You know a live album succeeds when two tracks into the setlist, you are more concerned with headbanging and singing words to the songs than with evaluating the finer points of performance and production. With "Live at the Ancient Kourion", Iced Earth delivered an album that not only documents its most recent world tour, but also serves to remind why many of us fell in love with the band in the first place.
The two-disc, 29-track (including intro pieces) set is a testament to why Iced Earth is one of the most potent forces in traditional and power metal currently active. As a long-time fan of the band, I was pleased to hear a setlist touching upon all eras of the band, from its raw Metallica-meets-Iron Maiden debut to power/thrash metal classics "Night of the Stormrider" and "Burnt Offerings" adequately represented alongside newer material. Considering the sheer volume of quality releases in Iced Earth's back catalogue, choosing the songs to please everyone must have been a Sisyphean task, but the band succeeded admirably in representing all of its facets while playing a solid selection of material. The new record "Dystopia" is heavily featured with as many as six songs, but the live album's two-and-a-half hour length leaves enough space for deep catalogue cuts and popular fan favorites alike. The set even features several songs from Ripper Owens era, proving that they fit well alongside the classic tracks.
New vocalist Stu Block has a voice that is uncannily similar to Matt Barlow's delivery, and at times I could not tell that it was not Barlow singing. That said, Block is not a Barlow clone, and while he does justice to the older material, it is on the newer songs that he truly gets to shine. He does have several rougher spots (relatively speaking, as one cannot expect studio-perfect pitch from a live release), but for the most part, the vocal performance is spot on. Block's interaction with the crowd sounds eerily reminiscent of Barlow, and the Cypriot audience seems to be responding enthusiastically to his stage persona. The band is as tight as ever, and it is a testament to Jon Schaffer's commitment to quality as a band leader that the revolving door of personnel has seemingly no effect on their ability to play the songs as they were meant to sound. The performance is not perfect, but it adds to live feel of the album and contributes to the atmosphere of immersion.
In the end, what we have here is an excellent live album done the way it should be done. Just as "Dystopia" was Iced Earth's triumphant return after several ho-hum releases, "Live at the Ancient Kourion" is the enduring proof that the band is still relevant, still hungry, and still crushes whatever stage they are on.
Listen to "I Died For You" and watch the trailer for the DVD release below!