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Old 05-03-2021, 04:59 AM   #11 (permalink)
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Old 05-03-2021, 12:03 PM   #12 (permalink)
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Chapter II: Strangers in a Strange Land: Writing the Future

So where to begin our exploration (deconstruction?) of Iron Maiden? Well, as I already mentioned, there's no need to involve the first five albums, so here is, for me, the jumping-off point, the album on which the smallest cracks, which would later develop into wide fissures and threaten to ruin this band for me, began to show.

Somewhere in Time (1986)

This album has quite a few firsts. It's the first to feature Eddie, the band's ubiquitous mascot, who has been on every album sleeve bar three since the debut, in a futuristic setting. Looking quickly back, you had a contemporary, almost punk Eddie on the debut, a maniacal, homicidal but still modern times Eddie on Killers, a scene out of some horror movie but set in current times or thereabouts on The Number of the Beast (though I guess you could argue that was the future, perhaps depicting Judgement Day) and then Eddie in an asylum of the sort we (apparently) don't see these days on the cover of Piece of Mind. Powerslave of course went all the way back to the ancient past, depicting him as an Egyptian god. So this is the first time we see, if you will, future Eddie. It will also be the last, so far, as even though 2010's The Final Frontier is a futuristic painting, it's not Eddie who graces the cover.

It's also the first time since he joined that we hear of tensions within the group between Bruce and the other guys, notably Steve. After a gruelling tour to support Powerslave, which lasted almost a full year, Bruce was exhausted and his ideas for songs, mostly based around acoustic styles, were rejected by the band. Bruce, however, felt there was a definite need for change, as it could be said that the band had reached their commercial and creative peak on the last album, and if they didn't do something to change things the only way was down.

Somewhere in Time was also the first instance of the use of synthesisers by Iron Maiden. Although they were only guitar synths (keytars) it was still a major departure from the pure guitar sound and something of a mockery of the legend printed proudly on the back of The Number of the Beast: “No synthesisers or ulterior motives.” Were there ulterior motives in bringing keys into a band who had thrived and made their name on a twin guitar attack? Was there concern over either the prowess (surely not) of the two axemen or their dedication to the band? Adrian Smith would in fact be the first to leave, and he may have been influenced by Bruce Dickinson's dissatisfaction with the direction of the band, I don't know. Maybe they just wanted a fuller sound, or maybe they felt the album, loosely based on science fiction, needed a more futuristic sound? Either way, it was the beginning, but certainly not the end, of Maiden's flirtations with the ivories, and it did change their sound somewhat.

The album was also their first to have more than a year between it and the previous outing (Iron Maiden – 1980 – Killers 1981 – The Number of the Beast – 1982 – Piece of Mind – 1983 – Powerslave – 1984) and in that context should have stood as one of their best, considering how long they took to get it right – twice as long as the other five. But that's not how it has ever sounded to me. Finally, it was also the first Maiden album to feature songs written solo by Adrian Smith, three in all, something that would never happen again. While he would co-write songs on the next album (after which he would depart till 2000) and again on later albums, for whatever reason he would always collaborate with usually Harris or Dickinson. Given the songs he wrote solo here, I'm not quite sure why, but again we'll get into that. One more point to note: this is the first album of Iron Maiden's to feature – if we accept any song seven minutes or over as being “long” - three long tracks, with one of them coming in at eight and a half, making it – after “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, of course – Iron Maiden's longest song to date.
Spoiler for Somewhere n Time:

So, the album then. We have a total of eight tracks, leading to a playtime of just over fifty-one minutes. Of those, three, as already mentioned, are penned solo by Adrian Smith, four by Steve Harris and one a collaboration between Harris and Dave Murray, only his second foray into songwriting, unless you count the two bonus tracks “Eclipse” and “Twilight Zone”. It's clear that even though the songwriting is shared a little more evenly here, Harris is still in control. No writing credits appear for Dickinson for the first time since he joined the band, as already explained above.

Somewhere in Time (7:22)

The first thing that impresses me is that the guitars in the opening riff have a very distinct Egyptian sound, perhaps a holdover – conscious or otherwise – from the previous album. Since the main culprit I see of Maiden's shall we say staggering onto the wrong path or taking the wrong fork in the road is the increasing length of their songs, I want to examine the longer songs on every album with a view to deciding if they need to be that long. Is every minute used, or is the song padded out unnecessarily? Could it be shorter and still work, or does it need its full length in order to achieve its objective and get its message across? How much, in other words, if any, of the song is wasted or not needed? The opener and title track (a Harris tune) kicks off with about one minute of instrumental intro, but that's fine: Maiden songs don't usually punch right in with the vocal straight away, and there's a need and an expectation of setting the scene musically as it were. I do note, for future reference, a very similar melody here to a song which will surface on the next album, and I wonder if this song was on the mind of Steve when he co-wrote “The Evil That Men Do”?

It's a powerful punchy start, and certainly gives you the idea that this album will be a worthy successor to Powerslave. I wouldn't say it's one of my favourites on the album, but neither is it one of the ones with which I have a problem. There's the obligatory solo about halfway through, and there's a decent hook in the chorus. It takes up about two minutes of the song, but again that's all right: we're used to Dave and Adrian bossing the show; they don't do short solos, and unlike some guitarists theirs never seem boring or overstretched, and they never seem to be showing off how good they are. Both have always given me the impression that they play purely for the joy of it, and seem to have a great time doing it. So as we head into the sixth minute Bruce is back, and the song of itself seems pretty well structured and balanced, so in answer to my own question as to whether or not this song is too long, in this case I would say no, it isn't. I can see a few seconds here or there being snipped off and the song being no worse for it, but I don't see that its length detracts from the song itself. It ends well, it's a good opener and it gets things going. For such a relatively long song, it goes by quickly and there's no sense of when is this going to end?

