Iron Maiden (Capitol ’80) Rating: A
I grew up on a steady diet of classic rock and heavy metal, and it’s likely that no band meant more to my teenage years than Iron Maiden. As such, I’m probably a little biased with the following reviews, much in the same way that most punk-friendly critics tend to overrate bands like the Ramones, Sex Pistols, or The Clash, three band’s that early Maiden easily match with regards to raw energy and excitement. But Maiden delivered the goods with twice the chops of those bands (all of whom I like a lot, mind you), and this blazing debut album immediately introduced a major new force into the world of heavy metal. Iron Maiden established the band as the most important (and best) “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” export, and it showcased all of the band’s strengths: tightly executed dual guitar melodies (with a harmonic element that nodded to both Judas Priest and Thin Lizzy) that never skimp on speed or power, distinctive singing with a heavy dosage of theatricality (this time supplied by Paul Di'Anno), and Steve Harris’ strong songwriting and faster than light bass playing. “Prowler” immediately gets the band off and running with a catchy, rocking number that’s criminally overlooked, topped off by one of Dave Murray’s best guitar solos. The moody “Remember Tomorrow” then switches gears; led by arguably Di'Anno’s best vocal, this was a power ballad prototype in that it’s actually powerful. Of course, the second half of the song rocks with that classic Maiden guitar wail, and stop and start dynamics that owe as much to prog as to punk. Lest we think we’re dealing with ELP here, things simplify on “Running Free,” which has a good funky groove and a catchy if overly repetitive chorus (always a Maiden weakness) going for it. My favorite part is the chugga chugga chugga rhythm before the guitar thrusts kick in at the 2:13 mark, and though this is a minor Maiden track, it still provides major enjoyment. A major track in every way is “Phantom Of The Opera," an exemplary showcase for the band’s tight musicianship and horror-based lyrics (one reason why critics have always underrated them). The Thin Lizzy-like guitar melody at 3:26 is a high point, as is the hard-edged guitar at 4:35, as Maiden proves to be a rare band who can deliver multi-sectioned 7-minute epics that don't seem overly long or indulgent. Next up is “Transylvania,” a tightly played, fast paced instrumental that’s an impressive showcase for the band’s groove and riff-based attributes, on which drummer Clive Burr is a real standout. “Strange World” then gives listeners another chance to catch their breath by returning the band to the moody atmospherics they do so well, and which would influence later bands like Metallica. Sure, this trippy song sounds slightly amateurish, but more great guitar melodies and a surprising sweetness salvage it. Besides, the band’s energy is back in full force on “Sanctuary,” a straightforward, fun rocker on which the catchiness quotient is real high. “Charlotte The Harlotte” rocks as well, and from 1:50 to 2:50 Di'Anno actually sings (dare I say it) tenderly; more than anything, it is his from-the-gut vocal performance that makes this song another standout despite its misogynist lyrics. Then again, Maiden was never really about lyrics, a point that most mainstream critics failed to realize (besides, they have written many great lyrics as well, which most mainstream critics have also failed to realize). Anyway, last but certainly not least, the title track simply smokes, propelled by Harris’ freakishly fast bass leads and more blood stained lyrics. The song has a great surge that really gets me going, providing a fist-pumping finale to a heavy metal classic.
