Thought this was over, eh? I did too.
Well, it turns out these Clone Saga collections are still being put out, but after the fifth one, the name was changed to "The Complete Ben Reilly Epic." I see what you did there, Marvel. I suppose it makes sense, given that Peter Parker retired from Spider-duty after finding that he was the clone and Ben was the original. The only time we see him in this volume is at the start, during the "Spider-Man: The Parker Years" one-shot. This is mostly just a recap of the last 15 years or so worth of Spidey-history up until that point, though readers following the Clone Saga will surely appreciate Mary Jane's zinger that "self-pity can be endearing in small doses, but after a while it can really suck." MJ, why didn't you speak up during "Maximum Clonage?!"
After that is an issue of the New Warriors, who the Scarlet Spider was somewhat affiliated with. He appears in about five panels. After that, we get a massive story called "You Say You Want An Evolution" which is definitely the lower point of this collection. It seems to exist solely to provide a lengthy answer to a question asked by The Jackal right before his death in Maximum Clonage - "Don't you want to know about Joyce Delaney and the High Evolutionary?" The correct answer was "No, just go away." This story goes on forever and is quite a chore. In general, a grandiose villain like The High Evolutionary is better off in the pages of something like The Avengers or X-Men.
Next is the four-part "Virtual Mortality" story, another crossover between all the Spider-Man titles. This time, it's a twist because all the comics have been renamed. For instance, "The Amazing Spider-Man" became "The Amazing Scarlet Spider." Still, if we're basically establishing a new status quo with Ben Reilly as our main man, I'm not sure why we still need the "event" crossovers. If you were a kid in the 90s with a limited allowance, this constant pressure to get four comics a month rather than one could get rough.
Anyhow, the funny thing about this story is that the travails of Ben's personal life are far more interesting that the ludicrous stuff going on while he's in the costume. He's got no money and winds up working at a sleazy club. He meets a potential love interest who has a different hairstyle every time she appears (you figure the artists would coordinate crap like that) and of course, keeps having to worry about getting mistaken for Peter. The main story is a high-tech gang war between the new female Doctor Octopus (aka Carolyn Trainer) and a mobster named Jason Tso, who is in the employ of longtime Spidey nemesis Alistair Smythe. Keep in mind, we're in the mid 1990s here and the "internet and virtual reality will kill us all" paranoia is in full swing.
This plotline continues in another crossover called "Cyberwar." Starts out promising, but when characters start talking about "reality merging with virtual reality," you know we've gone off the rails. At least we find out an interesting twist about Stunner, who you may remember as the girlfriend of the late Dr. Octopus (the original). She herself is a virtual reality projection. Yeah, we need a Keanu Reeves-esque "whoa" right about now. In this collection, the Cyberwar storyline is interrupted by an issue of the short-lived but underrated Green Goblin comic (the heroic Phil Urich incarnation) and another New Warriors issue. The Goblin comic dovetails nicely with the main plot. The New Warriors story is almost totally irrelevant.
The Lady Octopus character is not very interesting, but she's smart. Using her virtual reality technology, she frames the Scarlet Spider for a lot of destruction and utterly tarnishes his fledgling reputation. What to do now...why, it's time to go back to the original. Yep, Reilly is going to take on the mantle of Spider-Man. This transformation is showcased very well in "Ultimate Commtiment," a debut story from Dan "Death of Superman" Jurgens. A new title, The Sensational Spider-Man, was crafted just for him.
Jurgens is no slouch - within this one issue, he deftly introduces a bunch of new characters and builds a solid foundation for continued Reilly adventures. Ben also dyes his hair blond to try and further distance himself from Peter Parker. A new version of the Spider-Man costume is sewed (after a lot of mishaps, poor Ben just doesn't have many resources) and we're good to go. I have to say, these stories are a lot more pleasant with the knowledge that Ben's tenure as lead character was only temporary. At the time, however, we really had no clue what was going to happen with all this and even though Ben was a likeable guy, he wasn't the guy we had gotten attached to for so long.
This isn't the end of the Clone Saga by a long shot. Still plenty more, and now that I know to look for installments of the "Ben Reilly Epic," more analysis will follow.
Monday, December 19, 2011
Friday, November 4, 2011
Well, we've come to the end of our long journey. Hopefully after fifteen entries, you have some idea of why Iron Maiden rules. This final entry is just for fun - if I've learned anything from the internet over the years, it's that people love lists so here's a lot of them!
First up are my picks for the band's top 26 songs. Yeah, that's right. Everyone does 25, so let's mix it up a little.
26. Out of the Silent Planet (Brave New World) - Catchy riffs and vocals with an extended finale that's pure headbanging joy.
25. Man on the Edge (The X Factor) - A driving song with blistering solos and lyrics about societal alienation that seem to grow more potent with time.
24. Dance of Death (Dance of Death) - An old-fashioned campfire tale given vibrant life by amazing instrumentation.
23. Heaven Can Wait (Somewhere in Time) - The uplifting epic about a man who discovers a love for life after journeying just shy of death's door.
22. Powerslave (Powerslave) - Makes the list primarily for its amazing middle section. Iron Maiden has done lots of extended instrumental sequences, but very few reach the heights of this one.
21. Remember Tomorrow (Iron Maiden) - A hugely influential classic of early metal with a sublime sense of dread.
20. No More Lies (Dance of Death) - I'm biased about this song...but its haunting melodies and sincere emotion make it worthy.
19. The Nomad (Brave New World) - Masterful atmosphere, multiple great riffs and a face-melting chorus. The nine minutes feel like three.
18. The Talisman (The Final Frontier) - A shockingly emotional epic with amazing coordination between the three guitarists.