Wasted Years (5:03)

Next up is Adrian's first attempt at a solo composition, and overall I'd have to say it's pretty damn good. Perhaps because it's his first try, it's a decent length, as you can see, and in fact none of the songs he writes here even reach the six-minute mark, though this is the shortest of them. Not surprisingly, there's plenty of work for the guitars to do, but then you could say that about any Maiden song really. It's also gone on to be one of the few tracks to survive the album into live concerts, which might kind of prove my point, but more of that later. To give Smith credit, there's much less of a guitar intro to this one that the opener, and it rocks away really well, with a fine hook in the chorus, leaving scope for vocal harmonies, unlike the one that preceded it. It's fairly typical of the Maiden songs of old – short, to the point, memorable, simple.

It of course features a guitar solo halfway but again it's nowhere near as indulgent as it could have been. It really only has the one verse with the chorus repeated to the end, finishing on the same guitar riff that opened it, and that's perfectly understandable for a first effort. No point in trying to run before you can walk.

Sea of Madness (5:42)

The next one is his, too, and in fact one of my favourites on the album. A very chaotic opening quickly settles down on a thick chunky bass line from Harris and the guitars more buzz than scream on this one. The hook here is probably the best on any song on this album so far; it's right through the bridge and chorus and it's hard not to sing it. Is the title related to their epic? Maybe, I don't know: the Ancient Mariner would certainly have felt he was on a sea of madness, but song lyrics can be so esoteric, it could be about a state of mind or politics or anything really. In the end, that's probably not as important as how the song sounds, and halfway through I find the solo very Thin Lizzyesque, which is not a criticism.

I like the thinning out of the sound then, in what I can only characterise as a sort of Police “Walking on the Moon” style, where the guitar is stripped back down, and then the song gains power and volume on the back of Dickinson's voice before crashing back into the opening riffs and into another verse (the same as the first? I think so; I'll have to check back) and to the chorus which then takes us to the end on Bruce's scream. That's how to write a song!

Heaven Can Wait (7:24)

Having ceded the floor to Smith for the last two tracks, Harris is back with another seven-minute-plus composition which, despite its length, is another of my favourites. You can hear the guitar synths this time as the actual guitars bite into the melody and slowly bring up the atmosphere, another long intro as you might expect in a song of this length. Faster than really anything that has gone before, it retains a slight edge of Killers-era Di'Anno I feel, though the hook is beautiful and perfect and very commercial. It's even possible this could have been a single had it been shorter, but I'm not sure it could have been cut down from its present form and not lost something. The solo comes in earlier this time, and if I remember there may be a second one.

After the solo the rhythm turns into a sort of slower march, leading to the familiar cries of “Woh-oh-oh!” which, let's be honest, are put in for audience participation purposes but show either laziness or the lack of need for this section of the song. It's fun to sing along to and throw your fists in the air, sure, but it takes up about a minute of the song and it could probably have survived just as well without it and yes, as I thought, there's the second solo. I've no problem with multiple solos, but take out that second one and the “Woh-oh-oh”s and this song could have been stripped down to a lean six minutes or so. But on we go. There is another verse, and at least it's not just a repeat of the first one, back to the chorus and, rather like Smith's “Wasted Years” it ends on the guitar riff that opened it.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (6:31)

This is where the album began to take something of a nosedive for me. I've pretty much always hated this track. It's not that long, as you can see, but I feel little happens in it. There's a powerful guitar intro which then almost seems to get elbowed aside, dashing the hopes that this was going to be something decent. Reminds me very much in ways of “Gangland” off The Number of the Beast, or maybe “Invaders” from the same album; either way, two tracks agreed to be the weakest on the album. There's an attempt to insert a hook in the chorus but for me it just does not work. I guess I'm biased against it and am looking for negative things to say about it, but I'm trying to see it with new eyes – or, I should say, hear it with new ears – and give it a chance, but there's no getting away from the very clear fact that everything – everything – that has gone before it has been superior, and it really isn't going to get a lot better. The quintessential album of two halves, I personally feel there's not much to recommend side two of Somewhere in Time.

Even the guitar solos sound forced; I don't get the impression of anyone enjoying participating in this song, and I kind of wish they had even tried one of Bruce's acoustic songs instead of this. After the power punch of “Heaven Can Wait” following “Sea of Madness”, it might have been a nice change of pace. I've never been able to remember this song, and even now I know that as soon as the next track starts I'll have all but forgotten it, whereas the other four are still clearly and loudly playing in my mind. Yeah, it just sort of fades out and away – not musically; few if any Maiden songs actually fade, but in terms of remaining in the memory, already forgotten.

Stranger in a Strange Land (5:43)

The last Smith effort on the album, it swaggers in on a punching guitar riff that makes you sit up and take notice, and whether the lads got permission for Heinlein for this or not I don't know, but it's interesting to hear the title of a future album in the lyric, and in fact the album that would see Smith return to the fold as Bruce sings “No brave new world, no brave new world.” The hook in the chorus is okay, but it doesn't quite grip in the same way as the first four songs did. I'm impressed too that Smith resists throwing in the guitar solo until nearly the fourth minute, and when it does come in it's quite restrained, almost you could say acoustic in nature, until it then picks up in intensity and power, and seems to fit just perfectly.