Killers (Capitol ’81) Rating: A-
Whoa! Sorry about that long review there, I got carried away a bit. You see, Maiden does that to me, and I do believe that their debut album is one of the best ever, though no “respectable” rock critic would ever regard it as such. Alas, after such an amazing first album, Maiden’s quickly delivered second set was bound to be slightly disappointing, and it is, but only by their lofty standards. If anything Killers actually ups the raw energy and intensity of the debut, providing plenty of the raging guitars and tight tempo shifts that was the cornerstone of early Maiden. The album is actually heavier than Iron Maiden - then again, a newcomer might be surprised that, though the band most definitely rocks, relative to today’s metal bands Maiden aren’t that heavy and could more aptly be called “hard rock” than “heavy metal” – but the songs, all written by Steve Harris, are less memorable. Only “Wrathchild,” a bass-driven beast on which the guitars fairly scream and whose lyrics are highly respectable, and the title track (a co-write with Di’Anno), a dramatic slasher tale with that great Maiden gallop and Di’Anno at his unhinged best, qualify as a no-doubt-about-it-classics. There are plenty of other high points, though, such as “The Ides of March,” which introduces the album with that high pitched wailing guitar thing they do so well, matched to Clive Burr’s militant drum thump, before segueing perfectly into “Wrathchild.” Also impressive are the Edgar Allan Poe inspired “Murders In The Rue Morgue,” which starts slowly but soon shows its fast, catchy, and aggressive attributes, “Innocent Exile,” with its patented bass rumble, raging guitars, and drum punctuations, “Prodigal Son,” an atypical mellower acoustic/electric based epic with lotsa soul, and “Purgatory, " with more blistering guitars, pounding drums, and its catchy “please take me away” chorus. The U.S. version of the album also has “Twilight Zone,” notable for Di’Anno’s Ian Gillan-like vocals, but in looking at the rest of the track listing I’ll be damned if I can immediately remember the difference between songs such as “Another Life,” “Genghis Khan,” " and “Drifter.” Perhaps that’s because I’m not as familiar with the album as I am with their debut, but then again, there’s a reason for that. Some of the songs on their debut were stronger than others, but each was distinguishable from the next, whereas these more jam-based songs tend to blur together, offering much less variety on the whole. That said, the album is still really good, as Di'Anno, in his last studio stint with the band, once again registers an impressive showing, earnestly screeching out song after song, while Adrian Smith replaces Dennis Stratton as the band’s second guitarist with no loss of chemistry (in fact he was the superior player and far better suited for Maiden long term). The sound quality is also improved (the lesser production on the debut is about my only criticism of it), as longtime producer Martin Birch started working his magic here.
The Number Of The Beast (Capitol ’82) Rating: A+
Exit Paul Di'Anno - the reasons why he was sacked, whose "fault" it was, vary depending on who you ask - enter former Samson vocalist Bruce Dickinson. Not many groups that have the daunting task of replacing an excellent vocalist succeed (AC/DC comes to mind), but Bruce Dickinson was more than ready for the task at hand. Giving them a wider ranging and more distinctive voice to work with, Bruce was aided by Maiden (primarily Harris) writing some of their best songs (for contractual reasons Bruce was unable to contribute to the songwriting here), resulting in an album that even the critics can’t deny. With Bruce on board the band began a new phase, forsaking their earlier punk infused direction for a more theatrical, epic-minded delivery, though this shift was hardly in evidence on “Invaders,” a simple album opener that sounds kinda silly. It’s still fun, though, but for me the album begins in earnest on the moody “Children Of The Damned,” one of those underrated album tracks that makes these guys so great. Simply put, this “power ballad” showed future hair metal bands how it should be done, but, like “Remember Tomorrow,” the second half of the song rocks, and not in any half-assed way, as the song surges to an exciting conclusion. Dickinson in particular is a standout on this track, which ably demonstrates the band’s keen sense of drama, as well as the gothic overtones that have always been prominent in the band’s music. Moving on, “The Prisoner” begins with a cheesy but fun intro before settling into an almost funky groove. Simply put, this song again shows Maiden at their best, beginning with Bruce, whose star-making (at least in metal circles) performance throughout this album cannot be understated. With a catchy chorus that’s just on the right side of cheesy, an obligatory (great) guitar solo, and blistering backbeats from the underrated Clive Burr, chalk this one up as another major winner - and Maiden was only warming up. “22 Acacia Avenue” rocks relentlessly on its chugging rhythm, and its nasty but memorable lyrics reintroduce us to everybody’s favorite whore (Charlotte the harlot). Again, though, it is the music, not the misogynist lyrics, that win the day. Better still is the monumental title track, a classic by any measure. Beginning with a campy spoken word intro, the song builds slowly but inexorably, and though the track got the band (incorrectly) branded as Satanists, I prefer again to concentrate on the music, which is almost overwhelmingly powerful and catchy; the scream at the 1:17 mark is surely among the greatest in rock history. There’s little if any letup on “Run To The Hills,” the band’s most famous song which (to lazily quote the All Music Guide) “dealt with the plight of the American Indian.” The galloping music matches the war-based lyrics to a tee, Bruce lends several window-shattering screams, and the epic chorus is among the band’s catchiest ever. What’s not to like? Hell, even my dad likes this song; no, scratch that, my dad loves this song (then again his taste in music is actually quite cool but I digress…). Granted, “Gangland” is a pedestrian bump in the road, but even this one (which I used to automatically fast forward) isn’t as bad as I remembered it; the guitars still cook, at the very least. Finally, we come to my all-time favorite Iron Maiden song (need I say more?), “Hallowed Be Thy Name.” Suffice it to say, my lame scribbling can never do justice to this brilliantly dire epic, but I will say that it features Maiden’s most unstoppable groove, has cool death-obsessed lyrics, and that Clive Burr, in his last gasp with the band, goes out with a bang. Long story short (though I suppose it’s too late for that) this album sees one of the greatest heavy metal bands of all time at their very best. It started to gain the band some serious notoriety (both good and bad), and all these years later it’s still regarded as their signature album.
