Music Banter - View Single Post - Is the Number of the Beast Up: Iron Maiden 1986 - 2015
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Old 09-09-2021, 02:59 PM   #19 (permalink)
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Chapter V: Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Darkness Closes In

I watched an interview with Bruce a while back, and he was holding forth with considerable amusement and surprise as to how even in the most remote of places the band were known and liked. He made a joke that there could be a tribe lost for centuries in the Patagonian rainforests who, when discovered, grinned “Favourite album? Fear of the Dark!” Now, sure, that was just a joke, but in reality I doubt there are too many metalheads, never mind Maiden fans (Maidenheads? Ah, no) who would rate this album anywhere near the top, and certainly not as their favourite. It's not that it's a bad album, but at best it's a good album, and frankly that's not good enough for Maiden. It suffers from a lot of bad tracks, which we will get into in due course, and I fear (sorry) the few good ones can't disguise the overall mediocrity of the music here in general.

I’m always slightly ambivalent about this album though. Being the last to feature Bruce for the next ten years, I so wanted it to be perfect that I compare myself to a parent who struggles with a problem child; I make all the excuses I can for why it is below par, and yet, in the end, I can’t help but admit the uncomfortable truth. Here it is that the album, my "problem child"* does not form a fitting departure for the man, more a quiet, almost embarrassed exit than a dramatic one.

The title of the album I find interesting. There may of course be no major significance to it – Steve Harris is well known for his love of horror movies, so the title would certainly fit in to that – but I tend to wonder if it has deeper meaning? Fear of the dark is essentially a fear of the unknown: when we're little (and not so little) we're at our most terrified and on-edge when we can't see what's around us. It is, in all cases, the terror of what might be lurking out there in the shadows that plays on our imagination, makes sheets draped over chairs into ghosts, calls to us with the voice of vampire or witch from the banging window that someone forgot to close properly, treads with the creaking step of the axe-wielding homicidal maniac on the squeaky stair, and makes every sound of a house settling at night, well, unsettling. We fancy we hear whispers, see things, catch sudden movement or that eyes are staring at us out of the dark, eyes that mean us harm.

If we've recently watched something scary, or if – as often happens no matter how hard we fight against it – something scary comes to our minds, something we may not have thought of for a long time (my own favourite horror is Eugene Tooms from The X-Files, always scares the shit out of me, and always comes to me in the darkness) then the fear is amplified as we imagine that thing, person or situation suddenly coming to life in the stygian gloom of our bedroom. We may want desperately to jump out of bed and turn on the light, but are frozen with fear and cannot do so. We may cautiously draw back beneath the covers feet that have slipped out, worried something nameless will reach out from beneath the bed and drag us under. We might squeeze our eyes tight shut, reluctant to, but perversely forcing ourselves to open them as our logical inner voice tells us there is nothing to be afraid of, in time to see the rampant, undisciplined memories playing in our minds run out and leak out of our eyes, painting shapes that we know are not there, cannot be there, cannot be real, yet make us quickly shut our eyes again and pray for the morning.

Of course, in the morning all fears are banished. Shapes that took on terrifying significance while the moon held court vanish in the calming rays of the sun, creaks and moans and thumps that tormented our attempts to sleep are replaced by birdsong, traffic, the sound of people moving in the street, maybe sirens or music as the world breathes a sigh and lives, moving into another day. All is well with the world, and there is no reason to fear, or at least, no reason to fear the dark. Sadly, there is much to fear in the world of light, but we can consign the terrors of the night to the region of nonsense and feel slightly ashamed that such easily explainable events and sounds caused us so much trepidation.

Until night falls again.