There's no doubt it's a huge improvement on “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”, and probably the best on side two, as it were, but “Stranger in a Strange Land” still doesn't come close to the quality of any of the four on side one. And what I said about songs fading? This one does. It must be one of the only Maiden songs to do so.

Deja Vu (4:45)

The shortest song on the album opens a little like “Revelations” on Piece of Mind I feel, with a haunting, wailing guitar before thundering up into a breakneck guitar intro that flies along nicely but is rather basic and sounds like something they might have saved for Fear of the Dark. This is the one song on which Steve Harris pairs up with Dave Murray, and again I think I can hear those keytars; they don't make a huge difference here, and I'd have to say they don't have a massive impact on the album in general: had I not read they were there I probably would not have noticed them. There's a pretty long instrumental section in this song, but given its short length I don't have an issue with that. If anything, it's probably more a standard Maiden song than the last two; I'm not convinced by Bruce's raspy, supposedly threatening vocal delivery though. Not sure what that's about.

The hook is okay but nothing special, and even the guitar solos seem a little tacked-on and copy and pasted from the Great Iron Maiden Songbook. You'd have to wonder when Bruce sings “Feels like I've been here before” is he unintentionally delivering a message to the band?

Alexander the Great (8:35)

Harris's love of history comes through in the lyrical matter of the closer, but it also comes across as highly indulgent of him. The song is, as already mentioned, the longest on the album and indeed to this point the second-longest recorded by the band. Taking that into account, its lengthy instrumental intro (preceded by a spoken passage where Alexander's father mourns his failure to provide a better legacy for his son) is understandable and acceptable. Once it gets going it gallops along nicely in a sort of mid-paced way, but you do get the feeling (well I do anyway) that the rest of the band realise they're servicing Harris's personal vision here and that it's his project; they're playing his song, which of course you can say about any of his solo penned tracks, but here it just seems... different somehow.

I feel the attempted hook in the chorus fails miserably, and so I don't see any hook in it, no memorable chorus you can sing. The again almost acoustic solo in the middle is interesting, building up on Nicko McBrain's staggered drum patterns, then it smashes into a very slow, graceful section, beginning a gradual march to the denouement of the song. It's epic, certainly, though not, I feel, in the same way “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is epic, and considering its length, I think even “Phantom of the Opera” is better constructed. Another, more standard guitar solo now as we head into the sixth minute, and at least Harris resisted the urge to throw in some “Woah-oh-oh”s as there is a place in the song where you could definitely hear that, and perhaps onstage they do that, but they kept it out of the studio version, which I think is just as well.

I feel the ending is a bit of a damp squib, and as a closer to the album I don't think it really works that well at all.

What is significant is that as I mentioned, none of these songs, bar “Wasted Years” and “Heaven Can Wait” were added to the live setlist, proving perhaps that the boys realised many of them were too long to keep fans' attention in a live setting. I'm not going to put the album down too much, as it does have some great tracks, and even the weaker ones are not terrible (with one exception) but I do remember being all excited having bought the album, still riding on a Maiden high from Powerslave even two years later, and being underwhelmed by this one. That is, generally, still the feeling I get from it, playing it now for this review. It's almost like the comedown, or the return after a great holiday to normality, rain and wind and work. The idea, the feeling that something wonderful has taken place and will never be so again permeates this album for me; the idea of a band desperately trying to equal or (impossibly) surpass their greatest achievement, and probably quite aware they had fallen far short. I wouldn't call it a failure, and in terms of sales and charts it was definitely a hit, but I wouldn't call it an unqualified success either.

Is this, then, where the rot began to set in? Not quite, you'd have to say. Maiden were able to bash out a pretty awesome album two years later, and while the ones following that certainly had their flaws, they managed to maintain a pretty high standard overall, even gaining their first ever number one. But the days of Powerslave and Piece of Mind were, if not gone, receding in the rear-view mirror, and as Maiden knew, and we all knew, when the past is gone, it's impossible to get back to it. Maybe that's why they tried looking to the future, but in that future they may have seen some warning signs, leading to their looking to the past again for their next album, unsure where they were going for the one after that, till eventually they ended up a tree, clutching frantically at shadows in the night, still trying to claw back the creativity and spontaneity they had enjoyed on three Dickinson-era albums, surely fearing the future and unsure how to get their feet back on the ground.

Trouble was, by then even that ground was beginning to crumble beneath their feet...
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Old 05-03-2021, 06:48 PM   #13 (permalink)
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Picture This: The Rise and Fall of Iron Maiden
in Sixteen Album Covers

A Personal View
Well, maybe not. Probably not, really, but it's interesting how you can trace the change in the band's fortunes through the various album covers over the course of their career.

1981 – Iron Maiden

“Hello there, I'm Eddie, nice to meet you. Now die!”