17. Wasted Years (Somewhere in Time) - Legendary guitar work and a theme that manages to be both simple and profound.
16. Children of the Damned (The Number of the Beast) - The grandest demonstration of Bruce Dickinson's talent.
15. Wrathchild (Killers) - All the band members were at the top of this game while recording this thrilling early Maiden classic.
14. The Clansman (Virtual XI) - An intensely emotional epic filled with great melodies, affecting lyrics and Blaze Bayley's greatest vocal performance with the band.
13. Die With Your Boots On (Piece of Mind) - An irreverent takedown of fearmongering that is bursting with energy.
12. The Legacy (A Matter of Life and Death) - A massive, mature epic with the kind of apocalyptic grandeur that makes metal so powerful.
11. Purgatory (Killers) - Easily the best song of the Paul Di'Anno era. If music was evaluated with a formula of awesome riffs per minute, I think it would be unbeatable.
10. The Clairvoyant (Seventh Son of a Seventh Son) - From the beautiful bass intro right to the finale, this song is a haunting classic.
9. 2 Minutes to Midnight (Powerlsave) - A classic anti-war tirade driven by pure frothing at the mouth rage. Killer riffs too.
8. The Evil That Men Do (Seventh Son of a Seventh Son) - Once that amazing introduction ends, this song is pure momentum and it kicks your ass.
7. The Trooper (Piece of Mind) - Perhaps the most famous guitar work in the band's career and with very good reason.
6. Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Powerslave) - A towering epic that successfully adapts a difficult source, this song is a timeless classic.
5. Fear of the Dark (Fear of the Dark) - A thrilling masterpiece which proved that even turmoil among the band couldn't totally stop them from producing amazing work.
4. Run to the Hills (The Number of the Beast) - Holy shit, those drums! That bass! The solo! That chorus! To listen to this song is to be in awe of the band's talent.
3. Aces High (Powerslave) - It's hard to find a song that's more consistently enjoyable. Great riffs and a legendary chorus.
2. Hallowed Be Thy Name (The Number of the Beast) - The best metal song ever written? Could be. Eight minutes of sheer power that never gets old.
1. Paschendale (Dance of Death) - Can somebody say upset? In the end, I had to go with the song that had the most stunning emotional impact in addition to the requisite brilliance on all the instruments. This isn't just Iron Maiden's best song, it's...
"Hey, wait a minute guys! Where's The Number of the Beast?!" It's a classic song and always a fun listen, but most serious Maiden fans will tell you it's not among the band's best work. In fact, if I were to rank every song in the band's discography in order from best to worst, this would probably land right in the middle somewhere.
On the other end of the spectrum, here's the bottom five!
5. Invaders (The Number of the Beast) - The verses prove there is a such thing as "too fast," the lyrics are terrible and the whole thing is a massive hunk of stinky cheese.
4. From Here to Eternity (Fear of the Dark) - Iron Maiden is not AC/DC and there's no reason they should aspire to that.
3. Fear is the Key (Fear of the Dark) - Rambling nonsense with aimless melodies and incoherent socio-political commentary.
2. Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter (No Prayer for the Dying) - Get it away! Iron Maiden is not a stupid shock rock/hair metal group that writes whole songs based on stupid sex puns. The band is thoughtful, intelligent, interesting - everything this song isn't.
1. Weekend Warrior (Fear of the Dark) - Six minutes wasted on totally inane subject matter. Commits the worst sin of all...it's boring.
That's all the negativity we need, so let's start breaking it down further!
Some songs with great bass:
The Phantom of the Opera (Iron Maiden)
The entire Killers album (seriously)
The Number of the Beast
Run to the Hills
Hallowed Be Thy Name
Die With Your Boots On
To Tame A Land (Piece of Mind)
2 Minutes to Midnight
Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Blood on the World's Hands (The X Factor)
When the Wild Wind Blows (The Final Frontier)
Some songs with great riffs:
The Phantom of the Opera
Charlotte the Harlot (Iron Maiden)
Innocent Exile (Killers)
Hallowed Be Thy Name
Die With Your Boots On
2 Minutes to Midnight
Moonchild (Seventh Son of a Seventh Son)
The Evil That Men Do
Holy Smoke (No Prayer for the Dying)
Afraid to Shoot Strangers (Fear of the Dark)
Childhood's End (Fear of the Dark)
Fear of the Dark
Man on the Edge
Futureal (Virtual XI)
The Educated Fool (Virtual XI)
The Wicker Man (Brave New World)
Out of the Silent Planet
The Thin Line Between Love and Hate (Brave New World)
Rainmaker (Dance of Death)
Montsegur (Dance of Death)
For the Greater Good of God (A Matter of Life and Death)
The Alchemist (The Final Frontier)
Starblind (The Final Frontier)
Damn...might have been easier to list the ones that don't have great riffs.