Piece Of Mind (Capitol ’83) Rating: A
With new drummer Nicko McBrain in tow, Piece Of Mind was another superlative album that showcased Iron Maiden at their absolute peak, cementing their reputation as the premier heavy metal band on the planet. Dickinson writes or co-writes four tracks and once again vocally shines on an album that takes no prisoners, and their violent, dark songs about religion, mythology, and war are all heavy and powerful epics. When I think of this album, a series of searing highlights and images come immediately to mind, including the explosive drum introduction to “Where Eagles Dare” (welcome Nicko!), the thick riffs of “Revelations,” the chugging groove and haunting chorus of “Flight Of Icarus,” the wailing guitar intro to the dramatic “Die With Your Boots On,” the unstoppable momentum of “The Trooper,” and the soaring chorus of “Sun And Steel.” The almighty first side - probably the band’s best along with the last album’s second side - in particularly offers up a brilliantly consistent barrage, beginning with “Where Eagles Dare,” yet another overlooked yet awesome album track (for example, it's the only song from side one not on Live After Death) on which their dual guitars are perfectly in sync. Things slow down on "Revelations," an atmospheric change of pace that of course has its faster sections as well, and I already mentioned the best aspects of "Flight Of Icarus" and "Die With Your Boots On," both of which are prime Maiden as well. Even better is "The Trooper," a hard charging war epic on which the exciting music is again a perfect match for the descriptive lyrics; taken together, I almost feel like I'm on that battlefield, and the tension is palpable (the part where Bruce sings “a burst of rounds takes my horse below” before Nicko’s drums approximate gunfire is sheer perfection). Alas, the album's second half is considerably less impressive than its first, both musically and lyrically (i.e. songs about nightmares, cavemen, and the novel Dune). That said, only the pedestrian “Quest For Fire” would qualify as an obvious filler track, as I heartily endorse “Still Life” and epic album ender “To Tame A Land” as well, though both may take some listens in order for you to fully appreciate them. All in all, Piece Of Mind is another absolute must have for any serious heavy metal fan; this is Dickinson’s favorite Maiden album (at least it used to be before their comeback), in fact, and on many days it’s mine as well.