But the point is that, to go back to what I was saying, fear of the dark is almost always a fear of the unknown, and I wonder if Iron Maiden were concerned with what the future might bring? With Adrian gone, and Bruce soon to follow him, the core of the band was breaking down. Yes, true, Bruce had not been there from the start, but then nobody really had. The oldest member, other than Harris, is Dave Murray, who later recruited Adrian. Nevertheless, it's true to say that the Iron Maiden who went on to conquer the world, i.e. post-Di'Anno, can be considered the core lineup of Harris/Murray/Dickinson/Smith/Burr, and this means that with the imminent exit of Dickinson, only two original members of the band would be left.

I feel it could be that the band feared how they would go on without the frontman who had been with them for ten years by now, and who had become, in all ways possible, the face of the band as well as its voice. Harris had worked without him, of course, but while it would be unfair and inaccurate to attribute all their success to Bruce, the band had found fame under the new image, when Maiden mostly ditched the rawer, more punky edge of their sound and had gone in a much more commercial direction which landed them very quickly in the mainstream consciousness and right at the top of the pile, a position from which it has proved almost impossible to dislodge them, even after nearly forty years. While I'm sure Harris was not naive enough to think that Bruce was Iron Maiden, he must have worried how to replace him, with whom, and how the fans would take it.

Iron Maiden were not a band who could conceivably continue as an instrumental one, unlike Genesis, who considered going in this direction on the departure of Peter Gabriel, or who had potential singers within their ranks. Other than backing vocals, I don't believe any of the others ever sang on any Maiden song, so a new vocalist was not going to suddenly make himself known from within the band. That would mean going outside, and as Genesis found with Ray Wilson, fans often don't like that. Not to mention those who would consider themselves loyal to Bruce (again, look at Marillion when Fish left) the very idea of a new face and voice behind the mike, singing Dickinson standards such as “The Trooper”, “Aces High” or “Run to the Hills” probably made the vast majority of fans queasy to contemplate, and may in fact have put in the minds of many the idea that their beloved band was dead. This could not have helped but increase Harris's concern, and that of the remaining band members too.

As for Bruce, what was his fear? Well, they were many of course. His frustration with the direction the band had taken on at least No Prayer For the Dying had only increased as they recorded Fear of the Dark, and I think it shows in his singing, of which more very soon. His attempts to divide his time between recording with Maiden and his own solo career must have made things difficult, both for him and the band, and, like any long-established member of a band contemplating parting ways with them, there must have been a number of fears. Would the band survive without him (worse, perhaps: if it did, would it thrive in his absence, showing him that he was not in fact indispensable? One of the worst things I imagine is to leave a project you believe is all but yours, only to find that the fans go on with your replacement and in time you're all but forgotten) or would his departure lead to its break-up, and if the latter, could he live with that? Would his own solo career, no longer as bolstered by that of his parent band, crash and burn? Had the fans only supported him because of who he was, and, in leaving their first love, would be become a pariah, accused of betraying the band who “made him”? Would his records bomb, Maiden fans ignore his work, and might he, in the end, have to crawl back, cap in hand, to beg Harris to take him back?

Who knows? Maybe none of these things went through the mind of anyone. But if you want to expand it, what about the fears of the fans? I know I was upset – more than upset – when I heard Bruce was leaving. After all, I had come to Maiden via The Number of the Beast: Dickinson represented my first ever experience of the band, indeed, of heavy metal itself. His presence within Iron Maiden was all but part of my DNA, and to imagine him leaving, well, it was like thinking of Ozzy leaving Sabbath. Oh. Wait. Right. Well, anyway, I'm sure I wasn't the first or only fan to worry what would happen to the band without Bruce, and as it turned out, those fears weren't groundless in the least, as we'll see in the next chapter.

So while you can argue – and quite rightly, probably – that the concept of fear of the dark is, or could be, no more ominous than not having a prayer for the dying or finding you'd lost a little piece of your mind, and that may be all it means: it's Iron Maiden, and we live to scare the shit out of you when it's dark, I think personally fear – real fear, based on real things, not just shapes lurking or crouching in the dark (or indeed, up trees) – runs almost like a virus through this album, tainting the music and holding back the genius, whatever remained of it at this point, and we're left with an album that falls far short of what Iron Maiden could do, and had done, and perhaps shows us how after all it was not such a leap of logic to think that Bruce had had enough.