Some songs with great solos:
Running Free (Iron Maiden)
The Phantom of the Opera
Strange World (Iron Maiden)
Children of the Damned
The Prisoner (The Number of the Beast)
Hallowed Be Thy Name
Flight of Icarus (Piece of Mind)
2 A.M. (The X Factor)
The Angel and the Gambler (Virtual XI)
Lightning Strikes Twice (Virtual XI)
Blood Brothers (Brave New World)
The Thin Line Between Love and Hate
Wildest Dreams (Dance of Death)
Dance of Death
Brighter Than A Thousand Suns (A Matter of Life and Death)
When the Wild Wind Blows
A few great examples of great rhythm support during solos: (Seriously, this is an important part of what makes Maiden kick so much ass)
Hallowed Be Thy Name
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son
Man on the Edge
Brighter Than a Thousand Suns
Songs with great drums:
Run to the Hills
Gangland (The Number of the Beast)
Hallowed Be Thy Name
Where Eagles Dare (Piece of Mind)
Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Caught Somewhere in Time
The Lonelieness of the Long Distance Runner (Somewhere in Time)
Alexander the Great (Somewhere in Time)
Infinite Dreams (Seventh Son of a Seventh Son)
The Evil That Men Do
Fear of the Dark
The Unbeliever (The X Factor)
The Wicker Man
Ghost of the Navigator (Brave New World)
Face in the Sand (Dance of Death)
Lord of Light (A Matter of Life and Death)
The Man Who Would Be King (The Final Frontier)
Songs with great lyrics:
Hallowed Be Thy Name
Die With Your Boots On
2 Minutes to Midnight
Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Heaven Can Wait
Man on the Edge
Look for the Truth (The X Factor)
The Edge of Darkness (The X Factor)
Brave New World
No More Lies
Journeyman (Dance of Death)
Brighter Than A Thousand Suns
El Dorado (The Final Frontier)
Coming Home (The Final Frontier)
Some songs with great vocal performances, sorted by artist:
Sign of the Cross (The X Factor)
Children of the Damned
Run to the Hills
Hallowed Be Thy Name
Flight of Icarus
Die With Your Boots On
Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The Lonelieness of the Long Distance Runner
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son
Fear of the Dark
Brave New World
Dream of Mirrors (Brave New World)
No More Lies
Brighter Than A Thousand Suns
The Pilgrim (A Matter of Life and Death)
When the Wild Wind Blows
Guess that's enough. If you happen to be in the mood for more music discussion, my brother has a very similar series on his blog for the great progressive band Porcupine Tree. Check it out here.
Up the Irons!
Friday, October 21, 2011
The Final Frontier (2010)
This album makes a good companion for a long car trip. At a massive 80 minutes, the (currently) last album in Iron Maiden's career is the most dense and complex of them all. As with A Matter of Life and Death, it takes numerous listens to fully appreciate the intracacies of each track. However, it's less grim and serious than its predecessor, closer to Somewhere in Time and Virtual XI in its varied offerings and overall futuristic vibe. It's very impressive work, even though it can sometimes feel like the density of the music comes at the cost of an emotional connection.
Earlier in Maiden's career, Steve Harris was asked how long the band would last and he quipped that "we'll stop at number 15." This is number fifteen (and it has the word "final" in the title), but Steve told the fans not to take that comment seriously. But this is the fourth decade the band has released albums in...and many of the songs deal with death, the afterlife, and an uncertain future. I hope that more work will come, but if it doesn't...this isn't a bad note to go out on.
"Satellite 15...The Final Frontier" is a two-part song, and the first half defies all expectations. An industrial-sounding, downright weird introduction is almost guaranteed to make listeners ask aloud, "This is Iron Maiden?" It still proves to be quite effective, with a dizzying bassline and thundering drums. Once the second half gets underway, it sounds more like traditional Maiden with burly riffs and blazing solos. The lyrics depict an astronaut who has become stranded with no way to contact help. He knows he will die in his small craft and realizes that the "final frontier," which often refers to space, is actually death, a realm which will forever remain a mystery to mankind until we arrive there ourselves.
Bruce Dickinson described "El Dorado" as "a song about all the economic crap that's been happening." Comparing the mystical lost city to the bullshit promises of ethically-challenged bankers and brokers, this song is a welcome takedown of the unscrupulous crooks of the Wall Street world that anyone in "the 99 percent" can probably appreciate. It kicks off with an angry-sounding explosion of metal and follows up with a menacing riff similar to the one from Heart's "Barracuda." The mischevious lyrics, from the point of view of one of these characters, are full of amusing zingers, but the last verse draws the most blood. "There is no easy way for an honest man today, which is something you should think on as my lifeboat sails away." These bastards trick you, make their money, and then leave you to starve...and nobody will help you, least of all the government.
This song won Iron Maiden their first Grammy Award (for Best Metal Performance), but to many metal fans it was the equivalent of Martin Scorsese winning a Best Director Oscar for The Departed while his 1970s classics went unrecognized. The band had been nominated before (for the song "Fear of the Dark" ), but it's also worth noting that the Grammy Awards didn't even have a category for Metal until the late 1980s, when most of Maiden's "Golden Age" was done. Better late than never, I guess.
The band once again revisits the horror of war with "Mother of Mercy," a grim tale of a Blackwater-esque mercenary suffering in the midst of some terrible destruction, learning the error of his ways as his life is about to end. It's a solid track with some really powerful moments, even if the lyrics take a left turn into religious matters in the second half of the song. It's not as coherent as the band's other examinations of spiritual conflicts - I still can't figure out what the protagonist means when he says he doesn't "hold with bad religion." The high chorus is audibly hard on Bruce...he's starting to sound like a man who has been singing heavy metal for 30 years. Just don't tell him that - I have a feeling he's going to keep it up until he drops.
The ballad "Coming Home" is very evocative of its subject matter, with an opening riff that conjures up images of flight. Written by Bruce, who is a licensed pilot, this is a poetic, beautiful ode to the freedom that comes from flight and the bittersweet feelings of returning home. The lyrics are just awesome and full of striking images, and the instrumentation is pretty complex without feeling overly complicated to listen to. A nice song for driving at night...and if any of us are lucky enough to fly our own plane, it probably would work even better for that.
