Music Banter - View Single Post - Is the Number of the Beast Up: Iron Maiden 1986 - 2015
View Single Post
Old 05-15-2021, 02:19 PM   #17 (permalink)
Born to be mild
Trollheart's Avatar
Join Date: Oct 2008
Location: 404 Not Found
Posts: 25,119

Chapter III: Sibling Rivalry: Fanfare for the Common Metalhead

Hell don't worry: I'm not going to take this album apart. It wouldn't even be here as an example of how Maiden began to veer off the path were it not for the fact that it very clearly indicates their initial interest in expanding into progressive territory, something they had dabbled with slightly as far back as 1980, when “Phantom of the Opera” could conceivably be considered their first suite (although not broken into sections like a traditional prog rock suite), followed later by “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and maybe even “Alexander the Great”. This however was the first time they had a) based their music on one subject, in this case the novel Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card and b) written a concept album focussed on that material, so it's hard not to see the album as a progressive rock or metal one.

That would have been fine had they left it at that. Seventh Son of a Seventh Son stands as almost the last point in their golden period (I don't consider Somewhere in Time part of that, but you can't ignore it), giving them a good run of seven albums – five from the Dickinson era – that really all but defy criticism. After this, the slide towards mediocrity comes really quickly.

But right now we're talking about this album, and it has all the great signs about it. Eddie towers over the fantasy city on the cover in almost a nod back to Powerslave and to some extent The Number of the Beast, and the boys have had the sense not only to make this an album of ten or fifteen songs, keeping it to a modest eight, but they also resisted the urge to make any of them really long, as had been the case on the previous outing. Here, only one stands out – admittedly it's almost ten minutes long, but it is the title track, and anyway Maiden had been doing ONE long song on just about every album since, well, the debut. Or one song over seven minutes anyway. So there's no big seismic shift here.

Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988)

It's true to say though that Seventh Son is something of a missed opportunity; as Bruce himself would say years later, they didn't see the project through. There's no actual story here, no plot as it were, and though the songs are all linked by common themes – the future, madness, life and death – it's really not enough to call it a concept album, no more than the previous one was. But it's a step in that direction, and maybe because they had started down that path, though they had stumbled, they decided to explore it further. That decision would lead them into increasingly dark, tangled woods from which they would find it all but impossible to find their way back, until two shining lights pierced the gloom in 2000 and led them back to familiar ground.

But that's a long, long way away at this point, and the journey was only beginning, nobody aware what was waiting at its terminus.

This time around, there's plenty for Bruce to do. Steve apparently rang him up after he got the idea for the theme of the album, but had no songs, and between the two they wrote three of the eight songs here, though Harris being Harris, there are also three solo efforts from him. It strikes me as odd that, given he had no idea what the songs were going to be, and asked Bruce for ideas, that the title track ends up being his work alone. Bruce also collaborates with Adrian Smith on the opener, and Dave Murray has a writing credit with Steve for “The Prophecy”.

The album cover appears strikingly different to me. Up to now, Maiden album covers had been mostly dark, using yellows, oranges and blacks, and even though some blue had leaked in for the sky above Egypt on Powerslave, the bulk of that cover is yellow – yellow sandstone, yellow sand, yellow pyramids and yellow temple. Here we have, for the first time, almost exclusively blue, and it's as if the dark has been dispelled and light has come through, though there's no concern that this is going to be anything like an album of love songs or ambient music – Eddie's presence on the cover takes care of that. Still, it is, for want of another description, a relaxing cover.

Oh, and I've checked: it's not his or anyone else's heart in Eddie's hand, but a baby. All right.

Of the eight songs here, I can say with confidence I like five of them, and the others I just don't recall too well, so while reviewing this now I may end up adding to that total. I'm pretty certain there are no tracks on it that I actively don't like, much less hate.
Spoiler for Seventh Son:

Moonchild (5:38)

Opening on a deceptive acoustic guitar and Bruce's vocal, the album kicks off with dark, rising keyboards – proper ones this time, not keytars – already giving it a feeling of more progressive than heavy metal, and though the guitars of course kick in alongside the bass and thumping drums, there's a feeling of a seachange about Maiden here. Once it gets going the song romps along nicely, with a great hook in the chorus and Bruce in fine form, cackling and grinning evilly, while Dave and Adrian rack off the solos as usual and it's a powerful start.

Infinite Dreams (6:08)

A slower, more low-key opening to this track, though I doubt anyone would call it a ballad. Definitely more restrained, from Bruce's voice to the lads on guitar, and I don't hear much in the way of keyboards as yet. Again quite a progressive rock feel to it, nowhere near as punchy as we've come to expect from Maiden songs, but still undeniably Maiden. Halfway through it takes off one one of those rocking guitar rides which sort of puts me in mind slightly of “The Prisoner” and maybe “The Trooper”, the two guitars chiming and harmonising really well. I would have to be honest and say I don't hear a hook in this song at all, which may be one of the reasons why I tend not to remember it that well. After all, it's the hook we usually remember, but this is still a damn good song. I'd definitely put it on a somewhat lower level than “Moonchild” and some of the others though. I'm also not fond of the ending, but there you go.

Can I Play With Madness (3:30)

Speaking of hooks, this has them in spades, and so it's not hard to see how this was a hit single. Galloping along with a great sense of fun from the beginning, the acapella opening (the first since the title cut on The Number of the Beast, I believe – I wouldn't count “Alexander the Great” as it has the sound of wind accompanying the voice) quickly giving way to a guitar fest and bouncing keyboards, which do, it has to be admitted, add a lot to the song. Bruce tries to be all hard and evil on this one too but you can tell he's really enjoying himself, as are the lads once they let loose with the obligatory solos, though they are kept to a minimum, the song being so short. Ends as it began, and really it's possibly the perfect Maiden song, at least for the radio.

