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Old 05-01-2021, 08:26 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Is the Number of the Beast Up: Iron Maiden 1986 - 2015


As many of you know, or will have guessed by now, I'm more or less finished writing album reviews. I've done this for about seven years, on and off now, often going into great detail (perhaps too much for some people) and I think that, in general, I may have said all I have to say about the music I listen to. These days, I'm tending to concentrate on my history series of journals. That said, I would like to tackle what I see as a fundamental flaw in one of my favourite bands, something I'm sure most if not all of you will have noticed, whether you agree with me or not that it is a flaw.

When Maiden began they were a raw, young metal band, skating (it is said) on the edges of punk, but fairly quickly they legitimised themselves and almost in a single year became one of the top-selling metal acts in the world, bringing, almost literally, metal to the masses. Over the next few years they really could do no wrong, and albums like The Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind and Powerslave yielded them hit singles, chart and radio airtime, and new hordes of fans. Maiden scaled very quickly the summit of the metal mountain, and they've been sitting there, in a pretty unassailable spot, for nearly four decades now.

But have they rested on their laurels too much?

This forms the basis of the question which will inform this new journal. I prefaced it by asking if forty years in the business is too much, and of course, no, it isn't: bands like Hawkwind and The Rolling Stones have been going for fifty, sixty years even. But the point in my question is perhaps a little more subtle. Really, what I'm asking is have Maiden, certainly over the course of the last ten years or so, lost their edge?

Or, to put it another way...

There was a marked change in their output even as far back as 1990, when the last two albums to feature Bruce Dickinson were, to be fair, relatively lacklustre. It seemed like the boys were getting tired, going through the motions, out of ideas. Even the usually creative spring that is Steve Harris looked to be having trouble coming up with compelling ideas for songs. I mean, “Mother Russia”? Really? Those last two albums – No Prayer for the Dying and Fear of the Dark – aren't ones I regularly play, and there's a good reason for that. They're not shit, not compared to what was to come, but they are very poor relations to the ones that preceded them, and I think it's a matter of record, or at least agreed among fans that the years 1982-1988 were really the band's golden period, and after that they seemed to enter something of a slump.

Adrian Smith had seen the writing on the wall earlier than Bruce had, or at least was the first to make a move, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son being the last album he would be involved in during the twentieth century. By the time they had completed Fear of the Dark, Bruce too had had enough, and made his exit in 1992, leaving the remaining members to carry on as best they could. Which general opinion agrees was not very well, as they produced two very sub-par albums which are almost best forgotten about.

Now, here I'm not going to take the easy way out and blame new singer Blaze Bayley for the poor quality of those albums. Bruce had not been there from the beginning, true, but his was the first voice I had heard when experiencing the music of Iron Maiden, so for me he was the original. After I learned he wasn't on the first two albums I wasn't that happy but I wasn't too bothered: after all, this was merely the Guy Before, and he was done by 1980 and we would not be hearing from him again. Besides, I've said before that Paul Di'Anno's rough, husky voice suited better the material on the debut and Killers, and that Bruce's versions of songs from those albums have never, for me, measured up to the visceral energy and rawness of the former singer's performance. But anyway, for me, and for a lot of people, Bruce was Iron Maiden, and to ask someone to replace him seemed like losing your best friend and then trying to get someone to take his place. It was the same with Genesis: Ray Wilson had no chance of replacing Phil Collins, while by contrast Steve Hogarth did make a lot of Marillion fans forget about Fish. Sometimes it works, often it does not, and in Maiden it did not. But Bayley gave it his best. He was up against it from the start.

Let's not forget though – Adrian was gone, Bruce was gone, but Dave, Nicko and most importantly Steve remained. Notwithstanding what I just said about Bruce being Iron Maiden, it might be more accurate to say he was the voice of Iron Maiden, but Steve Harris had always been its heart. The founder of the band, the main lyricist, and a man who made playing bass cool, Steve had and has always had a firm control over the band, and while he may not be a dictator in the way Roger Waters was, everyone knows who's in charge. So in many ways, Bruce's departure could have been seen as a challenge to Harris. Could he hold the world's favourite metal band together after losing two of its most influential members?

The answer was yes, but barely. I envisage Maiden struggling through a decade of what must have been a wilderness of ideas, a desert of creativity, a long dark night of the soul for them that lasted eight years. Whether they were anxiously awaiting/hoping for the return of Bruce is something I don't know, but they must have been happy when he did come back, as the appropriately-titled Brave New World, which kicked off a new Maiden for the new millennium, blew all previous efforts away, reaching all the way back to the glory days of the eighties and rekindling the fire that had used to characterise and drive the band. The good times were back.