"The Alchemist" is this album's fast and fun Janick Gers track, boasting a lot of similarities to "Man on the Edge." Based on the myths surrounding the Elizabethan-era British occultist "Doctor" John Dee, the catchy riffs and video-game vibe deliver a lot of enjoyment. It's refreshing that the guys in the band are still such nerds; most of the fans wouldn't have it any other way.
"Isle of Avalon" is a moody, slow-paced epic that sounds like a combination of a few other Maiden songs. Most of it resembles the middle section of "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son" (the song, not the album). The chorus is a bit like "The Pilgrim" from the last album, with its sustained high singing. However, as with "Mother of Mercy," it starts to sound like Bruce is just a tad over his head when it gets to the highest notes. While I do like it well enough, it feels like one of those songs that doesn't quite earn its nine-minute length. The lyrics play with Celtic imagery and mythology without really congealing into anything memorable. I feel like it might have worked better at six or seven minutes instead.
The haunting "Starblind" could pass as a sequel to "The Final Frontier," since it concerns a man who has just recently crossed over to the other side. What he finds is that none of Man's earthly conceptions of the afterlife were even close. This song may win the award for Iron Maiden's most dense, literary lyrics ever - a high school English class could spend hours dissecting its layered commentary on humanity's foolish assumptions about powers greater than our own. Musically, it's a classic example of a "grower." I didn't think I cared for it during my first few listens of the album...but the more I heard it, the more I appreciated its ethereal atmosphere and superb guitar work and it became one of my favorites on the album. The instrumental section starting at about five minutes in is some of the most epic, stunning work Iron Maiden's ever done...it's not uncommon for me to rewind the track numerous times to hear it over and over again.
More proof that Iron Maiden can make any subject matter epic and emotional comes with "The Talisman," a breathtaking story of the pilgrims who fled Europe for Plymouth Rock. You may never look at that part of history the same way again. The extended acoustic intro is distractingly similar to "The Legacy," but this song ultimately proves to be a very different beast. Once it gets going, the song rollicks ahead with relentless guitar and sublime vocal melodies. The solo here is the best coordination of the three guitarists I've yet heard - they all come together to evoke vivid images of a ship struggling against the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, it's truly incredible. What makes it all come together so well is the lyrics, which take on a tragic heroism in the emotional climax as the narrator succumbs to scurvy just after seeing the shores of the New World and knowing his companions will be able to start a new life. This is easily the album's best song and it's satisfying to know that Iron Maiden can still put together a masterpiece like this after fifteen albums of material.
"The Man Who Would Be King" is a good long song sandwiched between two better, longer songs. This is another track that takes a while to appreciate and improves with several listens. The guitars get quite a workout, with several excellent riffs and a complex middle section that sounds downright psychedelic. The guitars glide all over the place while Nicko seems to be enjoying an extended drum solo. I suspect what makes it stand out less than the songs before and after is that the lyrics are pretty vague - I have no clue if there's any connection to the Rudyard Kipling novel (or the movie adaptation) of the same name.
If The Final Frontier turns out to be Iron Maiden's last album, "When the Wild Wind Blows" is a fitting grand finale. Go back and listen to "Prowler" and marvel at the progression from that simple piece of classic metal to this 11 minute epic. The story seems to have been inspired by "When the Wind Blows," an obscure animated film about an old couple preparing for a nuclear attack...though the story ultimately goes into a very different direction. The Gallic-sounding melodies add a touch of tenderness to the story right away, and the instrumentation is superb. About four minutes in, there's one amazing sequence where after some particularly moving lyrics, the solo sounds like the guitar is actually breaking down and weeping.
This emotional roller-coaster of a song has a very surprising ending - the old couple in the movie did indeed have to endure a nuclear explosion, but in the song they poison themselves in anticipation of the disaster and it is revealed there was no nuclear attack coming at all, just overblown predictions from television news. The topic of the song is ultimately alarmism in the media, which is certainly worthy of discussion, but I can't help but wish the song had adhered closer to the film and delved into the horrors of nuclear holocaust. Perhaps the band had enough of that with "Brighter Than A Thousand Suns," and decided that the "wild wind" of fear and paranoia was, in its own way, just as dangerous.
Overall Strengths: This album is absolutely packed with intelligent, complex music and rewards multiple listens. More often than not, the lyrics are brilliant.
Overall Weaknesses: While not without some powerful moments, it doesn't quite hit the emotional highs of the two albums before it. Not all the songs justify their length.
When the Wild Wind Blows
Next: No more albums (for now?), but we will bring this series to a proper close with...lists galore!
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
A Matter of Life and Death (2006)
This album made it overwhelmingly clear that the "post-reunion" Iron Maiden no longer resembled the 1980s incarnation of the band. It was closer to the late 90s era, but it was not quite that either. With the exception of the first track, A Matter of Life and Death has a consistently grim atmosphere and the experience is a little similar to listening to The X Factor (which is ironic, because the next album is kind of like Virtual XI). Filled with songs about war, death and hypocrisy, this album is said to draw on the band's memories of growing up during the Cold War in addition to anxiety about the sorry state of the world in 2006. Nice to know it would get so much better, right?
Critics loved this album, but the fandom reaction was not quite as enthusiastic. The band had left behind most of their interest in catchy riffs, opting instead to further embrace the progressive elements they had been exploring for a while now. The result is a very dense album that is impossible to fully appreciate with one listen. It takes quite a while to appreciate the nuances in each of these massive tracks, particularly a trio of songs I call "the three epics." Huge and powerful, these songs are the highlight of the album and are so overwhelming that there is a big risk of overshadowing the rest of the tracks. Fans will find much to admire on this album as long as they can accept that the 80s are long gone.
