Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Iron Maiden – An Apologetic For Post Millennium Maiden

I have a confession to make…I’m a Maiden fanatic.  Iron Maiden Fanclub member and all that stuff.  Got my membership card and everything.  Seen them over 15 times (which is NOTHING by-the-way compared to some fellow FC’ers I’ve met who’ve seen them literally hundreds of times), from the rafters of the L.A. Forum to the barrier in Dallas in 104°F Texas heat, from a night in May of 1987 when I was 16 years old to this past July in Oakland at 40-something, and I’m here to tell you one thing:  they’ve still got it.  The hardest working big-name metal band around that still puts out new music every several years (I’m looking at you Metallica!…9 frigging years for a new album…what are you Boston fer cryin’ out loud?!?...but that’s a different article…), they recently wrapped up touring in support of 2015’s amazing The Book of Souls album.  I can honestly say, in many ways they’ve never sounded better, and they have as much energy or more than most bands half their age, but in the wake of an amazing show I heard the naysayers and detractors cropping up even amongst some of my circle of friends with comments like “they were good but the setlist was weak” or “they played too much new stuff”, as if they weren’t doing tours in between the album tours where they featured almost exclusively songs from their earlier eras.  I don’t take it personally, but it does sort of irk me that a lot of fans don’t really appreciate that these 6 musicians, who have not a damn thing to prove, choose to continue making music from their hearts and touring their asses off jetting around the world where they routinely sell out soccer stadiums to the gills in Europe, Asia, South America and Australia before grinding away on the road in amphitheaters and hockey arenas to a somewhat blasé North American fanbase, only to be met with “meh” reactions from a percentage of those in attendance.  Obviously, not everyone is as fanatical of a fan as myself or some of my fan club acquaintances, but I think this reaction in many cases has less to do with what songs are on the setlist for a current tour, and more to do with people living in the past and the rose-colored glasses that filter their memories of Maiden shows “back in the DAY!” in the 80’s.  Now there is some validity to the criticisms that some fans have voiced regarding Maiden’s penchant toward longer format songs and progressive rock influence on the songwriting, and I understand that many people didn’t grow up on 70’s Rush, Yes, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and Pink Floyd like I did (thanks to my older brother’s exhaustive record collection), but I think often people tend to dismiss their more recent output rather than really sit down and dissect it like a good metalhead should.  So, I got to thinking, “why don’t I do up a little primer for post Y2K Maiden?”  Plus, I’ve been avoiding the Rock Loft at Riff Manor for months because it’s been like 1000°F up here for most of the summer with all the hot frigging weather and I haven’t been writing anything, and I’m a little afraid Racer and Pope may rescind my standing among the Wavewriters (see what I did there? Haha!!!) if I don’t start contributing again soon.  So here goes, diehard Maiden disciple or not, whether you up your irons or don’t, hopefully you will find this informative, entertaining, or it at least consumes 5 minutes while you’re waiting in line at the DMV.