Fear is not a good motivator for musicians. It can be: if your fear hinges on the worry that your music won't sell, won't be good enough, then maybe it spurs you to go the extra mile and make sure you write and play the very best you can. But if fear is allied to doubt, doubt about the future, doubt about the very existence of your band after this, then it can be crippling, and I think that comes through almost every song here. Not only that, but it you want to call them deaths (bit over-dramatic, but it suits my purposes), you have not only that of Dickinson (and ostensibly Iron Maiden themselves) but also Derek Riggs, who would not draw the album cover here for the first time, and never would again until Bruce's return, and their longtime producer Martin Birch, who would retire after this album.

You'd have to say, the weight of Iron Maiden's history lies heavily on this album, and in some ways it's not that surprising that (forgive the tree allegory but I couldn't resist) when the wind blew, the bough bent, and would very shortly break, scattering metaphorical cradles in all directions, engendering much weeping and gnashing of teeth. The wilderness years were waiting in the wings, and as the title of my piece says, the darkness was closing in.

Fear of the Dark (1992)
Spoiler for Fear of the Dark:

Be Quick or Be Dead (3:21)

The first thing I noticed about this album, right from the off, was Bruce’s voice. I mean, it’s hard for it not to be the focal point of the music anyway, given who he is, but that makes it all the more hard to take when his voice is below par. And it is, here. Gone is the deep growl, the controlled roar, even the air-raid siren scream. Here, as “Be Quick or Be Dead” opens, I’m jarred by the scratchy, screechy quality of the Maiden mainman’s vocal, and the only real accurate way I can describe it is as “witchy”. He shrieks the vocal, his voice seeming as if it’s going to crack. The song is, to be fair, standard Maiden fare, and certainly gets you headbanging from the start, and it’s short - as indeed, are most of the tracks. But in a way that’s worse. If Maiden songs suffer from being too long you can at least point to that as the failing; here, there’s nowhere to hide. These songs, for the most part, are just bad because, well, because they’re bad.

“Be Quick or Be Dead” gives you hope, despite the weak vocal, that the album is going to be an improvement over No Prayer for the Dying, though that hope soon fades. Interesting though: for some reason I always thought this was a song based on the Wild West (maybe because there’s a movie with a similar title that is set there) but now I see it’s a political song about scandals. Well, who knew? Yeah well I didn’t. Anyway, Maiden tend, or used to tend, to always kick off the album on a good fast rocker, and this is no exception. It certainly scratches the itch, after waiting two years for a new album. In some ways, the track is a little too short and living up to its title, it’s a case of be quick or you may miss it.

From Here to Eternity (3:35)

Things keep rocking nicely here, though the sexual innuendoes are a little embarrassing, to say nothing of the terrible group chorus, surely went down well onstage, but in the song itself it’s poor. It's my belief that the tongue of Harris, who wrote this solo, is lodged firmly in his cheek here, as you can’t take this seriously. It even sort of parodies The Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane” to some extent. It’s a real, dare I say it, brain-dead rocker song, and was obviously aimed at the biker brigade, with whom I’m sure it went down like a bottle of Jack, but Maiden don’t write songs like this. This is poor, poor, poor. Even the ending is contrived. Just bloody awful, and the again frankly embarrassing grin from Bruce at the end makes me want to puke. This is the band who wrote “Hallowed be Thy Name”, remember? Motorhead write these sort of live-fast-die-young songs, not Iron Maiden. Oh lord save me! Things are beginning to tilt downwards, my son!