Or were they?

After the initial euphoria of Brave New World, it seemed Maiden all but vanished. Yes, they put out albums – another four since that one – but as far as I was concerned, though I bought them and looked forward to them, they have mostly disappointed. I can't say I don't like them, as I played each maybe once and left it at that. The previous album had been played to death, and prior to that (skipping nimbly over the Bayley years) I had regularly played every album right back to the debut. So why is it that even now, I feel no real compulsion to spin one of the new ones?

That's what I aim to find out in this journal. I'll be listening to the weaker albums and trying to decide was I unfair not to give them a chance, or have I been justified in largely ignoring them? I'll be exploring the changes Maiden have gone through, both in lineup and musical direction, and asking the question I asked at the start: after forty (one) years, is it enough? Is it time to call a halt to this? Are we looking forward to a new Maiden album, or dreading it?

So two questions come to mind: one, why am I doing this? Well, apart from being the usual pain in the arse you all know and, well, know, I'm genuinely curious. I want to know why it is that one of my favourite bands is now, not quite no longer that, but that the music I listen to from them comes from their early period almost exclusively. I mean, I can still sing any song from most of the albums from Iron Maiden up to Seventh Son, but after that, hell, I'd be hard pressed to even tell you the track listing. How and why did that happen? I want to know, even if you don't.

Two: how am I going to approach it? Well, I'm going to walk right back to the end of the room, grab a pole vault, take a run at it and... nah. I'm too lazy for that. My plan is to spew out an annoyingly large amount of boring essays on this and that, why I think Maiden have changed, how they've changed, where they're going, what made them one of my favourite bands and why they are not as big a favourite with me now as they were, and also to do a deep scan on every album after, well, after Powerslave really. That might surprise/annoy some people, to whom albums such as Seventh Son are sacrosanct, but while I can enjoy both that one and Somewhere in Time, I do see signs of the rot beginning to set in during those years. Only slightly, and more with Somewhere in Time than Seventh Son, but I believe that's where it began.

For my money, the holy trinity is The Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind and Powerslave. I'm not suggesting those albums are perfect – none of them are. There are weak tracks on all of them. However the strength and quality of the other tracks makes their weakness much less a drain on the albums. Whereas later albums tend, I feel, to suffer from more and more poor tracks and less what the consumer world calls “hero products”, tracks that can hold together an album by sheer force of their quality. I mean, no album with “Run to the Hills”, “Flight of Icarus” or “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is going to be considered weak, is it? So those three, plus the original two, as they're not really relevant to what I'm doing here, will be left alone. It's also a good point that I've reviewed those extensively, so there's probably not much point in going over old ground.

Each of the other albums will be taken apart in detail, and I'll be trying to examine and work out what each track either contributes to the decline of Iron Maiden or helps try to keep their legacy afloat. Maiden embarked on a tour in 2018 called “The Legacy of the Beast Tour” (which, due to Covid, is scheduled to resume in 2022) touted as a “history/hits tour”. I bet we all can guess where the vast bulk of the setlist is going to be drawn from. There's a reason for this, and it's the one that inspired the creation of this journal: twenty-first century Maiden looks like a tired, lumbering old beast desperately trying to remain relevant in a changing world of metal and rock, no longer the lean, mean metal machine it once was, taking on the world and giving the charts the finger. Of course, Maiden have probably as many fans now as they did in the eighties, probably more, but the hardcore fans have got to be a little disappointed at least at the path their high priests have led them down.

I'm not saying they should disband, nor do I expect them to when they're still as commercially popular as they ever were, and I wouldn't want to deprive anyone of seeing them live. But I wonder if a long hiatus before the next album – if there even is one – might not be a good thing? They have, after all, four decades of music to draw on, so they could conceivably tour the world playing their hits until they reach retirement age. I used to look forward to a new Maiden album when it was released, but now I'm not so sure I want to see another one. I mean, I listened to The Book of Souls just the once, and I have no particular desire to do so again.

Could it be time to chain up the Beast?
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Old 05-01-2021, 09:47 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Looking forward to reading this. I've never understood their popularity.
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Old 05-02-2021, 05:14 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Then you have the perfect person to explain it to you. As related several times elsewhere, Maiden were the first ever metal group I got into. I was 19 at the time, which might go some way towards explaining the attraction, but they were a gateway to other bands like Saxon, Motorhead, Tygers of Pan-Tang, Sabbath and Deep Purple for me.

