It's hard to believe Iced Earth have been churning out their signature blend of thrash and power metal for two decades now, and with a new singer -- Into Eternity's Stu Block -- and a new zest for music, Jon Schaffer and crew show no signs of slowing down.
The band's latest album, Dystopia, sees Iced Earth in familiar territory, exploring the darker side of the world we live in, as well as alternative worlds that serve as warnings to those who don't question and accept authority blindly. Song like "V," "Boiling Point" and the title track stand nicely alongside classics like "Violate" and "Burning Times" in the band's canon, and even Matt Barlow purists -- like yours truly -- should have no trouble latching onto Block as the new voice of Iced Earth.
I recently caught up with Iced Earth's Jon and lead guitarist Troy Seele to talk new singers, new albums and the bass genius of Steve Harris.
So the elephant in the room is that you guys have a new vocalist, Stu Block. How did you go about picking Stu for the job? Was he recommended to you?
JON SCHAFFER: Yeah, he was recommended to me by Robert Kampf, the CEO of Century Media Records. He knew that it was looking like Matt was going to depart, and we were talking about it and he said, "You should really check out this guy, Stu Block."
We watched a video and I was very impressed with the spirit behind his eyes. He had the right attitude and everything, so I was really interested. From that perspective. I wasn't sure about his voice yet, because he was fronting a progressive death metal band. He certainly had the ability to do a big range because he could do the death metal growls all the way up to the Halford highs, the clean, melodic chorus parts, but Iced Earth's music lives in the middle.
We really worked with him to develop that part of his voice, and when it came time to audition, that was the thing we really focused on. We wrote a couple songs together. Write before he came out I sent him a couple of instrumental tracks to see what he could contribute and how creative he was. It just fit like a glove.
Wacken was your last show with Matt, and it certainly seems like the split was totally amicable.
He's just more into the family thing than touring, I'm guessing?
Yeah, and the music industry has changed so radically in the last few years since Matt came back. In order for the band to stay viable, to work, we need to tour. Income from album sales is going away, it's all in the touring now. You know, besides that I'm just fired up and ready. I haven't been committed to Iced Earth like I was for quite a while. I just kind of had the blinders on and was going through the motions, but the energy behind it wasn't what it should have been.
That all changed a couple of years ago. I've got a great fucking lineup, and we're going in, man.
What was sort of the catalyst for you getting back into doing Iced Earth?
I had what I call my "awakening." Sons of Liberty [Schaffer's side project] was spawned out of that awakening. I guess going through your life and you know something's wrong, I certainly did, and learning about a lot of the really shadowy stuff going on in our government and around the world ... I don't know, it was a very liberating experience. It kind of crushed me at first. The American people are being deceived big time -- the European people are as well -- and it's been going on for a long time, but the propoganda is so intense. That's the reason people are putting up with this shit.
What was it you found out that was so disturbing?
The Federal Reserve. Learning that it's not federal, there's no reserves, just a private, offshore banking cartel with many of the same bloodlines we were fighting in the American Revolution. It's the same system and they hijacked our country a hundred years ago and people don't even know it. And these are hardcore, criminal, mafia scum. Parasites.
I'm going to do everything in my power, which is a limited power, to try and get people to educate themselves and get involved. I used to think 1984 and Brave New World were works of fiction, but now I think it's the playbook. [laughs]
Sometimes you wonder if works of fiction like that just gave the people in charge ideas. Half a century after 1984 and there's something like one camera for every 13 people in England...
Dude, it's crazy. And V for Vendetta is a movie that's totally amazing, and that's where we're headed. If the people don't stand against this shit, I don't know, man ... These people are sick control freaks, but there's only a few thousand of them. If we're educated, we can take these fuckers out.
We've already mentioned 1984 and Brave New World, but are there any other works of dytopian literature or movies that inspired this album?
There's a bonus track called "Soylent Green," there's Equilibrium, Dark City, V for Vendetta, then "Dystopia" and "Tragedy and Triumph" are from my "Somethin Wicked" story, which is definitely dystopian.
There's a lot of dark stuff on this album, but I think there are some songs that are really uplifting. "Anthem" is one of them, "Tragedy and Triumph" is one. "Anguish of Youth" starts off really dark and kind of sad lyrically, but it ends up good.
We tried to put that in, because when Stu and I were writing all of the lyrical stuff, I was like, "Dude, we can't make them all negative. People are gonna feel like there's no hope. We've got to let them know that the answers lie within each one of us, it's not going to be some politician or a savior on a white horse. We've got to fix this ourselves and turn this shit around."