Afraid to Shoot Strangers (6:52)

Thankfully, Harris redeems himself without question and in fine style, with a song that harks back to the classic Maiden period and even borrows a little from the basic melody of “To Tame a Land” as the second politically-motivated song, this one including themes of the Gulf War and PTSD, restores order and reminds us we’re listening to Maiden, not Metallica. Opening on a lilting almost acoustic guitar intro, the song allows Bruce to find his voice, dropping the screech this time and letting him drop into a far lower register as he reminds us why he’s the man, or was. The guitar backdrop is quiet and laid-back, but we know of course that Gers and Murray are just waiting to pounce, and we anticipate that event with delight. The song smoulders along like a fuse burning down to the big explosion we know is coming.

Nicko’s drums keep a slow, doomy beat as he ushers the song along, the track itself one of the two longest on the album, almost seven minutes, and not a second wasted. I’m glad to hear that Dickinson, while singing lines of bitter sarcasm, manages or chooses to do so in a sort of matter-of-fact, almost bland manner, rather than growl or hiss them, or spit vitriol. There’s a hint of the powerful breakout solos to come nearly halfway through, but the song so far remains basically slow and low-key. It’s only now, too, that the chorus comes in, and as it dies out the boys gear up and we’re off. The whole tempo changes as everything is kicked up a notch, and when Bruce comes back with the vocal it’s strong, but not this time screechy: the Bruce, for a short time, of old. In the end, the song slips back into its slower, more laid-back groove and finishes well. Unlike the first two, its almost humble style is what wins it points from me: whereas the other two (and more like it, later) sort of scream for attention, “Afraid to Shoot Strangers” quietly but firmly sets its stall out, and without any hawking or promises to lower prices, you feel compelled to buy.

Fear is the Key (5:30)

To some extent, I think this can be considered (by me, at any rate) as the second in a trilogy of decent tracks on the album. I don’t say this is by any means as good as the one that has gone before it, far from it, but it’s less mediocre than some that are to come, and it’s followed again by a half-all right song. I know this is damning with faint praise, but it’s the best I can do. Still, I must admit, I question the wisdom of having two songs on the album with the word “fear” in them, which can only, if anything, drive home the point I was making in the intro. Then again, this is a band that uses the definite article as if it’s all but mandatory in song titles - they do, however, restrict it to just two on this one - so perhaps I should not be surprised.

That said, “Fear is the Key” is written about the AIDS pandemic, and in the wake of the death of Freddie Mercury, with Bruce, who co-wrote it with Gers, opining hotly that no real notice was taken of the virus until famous people began to die, which is true to some extent. Up to the time of Mercury’s passing, it was kind of the “dirty disease”, with certain people of questionable morals calling it a judgement from God on the gay community. Stupid, and disproved too, when it became clear heterosexuals could catch it too, but to be expected, because as the title again tells us, fear is the key, and as we know, fear drives us to lash out often.

It’s a slow marching sort of tune in the vein of Dio’s “Egypt (The Chains Are on)” or Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell”, and glad to hear Dickinson’s voice seems to be back to some measure of normality. There’s definitely a sense of eastern/Arabic melody here in the guitars, and given that “Afraid to Shoot Strangers” speeds up halfway, it’s the first really slow song on the album, though hardly a ballad, even if it does reference love and sex. As Bruce sings “Now we live in a world of uncertainty” you have to wonder if he’s giving little hints about his own plans for the future, not to mention the follow-up line “You’re outnumbered by the bastards”, though I doubt he thought of his bandmates in that way. Technically speaking, the song does take a slight uptick in tempo halfway, but it must be noted that all the band are doing here is repeating the opening verses with slightly different melodies behind them. It’s, well, it has to be said: it’s lazy, isn’t it?

Even the solos seem more of an afterthought, as if the guys know the fans expect them, or as if the song, with its five-and-a-half minute running time, might struggle to retain their attention and interest without some fretburning, but really it’s second-rate, and while this is, as I noted above, one of the better songs, it’s telling that it really wouldn’t stand up to being on a classic Maiden album, not even close. It is, to be blunt, one of a few of the best of a bad lot.
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Last edited by Trollheart; 11-23-2021 at 06:43 PM.
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