Brave New World – 2000

I remember sitting in the living room at my main brother-from-another Jim’s apartment when he told me “dude!  Bruce and Adrian are back in Maiden!”  I was dumbstruck.  “WHAT?!?...NO WAY!”  It was 1999 and like many fans I’d kinda lost track of Maiden after 1990, when I picked up their then new album “No Prayer For The Dying” only to find out my favorite member of the virtuoso guitar duo of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, had departed the band following the “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” album, a landmark album in my opinion to this day.  To my disappointment, gone was the layered songwriting and textured sound, and complex storytelling of “Seventh Son”, eschewed for a more stripped-down approach and a frankly drier sounding album in No Prayer For The Dying.  Combined with the almost total meltdown of mainstream AOR rock and metal with the onset of the retro hard rock movement (I refuse to call it “grunge”) in heavy rock and the coinciding downhill spiral of MTV, Maiden, like a lot of the 80’s metal titans, were put on the back burner here in the U.S.  Though the classic discs remained in heavy rotation on my personal radio station (my car stereo), I admit I lost interest in the newer material.  I didn’t find out until much later that Bruce had eventually left a couple of years later to be replaced by the somewhat much-maligned Blaze Bayley, who has gone on after his stint in Maiden to a solid solo career and is well-respected by many for his efforts to fill those gigantic lead vocal shoes.  Ok, history lesson over!  Fast-forward back to 1999, a tour is announced and Jim and I obtain our tickets and wait with baited breath.  The day comes, we drive downtown towards the San Jose State Event Center where we are greeted with a sawhorse at the freeway offramp with a notice on it saying in effect “Iron Maiden Concert Canceled” …we were crushed!  How could this happen?!?  We proceeded to pick up a 12-pack of Heineken and which we promptly destroyed in our sorrows.  (We found out later that the third member in the now “three amigos” of Maiden guitarists Janick Gers, had fallen onstage and broken a finger on his fretting hand the night before in L.A. forcing the cancelation.)  Fast forward several more months, we discover the news that a new album is in the works and due to drop in several weeks!  A new Maiden album?!?  “NO WAY!”  In a way, the anticipation for this album was something I hadn’t experienced in many years at that point, not since I was a teenager in the 80’s had I been so excited for a new album release.  I acquired my copy from Tower Records (remember how great Tower was?...R.I.P.) and got home and listened to it once.  Hmmm… Twice… Hmmm… Thrice… Hmmm… Holy crap this album was phenomenal!  Every song was unique but so completely MAIDEN.  Bruce’s voice was a little deeper, his vocal approach a little more melodic and controlled than his wilder, more haggard sounding voice on the last two albums prior to his leaving in 1992 (touring two years straight on the World Slavery Tour seemed to have taken the biggest toll on Bruce, as would come to light in later years in various biographies of the band).  Back was the layered sound, the complex songwriting, and most of all the killer guitars!  Steve’s galloping thunderous P-Bass, Nicko’s fantastic drumming with just the right amount of flash…it was all back!  I was like the proverbial kid in the candy store!  Shortly thereafter they were back in person headlining the Shoreline Amphitheater with Motorhead and Rob Halford (what a monster show that was!), and let me tell you, the Beast was BACK!!!  Oh yeah, the album…”Brave New World” is, in my opinion, an 11 out of 11 on the Riff-ter Scale.  Shorter uptempo songs?  Check.  Album starter “The Wicker Man” is a prime example in the vein of classics like “Flight of Icarus” and “Aces High”, and tracks like “The Mercenary”, “The Fallen Angel” and second single “Out Of The Silent Planet” are all solid examples as well.  More complex medium length tracks such as “Ghost Of The Navigator”, “Blood Brothers”, and the title track are more moody, melodic and even somewhat haunting, yet contain moments of sheer beauty, while longer more epic tracks “Dream Of Mirrors”, “The Nomad”, and album closer “The Thin Line Between Love And Hate” carry the listener on journeys through light and darkness, changes in tempo and mood, with the latter track ending the album with a beautiful melody behind some of Bruce Dickinson’s most soulful vocals ever laid down on a recording.  Rating 11/11

Dance of Death – 2003

And so it came to pass, that a few years later another new album was spawned, 2003’s Dance of Death.  I remember distinctly for the first time in some years, going down to the same Tower Records to pick up my copy at midnight on a Tuesday “new release day” to pick up my copy (anybody else remember doing that?).  I popped it into a disc player and listened to it all the way through.  I think it was about half way through the title track “Dance Of Death” that I said to myself “holy Eddie they’ve done it again!”  Opening track “Wildest Dreams” is another short head bobber of a track, a decent album opener, followed by a great shorter up-tempo melodic track “Rainmaker” featuring some especially fantastic guitar fills from Dave Murray throughout and a very sing-along-able chorus.  The moody “No More Lies” builds with a melodic guitar and bass melody backed with synth orchestration under Dickinson’s melodic singing before erupting into a galloping mid-tempo stomper.  “Montsegur” is a headbanging tour-de-force from the start, raging and surging from start to finish with some interesting guitar and vocal harmony lines from Janick Gers and Bruce Dickinson in the bridge sections from the choruses back to the verses.  Up next, title track “Dance Of Death” begins with a waltzing melody with bass guitar doubling acoustic guitar with a quality not unlike a lullaby as Bruce tales a tale of stumbling upon an unholy ceremony with dancing dead.  The tempo shifts as the melody switches to strummed chords and continues to build as orchestration and drums join in, then abruptly the tempo switches to a gallop with a guitar melody that is at once both maddening and mesmerizing.  This evil lullaby keeps dancing on as all three guitarists take fantastic solo breaks spelled by verses as this epic 8½ minute tale unfolds and ultimately simmers back down.  The shorter mid-tempo “Gates Of Tomorrow” a steady driving tune follows and is then followed by the up-tempo chug of “New Frontier” another great tune, but really all of this is just building up to something really special.  A haunting melody begins the awe-inspiring “Paschendale”, a tale of the horror and hopelessness of trench warfare in World War I.  This is no ordinary long progressive rock inspired Maiden song, this is perhaps one of the greatest Maiden songs ever laid down, hell, it is perhaps one of the greatest metal songs of all time.  “Paschendale” not only tells the story of the horror and hopelessness with the lyrics, you can feel it in the music, in much the same way that Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” scares the hell out of you, and in the same way that Metallica’s “Creeping Death” sounds like the angel of death descending upon Egypt in divine judgement, “Paschendale” evokes the very feeling of hopeless despair the soldiers must have felt in those horrible trenches, that they would all die there and never see their homes and loved ones again.  “Face In The Sand” and “Age Of Innocence” are fine mid-tempo rocking tracks that lead to the final hidden gem on this album, “Journeyman.”  A wholly acoustic track with orchestral backing and featuring Bruce Dickinson’s most soulful vocals on the album, Maiden find a way to create a track with the same depth as their most metal classics with acoustic guitars and melody instead of shredding and raw power.  Rating 10/11 (Would be a 9 but the strength of the title track, “Paschendale” and “Journeyman” alone merit a full point increase.)