Look at the face of Eddie on the cover of the debut. He's a punk, isn't he? Without the capital P. A loser, a ne'er-do-well, a lout you wouldn't want to run into down a dark alley. He's sporting crazy spiky yet long hair which would later be robbed by a band called Sigue Sigue Sputnik for their signature look; it doesn't have the appearance of even knowing what a comb is, much less having used one. Like many Iron Maiden covers, it's drawn taking place at night. The moon is high and pale in a gloomy sky, and Eddie is standing – perhaps we might say lurking – under a streetlight, obviously up to no good. He's angry, he's aggressive, he's out for your blood. Like Horslips once wrote, “if you see me you had better run, run run!” And you would. This guy isn't going to ask you for a cigarette, unless it's made out of your windpipe which he'll happily extract with none of the precision of a surgeon, or if you happen to know the score of the big match? He's a troublemaker, a skinhead with lots of hair, a headbanger.

And it's your head he wants to bang, preferably against that wall behind him.

So our first introduction to Eddie – and by extension, Iron Maiden – is hardly a welcoming, pleasant one. Perhaps Eddie is saying “come and have a listen if you're hard enough”, who knows? But it's an aggressive, threatening cover that simmers with barely-restrained violence and possible murder, which will take its natural (!) course on the cover of the next album. One thing is for sure: Eddie is in control here, and if you want to survive you had better pay him big respect! This is a band who say “We're here; don't get in our way or we will fuck you up, and if you can't handle our music go listen to Barry Manilow or the Black and White Minstrel Show!” Or something. The point is, it's a statement of power, intent and aggression. Iron Maiden have arrived. Deal with it.

1980 – Killers

And if you can't deal with it, here's what will happen. Eddie has now evolved (devolved?) from the street punk threatening you on the corner to a full-blown maniac, his hair more carefully arranged but that snarl still on his face, a face that enjoys slaughter, pain and terror, and in his hand this time is an axe. Careful with it, Eugene! I'm not Eugene, I'm Eddie, and I'll put it where I like. And where I like is the centre of your head!

If any album cover depicted naked aggression, many do but this one certainly does, and it ties in well with the album title, leaving you in no doubt as to what to expect on the album. In terms of power, Eddie has grown from the dodgy punk throwing shapes at you from under a streetlamp to a dangerous, homicidal killer who's ready to satisfy his awful urges. He's taking no shit from anyone, and as the lyric in the title track growls, “he laughs as he's watching you bleed.” But you laugh too, because this music is so good. On the last album Maiden announced their arrival, on this one they declare their intention of not just making up the numbers. But if world domination is on their minds, there's a small problem to be dealt with first, a kind of symbolic murder as one member is torn out of the band and left bleeding on the darkened roadway, and the remaining guys in the band slouch along the street, deaf to his cries, searching for a new leader.

1982 – The Number of the Beast

And they find it in Bruce Dickinson, the album cover reflecting their new power, as Satan makes Eddie dance to his tune, unaware that he is in fact the puppet controlled by a much larger Eddie. The symbolism couldn't be clearer, and Maiden are headed for big things. In terms of power, Eddie has now progressed beyond the lone axe-wielding killer and has the entire world at his feet, in a very real way, as Iron Maiden quickly became a household word on the back of this album, even terrifying the pop pickers on the local chart shows as their songs kicked their way up the “hit parade” (we'll just leave the “s” off the beginning, shall we?) and proved to all the world that metal was not only alive and kicking, it was taking over!

1983 – Piece of Mind

Ah, poor Eddie! He appears to have been caught and put in the loony bin, sorry that's very insensitive isn't it? Nut hatch: there, that's better. But while Eddie may be a prisoner in a padded cell, he's angry as hell and I don't think anyone believes those chains are going to hold him for long, and when he gets free – watch out! This could be interpreted (which I'm sure is not the case but for the fun of it) as a response to those on the moral majority and the Bible belt, the do-gooders and self-appointed guardians of decency who completely mistook the previous album for a pagan, Satanic expression of youth (rather like the same people, or their forebears – maybe only three bears, I'm not sure – did with Black Sabbath a decade earlier) and had it banned and, probably, burned in a knee-jerk reaction.

The message here could be, you've managed to get some of public opinion and authority against us, but we're not going to lie down and die. Maybe it's you who should be in this asylum, and maybe the likes of us are the only sane ones. Or not. Though this cover may seem, on the surface, to be stripping Eddie of his power, I think we all know it's only a temporary situation and he is going to break out. Can't cage the Beast! The album also coincides with more chart success for Maiden, despite (or perhaps due to) the backlash from the Christian Right, proving once again the more those in authority don't want us to do it, the more we want to do it.

1984 – Powerslave

And now Eddie achieves the ultimate. In every sense, he has become a god. He is worshipped by the faithful, frowning down on them from an image surely hundreds of feet high, a true Egyptian divinity. Interestingly, he no longer seems angry, just stern and unsmiling. Powerslave is widely regarded as the high watermark of Iron Maiden's output, which makes the depiction of Eddie as a god all the more appropriate. The title of the tour to support it was the World Slavery Tour, which is apt in two ways: the world essentially was enslaved to Iron Maiden: they sold out every concert, every venue, leading to a tour that spanned over three hundred days. On the other hand, having to work almost right through the year must have made the boys feel as if they had become slaves themselves: slaves to the fans, slaves to the tour, slaves to promoters, slaves even to the music.

1986 – Somewhere in Time

Eddie has now moved into the future, an alienesque bounty hunter, and his traditional scowl is back, not that it ever left, except for the cover of The Number of the Beast. He's searching, and in itself this is a significant point, as the band – certainly Bruce anyway, and maybe Adrian – were searching for a new sound, a way to top their apex album, a way to follow up almost that which could and would never be followed up. Searching maybe for relevance in a changing world. Eddie is either naked, wearing very tight (and transparent) body armour or an exo-skeleton, but whichever it is, it's the first time we've seen his body this way, and while it's musclebound and sleek, I think it looks a little vulnerable too, his head slightly bowed as if he's not quite sure where his quarry is hiding, or why he is here.

