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Old 01-18-2012, 05:15 AM   #742 (permalink)
Trollheart
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Part II: Lone wolf back in the fold: the prodigal returns

Accident of birth --- 1997 (CMC International)



As I say above, Bruce released his third solo album in 1996. Called “Skunkworks”, he wanted it to be released under that name, ie not his, but the label forced him to pin his own name to it, thinking it would not sell otherwise. They were probably right, but then, it didn't sell that well anyway, possibly due to being apparently a big shift away from his rock/metal roots, while this one gets right back to those roots. But it still didn't shift the units. No pleasing some people!

The album is also notable, not only for the introduction of Adrian Smith, but for the reunion with artist Derek Riggs, who created Eddie and who did the artwork on most of the Iron Maiden album covers, including such well-known icons as “Killers”, “Number of the beast” and “Powerslave”. As a result of both events, I expect this album to have a much more Maiden feel. We shall see though.

Well it certainly opens heavily enough, as “Freak” shoulders its way onto the stage, and right away the familiar twin guitar attack is back, and this sounds a lot more like Maiden, though still with Dickinson's own solo persona imprinted on it. Rocking along nicely, it's great to hear Adrian Smith's guitar licks in there: sounds like old friends reunited indeed. There's a short (thirty-seven seconds!) instrumental in “Toltec 7 arrival” --- an instrumental but with a gutteral voiceover behind it --- then “Starchildren” is a heavy metal mid-paced cruncher --- sounds like something Steve Harris might have written --- with big, busy guitars and thumping bass, then “Taking the queen” turns everything on its head.

Utilising for the first time strings arrangement, Bruce introduces violin and cello into a hard-edged rocker with balladic elements, creating quite a song and indeed possibly a standout, even this early in the album. A fine solo from Smith recalls the best of early Iron Maiden, the strings really adding a new dimension to the music, making this a powerful, emotional tour-de-force for Dickinson, maybe a personal best. It feeds into the longest track on the album, at almost seven minutes, the epic “Riders of Aquarius”, almost as good as the previous track, with some finger-burning fretwork and a great vocal performance from Bruce. Slowing down in the middle, and with an almost lute-like guitar passage, it's close to Dickinson's “Rime of the ancient mariner”, a real saga, another standout as this album just gets better and better.

Everything speeds back up then for “Road to Hell”, powerful drumming from Ingraham driving the track on, while Jaz Z and Adrian Smith make their presence count in no uncertain fashion, each trying to outdo the other on their guitar solos. Another standout then in “Man of sorrows”, where for the first time Bruce utilises piano, played by Richard Baker, and reintroducing Silvia Tsai on the violin and Rebecca Yeh on the cello, creating a lovely, full and dramatic atmosphere for his excellent ballad, perhaps his best so far. Or maybe that was “Tears of the dragon”? Well, they're both fantastic songs.

The title track, then, is a big, monstrous slab of industrial rock to begin with, then becomes a solid metal rocker, loping along like a wolf pursuing its prey. It runs directly into “The magician”, which is ok but comes across as very much an Iron Maiden song, while “Welcome to the pit” kind of just goes past without making any real mark. “Omega”, on the other hand, is a big, brooding, powerful cruncher which grabs the attention, with some really laidback, almost Gilmouresque guitar which later breaks out into a real Maiden-type axe duel as the song gets heavier and faster. Clocking in at almost six and a half minutes, it's the second longest on the album and yet another standout.

Closer “Arc of spades” is another surprise: an acoustic ballad which brings back for one final time the violin of Tsai and the cello of Yeh, beautifully complementing the acoustic and Spanish guitars, a really gorgeous and powerful end to the album.

TRACKLISTING

1. Freak
2. Toltec 7 arrival
3. Starchildren
4. Taking the queen
5. Darkside of Aquarius
6. Road to Hell
7. Man of sorrows
8. Accident of birth
9. The magician
10. Welcome to the pit
11. Omega
12. Arc of space

So from a somewhat shaky start, it seems Bruce Dickinson quickly established himself as a viable solo artiste. Having tried out some new things on his first album, it appears that he soon reverted back to the rock/metal formula that has served him so well over the years, and I can only say that the last two of his albums I've listened to here are a huge improvement over his debut.

In 1999, after realising that Blaze Bayley was just not working out as the new Iron Maiden singer, the band parted company with him and negotiations were opened with Bruce, who eventually returned to the fold, along with Adrian Smith, the reunion serving to reinvigorate what had become a tired band, a shadow of their former selves. Back in the band, not surprisingly Bruce concentrated on Iron Maiden and put his solo career on hold.

But not for good. Which means we have one more of his solo albums to tackle, and it's his most current, and last so far, released seven years ago now, in 2005. Should he come up with a seventh solo album, it will mark the longest hiatus between any of his output, the biggest gap to date being between the debut in 1990 and its follow up in 1994. Of course, his return to the mothership explains that break in his solo work, but with a new Iron Maiden album and tour currently occupying his time, it seems unlikely that we'll see any further solo material, if at all, from Bruce for another few years.