Powerslave (Capitol ’84) Rating: A
Although this album was a bit slicker and less powerful than their two previous outings with Dickinson, Powerslave was another start to finish fantastic album with several classic songs. For example, "Aces High" begins the album with another excellent lyrics-to-music match; it sounds like an air raid, though perhaps the singable chorus is a little cheesier than necessary. Still, it's a great start, and the terrific "2 Minutes To Midnight" continues with one of the band's catchiest compositions, along with graphic lyrics ("the body bags and little rags of children torn in two" - yuck!) that showcase the band's story-based songwriting style. "Losfer Words" is the band's first instrumental in some time, and it's a good one, highlighted by their high-pitched, wonderfully melodic guitar harmonies, while "Flash Of The Blade" is my personal favorite here, with a supremely catchy riff (and chorus) and desperately wailing guitars. Of course, the critics would have a field day with the sword and sorcery lyrics from Dickinson (an avid fencer), who again was heavily involved with the songwriting (along with Harris and to a lesser extent Smith). "The Duellists," written by Harris, is also about a sword fight (but without the dragons), so obviously the band members were influencing each other and were into the same things; this is a good thing as it makes the album a cohesive listen. Anyway, "The Duellists" is another fine, long neglected album track with an atmospheric chug, a catchy (if again overly cheesy) chorus, and the obligatory guitar solos (Dave Murray and Adrian Smith remain quite the guitar tandem), which set an appropriately mournful mood for the song's fateful finale. I don't have much to say about "Back In The Village" beyond that I don't care for it much (file it alongside "Gangland" and "Quest For Fire"), especially its woefully weak chorus, but the moody title track is another high point, led by its mythological lyrics about a doomed God (really a dying Pharoah as the album has an ancient Egypt motif) who's "a slave to the power of death." Sound silly? Well, maybe, but the band's stellar riffs and solos, steady rhythmic chug, ability to create a mood and shift musical gears, and strong songwriting makes it another very successful epic length track. Then again, calling this song an epic hardly seems fair given what follows, all 13:45 of "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner." Granted, this somewhat overrated song is way too long and pretentious, particularly the lyrics, which include parts of a poem from Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A spoken word section and too much down time are other faults; some parts are a bit slow going and boring, others are too derivative of “Hallowed By Thy Name.” Still, the song's impressive scope, exciting peaks, theatrical sense of drama, and overall creativity ultimately wins me over, even though it was a harbinger of the band’s unwelcome change in direction from being the ‘80s pre-eminent power metal band into a more progressive minded metal outfit.
Live After Death (Capitol ’85, '02) Rating: A+
This stunning live set is simply one of the greatest live albums of all time, one that marked the end of a remarkable era. The introduction of Winston Churchill’s inspiring World War II speech segueing into “Aces High” is a brilliant masterstroke, and this album runs through many of the high points of Iron Maiden’s first five studio albums. One can feel the enormous energy and excitement that went into these performances, which were captured during their monstrous “World Slavery” tour of 1985, when they reigned supreme over the heavy metal world. Iron Maiden were trailblazers in that they were the first band to sell millions of records with virtually no radio play, and this was accomplished largely due to word of mouth sales generated by being the tour to see. I saw this tour at Radio City Music Hall in New York City (my second concert ever!), and their show had it all for the discerning metalhead: great songs, theatrical stage sets with a double dosage of Eddie (the band’s famous mascot, mummified for the Powerslave tour, who made two show stopping appearances), and memorable solo spotlights that didn’t linger too long. Some of these songs are definite improvements on the originals, such as “Aces High,” “2 Minutes To Midnight,” and “Revelations,” and Dickinson even does surprisingly well on the Paul Di'Anno songs (“Running Free,” “Iron Maiden,” “Wrathchild”), making this an absolutely essential complement to their studio classics. Note: The initial cd version of Live After Death excluded side 4 of the original LP, which included "Wrathchild," "Children of the Damned," "22 Acacia Avenue," "Die With Your Boots On," and "Phantom of the Opera." The CD also cut down "Running Free" from 8:43 to 3:16 to fit the album onto a single CD. The 2002 remastered re-release has the unedited original version of ”Running Free” and includes a second cd with the five missing tracks; this is the version of the album to look out for. Note #2: Although their live prowess was a huge factor in the band’s success, much credit is also due to the marketing acumen of manager Robert Smallwood and artist (and Eddie creator) Derek Riggs, as few bands sold more merchandise (in particular t-shirts and posters) or had a better gimmick to market than the ever-changing Eddie.