"Different World" is a fun song that really has no business being on this particular album. It's nimble guitar and impassioned vocals have made it a fan favorite, but the upbeat tone sticks out like a sore thumb if you've heard the rest of the album. I don't know if Iron Maiden's ever made it more obvious which song is meant to be a single...though to be fair, the other single on this album is a downright weird choice. I don't want to be too hard on this song, as I do find it pleasant enough to listen to...but I can't help but feel a message of "everybody has a different way to view the world" is kind of pedestrian by Iron Maiden's standards.
"These Colors Don't Run" is the real thematic beginning of this album. The song explores the reasons why people sign up to fight in wars. Why subject yourself to such incredible risk? Many potential reasons are mentioned, but the chorus suggests that the dominant one is pride. This is a driving song with an especially affecting middle section. Incidentally, "these colors don't run" is also what Bruce shouted while brandishing a British flag at Ozzfest 2005, when a public feud between him and the Osbournes led to the band being pelted with eggs during one of their performances. Actually, he said "these colors do not fucking run from you asswipes," but for some reason the band opted not to make that the song's official title.
"Brighter Than A Thousand Suns" is the first of the three epics. This is a brilliant, absolutely towering statement against nuclear weapons that employs various time signatures that I'm not sure I can fully explain without a music degree. The lyrics are filled with powerful imagery as man's capacity to destroy is pitted against God's capacity to create. "Take at look at your last sky," the song tells an unfortunate civilian, "chances are you won't have the time to cry." Did I mention that there are also references to Dr. Strangelove, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the theory of relativity? Yeah, it's that kind of song. Bruce's shrieks ring with righteous indignation and the instrumental work is nothing short of superb. For a band often pitted against religion, this song has a very spiritual message in the end - nuclear weapons are a crime against God.
"The Pilgrim" is a classic Janick Gers track, short and sweet. Extending the album's themes back a few hundred years, the song explores the motivations of "knight templar" types. Will violent service in the name of God cleanse a person's past transgressions and ensure them a seat in Heaven? These warriors thought so. What always impresses me about this track is the vocals. They are consistently high through most of this song, and it's pretty impressive that Bruce can still pull off a track like this when I can end up winded after singing along in the car.
The Allied invasion of Normandy is even more iconic for World War II than the Battle of Paschendale is for World War I, so I had high hopes for "The Longest Day." Unfortunately, this song is weaker than you would expect an Iron Maiden treatment of June 6, 1944 to be. The first two minutes or so are promising, but over the course of the lengthy song, the band relies way too much on repeating the phrase "How long, on this longest day, till we finally make it through?" It's a powerful line the first time, not so much after nine or ten times. "The Angel and the Gambler" may get the most shit for being repetitive, but in my opinion, this is a much better example of the risks associated with this pattern. I'd expect an eight minute song to have the time to paint a more detailed, vivid picture of this legendary battle like "Paschendale" did. Just repeating that line over and over again is a huge waste of potential. A good song, but it should have been great.
The lyrics in "Out of the Shadows" are surprisingly sparse, but the song still winds up being quite moving. It's a solid power ballad, though unlike "Different World," it does not feel out of place. If anything, it's a much needed touch of gentleness before we descend into the pitch black world of the remaining four songs. The lyrics seem to be about the circle of life, perhaps about how the beauty of birth can offset some of the grief that comes with death. This is not a power ballad just for the sake of having one on the album. The tenderness in this song is genuine and that's what makes it stick in the mind of the listener.
"The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg" is one of Iron Maiden's oddest songs, and easily the strangest choice for a single. This moody, mid-tempo song is known for dividing the fanbase. Personally, I've found it to be a grower. After a few listens, the song's virtues became more apparent and I realized how impressive the brooding atmosphere created here really is. We knew that Iron Maiden could play their instruments fast and furious, but this is a nice demonstration that they don't lose their touch if they slow things down some. The lyrics completely perplexed the fandom until Nicko let it slip that the song is some kind of origin story for Eddie himself. Who knew that genial-looking zombie had such a tormented past?
The blistering "For the Greater Good of God" represents the second of the three epics. Boasting great guitar work and haunting lyrics, it's a deeply affecting indictment of how religious extremists continue to bring suffering to the rest of the world, even though most of their core texts emphasize peace and goodwill. In the case of Christians, the song invokes Jesus and notes that his sacrifice was meant to end suffering, not to become an excuse for it. The title of the song ultimately becomes sarcastic, as if a mindless rationale like that could ever justify war and bigotry. The song is ultimately very mournful, and the middle section combines fantastic guitar playing with light keyboard accompaniment in a way that might wring tears out of you when you least expect it. If I have any complaints about this song, it's that I wish the "please tell me now what life is" section wasn't repeated quite so many times, but in the end that doesn't do much to dull the song's power.
Can a song be too dense? I'm not sure, but I do know that I've listened to this album many times and I still don't know what I think of "Lord of Light." A chilling story of demonic temptation, I feel like I notice something new in this song each time I hear it. Last time it was the phenomenal drumming section in the middle, who knows what it will be next time? The placement of this song isn't ideal - it's right between two songs that more memorable and emotional - but there's clearly a lot to appreciate about its complexity.
"The Legacy" is the third, and best, of the three epics. If "For the Greater Good of God" was driven primarily by grief and sorrow, this song is powered by pure righteous anger. You wouldn't know it right away, though. It kicks off with a haunting acoustic introduction that goes on for some time, following by an apocalyptic guitar/synth riff that lets you know that shit is about to get real. The amount of menace and power in that riff needs to be heard to be believed. The lyrics are directed at some older politican who "had us all strung out with promises of peace, but all along your cover plan was to deceive." Now that this manipulative bastard is about to die, our narrator doesn't have any problem telling him that his life has made the world a worse place to live. Can we get this played at Dick Cheney's funeral? Sorry, maybe I'm being an asshole, but this song is just about perfect both musically and lyrically. It sums up nicely the major problems with our world today and also manages to be a showcase for all of the band's members. The album could not have ended on a stronger note.
