Music Banter - View Single Post - Is the Number of the Beast Up: Iron Maiden 1986 - 2015
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Old 09-09-2021, 03:49 PM   #20 (permalink)
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Childhood’s End (4:37)

Things kick back into high gear then for, if you like, the third of the more decent tracks, and it will be almost the end of the album before we come across anything else that can fall into this category in my opinion. I probably have a soft spot for this song because it’s also the title of a Marillion track, but that’s just me, and this is nothing like their song. Not that you’d expect it to be. Driven on Nicko’s rolling, thunderous percussion, it comes in on a sharp guitar intro from Dave or Janick, or both, before it takes off, and here again I feel Bruce’s voice is straining a little, not quite cracking as it did on the opener, but shaky certainly. It’s another Harris solo effort, and contains a pretty cool guitar motif, but again it’s lacking something. Well, almost everything really. It’s kind of a cross between “Two Minutes to Midnight” and “Die With Your Boots On”, but missing just about all the charm of each, or either of those tracks.

It does break out into an acceptable guitar solo, again about halfway through - Maiden have become nothing if not predictable by this stage - and this helps to lift the song out of the somewhat plodding quagmire it was in danger of falling into. To be entirely fair, it’s the solo that saves it; without that, this song would be very ordinary indeed. Instead, it’s just ordinary. I don’t like the abrupt ending either. Feels like they couldn’t decide how to end it and just had Bruce shout the title. Yeah.

Wasting Love (5:46)

Much has been made about this being Maiden’s first real ballad in I don’t know how many albums, but personally I feel it was a misstep, if there can be such a thing on what is so fundamentally flawed an album. This wasn’t what the fans wanted, not on what was to be Dickinson’s swan song. Metal fans, generally, don’t want ballads. Iron Maiden fans definitely don’t want ballads. I doubt there’s any Maiden fan who has written on a blog or forum “why don’t Maiden do more love songs?” There’s surely a reason why the last proper ballad on a Maiden album was back in the Paul Di’Anno era, when 1980’s Killers gave us the surprisingly lush “Prodigal Son”, and why we wouldn’t hear another ballad from the band until, well, ever really. I’d have to check. “Blood Brothers”? I don’t think so. “The Man of Sorrows”? Shrug. Either way, you can very easily count the number of Maiden ballads on one hand, even if you’ve lost a finger or two.

And do we really need another song about love? We’ve already had “Fear is the Key”. What’s with that? Is this an album for chicks or what? Where are the songs about battles and history and motorbikes (yeah) and obscure events and concepts which we’ve become used to hearing these guys sing about? A ballad? Come on guys. Give it a rest. But a ballad it is, and we must review it as such. At least there’s a whiny guitar and a bit of a drum punch to start the track, but then it fades down into introspective guitar (introspective? Iron Maiden? Have I fallen into some sort of alternate dimension?) with a low-key vocal and a pace to rival the most doomy thing you can think of. I mean, it’s not terrible, but does it belong on a Maiden album where the needle is frantically swinging from “All right I suppose” to “Better” and more frequently to “Very poor”? It’s also way too long, almost six minutes.

There’s of course an attempt at a solo, but it’s almost as if the guitars, to paraphrase Queen, want to break free, and are being held in check. I mean, it’s a fucking ballad, guys! How much shredding can you do on a ballad? Answer: not much. And not much is a descriptor I would give to this song as well. I find it quite poor and if it was a gamble to see if the fans would wear another ballad twelve years later, I think it probably was a failed experiment.

And spoiler alert: it’s not going to get much better for a while.

The Fugitive (4:52)

We return to Maiden’s habit of using “the”, and I have to be honest here: they already wrote a song called “The Prisoner” in 1982, so why reuse the theme? Admittedly, that was about a particular prisoner, and the show itself, but the lyric mostly concerned a man on the run. And what’s another word for a man on the run? Sigh. Yes. Fugitive. This is another of the efforts on which Harris holds up his hand and says “It’s all right lads, I got this.” But he doesn’t. Not by a long way. At least it kicks the tempo up the arse, so there is that, but overall it’s a pretty empty song with nothing much to say and as I say above, mostly retreads the ground covered on the Patrick MacGoohan-inspired cut from The Number of the Beast. No matter how many times I listen to this (and I don’t do that often) I can never remember it afterwards, which tells its own story perhaps.