Somewhere In Time (Capitol ‘86) Rating: B+
This is the album that began phase III of the Maiden experience, and I remember well my disappointment upon first hearing it. However, time and distance now allow me to review the album with a less jaundiced eye and in a more favorable light (much like with Metallica’s loathed-at-first Load). It certainly starts off well enough, as “Caught Somewhere In Time” sports the patented Maiden gallop, wailing guitars, a singable chorus, and a suitably epic guitar solo. The superb first single “Wasted Years” follows with memorable guitar riffs and Dickinson’s emotional vocals (cool guitar solo and Eddie-athon video, too), while the atmospheric “Sea Of Madness” boasts imaginative lyrics and an evocative sing along chorus. “Heaven Can Wait” is another estimable effort, with a surprisingly poppy chorus and some gothic touches going for it, but like “Caught Somewhere In Time” the song is ultimately too long for its own good. Still, side one is quite good, though side two is less impressive. In particular, “The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner” is one race that didn’t need to be run, while “Alexander The Great” is a solid if not exactly inspired history lesson that drags on for over eight long minutes. Much better are “Stranger In A Strange Land,” a successfully moody number despite its dated sounding keyboards, and “Déjà Vu,” a comparatively straightforward, hard-hitting, and catchy rocker. All in all, despite some intriguing (if long-winded) atmospherics and futuristic sci-fi (as exemplified by the memorable album cover) and time themed lyrics, the album features too many slicked up instrumental passages that wander aimlessly for too long, making me miss the raw, no bullshit delivery that had previously made these guys so great. Don’t get me wrong, the guitar synthesizers that at times play such a prominent role on this album are tastefully employed, and this is still a high quality album, but Maiden has done much better before and (surprisingly) since. Note: Surprisingly, this album featured no songwriting credits from Bruce Dickinson, who had contributed so significantly to the prior two albums; fortunately, Adrian Smith stepped up and wrote three key tracks (“Wasted Years,” “Sea Of Madness,” “Heaven Can Wait”), while Harris wrote or co-wrote the rest of the songs.
Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (Capitol ‘88) Rating: A-
Although I wasn’t too fond of this album at first given that it was a continuation of the slicker style of its predecessor, this is an album that has really grown on me over the years, and I now concur with the consensus that this is one of Maiden’s best albums; though their first five albums will always be my favorites, this is a serious contender for “best of the rest.” For one thing, Bruce is writing again, contributing four co-writes, and this album also stands out due to its experimental nature, with an increased use of keyboards contributing to the album’s moody atmospherics. Plus, this is the band’s lone fully fledged concept album, and the interesting fantasy-based story, inspired by a novel by Orson Scott Card (Steve Harris’ troubled sleeping habits also provided lyrical inspiration), makes this an album that really holds together as an album, one whose whole adds up to more than the sum of its generally impressive individual parts. True, the album lacks the raw energy of past successes, and the cruise control repetitiveness of some of the choruse are another weakness (“Moonchild” and “The Prophecy” being the biggest failures on that front), but the album’s memorable storyline, mystical Gothic overtones, and cinematic reach makes most of it highly enjoyable. Among the highlights are “Infinite Dreams,” one of the band’s best ballads, though of course like previous such efforts (“Remember Tomorrow,” “Children Of The Damned”) it gets heavier as well. “The Evil That Men Do” and “Only The Good Die Young” (no not the Billy Joel song) are fairly straightforward standouts that are atmospheric, melodic, and memorable, despite overly repetitive choruses, while the even better “The Clairvoyant” has a brighter sound and a catchy galloping chorus. Rather than conclude the album with an epic-scale track as per usual, this time they put the 10-minute title track smack in the middle of the album, and this extremely atmospheric yet quite heavy song delivers the goods (again despite another overly repetitive, rather lackluster chorus), showcasing the band’s storytelling skills, ability to create a memorable (Gothic) mood, and impressive instrumental prowess (the song ends with several minutes of extended guitar soloing). Perhaps the song is a bit longer than necessary, and maybe you could say the same thing about “Infinite Dreams,” but on the whole the album is a surprisingly concise 45 minutes, and is all the better due to its brevity; plus I like the way the “seven deadly sins” opening and closing bits put a thematic bow tie on the entire album. Anyway, the album’s most famous and controversial song is the catchy semi-hit “Can I Play With Madness,” whose merits or lack therof seems to divide fans due to its blatantly poppy nature. Me, I think it’s terrific, as it boasts the classic Maiden gallop, is simply impossible not to sing along to, and features Nicko at his beastly best. On the whole, Maiden really goes prog-rock here, and there are times when I do lament the band’s shift in favor of moody textures over rocking out (Bruce’s vocals are also less high pitched and more restrained on the whole), but Seventh Son, while not quite up to the high standard of earlier peaks, is still well worth the time of any Maiden fan.