In a lot of ways, I think this cover represents the uncertainty among the band of stepping beyond that classic album, the trepidation and perhaps even fear that they would not be able to measure up to its phenomenal success, and the concern about what the future held. Eddie looks pensive, thoughtful rather than his usual angry scowl or even maniacal grin. Like the band, he looks unsure.

1988 – Seventh Son of a Seventh Son

But two years later he's a godlike being again, as Maiden retrace their steps, perhaps in an effort to recapture the essence and atmosphere of Powerslave, and go back, not forward, in time. Back to a time, in fact, which probably did not exist, to the age of legends and myths, the stories of the Arabian Nights and fairy tales and based around Orson Card's novel Seventh Son. This is also Maiden's first concept album – their only one to date – and returned them to the singles chart with a number three entry for “Can I Play With Madness”. Eddie looks pretty all-powerful, holding what might be his heart (or someone else's) in his hand and having no body below his chest, which always made me mistakenly see him as a djinn. Hugely successful, this album was nevertheless Maiden's first flirtation with progressive rock structures, which would lead them off in a very different direction to the one in which they had begun.

And those, if you will, are the positive album covers, with maybe two later exceptions. Following on from that album, two years later we have this

1990 – No Prayer for the Dying

Playing on the old Irish (?) idea of a prayer for the dying, this album cover sees Eddie in very much changed circumstances. He's in a coffin – admittedly, bursting out of it but still in his bloody grave! - and in addition this will be the first of five non-consecutive albums to use the theme of death in their titles. Considering Adrian Smith left after this album, would it be very unfair to say the title is directed at his departure? Yes. Yes it would. But it could be. I doubt it however, but it's an interesting hypothesis. Eddie, meanwhile, is out for revenge, and in terms of success this album gave Maiden their first (and only) ever number one single in the Dickinson-penned “Bring Your Daughter... to the Slaughter”. Ah, revenge is sweet!

But beneath the accolades and vindication as a songwriter for the band, an undercurrent of unease and restlessness was bubbling, and like Eddie suddenly exploding out of his coffin and taking the unfortunate grave-digger by the throat, things were coming to a head, and could not be left to rest for much longer.

1992 – Fear of the Dark

Fear indeed. Transpose Eddie to Bruce and I think you have a pretty good idea what's going on here. On the face of it, you have Eddie in a tree, waiting to pounce on the unwary, but my reading is that this is Bruce, forced into a defensive position, (perhaps literally barking up the wrong tree?) and trapped with nowhere else to go. Eddie is melded with the tree – is the tree – and Dickinson at this point might certainly have seemed to be so much a part of the band that leaving them would be as unthinkable and as much a wrench as pulling himself free from the embrace of the wood that is, in the picture, part of Eddie/Bruce's body, but knowing that if he did not extricate himself he might be absorbed into something he had no interest being a part of any longer.

The title of the album can be interpreted two ways: Bruce could be afraid of leaving the band and facing the dark – the future – alone, and he could just as easily fear the idea of remaining with a band with whom he was having less and less in common, being sucked or trapped into a situation he did not want to be in. If the tree represents the band's family tree, then Dickinson was about to cut a branch off of it, and one had already gone with the departure of Adrian Smith two years and one album previously. The absence of Derek Riggs, who had designed every Maiden album cover up to this, shows another crack appearing in the once-watertight relationships within the band, and perhaps the title could also refer to a fear of the remaining band members as to what they would do without Bruce on board?
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Old 05-03-2021, 07:03 PM   #14 (permalink)
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1995 – The X-Factor

End of an era, for now, and Eddie is beginning to lose his power. For the second time he is captured, this time held on some sort of medical/torture table and about to be cut up into pieces. There couldn't be a more literal representation of what was occurring among the band at that time. Longtime guitarist gone, followed by vocalist and frontman, even Eddie looks a little pathetic and worried as he waits for the saws to cut into him. The music was similarly ravaged, with this ranking as my all-time least favourite album. I can barely pick a single track off it that I like, or can at least tolerate. The departure of Bruce did not go down well with fans, which was sad for Blaze Bayley, as he really tried, but it's hard to replace such a legend, and as a result the album sold poorly, achieving only silver status and just barely scraping into the top ten in the UK, while it didn't even make the top 100 in the USA.

1998 – Virtual XI

And now Eddie is gone altogether. Did they slice him up on the table? Who knows? He will be back, but for now we have a similar figure (though clearly not Eddie) leering out of the album cover and looking rather demonic, which confuses the issue as apparently Steve Harris wanted some sort of crossover between their computer game Ed Hunter and the FIFA World Cup. I don't see it, personally, and the album was pretty much a flop, poorly received by fans and critics alike, again garnering a mere silver status and this time not even getting into the top ten in the UK, but languishing well outside at number 16. Is this Eddie-but-not-Eddie creature reaching out to pluck the very heart from Iron Maiden, grinning evilly as it does so?

