I expect to be bashed to hell for this, but I'm not going to hide my opinion.
After about 4 listens now, I really like this album. It's not the greatest thing I've heard lately, I wasn't expecting anything incredible, it is Jon Schaffer at the reigns after all. But a few things struck me about this album that contribute to my liking of it:
-Schaffer seems to have finally started to lay off of the pointless E-F chugga chugga nonsense that burdened their previous stuff. These songs actually feature a variety of chord progressions and riff ideas, which is more than I expected to begin with.
-I've always felt that Iced Earth were at their best when they played more traditional metal stuff (ie The Hunter, Gettysburg, Declaration Day) rather than doing bad thrash or ballads. The contrast was far to drastic and made the albums of the past have little flow. This album focuses much more on the aspects of their sound that I really do enjoy, though I admit as a whole the lack of variety does make a lot of songs lack a strong identity.
-It became increasingly noticeable to me with more listening that this album was definately written when Bobby Jarzombek was still involved on drums, because the drumming bears a lot of his style of playing, a very good thing IMO, which is aided by the fact that I think the drum sound and production on this album is top notch.
on the downside:
-I was expecting a bit more out of the "Something Wicked Pt 1 and 2" when it comes to their relationships to the parts of the original trilogy. It's obvious there was a similarity but I was hoping for a little bit more.
-Tim Owens can't seem to control himself. I'm not the biggest fan of his voice to begin with but I admit I really don't mind his vocals provided he sticks to actually singing normally (ie Ten Thousand Strong chorus) rather than whining or screaming. I'm not a huge Barlow fanboy, I just don't really care for a lot of what Owens does.
-The interludes are too frequent and a little lengthy. A number of them shouldn't be there to begin with and some of them should've just been tracked at the end of other tracks. This album could've been better off as like 14 tracks and 60 minutes rather than 19 and 70.
But all in all, I really do like the album. With each listen it continues to grow on me. I know about 1 in 15 people are going to agree with me, but I don't really care.