Tyranny of souls --- 2005 (Sanctuary)



Right from the off there's a sense of a change, kind of in line with the newer, more progressive sound that characterised the more recent Iron Maiden albums, which is ironic, as this was a key element in Bruce's original decision to depart, and once he came back they were more prog-metal than ever! And now his most recent solo album reflects that same change, or continuance in direction. “Mars within” is a synthy, deep keyboard melody that models itself on the classical composition by Gustav Holst, “Mars: the bringer of war” (trust me, you've heard it before. It's used in so many different films, soundtracks, ads and even precedes Diamond Head's “Am I evil”?) with a muttered growl of a backing track vocal, then the first track proper is “Abduction”, and really, if it sounds like anything it sounds like a current Iron Maiden track.

Adrian Smith does not take part on this album, presumably having his plate full with being back with Maiden, and although Jay Z again co-writes and plays on the album with Bruce (it was apparently his idea to do the thing, which helps to further explain why there was such a gap between this and the last solo album) the Tribe of Gypsies are absent, and keyboard player Maestro Mistheria adds a new dimension to the music with his clever synth lines and deep organ melodies. “Soul intruders” is another rocker, well constructed but again hard to distinguish from a Maiden song. Great guitar work from Jay, with solid basslines from Juan Perez for this and the previous track, though bass duties for the rest of the album are taken by Ray “Geezer” Burke (anything to Geezer Butler from Black Sabbath? No?) and powerful, steamhammer drumming from David Moreno, Bruce as ever in fine vocal form.

“Kill Devil Hill” tells the story of the Wright Brothers' first successful manned flight, and rocks along nicely, a mid-paced cruncher with a lot of Maidenesque guitar, which is a little odd, as Adrian Smith is not on the album, so I can only assume Jay Z has been influenced by him. Mistheria's synth arrangements set a really storylike atmosphere as the song begins to slow towards the end, with gorgeous little guitar licks from Z, and expressive bass. “Navigate the seas of the sun” opens with acoustic guitar and eerie synth, as Bruce sings of aliens who may have visited us in our prehistory and been treated as gods. The song stays generally acoustic, and quite laidback in a midpaced kind of way. My favourite on the album so far.

There's a good rock cruncher then in “River of no return”, with some great heavy bass and some really nice piano and keyboard lines from Mistheria, then things kick into high gear for “Power of the sun”, but with a few exceptions most of this is sounding so similar to Iron Maiden songs that it's hard to judge the album on the merits of being a solo effort, and I'm beginning to think that, while going back to the band was undoubtedly the best thing for Maiden and their music, and for Bruce, it seems to have stymied his creative juices as far as his own separate work is concerned. Course, there are three tracks yet to go, so he may produce something very un-Maiden, but I'm not laying any smart money down. The individualism that characterised much of the last two albums at least seems to have disappeared, and I'm basically listening to an Iron Maiden album.

Hmm. Despite the metal title, “Devil on a hog” revisits the AOR stylings of his debut, with a really catchy hook and some muted guitar. I wouldn't see this on a Maiden album! Nice vocal harmonies. Pretty damn good. Impressive solo from Jay Z. Could it be this album will finish strongly? Well, “Believil” (see what he did there?) is a final stab at Black Sabbath territory, and it's not half bad, though the joke does wear a little thin over the span of its almost five minutes, then we close with the title track.

Loosely based on Shakespeare's famous play “The Tempest” --- which, incidentally, also featured in the title of Maiden's comeback album, “Brave new world” --- it's an epic closer, with harpsichord-like opening and soft vocals from Bruce, then the guitars wind up and it becomes a slow metal cruncher in the mould of Metallica almost: how's that for full circle? Slow, grinding drumming and doomy guitar counterpoint Bruce's increasingly angry vocal, the guitar getting fluid and vibrant for the chorus.

TRACKLISTING

1. Mars within
2. Abduction
3. Soul intruders
4. Kill Devil Hill
5. Navigate the seas of the sun
6. River of no return
7. Power of the sun
8. Devil on a hog
9. Believil
10. A tyranny of souls


It's a decent finish to what is in the end a decent album, but not a great album. I much prefer some of the other ones we featured here. What is clear is that Bruce created some fine music while apart from Iron Maiden, but once he went back it would appear that all his energies were --- probably rightly --- devoted to the band, leaving little over for his solo projects. Nevertheless, as a solo artist he produced some really fine music, and can justifiably be proud of what he has done.

Given that he has also had his own radio show for eight years, made TV shows and was employed as a fulltime airline pilot, it's quite staggering that Bruce managed to record even one solo album, never mind six. On the basis of that, you would have to give him respect and say that he really has tried, and succeeded, in just about everything he has ever attempted. What next for the once-bullied son of an army mechanic?
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