TV evangelists…. nyctophobia…. giving Simon Cowell ideas… rebirth(?)… it’s the 2nd (and 3rd and 4th) phases of Iron Maiden.
NO PRAYER FOR THE DYING (1990)
SONG: Holy Smoke
HONOURABLE MENTIONS: Hooks In You, The Assassin, Tailgunner
Given the much discussed burn out and struggles Bruce had at the end of the World Slavery Tour and start of SIT, it’s slightly surprising that it was Adrian Smith that jumped ship first. Unhappy with the stripped back approach Steve Harris wanted to take with NPFTD, Adrian left and was replaced by Janick Gers, a whirling dervish of a guitar player (on stage) and someone who managed to draw Dave Murray out of his shell in the live arena too. And what of the album….
Well, it’s a good one. The sound is a lot less polished than previous albums two albums, certainly. The song writing is good and it features an epic history track in the form of ‘Mother Russia’. Award for terrible-play on-words-song-title goes to ‘Public Enema Number One’. I’ve often wondered why NPFTD doesn’t get the love it should. It’s far more immediate (and with less filler) than it’s successor. Odd. If you dismissed this album back in the day, it might be worth revisiting it….
Taking an acerbic look at TV evangelists and organised religion in general, ‘Holy Smoke’ was the lead single from the album and a rare collaboration between Dickinson and Harris. It’s obvious why this was the lead single, it’s catchy musically and has a chorus designed to stick in your brain. Perhaps realising the potential controversy over the lyrics, the video features the band titting about in and around Steve Harris’ house. I particularly love Janick’s playing his solo in a swimming pool. On a plastic toy guitar. Less so, the sight of producer Martin Birch’s arse cheeks.
They ain’t religious but they ain’t no fools / When Noah built his Cadillac it was cool
FEAR OF THE DARK (1991)
SONG: Be Quick Or Be Dead
HONOURABLE MENTIONS: Chains Of Misery, Judas Be My Guide, The Fugative
Another lead single, I know. I had to think long and hard about this choice. As you can see from my honourable mentions some of my other fav. songs are (as far as I can see) some of the tracks that other Maiden fans would consign to the bin and wipe from memory. There is a ferocity to this track that is quite surprising for Maiden. Lyrically dealing with political scandals of the time, it is a more socially aware lyric than we’ve seen, perhaps, on other Maiden albums (it’s predecessor being the exception). It’s an aggressive and pissed off song and a great statement to make for a first single.
FOTD is a weird album as it could do with a bit of judicious editing. ‘Weekend Warrior’ is one that should have been a B side, ‘The Apparition’ should have gone through lyrical quality control (the music is great, though) and I’d have made the band choose between ‘Afraid To Shoot Strangers’ and ‘Wasting Love’ (the former would have been my pick). This is also Dickinson’s last album with Maiden until 2000. Is it a fitting swansong for this version of Maiden? As a whole: not really but it DID spawn the title track which has gone on to become a huge live favourite. The album suffers from being a bit flabby though. A couple of the tracks should have been used as non-album B sides instead of the covers they chose.
I bet you won’t fall on your face / Your belly will hold you in place….
THE X FACTOR (1995)
SONG: 2 A.M.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS: The Sign Of The Cross, Fortunes Of War, The Unbeliever
Oh Blaze. You poor sod, you. When it was announced that Dickinson had left Maiden, the metal community was consumed with the question of who would replace him. So it was a bit of a head scratcher when the bloke who sang in Wolfsbane was announced as the new singer. With hindsight I believe that Blaze’s appointment was a little bit of history repeating. After Paul Di’Anno left they went with his polar opposite int he form of Bruce Dickinson, and whilst the argument has been made that the music they were writing was more expansive and grandiose and required a voice to match, I do also think that it was a deliberate move to distance themselves from the sound of Di’Anno’s voice. Same thing with Blaze, having a lower register than Dickinson and a deeper, richer tone overall he was the opposite of Dickinson. But….
The problem is that Blaze struggled with Maiden and Maiden struggled with Blaze. It was a bad pairing from the start. On the record we have some sections where Blaze is clearly out of tune and yet they released the album with these moments still audible. On tour they wisely avoided the majority of songs that required a larger vocal range, although they were still forced to cancel dates due to preserve Blaze’s voice (as they did on the Virtual XI tour). Musically this, the first of Blaze’s two studio offerings, works much better than Virtual XI. Harris was going through a divorce during this time and it reflected in a darker musical, lyrical and visual tone. It’s more introspective and all the more better for it.
‘2 A.M.’ is a perfect example of this, detailing the lark dark night of the soul, reflecting on the past and the feelings of futility towards life. It stands out, for me, as one of the best and most honest of Maiden’s lyrics. Musically it is hard hitting and mid-paced. Let’s just try to ignore that vocal line at the very end of the song…..
Here I am again / On my own….
VIRTUAL XI (1998)
SONG: The Clansman
HONOURABLE MENTIONS: Futereal, Don’t Look To The Eyes Of A Stranger, Lightning Strikes Twice
So to be honest with you, up until I started this series and this instalment of it, I had never listened to this album in its entirety. I had the singles, I’d heard the Bruce version of The Clansman, but I’d never really bothered to listen to the album as a whole. I think because at the time, I was so unimpressed with the previous album that I didn’t bother to check this one out.
It’s not a good album. The simple fact is that the songs are not up to scratch. There are moments of shining light (the 4 songs I’ve listed) but other than those, this is very much the sound of a tired band, a band struggling to find it’s way. Listening now, I’m left with a sense of relief that I know the band pull through this patch and return with a stellar “comeback” album. But at the time, I can imagine that many Maiden fans must have felt a creeping sense of despair.