2000 – Brave New World

Salvation as everything returns to normal. Adrian is back, Bruce is back, Eddie is back, this time a somewhat ethereal, ghostly figure looming triumphantly out of the clouds with evil glee, lightning bolts flashing around him, and Derek Riggs too is back. Could there be a more perfect synthesis of redemption for a band? Unless of course it's all style and no substance. But of course, that was not the case and the album is a rip-roaring return to form, an affirmation that this band can still piss over any of their competitors, that Dickinson still has it and a reminder why Iron Maiden are still seen as the premier heavy metal band on the planet. In stark contrast to the last two albums, this one quickly went gold, gave the boys two top twenty singles and rocketed to the dizzy heights of, um, number 7 in the charts (UK) which, while a long way from the top slot taken by previous classic albums was still a huge improvement on the last two. It even did well in the States, making the top forty. Just. Still, for a band who had kicked around on the lower fringes of the top 200 for four years, this was progress.

2003 – Dance of Death

While arguably (well, in reality, no arguing about it!) the most successful Maiden album since Powerslave, racing to number 2 in the UK and 18 in the US, this was the second album cover not to feature Eddie in any way. Instead we have that jolly old character, Death, and a sort of Roald Dahl/Ingmar Bergman-inspired illustration. This is the first album to use the word or concept of death in its title, something which would follow the band through the next three. This album also gave the band two more top twenty singles in the UK, and was also certified gold.

2005 – A Matter of Life and Death

Another album to use the death motif, the cover shows a dour picture of war, with a tank surrounded by soldiers rumbling on, perhaps recalling to mind the description I made of the band earlier? No? Sod ya then. This was in fact even more successful commercially than the previous album, finally cracking the US market for them after years and giving them a placing in the top 10, while in the UK it reached even higher than Brave New World, taking the number 4 spot. It also went gold, and platinum in Finland, where all its three singles also went to number one. No Eddie again, and I find the cover here quite depressing and reminiscent of a dull, plodding march towards the inevitable end.

2010 – The Final Frontier

It might be stretching it a little in terms of metaphysics, but you could see death as the final frontier, the last barrier any of us will cross in our lives, so I would stick with my comment about the band using references to death in their album titles. This is also the second album to look to the future, with a very sci-fi cover which again has no room for Eddie, who is replaced by a screaming skull and a strange futuristic monster or robot. In terms of commercial success, it improved on the previous album, taking the boys all the way to number one in the UK charts and 4 in the US, and going gold everywhere except – you guessed it – Finland, where it went, uh huh, platinum.

2015 – The Book of Souls

And finally Eddie is back with us, though looking distinctly primitive and suitably pissed-off, staring out from what is essentially a black cover at the world that has forsaken him for over fifteen years. I'm not sure if there was a genuine attempt to degrade Eddie in this way, show him as a “savage” compared to the more sophisticated creatures who had graced Maiden album covers since he had been away, but he does not look happy! Empire of the fucking what? Piano intro? You're having me on, lads! Eighteen... nah, nah, must be going deaf. For a moment there, (nervous laugh) I thought you said (hah) eighteen minutes!

Matching the performance of its predecessor, The Book of Souls went straight to number one in the UK and again 4 in the US, and went gold everywhere but oddly not platinum this time in Finland, though Hungary had this honour. Given that there had been five years since the last Maiden album, those rankings are not at all surprising, but foisting a double album on your fans, to say nothing of an eighteen-minute closer, either shows a band supremely confident in their ability and in their fanbase or one who just want to do what they want to do now and don't give a shit anymore.

So I hear some of you saying there you go Trollheart: hoist on your own picard. (It's petard, dumbass) Well whatever. You made the case that Iron Maiden's popularity was on the wane, and it's not. You've clearly proved they're as successful as ever, if not more so. Hah. You failed, loser.

Nah, you weren't listening. I never made any sort of case that Maiden were less popular (except around the Blaze era); I don't think their commercial appeal or their popularity among their fans will ever fade. People will still buy the albums – I'll still buy the albums – and go to the concerts, and Maiden will always be the number one metal band in the world. My point was that this was a personal opinion. I set out to show why for me (important two words there) Maiden began to lose some of their attraction and lustre after Powerslave, that I personally lost a little interest in them and didn't pay too much attention to their latter albums. And I didn't. Listening back over them for this journal may, or may not, change that, but at the moment I'm still not too bothered whether or not they ever release a seventeenth album.

The album covers here were used merely to illustrate – in a very tongue in cheek way – how the rise and fall of the band could be catalogued, but only really with respect to me. Others may not see it that way. Or they may. I really don't know. But for me, personally, the progression, or indeed regression, is clearly shown (or can be) through the successive album covers.
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Old 05-04-2021, 11:11 PM   #15 (permalink)
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You wanna know the biggest issue with Iron Maiden translating themselvea to the new millennium? They had Brave New World that was just a really good version of an old school Iron Maiden album and A Matter of Life and Death was the best version of Maiden doing a more prog version of Maiden, but they've never managed to sound vital since the mid 80s. Even their good **** since Powerslave was just reputable rather than any kind of exciting sound.

Whereas Judas Priest has had many a non-starter sound or just okay sound since the mid 80s bit they still recognized that part of being a relevant metal band was managing to sound like they were coming for your jugular.

And so they threw caution to the wind and recorded Painkiller. That was an actual reinvention of their sound which Priest has done many a time whereas Maiden never did anything other than say how can we sound more like a more mature version of how we.already sound
Originally Posted by J.R.R. Tolkien
There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as ‘patriotism’, may remain a habit! But it won’t do any good, if it is not universal.
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Old 05-05-2021, 05:13 AM   #16 (permalink)
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I'd agree with that 100%. It almost looks like, as I said (despite the sales and acclaim) Maiden have been somewhat lost since Powerslave; that the majesty of that album has proven impossible to even duplicate never mind exceed, and so they've sort of retraced what they think are their roots, thrashing about confusedly like a drowning man desperately trying to keep afloat.