Glad to have you along.

Expect Batty to drop by with many reasons why this will fail, why Maiden are unassailable and what part of my anatomy I should insert where.
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Old 05-02-2021, 06:30 AM   #4 (permalink)
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ha, well I look forward to all of it.
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Old 05-02-2021, 10:47 AM   #5 (permalink)
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Chapter I: Progressive or Regressive:
Does a fan's attention span vary inversely with the length of a song?


If you put a gun to my head, I'd wet myself. Probably shit myself too. But if you assured me all you wanted was a direct answer to the question, what went wrong with Iron Maiden, I would, after several attempts at speaking, tremble out the answer in two words: long songs.

Now, that might seem an oversimplification, and it is, but I believe it is at least partially at the heart of Maiden's perceived fall. Of course, the band have had long songs since day one, and not just long songs either, but involved ones. On their first album there's “Phantom of the Opera”, a seven-minute monster that to me is in three movements. It's quite classical in its composition, leading to its being also described as Maiden's first foray into progressive rock, or I guess you'd have to say progressive metal. For the time, it was pretty shocking and new. Most of the bands that came up via the NWOBHM – at least, those who survived that trial of fire – favoured short, snappy songs that came in around the three to four minute mark, were, in general, pretty basic (listen to any Angel Witch or Saxon or Raven album to see what I mean) and didn't overtax the imagination, either of the listener nor the composer that much. That's not to put those bands down, but they really more or less found a formula and stuck to it. Saxon were a little more expressive and adventurous with their lyrics, but by and large a lot of their tracks sound quite similar.

Which only made Iron Maiden stand out more. Obviously, the bulk of two albums they put out between 1980 and 1981 were short, to the point, rock out songs like “Drifter”, “Running Free” and their title song which closed the debut, but there were other ideas in there too, mostly due to the interests of the founder, bass player and lyricist Steve Harris. As befit a metal band, especially a new one riding the wave of new British heavy metal, the themes were almost all dark – murder, horror, paranoia, anger all feature heavily in the lyrics of both albums, as do a sort of defiant rebellion against authority. This is only to be expected. Saxon, after all, titled one of their albums as a snub to the police, while The Tygers of Pan-Tang have a wild tiger snarling on the cover of their debut, and Motorhead had a distinctly Teutonic, not to say Nazi, look about their logo. This was, after all, at its core, protest music – loud, angry and often full of expletives, yes, and hardly the sort of music sixties protest singers would acknowledge as having been the forebears to, but still protest. Metal has always been about a kind of protest, though in general not a real “smash the system” punk-style thing, more a “leave us the fuck alone” sort of idea.

But you can protest and snarl and rage and spit, and still have a lot to say, and Harris did have a lot to say, and he said it through the lyrics of the Iron Maiden albums. After a few years he calmed down a little and began writing in a more restrained way, taking history and literature as his subjects, and indeed sharing the songwriting credits, from about the fourth album on, with some of the other band members, but he still remained, and remains, the one who writes the lion's share of the music, or at least the lyrics.

The thing about metal is that it is a pretty new phenomenon in many ways. It grew, as we all know, out of a kind of synthesis of the old hard rock bands like Deep Purple, Free and Bad Company and punk rock, into something harder, sharper and faster than nearly any music that had been recorded up to then (punk excepted in terms of pure speed of course). And it was, I begrudgingly admit, a British phenomenon. It started in Britain and eventually spread from there, but even the godfathers of the genre were British. The NWOBHM, after all, was the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and it was a tumultuous time for music. A slew of bands rose and fell, and only the best – or luckiest – survived, and at the very top of that pile, swaggering and arrogant and – in the words of our missing member OccultHawk, unassailable – strode Iron Maiden. They would be the ones to carry the torch, bring the gospel, if you will, of heavy metal to the world; they would hold the banner high, wave the flag proudly both for Britain and for heavy metal, and show that the genre was not just something the kids listened to while bashing their brains out. This was music with something to say. It might say it loud, it might say it angrily, it might curse at you and look at you with contempt, and sometimes it might be so loud and/or fast that the message was in danger of being lost in the maelstrom of guitars, drums and growling or screaming voices, but it had a mission.

And Iron Maiden were its spokesmen.

