As the cover artwork would suggest, Iced Earth's fourth album, 1996's The Dark Saga, is a concept album based on the popular Todd MacFarlane comic book series Spawn. Though most of the album poses the band in an uncommonly laid-back, non-thrashy mood, the songwriting of leader and guitarist Jon Schaffer is at an all-time inspirational high. In fact the band knocks out both the title track and the excellent "I Died for You" before the furious "Violate" provides the first taste of a double kick drum. Versatile singer Matthew Barlow is impressive throughout but the remarkable interplay between Schaffer and lead guitarist Randall Shawver is the album's true highlight, most notably on the dual harmonies of "The Hunter." Some of the momentum is lost with "The Suffering," a three-song suite that tends to plod along at times, but overall this is a strong album, and one of the band's best. ~ Eduardo Rivadavia, Rovi

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