No Prayer For The Dying (Epic ‘90) Rating: B
Janick Gers replaced Adrian Smith on second guitar duties here, and perhaps not coincidentally the band attempted to return to the more straightforward style of their earlier efforts. This wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but the songwriting here is sorely lacking at times, particularly in middle of the album, and Bruce’s raspy singing style too often lacks its usual theatrical flair. On the whole, the arrangements are tighter and less keyboard-reliant than on their prior two albums, while lyrically the band returns from fantasy-land to tackle more topical real world subjects (for example the environment on “Public Enema Number One,” also notable due to its memorable chant-like chorus). Highlights include the hard hitting television evangelist mocking first single “Holy Smoke,” “Tailgunner” (reminiscent of “Aces High”), the title track (reminiscent of previous “power ballads” “Children Of The Damned” and "Infinite Dreams"), “Bring Your Daughter… To The Slaughter,” a surprising (and controversial) #1 U.K. hit that I actually like despite its obvious silliness, and the atmospheric finale “Mother Russia,” another epic history lesson and the song here that most recalls the more widescreen scope of the band’s recent releases. As you may have surmised, even the best songs here merely echo past triumphs, and this is more just a collection of songs unlike Seventh Son which was elevated by its thematic unity and interesting storyline. So, although it was good to see Maiden return to rocking out in such a straightforward manner, and even though I enjoy the majority of it, there’s a reason that this is generally considered one of the weaker Iron Maiden albums, as it’s a bit of a rehash and the songwriting is hit and miss.
Fear Of The Dark (Columbia ’92) Rating: B
It's hard for me to consider this anything other than just another Iron Maiden album, and one of the weaker ones at that. Of course, Maiden are too great a band to ever release a total dog, at least when Bruce is behind the mike, but this album has few if any classic tracks, though "Be Quick And Be Dead," the fast-paced, heavy first track that overcomes its pedestrian chorus with a good solo and Maiden's trademark gallop, and the closing title track, which is long and proggy but keeps the intensity and forward momentum going, are certainly fan favorites. In between those two high points the rest of the album is rather hit-and-miss as, less face it, Maiden was a non-entity in the nineties. That said, the album has its moments; for example, Nicko really shines on the strong "Childhood's End" (excellent harmonized guitars as well) and "The Fugitive" (pity about the latter’s lame chorus), and "Judas Be My Guide" is melodic and singable and has the band's trademark dual guitars and galloping grooves. Old friend Charlotte the harlot returns on “From Here To Eternity,” which features good galloping grooves and nimble guitar work (pity about the cheesy chanted chorus), and the stellar “Afraid To Shoot Strangers,” about the Gulf War, actually stays a low-key ballad for much of the song before blistering guitars take over before it turns into a majestic power ballad towards the end. Unforunately, the other ballad, “Wasting Love,” is rather bland, and songs such as "“Fear Is The Key,” "Chains Of Misery," “The Apparition,” and “Weekend Warrior” are filler tracks that never really ignite. Also, this is the first cd-era Maiden album in that it obviously runs longer than it should, and that goes for several of the songs themselves, as too many of them take too long to get going, probably the major latter day Maiden weakness. It's still a decent and surprisingly diverse album overall, but given the many better Maiden alternatives out there I rarely listen to it, and it's saying something that this album is probably most noted for a) it being Bruce's last album with the band until many years later, and b) the fact that Melvyn Grant did the cover art rather than usual cover art creator Derek Riggs.