A Matter Of Life And Death – 2006

Up next is one of Maiden’s most ambitious from a songwriting standpoint, and in some ways controversial albums.  A Matter Of Life And Death is a dense album full of longer tracks with all but three clocking in around 7 minutes or longer.  Consequently, my inner prog-rock fan thinks it is one of their strongest albums.  Opener “Different World” is a standard shorter uptempo number that is solid, not mind blowing, but solid.  “These Colours Don’t Run” begins with a lamenting melody before jumping into full mid-tempo gallop as Bruce tells the solemn tale of the soldier leaving behind his family and friends to serve his country in the fight for freedom on foreign soil, in a moody and brooding track that goes through several time changes with tasty soloing from all three guitarists throughout.  “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” the first of several absolute gems on this album, ebbs and flows alternating between headbanging heavy sections and more brooding lighter sections but always continuing to build upon itself.  Nicko McBrain really shines here with endless spot-on drum fills and multiple time changes.  “The Pilgrim” is an uptempo number with some of Steve Harris’ best flying bass fingers rhythms and some very Kashmir-esque melodies in the choruses and a solo from Janick Gers where he seems to channel Ritchie Blackmore.  “The Longest Day” begins brooding and steady chugging forward as the tension builds and builds like the P/T boats carrying the Allied soldiers toward the Normandy Coast on that fateful day in June of 1944, telling the story of the D-Day invasion in gritty detail.  “Out Of The Shadows” is a more melodic shorter track in the vein of the classic “Children Of The Damned” with arpeggiated melodic verses building into heavier choruses with tasty lead guitar fills from Dave Murray interspersed throughout and some soulful solo work from Adrian Smith.  “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg”, released as the first single from the album begins with a moody almost haunting melody before breaking into a driving mid-tempo riff-fest with some tasty guitar fills throughout from Dave Murray.  The epic 9-plus minute “For The Greater Good of God” wanders through multiple time and mood changes punctuated by stunning solos from all three guitarists in a massive guitar breakdown in the middle.  “Lord of Light” features some of the most Sabbath laden riffs to ever grace a Maiden recording in the main verse and the only minor complaint I have is that after the chorus and middle break that great verse riff doesn’t come back!  Album closer “The Legacy” features probably my favorite moment of the album, beginning with an acoustic guitar and vocal intro with the quality of a frightening lullaby before picking up tempo followed by strummed electric guitar chords over the top of orchestration that I can only describe as sounding like a pipe organ on steroids.  It picks up into a mid-tempo driving head-bobber as Dickinson rebukes the world leaders and powers that be summed up by the accusatory “…just think what a legacy you now will leave!”  Rating 10/11