Overall Strengths: Atmospheric and powerful, this album is a nice demonstration of the band's continually evolving talents. The "three epics" are all brilliant.
Overall Weaknesses: Some of these songs don't justify their huge length. It's hard to maintain the standard set by the "three epics."
Brighter Than A Thousand Suns
Out of the Shadows
For the Greater Good of God
Next: For their final (to date) album, the band goes even bigger (if less ominous) with "The Final Frontier."
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Dance of Death (2003)
This album shows us what Iron Maiden is truly capable of. After Brave New World was greeted with near-universal acclaim from critics and fans, the band was emboldened to start pushing themselves. The progressive instincts that developed during the Blaze Bayley era serve the band very well and the result is an epic, emotional, almost overwhelming album made rich by its contrasts. The songs take us into very dark territory at times, but there is also a thread of perseverance and self-discovery that frames the album and leaves the listener feeling stronger. Not every track is great, but the best ones are simply phenomenal.
The reception wasn't as unanimous as the last album - the largesse was simply too much for some critics. The fans seem to like the actual music but will never get over the laughable cover, which looks like a blooper reel from some first-generation CG film from the late 80s. One thing I've learned about Maiden fans since becoming involved with the music is that the artwork on the album covers is serious business. Still, we're here to talk about the music.
At first, I didn't think I cared for "Wildest Dreams" all that much. It felt slight and simplistic compared to the complex beasts we'll talk about later. It grew on me when I began to notice the excellent guitar and drums work and started to appreciate the important role it plays in the album as a whole. It begins the "subplot" of self-actualization that will reach its apex in the last track. Plus, the solo nearly burns a hole in your CD player and Nicko's drumming is superb.
"Rainmaker" is a stunning, beautiful little song. The indispensable Dave Murray (who has a co-writing credit with Bruce and Steve) comes up with a classic riff and his blazing guitar work masks the song's tenderness. The lyrics pay tribute to an unknown person who has made the narrator not only feel better about his own life, but given him motivation to go out and make the world a better place. The effect is likened to a cleansing rain, which fills up "the cracks in our lives." It's deeply romantic without even a hint of cheesiness. What would you rather be told by your significant other? "Oooh baby baby baby baby" or "you are the healing rain that fills up the gaps in my life?"
I can't say that it's Iron Maiden's very best work (a serious contender for that title is coming soon), but "No More Lies" has meant more to me personally than any of their other songs. With its gentle Celtic intro and understated first verse that gradually gives way to primal shouts of defiance, this song has been hugely inspirational and fostered a great deal of creativity within me. Standing on its own, it still is pretty impressive. The lyrics depict a man facing a major life change (probably death, but this is highly open to interpretation) and is sick of all the world's....well, lies. Fans sometimes deride the repetition in the chorus, but on this song I find it essential. The passionate shouts of "No More Lies!" each followed by a burst of notes, creates a very powerful effect. If I have any complaints, I wish it didn't adhere quite so closely to the typical structure of the Steve Harris epic and that maybe the parade of fierce riffs and solos that make up the middle section was broken up by some more vocals. That aside, this is a song with great power that I can definitely say I've felt firsthand.
The burly, swaggering "Montsegur" would have fit in perfectly on Powerslave. Sporting muscular riffs and a huge operatic vocal performance from Bruce, the song evokes the "Golden Age" material and has become a fan favorite. So what is Montsegur? It's a fortress in Southern France that was once a stronghold for the Cathars, a religious sect that was demeed heretical by the Catholic Church and ultimately conquered during the Crusades. The song skewers the hypocrisy of "knight templar" types, who always seem to ignore the compassionate tenets of the religions they are so eager to fight for. These people used to lay siege to castles, now they blow up buildings and protest military funerals. They sucked then and they suck now.
"Dance of Death" is a playful epic with truly stunning instrumentation that makes a pretty compelling case for the often discussed link between classical music and metal. Steeped in the voodoo culture of the Caribbean region (the lyrics even mention the Everglades), the band conjures a spooky tale of a poor sap who stumbles onto an undead ceremony. A distinctive melody is repeated many times to represent the actual dance while our nervous narrator continues to give his thoughts. The three guitarists go for broke on the solos and Steve adds some texture with prominent strings. The vocals, while mostly great, have a few weak points. The line about "lifeless figures" always sounds out of tune when I hear it, and Bruce randomly sings along with one of the riffs near the end, a bit which always struck me as dinky and unnecessary. It's instantly memorable, and one of the most ambitious tracks on an already ambitious album.
The next two tracks threaten to derail the album a bit. "Gates of Tomorrow" relies heavily on an exotic riff that sounds almost identical to the one in "Lord of the Flies." The lyrics seem to express ambivalence about humanity's advancing technology, but honestly it's hard to care that much. The verses are quite plain, though it does sport a decent chorus. It's certainly not bad, but feels like quite a drop in quality after the last couple of songs. "New Frontier" is the only song in Maiden's catalogue where Nicko McBrain gets a writing credit, and the lyrics reveal a striking difference from the worldview of the other band members. Nicko expresses his disapproval of cloning, with the rationale that only God can create life. Usually Iron Maiden has contempt for this kind of regressive religious argument, but the others are good sports and give it their best. Instrumentally, it's not bad at all and, as you might expect, the drums are quite good.