Brave New World (Columbia ’00) Rating: A-
After tearing up most of the ‘80s, the ‘90s saw some hard times for Iron Maiden, one of heavy metal’s all-time greatest bands. Singer Bruce “Air Raid Siren” Dickinson, whose melodramatic wail helped define the band, grew disenchanted and left to pursue a solo career full-time after Fear Of The Dark (I highly recommend checking out his solo career, in particular Accident Of Birth and The Chemical Wedding). After two disappointing albums with ex-Wolfsbane singer Blaze Bayley at the mike (the less said about phase IV Maiden the better), Bruce is back in the fold for Brave New World. He brought a friend along, too, in the form of former guitarist Adrian Smith, and with a newly volatile three-pronged guitar attack (Dave Murray and Janick Gers remain) Iron Maiden is back with a surprising vengeance. Right from the start “The Wicker Man” breaks out some killer riffs that had long lain dormant in the band’s repertoire, matched to an excellent chorus, while “The Ghost Of The Navigator” is another prime showcase for the band, both for its evocative atmospherics and for unleashing an unstoppable groove machine. Unfortunately, the song is marred somewhat by a repetitive, clunky chorus, a deficiency that also (predictably) appears elsewhere. Fortunately, most of the choruses are good (again if overly repetitive), and besides, any songwriting weaknesses are more than made up for by the band’s brilliantly powerful ensemble playing. The band is firing on all cylinders throughout, bolstered by an almost perfect production from Kevin Shirley and Steve Harris (Birch had retired after Fear Of The Dark), which allows Nicko McBrain’s forceful drums to pound, Harris’ bass to blaze, and particularly those three layered guitars to flourish on comparatively short yet rocking songs such as “The Mercenary” and “The Fallen Angel” (as well as the aforementioned “The Wicker Man”). Bruce is also in fine form, delivering some of his most emotional vocals ever, particularly on moodier metal epics like “Brave New World,” “Blood Brothers,” “Dream Of Mirrors,” and “The Thin Line Between Love And Hate.” These ten long, leisurely building songs average almost seven minutes in length, which allows the band to stretch out, and though perhaps a case could be made that too much leeway was granted with the arrangements, and that the album runs on longer than necessary (i.e. it’s too much of a good thing), the band sounds as tight and powerful as ever. The song credits reveal this to be a true band effort, too, and the only thing that the album is missing are a couple of songs that could be stamped as instantly identifiable all time classics. After all, what long ago distinguished these guys from bands like Korn was that, in addition to having an undeniable sound, they also had great, varied individual songs. Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to settle for a bunch of really good songs that are spectacularly played, as by and large this was a welcome return to form from a legendary band. It’s almost certainly their best (and proggiest) album since Seventh Son, and it provided the template that their subsequent ‘00s albums would follow, none quite so successfully. Note: To add an exclamation point to the band's triumphant comeback, 2002 saw the release of Eddie's Archive, an elaborately packaged 6-cd box set that contained three double cd sets, including two live albums (BBC Archives and Beast Over Hammersmith) and Best Of The B'Sides, which contains most (but not all) of the band's many terrific b-sides, such as their cover of Jethro Tull's "Cross-Eyed Mary" and Montrose's "Into The Fire." It'll be a bit much for all but the most diehard of fans, especially given the song duplication on the live sets, not to mention the hefty price tag, but for said diehard fans it really is a must-have. That said, I hope that the band eventually sees fit to release these three double cd sets separately (especially B'Sides and Beast Over Hammersmith), thereby also catering to the non-fanatics.
Dance Of Death (Columbia ’03) Rating: B+
Fresh off a triumphant tour with Motorhead and Dio, Maiden returns with their second album since Smith and Dickinson rejoined the band. Their first such effort, Brave New World, was the band’s best album in ages, and Dance Of Death continues in the same vein, with slightly less satisfactory results. The band adds more keyboards and orchestration this time out (though both appeared on Brave New World as well), as most of these loosely structured songs feature moodier sections before rocking out (yet rock out they eventually do, almost without exception). Aside from the first two songs, “Wildest Dreams” (solid song despite a kinda lame chorus) and “Rainmaker” (really good), epic song lengths are again the norm, as is powerful playing by the whole band, accentuated by another crisp Kevin Shirley and Steve Harris production. Bruce Dickinson, one of heavy metal’s most legendary lead throats, sounds a bit weathered but is as reliable as ever, singing songs that (unsurprisingly given the album’s title) are mostly about death. Indeed, death is everywhere on this album, which begs the question: are Maiden collectively feeling their own mortality, or is death just another cool subject for them to write about? More likely it’s the latter scenario, as death usually appears in the form of some kind of phantom or apparition rather than anything concrete or truly scary. Of course, the band also delivers a couple of their by now customary history lessons (“Montsegur” and “Paschendale,” dramatic, stirring highlights both) amid several other mythological or fantasy-based flights of fancy. As such, the album requires a certain suspension from reality for a full appreciation. Then again, with Maiden it’s the music that matters most, and the music here is rarely less than impressive. Several of these hard-hitting songs chug along on classic Maiden grooves, as once again the rhythm section of Nicko McBrain (who co--writes his first song after 20 years with the band, “New Frontier,” and a good tuneful one it is) and Steve Harris (always the primary creative force in the band) come up aces. The three-guitar attack continues to be a good idea as well, while moody epics like “No More Lies,” the spooked-out title track, and the aforementioned “Paschendale” show off the band’s progressive mindset as well as their ability to shift musical gears. The band didn’t forget to write catchy choruses, either, though few of these songs will likely grab hold of you upon first listen. Indeed, at an overly long 68-minutes this album takes awhile to absorb, and though I feel that it would’ve been better had they edited it a bit, I can see why they didn’t. After all, every song here has something to recommend about it, and the songs at the end of the album are among the most interesting ones, as “The Age Of Innocence” (a very modern, almost poppy song) and “Journeyman” (an acoustic/orchestral epic) are among Maiden’s most atypical tracks ever. Alas, after 20+ years any band would be hard pressed to keep fresh ideas coming for almost 70-minutes, and this album does feature a bit of recycling, not to mention too much of a good thing, plus there are times when it seems like the band forces their music into pre-conceived lyrical concepts, resulting in clunky or awkward moments. Still, the plusses here far outweigh the minuses, as by and large the band continues their strong resurgence that started with Brave New World. True, they’ve made many better albums, but they’ve made several lesser ones as well. If that statement seems like I’m damning the current incarnation of the band with faint praise, keep in mind that Maiden were once one of the greatest metal bands ever. But even though the band will likely never recapture the greatness of Iron Maiden, The Number Of The Beast, Piece Of Mind, or Powerslave, based on this album (and their awesome live shows, one of which I was lucky enough to attend) I’d say that they’re still one of the best metal bands around. Truth is, Dance Of Death is packed with more energy, conviction, and power than 95% of their much younger peers, and if they keep plugging away they might yet recapture that extra 5%. P.S. Maiden are known for their creative album covers, but this one sucks.
A Matter Of Life And Death (Columbia ’06) Rating: B+
This is another solidly enjoyable comeback era Iron Maiden album, no more and no less. Really, the band offers few surprises these days, but they compensate for that by being extremely dependable, which is far more than you can say about most metal bands 25+ years into a career (Metallica, anyone?). Anyway, like the prior two, this album takes me back to the progressive Somewhere In Time/Seventh Son era of the band, which isn’t exactly my favorite era but I can’t complain too much since A Matter Of Life And Death is another strong effort despite some misgivings. For one thing, the album runs on for 72 minutes and the song average length is a bloated 7:12; sometimes it’s three minutes into a song before the guitars start making any impact, which is anathema in heavy metal. Also, almost every song starts mellow and slow before gradually building a head of steam, which becomes a bit predictable and boring at times, plus as per usual there are a few repetitive choruses too many. Aside from the comparatively concise opener (again, as per usual) “Different World,” the obvious single with its classic gallop and catchy chorus, it’s also hard to pick out album highlights. But that’s partially because the album is so consistently solid, even if it’s only occasionally inspired, with tracks like “These Colors Don’t Run” (love its patriotic lyrics and powerful music) and “For The Greater Good Of God” (there’s epic, there’s beyond epic, and then there’s “For The Greater Good Of God”) coming to mind on that front. On the whole, I applaud the album's agreeably raw yet atmospheric sound, the band’s increased use of guitar harmonies, and their strong lyrics about war, death, religion, and history; the usual, basically (great album cover too while we're at it, unlike Dance Of Death). Individually, Nicko McBain registers a predictably powerful drum performance, the three-pronged lead guitar attack still works, Bruce isn’t what he was but he’s still damn good, and Harris’ bass is still the key component of the band’s sound and he remains the primary creative force within the band, co-writing each of the album’s 10 songs. No, A Matter Of Life And Death isn’t a classic Iron Maiden album, and the band’s recent arrogance in concert, where they’re sticking almost exclusively with new material (Bruce: “if you want to hear old songs play Live After Death”), is both surprising and off putting, but there’s no denying that for all their long-winded indulgencies, Iron Maiden on record remain a rewarding proposition. Note: If you have any doubts about how big Maiden is worldwide despite scant radio airplay, check out the fine Flight 666 documentary DVD, so named because that’s the flight number they’re always granted, piloted from show to show by none other than Bruce Dickinson.