The Evil That Men Do (4:33)

And the good stuff just keeps coming, with a low-key guitar intro giving way to rolling drums and an insistent beat. Again that hook comes in, and it's really hard not to remember this song long after the album is over. In fact, the hook is both in the bridge and the chorus, which is not a unique occurrence but not a standard one. Bruce is back to cackling and growling at his best, some good vocal harmonies (minimal really but they work) and a relatively short burst of guitar solo sets fire to this song; it's one I could probably have wished was longer, though I'm sure it's exactly the right length it needs to be. I hear more of “The Trooper” in the melody there, just a little, and this time the abrupt ending is justified.

Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (9:52)

Were it not for that song, this would stand as Maiden's longest up to this point, only eight seconds short of ten minutes. That said, it is the only one that comes even close to that length, so it doesn't seem as if the boys are dragging things out, and given that this is, in essence, a progressive metal album, well, you probably knew there would be at least one really epic track on it, didn't you? There's a long intro, as you might expect, and in many ways it harks back to the days of Powerslave, with a kind of chant of praise and a very Egyptian feel to it, a much slower track but not the least bit less heavy. Actually, I'm wrong: the intro isn't that long and Bruce gets singing about the second minute. It occupies the kind of territory that songs like “To Tame a Land” and, to a lesser extent, “Stranger in a Strange Land” and “Alexander the Great” have trod before, perhaps a little too fleshed out by the standard “Whoa-oh-oh”s, but they fit in well.

You can see it as a sort of semi-suite, to quote Tom Waits, with the first part, the slower, marching and perhaps introductory section taking us to the fourth minute before it slows down on Adrian's introspective guitar which leads into a dark spoken vocal from Bruce and gives Steve a real chance to bring the bass front and centre almost, though not quite, in a “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” vein. It's almost an interlude in some ways, driven all but solo on the bass and synth with a choral vocal coming up in the background giving the song a sort of sepulchral, reverent feeling, then for the third movement, if you will, the guitars punch back in again just before the seventh minute and some fine fretwork takes place as the solos rip through the tune, but the feeling is very much of a song rooted in progressive rock, especially the early Yes or Rush style of thing. More chanting and whoa-oh-oh-ing, but essentially it's an instrumental finish, and a fine one.

The Prophecy (5:04)

One of the songs I either don't care for, or can't remember enough to care for, it slides in on soft acoustic and then electric guitar and lush keyboards, sort of puts me in mind of “Infinite Dreams”, but then breaks down into a rolling, galloping, loping run on the guitar, a sort of almost blues feel to it. Not quite vocal harmonies here – not sure what you call them: staggered maybe? Bruce sings one thing and then a second or so behind him he sings another almost call-and-response sort of idea. The guitar work here sounds like it comes from the sessions for Somewhere in Time, then bursts out into a solo worthy of The Number of the Beast or Powerslave. Yeah it's still one of the weaker tracks for me, and again without a hook you can hold on to. No real chorus even, which makes it even harder to get a handle on the melody. Some nice almost medieval bass there at the end, reminds me of something but I can't quite put my finger on it right now.

The Clairvoyant (4:26)

Another one I don't recall making too much of an impression on me the last time I listened to this album. Good bass line opening it certainly and then some choppy guitar, with a really nice motif when it gets going. Moves along at a nice pace, faster than the previous two, kicking the tempo of the album back up as it heads towards its conclusion. Can't say I'm impressed by the chorus though; seems very weak. Good guitar work from Dave 'n' Adrian keeps it moving and it ends strongly, but yeah, again, not one of the better tracks, which is to say, weaker than the really strong ones. But not a bad song, all in all.

Only the Good Die Young (4:40)

And speaking of ending strongly, as a kind of bookend for the album this works really well. The start of it does seem a little abrupt, like it came out of nowhere, or was meant to follow on from another track, but that's a small niggle in an otherwise brilliant song. The boys really don't put a foot wrong on this closer, and it's the one that stays in your head and on your lips as you pack the album away/shut the file down. Great hook, the first song on side two that seems to have one, wonderful driving beat, and it doesn't rely so much on the guitar solos this time – though they are there – instead standing as a piece of music in its own right. Bruce puts in a terrific final performance, and you might be tempted to think this was the last time he really enjoyed himself on an Iron Maiden album. I like the sign-off in the lyric: “So until the next time, have a good sin!” Powerful, crashing guitar ending with a real punch to the jaw as it explodes to its end. Superb. And then the coda as the opening line from the album is repeated. You could, quite easily, make this an endless loop, which might not be a bad thing.

I mentioned that this album seems to have been the last time Bruce enjoyed himself, and I think you could extend that to the rest of the band too. I'm not sure how Dave, Steve and Nicko felt about the change in direction they took from the next album on, but they don't seem as cohesive a unit from this till the time of the departures, Adrian first and then Bruce. So to a very real degree, allowing for the weaknesses on Somewhere in Time, you could say this is the end of an era. Either the first period of Iron Maiden, from the debut to now, or the second, from The Number of the Beast. Either way, the next album would show a marked difference to the last two albums – oddly enough, not due to long tracks or the interest in progressive rock, almost the opposite – as the band seemed to struggle to find ideas, melodies, but not hits, as the next album gave them their first ever number one.

Ah yes, but one silver lining can't dispel the dark clouds, and the thunderheads were massing on the horizon, about to burst in a deluge of mediocrity, disappointment and lack of ambition.

And under that cloud, one man would decide he had had enough.
Trollheart: Signature-free since April 2018

Last edited by Trollheart; 09-09-2021 at 04:56 PM.
Trollheart is offline   Reply With Quote