Few sensations equal the sweet taste of what you've been missing - after a lengthy period of conditioned ignorance. Like the health nut who's allowed himself a juicy burger after years of vegetarian substitutes, a band's triumphant return to form makes you realize what you'd settled for and rejoice in the genuine article with abandon.
In the case of influential "power thrash" institution ICED EARTH, we're not talking about a rediscovery of quality so much as a dramatic increase in passion and inspiration. Guitarist/songwriter Jon Schaffer's last two efforts under the ICED EARTH banner - "Framing Armageddon"  and "The Crucible Of Man"  - were extensions of a concept begun with the landmark "Something Wicked This Way Comes".  As such, the individual songs, as terrific as some indeed were, tended to take a backseat to overbearing album structures and long-winded conceptual bloat. What's more, the respective efforts of veteran frontmen Tim "Ripper" Owens and Matt Barlow had drifted into somewhat banal realms, with neither seemingly having much more to offer the formula. Ultimately, it demanded a diehard fan to truly appreciate these albums.
Not so with the latest, "Dystopia". Armed with a fresh new frontman and a determination not heard in well over a decade (save for the dazzling one-off historical concept album "The Glorious Burden"), Schaffer and his men have unleashed a Metal monster. Stylistically, it's a return to the punchy up-tempo gallops perfected on "Something Wicked," with strong echoes of other classic '90s works peppered throughout. "Anguish Of Youth" recalls the emotive, chorus-heavy lope of "I Died For You" (from 1996's "The Dark Saga") while "Days Of Rage" rips with the fury and speed of 1992's "Night Of The Stormrider".
Other influences materialize at times. "V" is a musical and lyrical dead ringer for the best of Manowar, while "Dark City" segues into a soaring, speedy romp reminiscent of Iron Maiden's "Aces High" or almost anything by Helloween. Thanks to airtight songwriting, such elements blend gracefully with the uniform sound that is, and always will be, ICED EARTH. So do the lead vocals of newcomer Stu Block, previously heard on two masterpieces of underground Metal from Canadian progressive outfit Into Eternity. The criminally talented Block is a vocal chameleon, applying his staggering range in any way the music sees fit, and lends his aggressive death Metal leanings with Into Eternity to a towering performance that suits the styles of both Barlow and Ripper while beefing up the punch and power in his own signature delivery. He is exactly what the doctor ordered for ICED EARTH.
Having thankfully discarded full-on concepts for the time being, Schaffer nevertheless has a lot on his mind, and as the title suggests, "Dystopia" is rife with visions of an Orwellian future that seems all too imminent in these turbulent times. However, unlike many Metal bands that navigate such murky waters, ICED EARTH makes a case for optimism amidst the darkness. With Block's help, Schaffer channels his libertarian and populist defiance into a celebration of the human spirit; the resilience of our bodies and the fortitude of our souls that equip us to move forward in life without fear or despair. The epic finale "Tragedy And Triumph" is a definitive, encapsulating statement in that regard, and brings to a close one of the best major Metal releases of a year already brimming with great music. No matter what your circumstances, you are alive - and as "Anthem" reminds you in its chorus refrain, it's time to celebrate that fact.