Iced Earth – Incorruptible Warriors

Tuesday, 27th June 2017

One of the perks for being a part of the heavy metal scene for decades is the opportunity to develop relationships with some of your favorite bands. Especially when following the discography, peaks and valleys and natural life experience that rolls through one’s career. Take veteran metal group Iced Earth as an example – first appearing on this scribe’s radar through Night of the Stormrider, an album that in the early 90’s contained all the gallop, aggression, hooks, and melodies necessary to appeal to the Maiden and Metallica fans equally. But it was also a time where that style struggled to gain even a cursory glance stateside – the band building a healthy community of support in Europe while slowly churning away at their own style, trends be damned.

25 years later, guitarist/songwriter Jon Schaffer still leads Iced Earth as a premiere, reliable band through their 12th studio album Incorruptible. Channeling that energy into a set of songs that encapsulate all facets of the band from mid-tempo anthems to ballads, and almost thrash-oriented work plus epic arrangements when called for, it feels like the prolonged break while Jon recovered from his second cervical fusion surgery was immensely beneficial. In this half-hour chat we’ll learn more about how the band spent their down time between records, how the band’s next move will be exciting in this ever-changing music business model, as well as healthy discussion over the resurgence of vinyl in the pre-teen/teen market.

Dead Rhetoric: How is your health these days following your second surgery in the fall of 2014 for a cervical fusion? How much did this slow down the process of development and recording the new album?

Jon Schaffer: Well, it did slow things down a little bit- but I think in a good way. It forced us to take a much-needed break- the band was prior to that, in the three years before that we did 350 shows worldwide, released two new studio albums and a live DVD, all in a three-year period so that was pretty serious and an intense schedule. I think in that regard the band was sort of burnt out in a way, by the time we got towards that final leg of the Plagues of Babylon world tour. We needed a break, but it’s obviously not the way you want to be taking a break.

It was a restful period, I had the surgery, another disc taken out and fusion done. That took a little bit longer to recover from this time, but I ended up still taking a break away from writing and recording, bought a building that ended up becoming our headquarters to build a studio and everything. All of that work from the time I bought the property until finishing the construction was a year, and then it was time to get started on the music. I think everything turned out exactly the way it was supposed to- it was longer than we wanted, but at the end of the day you need to let the music flow naturally to get the most out of it- and I think we have a very strong record because of this.

Dead Rhetoric: Given the fact that you are the driving force of Iced Earth, when it comes to a new album are you sort of a reverse engineer, in the sense that you begin with the ending in mind and work your way forward to put the pieces together?

Schaffer: No, not really. I try to think about where we are going to take the record- the only decision that was contrived at the beginning was I had so many subject matters and ideas that I wanted to write about and Stu did too, they were not connected. So, we knew this wasn’t going to be a concept record, it was going to be a collection of songs. Since the first album, that’s always been the case- there’s always been some sort of trilogy, or the entire record as a particular concept/theme. Whether it’s an album like The Dark Saga or Night of the Stormrider which are conceptual or The Glorious Burden and Horror Show, which are theme related albums – with songs based on similar subject matter that aren’t necessarily connected as a concept. I knew I was going to write a song about the Irish Iron Brigade, a song for Native Americans, one about the pirates and one about the Vikings- so you may not be locked into the title of the song, but you have a working title and a vision to shoot for. The job from that point forward is to create the soundscape of the music so that even before you do the lyrics and melodies, you can tell that the music is telling a story – that you see things as a tribute to the Native Americans, or that has an Irish Brigade theme as in “Clear the Way”.

Start with an idea, working title, theme, concept of the song, and try to create the soundscape to paint that image in my mind- which should translate to the listener. And then focus on lyrics and vocal melodies as the last step in the process. I look at it like this. If you watch a horror movie, or a drama, or whatever- if you watch that movie and mute the soundtrack, it has a very different impact on the way the movie affects you. Especially on a subconscious level- it’s a super powerful thing that most people aren’t really aware of what it’s doing, but it can make you cry your eyes out. It’s a very important part of the puzzle- creating any kind of part of the production. I always start there. I’ll scratch down lyrical ideas through the process that I know are going to be edited later because it always depends on the cadence of the melody. Sometimes you just can’t make certain words fit, and you have to edit it down and figure out a way to make it (worth) singing. I’m fast with that part of it- the big work is within the landscape of the song. That’s where the super time-consuming part comes in.

Dead Rhetoric: You’ve released three lyric videos off Incorruptible for “Seven Headed Whore”, “Great Heathen Army”, and “Raven Wing” – how do you feel about this medium in getting the Iced Earth message across, and was it a challenging process to decide which songs to present to the public first?

Schaffer: They just released a fourth one for “Clear the Way” today, actually. Look- I’m not a huge fan of the lyric video thing but I understand that the whole industry has changed so much. It changes every year- but if I go back to what it was 10 years ago or 15 years ago, there’s a huge difference. I get it- it’s a cheap way for the label to promote, I think that actually given what we’ve had to work with, the artwork on this entire album is amazing- which lends itself to make some pretty cool lyric videos. With the budgets that the label is willing to stay to- it’s not even up to us what they are willing to do on that. We can push and push but at the end of the day, that’s just the way it is.

