, 'Incorruptible' Jon Schaffer onstage with his Gibson Custom Flying V

“I just want to give you a head’s up, dude. I’m deep in the country here in Germany, and we’re having cellphone issues, big-time,” says Iced Earth leader Jon Schaffer by way of introduction when he gets on the phone with Guitar World. “Things look good at the moment, but we’ll see what happens, because we’re way out in the boonies.”

The boonies, to be exact, is the town of Ballenstedt, roughly two-and-a-half hours outside of Berlin, where Iced Earth are gearing up for their set at the Rockharz Open Air festival alongside acts like Lacuna Coil, Arch Enemy and Death Angel.

It’s another stop on a barnstorming European trek for the veteran metal band, who recently released their 12th studio album, Incorruptible, and are, at almost 30 years into their career, as busy as ever. Indeed, Schaffer says that this is already his fourth trip across the Atlantic just this summer. “So it’s been tiring, but it’s been great.”

It’s also the only way the 49-year-old Schaffer knows how to work. Since conceiving Iced Earth—then called Purgatory—as a teenager in Tampa, Florida, Schaffer has been the steady hand at the helm of this particular metal ship, navigating the band through changing trends, innumerable lineup shifts (more than two dozen musicians have passed through their ranks) and any number of trials and tribulations, from bad contracts to tough financial times to severe personal injury.

To that last point, Schaffer recently underwent a second cervical fusion to repair a neck injury that threatened to derail his career. “It got to the point where it was really affecting my picking hand,” he says. “My brain was sending the signals but my hand just wouldn’t respond. So it was pretty scary.”

All along, however, Schaffer never stopped Iced Earth (even though, as he recalls, one doctor told him, “It’s very risky being out on the road and doing what you’re doing. One wrong move and you’ll be paralyzed.”).

And today, the band is recognized as a longstanding pillar in the metal world, in possession of a singular sound that combines the grandiosity and magnificence of European power metal with the unabashed aggression and white-knuckle thrust of American thrash. This is paired with a likewise distinct conceptual approach, which stretches from the instantly recognizable iconography of their album covers and associated artwork, to the deep and diverse subject matter Schaffer explores on record.

To that end, the majority of Iced Earth’s efforts have been concept albums, either in full or in part, that are centered around specific themes. One, 1998’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, introduced a fictional story that explored the rise and downfall of humanity and spawned two later “sequels,” 2007’s Framing Armageddon: Something Wicked Part 1 and 2008’s The Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part 2.

Another, 2004’s The Glorious Burden (one of two Iced Earth albums to feature former Judas Priest singer Tim “Ripper” Owens on lead vocals), was a double CD effort devoted to intricately detailed retellings of significant moments in military history, from World War I to the Battle of Gettysburg to the September 11 attacks.

In contrast, the new Incorruptible does not stick to one specific theme or concept. But it is similar to past Iced Earth albums in that it is fueled, first and foremost, by Schaffer’s dynamic songwriting and rampaging, meat-and-potatoes riffing. From the vintage power-metal vibe of opener “Great Heathen Army” to the full-throttle gallop of “Seven-Headed Whore,” the dark melodicism of “The Veil” to the epic Civil War–inspired closer, “Clear the Way (December 13, 1862),” Incorruptible finds Schaffer and his band—rounded out by vocalist Stu Block, bassist Luke Appleton, drummer Brent Smedley and recent lead guitar addition Jake Dreyer, a 25-year-old shredder who also played with White Wizzard and Witherfall—firing on all cylinders.

As for what keeps Schaffer going after these years?

“Failure was never an option,” he says bluntly. “I just figured this was a commitment ’til death. Whenever that is!”

In the following interview, Schaffer speaks in detail on his “commitment ’til death,” going deep on the unique history of Iced Earth, from 1990’s self-titled debut all the way up to Incorruptible.

Incorruptible is Iced Earth’s 12th studio album. How did you approach this one?
In general, it’s always the same. It’s really just about trying to be open and connecting with whatever creative energy is going on in any given album cycle. If anything, I guess the biggest contrived decision for this one was that we weren’t going to do a theme record or a concept record. It was just going to be a collection of songs.

When you’re not writing to a specific topic, do the lyrics tend to skew toward more personal subject matter?
Well, I actually put the personal stuff in even within the concepts and the themes. I’ll always find a way to put a message in there. Because the songs, whether it’s something like [2001’s] Horror Show or The Glorious Burden, where they’re about horror movies or specific battles throughout history, there’s still a lot of personal stuff in the lyrical content. And on this one, too, there’s definitely a lot of personal things, though in some ways it probably was a little more liberating to not be working under the confines of a specific concept or theme.

Because if I really think about the Iced Earth catalog, I don’t think that we’ve had an album that’s just been a collection of songs since the first album. Even if it’s like an album like Something Wicked This Way Comes, there’s a lot of different things on that record, but then you have the trilogy of songs [outlining the Something Wicked story] on the end. But on this one, none of the songs are related.

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