Is that why you picked "Tragedy and Triumph" to end the album, to give a glimmer of hope at the end of a pretty bleak album?
That's exactly why I ended the album with that. I think it's very different for Iced Earth. Normally the albums end with a big giant epic, but the whole album feels kind of epic. The songs are short and to the point. It just felt like the right thing to do.
Changing topics a bit, talk about your gear setup for Dystopia.
TROY SEELE: I mainly used a Suhr Modern guitar with Doug Aldrich pickups, which I've had for a couple years. I have a Strat that I literally put together from parts when I worked in a guitar store. It turned out to be a pretty good-sounding guitar.
On the album, there's some stuff in standard tuning and some stuff in E-flat, so anything that's in E I play the Strat, and anything that's flat I play the Suhr.
Then amp-wise, I just plugged into Jon's Larry heads. It's fairly easy to get a good lead guitar sound out of those heads. I think I used a Diesel on some stuff, but it's like 90 percent Larry.
JON: It's actually the first time we used Larry's for the leads. I mean, I would always do the lead guitar melodies with the Larry heads, but whenever we did solos in the past we would use Soldano or the last one was an EVH.
Just something to separate them, because it's such a thick rhythm sound, but Larry's actually work good for guitar solos.
TROY: They were just kind of sitting there, and there's a certain channel Larry puts on there ...
JON: We use the "scream."
TROY: The "Scream" channel, which says it all.
JON: On this album I actually stripped down the stable of guitars that I use. For the rhythm tracks, I used my Les Paul, Smokey Joe -- a 1996 Les Paul Standard and my favorite recording guitar. For the last three albums I've used it as my primary rhythm guitar. And then I use the Explorer, which sounds badass. It's got RS Guitarworks Pickups, unpotted, which is a nightmare live. I've got a set of potted ones to try out because I'm impressed with how they sound. They're natural and clean but still heavy and chunky.
My amp is the Larry, and he's been custom making those for me since the early '90s. From Burnt Offerings on those are the heads I've been using. They've been developed over the years, we've been dialing in my sound more and more.
I've got a signature amp coming out with him. We already did the pre-amp. The pre-amp is really cool by the way because for me, when we do fly dates in South America or we're just flying over for festivals, I can use a Marshall power section with the pre-amp and it gets really close to what Larry does for me. It's definitely a cool tool to have.
Is there much in the way of effects on the album, or do you take more of a "plug n' play" approach?
JON: I don't personally use a lot of effects aside from maybe chorus live. In the studio we just have Jim [Morris, producer] do all the effects using plug-ins or his outboard gear. There's some chorus and delay on some of the clean parts, and some reverb and delay on the solos and that's it. My rhythm guitar is totally dry. We use a little bit of compression from the SSL to control the noise from all the muting.
Troy, what's your background as a guitarist?
TROY: Mainly rock 'n' roll, really. And bluegrass.
I started playing guitar young in Indiana, so there was a lot of bluegrass and rock around, and I did both. I actually put the electric guitar down for a while right up until about a year before I started playing for Jon. I was doing strictly bluegrass music. Around then a friend pulled me into a band called the Why Store, and I played electric guitar for them and kind of got back into it. Then it morphed into doing the Iced Earth thing.
JON: I don't know theory at all. When we're on tour I want Troy to give me some lessons. I just started playing guitar when a friend of mine in high school showed me the power chord and I just started writing. I'm a songwriter; I don't even really consider myself a guitar player because I'm just always around really great guitar players.
I have a thing that I do. It's just happened naturally. It's fucked up because it's responsible for so much of what's happened for the band, but it gets the least amount of my attention. I'm the guy that's taking care everything. It's kind of a bummer because I love guitar and I love watching guys like Troy just fucking shred. If it was in my soul, I would do it. But I'm more of a song guy, looking at the big picture.
I always likened you to the Steve Harris of Iced Earth. A guy willing to take the backseat from time to time, but you know he's the brains of the operation.
JON: If I have an idol music it's Steve Harris. People always say, "But he's a bass player." Yeah, so? I almost stopped playing guitar and got a bass when I was a teenager because of him. His timing is fucking unbelievable and that's probably on a subconscious level what inspired me to play guitar that way.
The new album from Iced Earth, Dystopia, is out now on Century Media Records.