So to get back to my original point: long songs. Another seven-minuter showed up on their most commercially successful album at that point in 1982, though to be fair “Hallowed Be Thy Name” owes much of its runtime to that superb solo that all but closes out the track, and the album. A year later they were at it again with “To Tame a Land”, again closing the album, again with a big guitar solo, again tipping the seven-minute mark, in fact making it the longest song of theirs at that time, at almost seven and a half.

And then came Powerslave.

This blew all records off the shelf, introducing us to the almost fourteen-minute epic “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and throwing in the title track at over seven minutes too, for good measure. The quality of all of these tracks is not in doubt, but I think the real reason they were, if you will, accepted – even welcomed – by the fans was because there were more “standard” Maiden tracks filling out the albums around them. Fast-forward on to 2015 and their most recent, to date, album, the double offering The Book of Souls (their only ever double album at the time of writing) and there are no less than four of the eleven tracks that hit over the seven minute mark (two of which go over ten) and that's not even counting the closer, which as all Maiden fans know, comes in at a whopping eighteen minutes, finally taking the record from “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and knocking it senseless to the floor. We'll talk more about that song later, never fear.

But for now, back in time we go and in fact it wasn't totally necessary to go all the way to the twenty-first century to find Maiden experimenting with longer songs, and more of them, on one album, as the very next one to follow Powerslave has three out of eight which run for over seven minutes, with a fourth almost edging in at just over six and a half, making almost half of the album consist of long tracks. I must admit, I'm not a particular fan of Somewhere in Time: I do like it, but I find some of the songs too long and frankly boring. Again, more of that as we get to the album. However even here the longer songs are balanced by relatively shorter ones, but still I don't think I could sing too many of even the shorter ones.

Then we get to Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.


Now this one, to its credit, has only one long song (though it's almost ten minutes!) but the problem here that I see is that, if “Phantom of the Opera” was the very faintest mewling of the infant known as Iron Maiden: Progressive Metal band, then Seventh Son is a pretty lusty roar. It's said not to be a concept album, but it is the closest they come to one, and the themes of the songs are all loosely tied to ideas of insanity and power, and I personally see it as the next best thing to one. Thankfully, Maiden did not yet – and have not so far – gone the whole hog and written a multi-part metal suite (though to some extent you could argue that “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” could be seen as one) but this album, for me anyway, stands as a marker for the direction they were later to go in.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with progressive metal. I love it. But it's a sub-genre, and really, unless you're in that sub-genre you kind of have no business trying to play it. Maiden have always been a little hard to categorise for me – are they speed metal? Thrash? Some refer to them as NWOBHM, and that's to me as much a copout as my own description of standard metal, but the fact is they play, for want of a better or more accurate phrase, the kind of metal you'd expect a metal band to play that isn't an extreme metal band. They're not pop metal but to some extent you might level that accusation at them, if only for the pop(ularity) some of their songs have achieved, even outside of metal, something few other bands in the genre have managed.

But the thing about metal is that at its core it's loud, abrasive, fast, powerful, angry. The songs are short, direct, simple. There are some sub-genres which buck the trend: atmospheric or ambient black metal often relies on long, meandering, often quite beautiful melodies that run into double figures, with some bands even having albums with only one or two tracks on them. Doom metal can also have very long compositions, and of course progressive metal is where you can find this too. Overall, you don't tend to get fans singing along to twenty-minute ABM tracks or Doom songs, for many reasons, but one important one I think is this. People want to be entertained, and they have short attention spans. Not everyone of course, but your average person will listen to music for as long as they enjoy it, then if it becomes a chore to keep listening to it will stop. In other words, and again to be very simplistic about it, if it's too long it's usually boring. Prog heads like me can listen to twenty-five minute compositions without a worry, but not all of them. I still fall asleep every time I try to listen to IQ's “The Last Human Gateway”, yet have no issue with Genesis's “Supper's Ready” or Rush's “2112”. I suppose really the key thing is not how long the song is, but how engaging it is, and continues to be, through its run, and I think this is where Maiden have stumbled.

I'm pretty sure I could ask any Maiden fan to name a song from any of the last four albums that they really enjoy and know well, and they'd struggle. Do you know all the words and music to “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg”? “The Red and the Black”? God forbid, “Empire of the Clouds”? I personally don't think metal fans are built for this kind of investing in songs. Naturally, that's a generalisation, and perhaps an unfair one, because we all know most if not all of the words to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or “Powerslave” and we can all sing along to “Hallowed Be Thy Name”. But I think it takes a particular type of music fan to enjoy longer compositions. Prog fans are masters at this, and I think Maiden's somewhat clumsy attempts to merge mainstream heavy metal with progressive metal have, on balance, been unsuccessful.