You could probably take the last four albums, take two or three tracks from each and come up with a half-decent album, but even then it would never equal the power and grandeur and (as you'd say) total bitchin-ness of the first three, even five.
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Old 05-15-2021, 02:19 PM   #17 (permalink)
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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.
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Old 05-24-2021, 07:30 PM   #18 (permalink)
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Chapter IV: Say your prayers: The Requiem Mass Begins

You can probably consider Seventh Son of a Seventh Son as the crisis point. Since the pinnacle had been reached with Powerslave Maiden had been desperately trying to equal that success, regain the formula, and it had resulted in one okay album and one very good one, but neither were ever going to be Powerslave II. Maiden's focus had, since Powerslave, been shifting very dramatically away from the standard/NWOBHM metal of Killers, The Number of the Beast etc in a much more progressive rock/metal direction; songs had become longer and more involved, themes had become centred on historical events more, lyrics deeper and the dreaded keyboards, always slated by the band, had wormed their way into their repertoire. It wasn't quite the beginning of the end, but it was the beginning of the beginning of the end. Maybe.

Believing they had perhaps overstretched themselves on the last two albums, Steve Harris decided the time had come for a more stripped-down, back to basics Maiden, even insisting that the new album be recorded in the UK, their first since The Number of the Beast (the next three were recorded in the Bahamas, while the band went to Germany to record Seventh Son) and more, that it should be in, um, a barn on his own property, using the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio.

By the time the next album was ready, and in pre-production phase, Adrian Smith was so unhappy with the new direction that he quit the band, going off to put together his own solo outfits. He was replaced by Janick Gers, who had worked with Bruce on his first solo album. The new Iron Maiden album, their eighth, would see a dramatic shift downwards in their fortunes, with the album only gaining gold status though hitting the number 2 spot and giving them their only number one single. Nevertheless, none of the songs, bar that hit, seem to have survived into a live setting. And there's a very good reason for that.

No Prayer for the Dying (1990)
Spoiler for No Prayer for the Dying:

Tailgunner (4:13)

My initial impression on hearing the opening song was, and remains, this is just “Aces High” rewritten. And it is. It doesn't sound exactly the same, but we're still talking about World War II pilots (bomber this time instead of fighters, but that's a small distinction really), and I find the melody somewhat similar. Bruce's voice has changed; it's more raspy, rough rather than the operatic wail we've been used to, and I don't think it suits him at all. The chorus in “Tailgunner” is really pretty awful, though the idea of the guitar riffs counterpointing the words “Tailgunner, you're a tailgunner” do work well. I will give it that it's a fast, punchy, powerful opening to the album, and for a short while it maintains the kind of quality that makes you think maybe it will be a vindication of the band, but it doesn't last.

Holy Smoke (3:47)

The first real effort by Maiden to take on organised religion, with Bruce actually taking the persona of Jesus works well and this is also I believe the first Maiden song that flirts with humour, which again is very effective. Dickinson changes his persona during the song to go to the other side, becoming Satan and to be fair his growl here suits the song well. It's another good guitarfest, and while I'm not saying I don't miss Adrian, Janick fills his shoes admirably. Dave is on form as always, and the songwriting partnership of Harris and Dickinson produces two damn good songs. It's not an original theme of course, but you can't help thinking the boys are getting their own back on the ones who demanded copies of The Number of the Beast be burned before they could corrupt young minds.

No Prayer for the Dying (4:22)

Almost a sense of slowing down here, with a slightly introspective guitar nodding back a little towards the previous album, though the melody and structure for me point more towards Somewhere in Time. The first song written solo by Harris, as he has written almost all the title tracks on every album (when there is one), it has its moments but they're few and far between. The guitars do get going nicely about halfway through as the tempo picks up in an almost end of “Hallowed Be Thy Name” kind of way, but really that burst of fretboard fever is about the only really decent thing about a song which fails to live up to the promise of its title, or indeed fulfils the responsibility of being the title track.

Public Enema Number One (4:03)

The mildly amusing title of this one is all I ever really remember. It does romp along nicely with some very chunky, growling guitar, but I feel it's a bit of a mess. You can hear elements, lyrically, from “Two Minutes to Midnight” and “Die with Your Boots On”, though this song is nowhere near in the league of either of those two songs. It's one of two efforts from Dave Murray, on this occasion with Bruce, while the next one teams him up with Harris.

Fate's Warning (4:09)

Another one I can never remember. You'll notice that so far there have been no long tracks, nor will there be, the longest on this album being five and a half minutes, but whereas before that benefitted Maiden in snappier, sharper songs, here it's almost as if they just can't write those songs any more; with a few exceptions, inspiration seems to have dried up, and though this has a decent guitar instrumental intro and then bursts into life, and has a hook of sorts, it's a weak one and doesn't grab my attention. There's a good idea in the melody in the middle eighth but they don't develop it and it really falls flat. Even the solos are quite meh.