The Final Frontier – 2010

One of the more divisive post 2000 albums, 2010’s The Final Frontier drew both praise and criticism from the Maiden minions upon its’ release for everything from the lengthy “Satellite 15” intro to the opening title track to the very distinctly un-Eddie-like mutated Eddie resembling a cross between the Predator alien and the classic xenomorph alien from the Alien movie franchise (yes, people take album covers really seriously in the Maiden-verse…).  The aforementioned “Satellite 15” drew criticism from some fans for its’ lack of live drums, having been written and recorded by Adrian Smith in his home studio over a drum track which the band liked as-is only adding Dickinson’s vocals to finish off the track.  Many fans felt the track was mere album filler and disliked that it was combined with the title track into a single track which couldn’t be skipped over without skipping the title track.  Personally, I kind of dig the intro and think it’s cool, but many didn’t…whatever.  Let’s talk about that title track, a cracking mid-tempo shorter album starter (not counting the intro…) with a catchy simple chorus that begs to be sung along to and some quality solo work from Mr. Smith.  “The Final Frontier” winds down into a “thank you Detroit” style ending that flows directly into first single “El Dorado”, another mid-tempo headbanger  featuring the trademark Maiden gallop and some huge sounding drum work from Nicko McBrain.  The solemn “Mother of Mercy” tells the sad tale of a war weary soldier struggling to cope with the things he has done and seen, over a heavy driving rhythm featuring some drop-D tuning from Adrian Smith (apparently Murray and Gers won’t drop down to D on their Strats…I say they’re missing out.  ”Drop the E string mates, you’ll love it!”).  “Coming Home” is a great Dickinson/ Smith penned ode to tour life and Dickinson’s other role as pilot and captain of Ed Force One, the band’s airborne tour bus.  Very much in the vein of the classic “Wasted Years”, “Coming Home” features awesome soulful solo work from Smith and Murray and a singalong chorus begged to be backed by tens of thousands of backing singers in a live setting.  “The Alchemist” is an uptempo gallop telling the tale of Elizabethan era mysticist John “Doctor” Dee, a theme very popular in Dickinson’s later solo albums.  The atmospheric and driving “Isle of Avalon” weaves a musical tapestry of layered guitars that pulls the listener into the grip of a Celtic spell in what might be the most ambitious use of the three-guitarist lineup yet to date, with each guitarist playing different parts in the rhythm sections rather than just doubling harmonies.  Smith’s solo fills and his massive solo break here is some of the finest work in his Maiden career in my opinion, and Dickinson’s delivery and phrasing are spot on.  The complex “Starblind” features an odd time signature and some tricky riffing while the drum work is McBrain-bendingly good.  The solos and fills from Smith and Murray are particularly tasty.  At over 9 minutes long, “The Talisman” is up next, another epic tale beginning with a lullaby-like acoustic guitar intro with Dickinson singing a very English sounding lilt before the song erupts into full force, as the tale unfolds of pilgrims sailing from England with hopes of religious freedom in the New World only to be caught in the jaws of a maelstrom.  “The Talisman” features another fantastic Gers solo fraught with chaos echoing the fury of the storm.  “The Man Who Would Be King” is another 8-plus minute mid-tempo epic and dense track with some beautiful guitar work and orchestration in the beginning and a lush middle section featuring a Murray solo break that builds and builds soaring higher and higher before another tempo shift featuring the trademark harmony leads takes the listener back to the verse.  Album closer “When The Wild Wind Blows” clocks in at over 11 minutes long and tells the melancholic tale of a man who fearing nuclear annihilation shuts himself and his wife into a fallout bunker.    A somber guitar intro over Harris’ arpeggiated bass chords leads into a mid-tempo verse before the song breaks down into a half-time feel as the sad tale of life in the bunker unfolds into a massive solo break featuring all three guitarists punctuated by sections of guitar harmony leads, then the song switches gears once more into a bridge featuring another great Gers solo before the tale concludes repeating the intro melody.  The Final Frontier is ultimately a terrific album that in my opinion suffers a bit from the track order at the end of the album.  While phenomenal tracks in their own rights, the combination of three very densely layered songs of over 8 minutes long consecutively at the end of the album seems to make the album drag to the finish line a little bit.  Still, the payoff is worth the wait.  Rating 9/11