I feel like they are cool and do serve a purpose but I remember a time where the songs were super protected. Now because the labels make money on streaming anyway, they would release half the album or more. It’s not about physical sales anymore- it’s about getting those digital streams. It’s a different process. I’m on the fence about it- there’s things I like about the old way of doing things where you do a proper video, tease the people and then the album comes out. It’s a different world, someone leaks this online and everybody gets access to it. It’s hard to chase. It’s okay to do this kind of promotional thing given the state of the industry.

The songs get chosen in discussions with the label- we have our input, management has theirs, and you find a happy ground. The reason these songs were chosen is it shows the full spectrum of Iced Earth and what’s on Incorruptible. The big epic that came out today, the ballad type of thing with “Raven Wing”, the kick in the balls with “Seven Headed Whore”, and “Great Heathen Army” is pretty much a typical Iced Earth song, it’s got the speed, power, the big melodic chorus, cool guitar solo. That’s the way it works. The only one I was on the fence about was whether we should release “Raven Wing” or “The Veil”, but “Raven Wing” is a little heavier. “The Veil” is certainly more of a traditional Iced Earth ballad.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel Jake Dreyer has integrated into Iced Earth – and how difficult of a process is it to replace members at this point, are there certain traits you specifically look for beyond the skill set at the instrument in question?

Schaffer: Jake came into this late, but did a fantastic job. The album was already written and arranged. We had a separate Dropbox account letting people know that we were looking for another guitar player through social media. We had hundreds of people submit things from all over the world, it just whittled down and I would watch certain things and immediately delete some guys I knew weren’t going to work. I got down to about six people that I would be on the phone with regularly, and I knew things would work with Jake as he had been in White Wizzard who had opened for us in 2011. I didn’t know him well, but I knew he was a good guy and a good player. It got to the point where after several conversations, it was time for him to come out and do an in-person audition. Stu was here, and we were working on vocal parts towards the end of pre-production and Jake came out. I had him lay down some solos on the parts and he did a fantastic job and we hired him.

It’s always kind of a pain in the ass to change members. We were a close friend to Troy, we always will be and was for many years before he came into the band. Sometimes life gets in the way, man- and you have difficult decisions that you have to make as somebody being in a band- there’s a lot of pressure and (this) requires a lot of commitment and time away from family. Troy is in a difficult position- he has an autistic son, and he had a lot of family help for years that is no longer there. He had to make a choice, and we completely support him on that. From a brother standpoint, that sucks – but there are so many talented musicians out there, they are everywhere. Regardless of what the position might be, there’s a lot of talent in this world. Bonds change the chemistry, Jake has fit in really well with his sense of humor, and stuff like that- he is like a young Troy. As far as his style goes, it fits perfectly. Probably better, because he’s really a metalhead at heart- whereas Troy is an amazing guitar player for almost any style that you throw at him- bluegrass, to metal, to hard rock.

Dead Rhetoric: This is your final album for Century Media – and you’ve built your own recording studio and headquarters for the band to conduct activities in a much more cost-effective manner. What does this level of freedom mean to you? What are you most looking forward to that maybe couldn’t happen as easily under the old business model?

Schaffer: Ownership of rights, and having the masters to be in complete control for the long term. That’s a big thing. There are so many different possibilities right now, for a veteran, proven band like Iced Earth that is a solid brand. Those people around the world that we could possibly get into business with, the world is our oyster, really. We don’t have to go with anything that resembles the old model, and I’m not even in a hurry to get into discussions about it because the thing is I can start my own label and make it exclusively for Iced Earth- which is probably what is going to happen- and then license and do artist services type deals with different countries around the world. There are a lot of options- of course people are already talking to us and they are interested in us. I don’t even know what this industry is going to look like a year from now. We have a good year’s work ahead of us- there’s no point in concerning ourselves with this aspect at the moment. We will do a lot of strategizing and options, and then whittle things down. We are open to a lot of ideas.

Maybe we will end up doing a deal with one partner that’s global, but I doubt it. I think it’s going to be taken by regions, and we will probably keep the rights for ourselves in the United States and do a fulfillment type of deal. It’s a really good position to be in, the biggest thing is in a market that’s collapsing, which the old model is, there’s always going to be a way to move forward. We are seeing some really cool developments with people- especially young people in the states with vinyl. That’s a physical product and that’s great for the bands- physical product means that we can profit more from it. We also want to maximize our profits so that the band can exist through all of this unknown certainty- there is no certainty in the way of selling music in this business is going. The more independent the better, the more direct relationship that you have with your fanbase instead of the parasites in the business, the better. We are going to be looking for partners, there isn’t going to be any more slavery, those days are over.

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