I wonder if it has to do with the series of the same name? It’s possible, and if so then there’s even less reason for its existence, as they did this already, and then repeated themselves on Powerslave with “Back in the Village”, itself pretty unnecessary. Yes, the boys are allowed to cut loose but hell, even the solos sound off; I don’t know what it is, they just sound confused, as if they don’t know what they’re supposed to be playing. This song is just a mess, and it should never have been included on the album. Surely there were better songs left on the cutting room floor, as it were? Way too long for what’s in it. A really shitty hurried ending too, though I guess at least it ends.

Chains of Misery (3:33)

Hey, double the run time and you have… woe to you, O Earth and sea, for the Devil sends, you know. There’s a certain sense of hard rock boogie about this, it sways along nicely, but Bruce’s voice is breaking again. It does have a hook though, which is something a lot of the other tracks lack. There’s also another shouted chorus which again I imagine was fun to do onstage. One thing I’ve noticed so far is that this album is totally devoid of the “whoa-oh-oh” syndrome; hasn’t been a single one up to this point, which, given the weakness of some of the songs, is quite remarkable. Maiden often use this chant as a way, I feel, to support songs that don’t quite cut it, though of course not always, as some of their better songs have the “Whoa-oh-oh” in them. Nevertheless, it seems that often, when they’re not sure what to put in the song they throw a few rounds of this in; it’s almost come to be expected by now, and again it gives the fans something to sing when Maiden go on tour.

But all of that waffle from me serves only to underline how pretty basic and forgettable this song is, even with the aforementioned hook and the fact that it is one of very much the shorter songs on the album. This is also only one of two songs on the album which Dave co-writes, both with Bruce. This is poor, but he does redeem himself later. At least they didn’t try to stretch it out, thank Eddie. Next!

The Apparition (3:53)

And we’re back to the definite article again. Definitely. Sorry. Only twenty seconds longer than “Chains of Misery”, this is one of two written by Harris with Janick Gers, and - let’s be quite clear about this - not only this one, but the other one too is shite. So basically, I don’t think the German can write for shit. The other songs he’s involved in are the opener, with Dickinson, and the poor ballad, again with Bruce. Mind you, he does help him write “Fear is the Key”, so maybe he’s not totally useless. But this song is. The staccato drumbeat following it is boring, the lyric is weak, the diction is really terrible, and it’s another of those tracks I forget as soon as it’s ended.

Bruce’s voice is again raw on this one, very scratchy, even the solo is poor, though either Dave or Bruce’s co-author do their best to lift the song out of the realms of the mediocre, an impossible task really. The word throwaway could have been coined to describe this track, and its only saving grace is that it’s very short, though not short enough.

Judas Be My Guide (3:06)

Things finally begin to look up, with my second-favourite track on the album (though that’s saying very little). From the moment I heard the soaraway guitar opening this I knew we had a different animal on our hands, and this track stands head and shoulders above just about every other track, with the possible exception of the title cut. It’s Maiden from the classic days, when they rocked and shredded and just put their heads down and got on with it. This is Dave and Bruce at their very best, and helps to - almost - wind up the album in fine style. It certainly banishes, temporarily at least, the memory of the last few tracks and we can luxuriate in Maiden the way they’re meant to be.

Bruce is also in next to perfect vocal form on this, the voice we remember from The Number of the Beast and Powerslave. It’s kind of ironic that the almost-best track on the album is also the shortest, a mere few seconds over three minutes. Whereas some of the others would have benefitted, in my opinion, from being cut at least twenty or thirty seconds shorter, or more, I would have listened to another minute of this easily. But such it is, and we have to make do with a nugget of gold among the coal, to be politer than I would like to be. Great solo too, almost restrained but all the better for that. Definitely over too soon, and there aren’t many tracks on this album I can or will say that about.