If you've been following this series, you know that Iron Maiden has put out a lot of great songs. The next one is beyond that. "Paschendale" is special. If any song could dethrone "Hallowed Be Thy Name" and claim the mantle of Best Maiden Song Ever, this is it. This is the band's most sweeping and emotional tale of the horror, pointlessness and unspeakable tragedy of war, with the infamous World War I battle as its setting. Adrian Smith and Steve Harris have co-writing credits for this one, with the former offering his elegant guitar composition and the latter adding his usual emotional depth. It's perfectly structured, beautifully written and above all, deeply moving. It doesn't need the anger of "2 Minutes to Midnight" to make the case that war is a horrible crime against humanity - all it needs is the detailed description we get here.
The slow drumming at the intro is actually Morse Code for "S.O.S." The first third of the song, which alternates between quiet verses and very loud bursts of sound, are meant to mirror the rhythms of war. Waiting, followed by horrifying violence, and then more waiting. The solos here are just larger than life. You hear them and you feel all the tragedy of the war. Even if the lyrics were awful, they could drive home the message by themselves...but the lyrics are brilliant too. The chorus - "home, far away, but the war, no chance to live again" has a double meaning. A literal death will obviously keep the soldier from seeing his home again, but having to kill another human being is also a spiritual death. "The sound of guns can't hide the shame, and so we die at Paschendale." That's the real, heartbreaking, point of this song. Even if you manage to survive the battle, there's a good chance the person you were is gone forever. The ending predicts that the ghosts of the dead, "friend and foe," will gather together in peace. Without the phony rationales for war, there's no need for them to be enemies.
Scattered around the internet are several stories of combat veterans (not necessarily from WWI, there aren't many of them left alive) who break down in tears when they listen to this song. Others have reported that it's starting to be used in a few history classes. The superlative quality of this particular song could take over this entire entry, but I'll end it by hoping that the song's legacy is a long-lasting one (hard to tell with only eight years since its release) and that at least some people out there take its lessons to heart.
Following that song is a daunting task indeed, but "Face in the Sand" fares well. Steve ably uses strings to create a haunting atmosphere for the intro, shortly before Nicko bursts in with thundering double-bass. Fun fact: this is the only Iron Maiden song where he uses two bass pedals. The lyrics have a rueful cynicism - the world is getting worse, and a lot of folks in politics, media and fundamentalist circles seem to be enjoying it a little too much. The use of "sand" in the title likely refers to the Middle East, the origin of civilization itself and perhaps also the place where its destruction will begin.
"The Age of Innocence" provokes a very complex reaction from me. It has nothing to do with the iconic novel, but is about Steve Harris's grievances with the British judicial system. The disgust was likely inspired by the case of Tony Martin, a man who was put in jail for shooting thugs who broke into his house. Europe tends to go easier on its criminals than America, but I think folks in the USA could also sympathize. After all, convicted criminals in jail have better health care than a lot of well-behaved citizens. While it may be a worthy subject for discussion, the lyrics have all the subtlety of a frying pan to the face. One section where Bruce has some kind of growling-rapping thing going on is just bizarre. It has a nice chorus, but there a lot of style changes and overall the song feels very inconsistent.
Thankfully, "Journeyman" will cleanse your musical palate and send you home happy. Surprisingly, the guitar in this one is totally acoustic (though a solid electric version does exist) and the soothing nature of the song ultimately makes the defiance of the chorus ("I know what I want, I'll say what I want, and no one can take it away!") even more authoritative. It's a song about freedom and more importantly, the freedom to create and comment on the world through art. The empowering theme of the album's first three tracks returns and gives the listener hope in spite of the tales of war, injustice and discord that have preceded it.
Overall Strengths: This massive album reaches stunning emotional highs and the majority of the tracks are great. It was hard to pick just four to recommend.
Overall Weaknesses: When you have material like this, anything that doesn't measure up becomes glaring and this is the case with a few songs.
No More Lies
Dance of Death
Next: The band goes to a dark, fearful place with "A Matter of Life and Death."
Friday, September 16, 2011
Brave New World (2000)
From here on out, we're in the fourth and final era of Iron Maiden. This album and the three after it are sometimes referred to as "post-reunion," and what a reunion it was. Several years after their departure, guitarist Adrian Smith and vocalist Bruce Dickinson asked Steve Harris if they could return to the band. In a surprising twist, guitarist Janick Gers (who had replaced Smith) was told he wasn't going anywhere and now the band would have three guys doing the shredding. Unfortunately, two vocalists wasn't as feasible so it was time for poor underrated Blaze Bayley to say goodbye. He left on good terms and remains friends with the band, evidenced by this good-humored discussion between him and Bruce.
After the commercial failure of Virtual XI, there was a lot riding on the success of this comeback album and you can tell the band is playing it a little safe. This has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, I can't think of any song on here that I would consider weak and the longer songs make it clear the band is holding on to some of the progressive influences of the Blaze era. But even the ten-minute monsters all have a really catchy chorus. However, the subsequent albums make it clear that the guys were holding back some of their depth and ambition and it's a little sad that this approach is considered a recipe for success. Still, there's no need to dwell on that. Critics and fans were ecstatic and Brave New World is a great listen.
The cover of "The Wicker Man" puts Bruce's mug front and center, and the song announces the return of the classic lineup with exciting riffs and rampaging drums (Nicko really gives that snare a beating!). The lyrics don't seem to have much of a connection with the classic British horror film of the same name (and I'm NOT referring to the laughably ridiculous Nicolas Cage remake, this album came out before that), other than to suggest that the pagan ways of the past may return once humanity has destroyed most of our modern world. However, less importance is placed on the lyrics in comparison to the irresistable chorus and a fun sing-along finale that Bruce says was inspired by The Offspring.