One of those shining lights is ‘The Clansman’. Chock full of all the hallmarks of classic Maiden (historical story lyrics, a soaring sing-a-long chorus, quiet/loud dynamics) it is the album’s best song by a country mile. So good in fact that they played it on the Brave New World tour. Which was great (as it’s a god song) but also bitter-sweet for Maiden fans and for (I’m guessing…) Blaze too. We got to hear what Virtual XI (and The X Factor) might have sounded like with Bruce at the vocal mic. Which doesn’t take away from Blaze’s performance. I think, now that time has passed, Maiden fans are re-assessing these 2 albums with clearer, less emotional eyes. There are lots of positives there and lots of negatives too. But more importantly, they kept the band going….
BRAVE NEW WORLD (2000)
SONG: The Thin Line Between Love And Hate
HONOURABLE MENTIONS: Dream Of Mirrors, The Nomad, Blood Brothers
Very much stressed this was NOT a “comeback” album (and it isn’t as it’s a different line-up) this is more of a return to form than anything else. Not only was Dickinson back but also guitarist Adrian Smith. I remember wondering what this new 3 guitar line up was going to sound like. In a word: awesome. It’s not really until you hear the older songs that you get a sense of the dynamics and beefier sound that the band now has. BNW marks the shift the band have taken towards a more progressive song writing style. There are still the 4 minute “short” songs but this really is about the lengthier tracks, the twists and turns and mental landscapes that are created.
‘Thin Line….” deals with the marginal difference between things: tears of sadness/joy, genius/insanity on so on. Musically it’s a bit of a barn stormer until around the 5m20 mark when it segues into something that I find so beautiful, it almost brings tears to my eyes. Those chords, the lead guitar line and then Bruce’s vocal performance….. spine-tingling every time. Especially this version by Thomas Zwijsen….
Heart will die, my soul will fly, and I will live forever….
DANCE OF DEATH (2003)
HONOURABLE MENTIONS: Journeyman, No More Lies, Wildest Dreams
A patchy album that doesn’t quite constantly hit the highs we’ve come to expect of Maiden, it nevertheless features some moments of outstanding quality. A large percentage of those are found in ‘Paschendale’. Written by Adrian Smith and Steve Harris it’s an epic musical and lyrical tale of the battle of Passchendaele, and if there’s one thing that Maiden love, it’s a good historic story song. Much like Adrian Smith loves his open top-E string song intro riffs (looking at you ‘Wasted Years’).
Over the course of 8 and a half minutes, we’re dumped squarely in that muddy field in 1917. With an intro mimicking the shelling (moments of quiet with sections of intense volume…) we are taken on a journey that describes the horrors of war, the fears of the soldier and the loneliness and isolation of battle. It’s a epic journey, and considering it came from Adrian Smith, who historically write shorter, more melodic songs, this is a real treat. It’s also worth checking out the excellent Orchestral Version that was release on the ‘No More Lies’ EP,
Friend and foe will meet again / Those who died at Paschendale….
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (2006)
SONG: Brighter Than A Thousand Sons
HONOURABLE MENTIONS: Out Of The Shadows, The Legacy, For The Greater Good Of God
Whilst Maiden’s/Harris’ prog roots have been hinted at over the entire course of their career (‘Phantom Of The Opera’ being the first inkling…), it’s on this album that they fully incorporate a prog attitude into the music. 7 out of the 10 tracks are over 6 minutes in length, numerous time changes and an overarching theme of life and death (geddit?!).
BTATS tackles the weighty issue of nuclear war and it’s inception. There lyrics make for interesting reading especially if you then read this article on the Iron Maiden Commentary site and then go back a re-read the lyrics with, perhaps a deeper understanding of the references used. Harris mentioned in pre-album interviews that this was a heavier album for the band, nowhere is this more apparent than the pre-verse riff here. A relatively simple riff but by God, it cracks your ribs. Dickinson’s vocals soar and swoop, in fact he is excellent across the album as a whole. AMOLAD is an album that demands your attention, it’s not something that you put on and ignore. Tonally it is much closer to The X Factor than, say, Powerslave. Of the “reunion” albums this is by far my favourite.
Holy Father we have sinned…
THE FINAL FRONTIER (2010)
SONG: The Talisman
HONOURABLE MENTIONS: Mother Of Mercy, Where The Wild Wind Blows, Starblind
Finally finding the right balance between prog and their song writing styles, The Final Frontier perfectly encapsulates post-2000 Iron Maiden. Songs like ‘Coming Home’ demonstrate their “power ballad” rock song (a la ‘Wasting Love’, ‘Infinite Dreams etc). The second half of ‘Satellite 15… The Final Frontier’ and ‘El Dorado’ are the more straightforward rock track (‘Be Quick Or Be Dead’, ‘Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter etc) and at the other end of the spectrum we have the journey that ‘Where the Wild Wind Blows’ and ‘Isle Of Avalon’ take us on. It really is the culmination of all their years together.
‘The Talisman’ takes it lyrical cues, in a way, from ‘Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’ in that it details a sea voyage that is filled with trial and tests. Unlike ROTAM, this one ends with our narrator dying and unable to pass on his tale. With it’s lilting, acoustic guitar intro providing the wistful atmosphere to match the lyrics we drift gently until a storm hits the ship and the music crashes in to match. The dynamics of the song are stellar words and music going hand in hand. Maiden are always at their best (usually) when they have a story to tell in the lyrics. Something about a narrative brings out the best in them
We’re off now to seek all our fortunes / To the land of our dreams