Weekend Warrior (5:37)

Case in point. Why is a superb song like “Judas Be My Guide” so short and this garbage over five and a half minutes long? Again, I got this one wrong lyrically: I thought it was another one about motorcycle gangs, but I read it’s actually taking as its subject the cancer of football hooliganism. Bruce is back to screeching the vocal and it’s painful to hear, after his sublime performance on the previous song. At least there’s some sort of attempt at introspective guitar, though it doesn’t last. The chorus is lazy and weak, and there’s not a hook to be found in the song anywhere. Even the melody is totally forgettable, and Gers fails (if I can blame him; he does work with Harris on this) for the second time.

In effect, it’s a real pity, as without this the album would have ended very strongly, with “Judas” and the title track, but as it is we’re subjected to this below-par drivel, meaning you can’t even play the last two tracks (well of course you can now, on a playlist or Spotify or whatever, but I’m talking from the point of view of someone who is, or was, used to playing an album either on a CD player or, if you want to get really down into the age of dinosaurs, a turntable) and it just ruins the flow of the latter part of the album. I will give it grudging props for the solo, which is sweet, but there’s no way the song needs to be this long. Or exist at all.

Fear of the Dark (7:16)

They say save the best till last, and while that would not have been hard with this album, the boys do pull it out of the hat on the final stretch. Had this opened the album, I feel I would have been saying that Maiden would have trouble matching its quality, and I’d be right. The rest of the album, mostly, would be judged against this. As it is, it manages to almost snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and at least gives you something decent to be humming to yourself when you switch the album off. As a swansong for Bruce it’s almost perfect, as a return, however brief, to the glory days of Iron Maiden it’s a tempting glance back, perhaps even a vision of what could or might have been, had Bruce stayed, and had the band listened to his ideas for their future. At worst, it’s a killer (pun intended) track that almost, but not quite, makes you forget the dross, mostly, that it supports.

I personally don’t think it’s stretching it to call “Fear of the Dark” Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name” for the nineties, and I can’t think, off-hand, of a single better closing track since that one. No, not even “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, which I love, but this is better. It’s just a pity it comes as a kind of unexpected treat or reward after a hard slog through mostly rubbish music, sort of like knocking on doors and being rebuffed every time, with the final door being your big sale. Surprise, you know, but a good one. The fact that it runs for over seven minutes is very acceptable, especially since longer closing tracks have become something of a hallmark of this band, and I don’t believe it’s in any way overstretched.

From the hammering guitar which opens it, to the fade down to quieter, almost acoustic guitar before Bruce comes in all but whispering the vocal, you just know this song is going to repay you, make it worthwhile that you stuck it out to the end. You can feel the joy rising (I said, the joy! If something else is rising that’s your affair!) as Maiden finally give us the song we’ve been waiting, praying, begging for, but had lost all hope of hearing. It’s almost like we’ve jumped into some other album, it’s so different from what has preceded it. The idea of the vocal initially being so low ties in well with the image of something waiting in the darkness, half-glimpsed, perhaps even imagined. Then the guitars really get going, the percussion kicks in and Bruce takes off in full flight.

He really pulls out all the stops here, as if he knows this is to be his final performance with the band for some time, perhaps, at that time, he believed, forever. The boys rally to his cry, and everyone plays the best he has on the album, and indeed the best he has in many a year. I think you could search a long way back into Maiden’s catalogue before you could find a song as “classic Maiden” as this one, and in a way it’s really sad that it signals the end of an era.

I said it before, and I’ll repeat it here, that it’s very telling that the final words we hear Bruce sing, the last on the track, the last on the album, and the last he will utter in a studio with Iron Maiden for ten years are “I am the man who walks alone.” I guess by now he’s realised his destiny lies beyond the band, and if he fears the dark, he nevertheless steps boldly into it, confronting his fears and determined to defeat them.

And as the final strains of guitar and voice wind down, we fade to black.
Or at least, neutral, boring grey.

For Iron Maiden and their fans, winter was coming, and it would be a long, hard and cruel one.
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