The Book Of Souls – 2015

Which brings us full circle to the most recent Maiden album, the double LP The Book of Souls.  When it was announced that the new Maiden album would be a double-disc (actually triple vinyl!) album complete with a full album-side 18-minute epic I was floored!  Once again, the most bad ass metal band in the world was upping the ante!  Some time before the album release date, the single “Speed of Light” was released on the band’s website complete with a groovy animated video.  CD singles were released in the U.S. in a groovy box with a limited-edition t-shirt, which I promptly snapped up.  “Speed of Light” is simply a cracking track, uptempo, with all the signature trappings that make Maiden great, galloping “Arry” bass, thunderous Nicko drums (cowbell even!), shredding guitars from the three amigos, and Bruce’s air raid siren vocals.  Then the waiting and waiting for the album release date to arrive…  Well weeks went by, I listened to “Speed of Light” about 1.5 million times, and arrive it did!  I picked up a copy and immediately popped it in the player in my truck and was instantly blown back in my seat by the trippy South American vibe of the intro to album opener “If Eternity Should Fail”, complete with haunting trumpet (ok, probably a trumpet patch on a synth) melody and shakers as Bruce sings “here is the soul of a man…”  Then the track explodes into full volume Maiden gallop as the surprisingly dark track thunders forward.  Apparently, this was a track Bruce had been working on as part of a concept piece intended for a future solo album, but ‘Arry heard it and immediately wanted it as a Maiden track.  Who could say no to Steve fricking Harris?!?  Nobody, that’s who!  A sprawling track with a double-time lead break and an outro with a sinister voice (Bruce’s voice with some weird effects layered over it) narrating over acoustic guitar that apparently was originally intended as part of the Bruce concept piece.  Up next, the aforementioned “Speed of Light” followed by the steadily driving and atmospheric “The Great Unknown”, a track that builds from a quiet bass and acoustic guitar intro over synth orchestration into a mid-tempo stomp punctuated by multiple guitar solo breaks from each guitarist, before crashing down into a repeat of the intro section to end the song.  “The Red And The Black” is a massive riff-fest of a track and goes through several structural and tempo changes throughout its’ 13-plus minutes, seemingly adding something new either musically or vocally with every verse and chorus.  (By the way, Bruce’s vocals throughout the album are fantastic and as strong if not stronger than they’ve been in years, no small feat for a man who is on the downward side of 50 years old and as it turned out was fighting and winning a battle with mouth cancer during the recording of the album!)  “When The River Runs Deep” is a shorter uptempo number that kick-starts the energy back up a notch leading into the monster title track.  After all those great riffs and solos and vocals and galloping bass and huge drums to this point, this, THIS is the track that absolutely wrapped itself around my brain stem and started squeezing the riff receptors!  Easily the most infectious of all the riffs on the album, the laid-back tempo of the main verse and chorus with a feel at once both South American and Native American makes the track seem even heavier.  As Bruce tells of the Mayan empire long dead except in the history books and their cities of stone, the song suddenly shifts into high gear in a double-time extended bridge with guitar breaks for all three guitarists as well as another vocal bridge with a riff bearing a striking resemblance to the classic instrumental “Losfer Words (Big ‘Orra)” from the classic Powerslave album, as it rises and rises to an epic conclusion in what seems to be way too soon for a track over 10 minutes long.  Thus ends disc one, or side three if you’re listening on triple black vinyl (which sounds fantastic by the way!...especially through a good set of big old-school headphones!).  “Death Or Glory” opens the second half of the album with a flash of bombast and a killer mid-tempo galloping riff as Dickinson’s ode to the World War I flying ace Baron Manfred “Red Baron” von Richthofen. “Turn like a devil, shoot straight from the Sun…climb like a monkey, out of Hell where I belong!” the bridge vocal inspired by von Richthofen himself upon his first flight of the new Fokker Dr.1 triplane of which he reportedly stated, “it climbs like a monkey and turns like a devil.”  (This of course became a bit of onstage comedy between Dickinson and the fans during the tour when fans would make climbing motions with their hands during the bridge, which Dickinson played up with a monkey hat and throwing bananas into the crowd during the song.  You have to love a band that still knows how to have a good laugh while melting your face off with their heavy metal assault.)  “Shadows Of The Valley” and “The Man Of Sorrows” are prime examples of great Maiden songwriting and “Tears Of A Clown” is a sober tribute to late comedian/actor Robin Williams’ battle with depression.  Which brings us to the grand finale, the final chapter so-to-speak, of The Book Of Souls, the 18 minute epic “Empire Of The Clouds”.  Recanting the true story of a post-World War I airship crash and featuring Bruce Dickinson himself on piano, composed by Dickinson aided by Steve Harris with orchestration that adds the perfect amount of ambience, this is some of the most outside-the-Maiden-box songwriting ever on an album with Eddie’s face gracing the cover, truly a departure from the kind of thing Maiden have been doing for over 35 years, but at the same time it is distinctly Maiden.  There is throughout The Book Of Souls a sense that each band member had a lot of input into this album, with their individual songwriting styles shining through.  This album is gigantic in every way.  Rating 11/11


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