The Assassin (4:16)

Continuing what will be a recurring trend on Maiden albums of song titles beginning with the definite article, the opening of this sort of reminds me of “The Prisoner”, with elements of both Powerslave and Seventh Son thrown into the guitar riffs. Another long instrumental introduction, which fails to live up to its promise. Another Harris solo effort, lyrically it reminds me of the rather poor Genesis song “Just a Job to Do”, which was on their eponymous 1983 album. The chorus is dire - “Better watch out (vocally harmonised, and at which you're tempted to sing “better not cry, better not pout I'm telling you why...”) cause I'm the assassin.” Yeah. Marillion did this far better in 1984 mate. The solos are all right but nothing special, and it just sounds, I don't know, amateurish. Again, there are some good ideas but they don't come to anything.

Run Silent, Run Deep (4:34)

I do like the thick ringing bass line that opens this, and if those are synthy keyboards making the dark, hollow noise then they're used to good effect. I have always assumed, from the title, that this is about a submarine, possibly a U-Boat, which both ties it into political lyrics and ones about war, making it the second on the album to cover that topic, and the sixth overall. The galloping beat is good, the solo a little over-screechy maybe, though parts of it seem to hark back to Piece of Mind, and in fact it's a better track than I remember it being.

Hooks in You (4:06)

The only track on the album to feature any contribution by the departed Adrian Smith to the songwriting, it's a fast, punchy, rocky song in the mould of “classic” Maiden, written in collaboration with Bruce, and looking back to the lyrical fare of Iron Maiden and Killers, with some very cutting wordplay ("I like a girl who knows where she's bound, don't like a girl who likes hanging around”) and tongue very firmly in the cheek, setting up the hit single. The amount of humour in this makes me wonder if Smith was having one last laugh at the guys, or with the guys, before he abandoned ship? Either way it's a fun little song that you can't take seriously, but with some serious guitar work. If you listen though, it's basically a retread of the melody from “Holy Smoke”. I always found it funny that Marillion, who released their “comeback” album, the first without Fish, two years earlier, also had a song by the same name on that album. Totally different lyrical content of course, but interesting.

Bring Your Daughter... to the Slaughter (4:42)

The kind of macabre humour continues as we head into the song which would give Maiden their only ever number one single. Now, don't get me wrong: I really like this song. I mean, really like it. But I have to admit, I don't see what makes it number one material. Maiden certainly have better songs, and I was quite surprised to see that it hit the top. Written by Dickinson and Janick Gers (the only track on the album on which the latter is credited) it was supposed to be on his debut solo album, Tattooed Millionaire, and was part of the soundtrack for the last gasp of Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, but Harris wanted it for Maiden and convinced Bruce not to put it on the album. His version was apparently a lot different anyway.

Again, the tongue (when not being sawn off or pulled out by the roots) is firmly lodged in cheek, not that the stuffy old BBC could appreciate that, leading to a ban on the song both on radio and TV controlled by them. That it made number one in spite of that is a credit both to Maiden and their fans, who weren't about to be told what they could and could not listen to by Aunty Beeb. In fact, as is usual in these cases, the ban probably made the song the more popular and made more people want to buy it, pushing it up the chart no doubt to the rage of the suits at the Beeb.

It kind of has everything: a powerful, grinding guitar almost right out of Killers, insistent drumbeat, Bruce at his most menacing and a hook to, er, die for. I mean, what the fuck it is about I have no idea, but surely something like the need for young girls to rebel against their parents and hang around with boys they know they should not. There's a great singalong section in the middle, and it is, to be fair, the first song on the album where the boys break out the Woah-oh-ohs and they're handled well. Yeah I could see it, but I wonder if the ban was the reason it got to the very top, as it's a great song but there are better.

Mother Russia (5:30)

The last of Harris's solo efforts closes the album, and has always seemed, to me, to be very much the weak point in a not particularly strong album. Maiden have been known for strong closers, but this is not one. It's the longest (that's normal) but it just doesn't have the fire of the last few tracks, and seems to me to drag the album down. Reminds me a bit of “Powerslave” in parts, elements of a slower “To Tame a Land” too. The constant semi-Russian riff is just annoying, the choral voices presumably made on the keyboards add to the annoyance factor, and the song just plods along with no real energy or vibrancy.

It's perhaps no surprise that hardly any of these songs get played live any more. After all, if you need “Tailgunner” there's “Aces High”, and who really wants to hear “Public Enema Number One” or “The Assassin”, and most of all who wants to hear “Mother fucking Russia?” Jesus Christ on stilts! Oddly though, given that it gave them their biggest ever chart success, “Bring Your Daughter... to the Slaughter” isn't played either. I guess with a back catalogue like Maiden have, and even had at this point, it's easy to leave out songs, but you'd think one or two of them might have made it in.

No Prayer for the Dying would be a prophetic title, as the cracks that had appeared in the band began to yawn into fissures. Already annoyed at the way this album had been recorded, and later at its lacklustre reception by critics and fans – despite climbing to number 2 in the charts – Bruce was already packing his luggage, preparing for one last foray before he would split and vanish into the night, heading back to his own solo career which had stalled at the first album, and which would end up encompassing five more, the last of which recorded and released after his triumphant return to Maiden in 2000.

But right now, the coffin on the cover of this album looked like a physical representation of how the band was, with one member already (dearly) departed and another about to fall through the widening gap as the twin tectonic plates of musical differences and personal tensions ground together, heralding a seismic shift which would all but destroy Iron Maiden, but which, after a decade of failure, would finally see them back together, reunited and stronger than ever.

For a while.
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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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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.
Trollheart: Signature-free since April 2018
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