That doesn't of course translate to a dip in album sales. The Book of Souls shot to number 1 in the UK and number 4 in the US, giving Maiden their best performing album both sides of the water since, um, the previous one, and going gold everywhere as well as platinum in Hungary (huh?) so sales weren't affected. How people felt after buying the album is of course something sales don't tell you, as I once noted about box office receipts for movies: how do you know what percentage of those who bought a ticket (or album) liked the film, or album, once they had paid for it? It's not like they could return it, or even if they could, that there's any record kept of returned album sales. So maybe millions bought it and a large percentage were disappointed with it. It did receive largely critical praise, though some outlets were less effusive in their opinion of the album.

But sales and critical acclaim aside, talk to any Maiden fan or go on forums and you will hear a general disappointment with the direction their favourite band is headed. I likened Maiden earlier to a lumbering dinosaur desperately trying to stay relevant, but with songs like the frankly hard to maintain your interest in “Empire of the Clouds” (not saying it's a bad song, but are you going to listen to it once a month?) they seem to be failing spectacularly. Not only are few bands – even outside metal – writing such epic compositions, the potential for singles, which abounded in albums from the eighties and even nineties is no longer there. The shortest track on The Book of Souls is “Speed of Light”, and that's five minutes! And it was the one chosen as the lead single! Where are the “Run to the Hills”, “The Trooper” and the “Aces High”? Long gone, it would seem.

Have Maiden misjudged their audience, or have I? Even with five years between that and their last album, even with it being their first ever double and featuring their longest song ever, even with much effusive praise, both by fans and critics, who talks about it now? We still go on about “The Number of the Beast” or “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, almost forty years later. It's only been seven years since the release of The Book of Souls, and does anyone talk about it, sing its songs, even remember it? Myself, personally, I think it was a behemoth too far. But again, I'll discuss this when we get to the album.

The point is, those four albums may be great. I don't know. I've never listened to them enough to make a decision. I've been, in the main, unimpressed and bored by them, and have not wanted to sit through another listen. I could never say that about the previous albums. To be fair, I know why I hate The X-Factor and Virtual XI, but I don't know why – or if – I hate Dance of Death, A Matter of Life and Death, The Final Frontier and the monster Book of Souls. I just don't know them well enough, and I don't know them well enough because it's become a chore to sit through them. The songs are long, and that's one thing, but they're also boring. Or to put it in the words of Dave Lister on Red Dwarf, I am smegging un-gripped. I just don't see the point. Why have a song run for ten minutes when nothing much seems to happen? Why repeat most of the track just to make it eight or more minutes long? Where are the hooks? Where are the singalong choruses?

Where, in short, is the fun?

For now, I'm still looking.
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Old 05-02-2021, 01:26 PM   #6 (permalink)
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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 05-02-2021, 02:12 PM   #7 (permalink)
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**** off you idiot. Western language reads left to right, not down and up. Contribute something or sod off with your stupid comments.
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Old 05-02-2021, 03:07 PM   #8 (permalink)
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Dont worry about him he just has to set the pace backwards... I agree much of what you have said and so much reading but then you write well for sure. I look at Nightwish and love some of their early stuff but not so much at all the newer stuff coming out of then so guess lots of the bands change sometimes... it is just purely change of band members and influences by the media even, fans, changes in their lives...can be so many things that change a band....I except more what I hear as opposed to in depth wonderings. I suffer word blindness at times so likely missed some of your post comments/feelings..Take Bon Jovi my good mate Ash who we share music with mostly says they are soft.. but I enjoy them a lot so hey does it matter what others opinions are that much when you enjoy..it is hard I can see that for you as your start out with a band and they change, they all change to some degree..James Bay enjoy his music a lot and I cant believe it but he is now enjoying some of his music...
Favorite Nightwish Song...

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Old 05-02-2021, 08:23 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Hey Dianne, welcome to another of my many journals. I too am a huge Bon Jovi fan, and get a lot of stick for it, which used to bother me but now I don't worry about it. What does bug me is that Batty is a big Maiden fan, a real authority on metal, and his input could be really valuable here, but instead he just wants to make pithy posts criticising how I put text on graphics. It's annoying, but not that unexpected. Anyway welcome, and hope you enjoy the journal.
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Old 05-02-2021, 10:43 PM   #10 (permalink)
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**** off you idiot. Western language reads left to right, not down and up. Contribute something or sod off with your stupid comments.
What's the Western language?
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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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