"Ghost of the Navigator" starts with a beautiful introduction and then the thundering bass drums kick off the main event. It sounds like double bass, but according to Nicko it isn't, which is pretty damn impressive. While some of the lyrics reference The Odyssey, I get the sense that the journey is more metaphorical than literal. Iron Maiden likes songs about seeking out new experiences and challenging your own preconceptions. As with "The Educated Fool" on the last album, the song stresses that you're never done learning, no matter your age.
In the midst of the album's bombast, it may take a few listens to appreciate the elegant simplicity of "Brave New World." Borrowing only loosely from Aldous Huxley's famous novel, the song is a sad, poignant reminder of how the world seems to bleed compassion and humanity as our technology gets better. The references to "dying swans...beauty not needed here" is a hard-hitting bit of imagery. The swan is synonymous with the grace of the animal kingdom, and if its demise is met with indifference, the world may have finally lost its soul for good. In an album that is sometimes lacking in feeling, this song offers some welcome passion.
Live performances have made the already affecting "Blood Brothers" far more powerful than the band had probably anticipated. The protagonist clings to his loved ones as the world seems to be collapsing around him. Those who listen to this album knowing the history of the band at this point are likely to appreciate the song on another level. This song has Steve Harris's style all over it and the melody and rhythms are impeccable. I do wish that the song had a little bit more lyrics - I feel like that would fleshed out the emotion a little more. With its lighter-waving vibe, the song has become an anthem of solidarity when the band goes on tour. The band has played it as a tribute to the late Ronnie James Dio, in support of those recently afflicted by disaster, or as an expression of the bond between the band and its fans.
As Bruce put it in his typical..unique manner.."There's something about [metal] that unites people, and it doesn't matter what color they are, what religion they are, whether they're purple with black spots, male, female, somewhere in between, dolphin...This is a safe house, this is OUR house, this is Maiden's house, everybody is fucking welcome and we don't turn anyone away, no matter who they are! If you put yourself down as Jewish or Muslim or Christian or Hindu or Jedi...above all that, we are all blood brothers!" Amen.
Janick has a writing credit on "The Mercenary," and this is an early example of what he began to bring to the band in this post-reunion era. He is geared towards short, tough little rockers which provides some nice balance, given that both Bruce and Steve tend to drift towards massive epics. The fandom has developed a consenus that this song is about the movie Predator, and while it wouldn't be out of character for the band, I can't find anything in the lyrics to confirm this. It suffers a little bit from that "repetition problem," but is still a solid song.
"Dream of Mirrors" is huge with the fans, and it's not hard to see why. The chorus is one of Maiden's most memorable and the whole thing is fun to sing along to. Still, I've never been totally convinced that the song justifies its massive nine and a half minute length. It's quite repetitive and the lyrics are less interesting than I'd expect from a song like this. It's like a longer, shallower version of "Infinite Dreams." I might be going a little overboard, feel free to tell me I'm full of shit because the song is undeniably fun to listen to.
"The Fallen Angel" starts with a nice Thin Lizzy esque intro, but other than that I've never found it hugely memorable. The titular angel is Azazel of Biblical lore and he is facing an impending apocalypse. I can't help but wonder what this one would have been like if it had been turned into a ten-minute epic where the band could have really ratcheted up the cosmic elements of the story. As it stands, it's sandwiched between two massive epics that are both more likely to stick in the mind of the listener.
"The Nomad" has it all. The three guitarists fire off a series of burly riffs while Dickinson belts out a soaring chorus. Some of the lyrics do get corny, the badassery of the title character is explored to Chuck Norris levels of goofiness. "Legend has it that you speak an ancient tongue, but no one's spoken to you and lived to tell the tale." However, what makes this underrated song a candidate for the album's best is the phenomenal middle section, which may be the most atmospheric three minutes in the band's discography. The listener is totally transported to the desert locale that the Nomad calls home. You would be forgiven for thinking that Iron Maiden brought in a string orchestra, but that's just great cooperation between the guitarists and some fine keyboard playing by Steve Harris. Getting to hear that awesome chorus one more time afterwards is just icing on the cake. This is how you do a nine minute song.
Coming after that masterpiece, "Out of the Silent Planet" might seem downright regressive in its evocation of the galloping classics that defined Maiden's early years. But that would be missing the fun. The gentle Gallic-sounding intro only serves to make the subsequent rush more effective. The song gradually gets faster and faster, boasting superb drums, great solos, and lyrics which are surprisingly intricate. The finale demonstrates that the repetition definitely has its place when used well. The chorus continues on and on until the song has whipped itself into a head-banging frenzy. Easily the most flat-out fun song on the album.
"The Thin Line Between Love and Hate" closes the album on an interesting note. The lyrics are a bit simplistic, but that can be forgiven by the awesomely high notes Bruce hits during the chorus. He's still got it! Still, the real stars of this final track are Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers. Never mind the solid riffs and solos, the whole second half of this song is the most sophisticated use of the new "three guitar" sound on the album. It's pretty clear the band said "Hey, we've got all these guitars, let's have some fun!" If you listen after the gentle outro finally ends, you'll hear Nicko shout "Ah, I fucking missed it!" He believed he had missed the final drum note, but the band members start cracking up because he actually hadn't. I guess the guys kept that on there for lulz.
Overall Strengths: A consistently catchy and enjoyable album, with the classic lineup back in place.
Overall Weaknesses: Not many, but some songs don't feel like the band at their best.
Brave New World
Out of the Silent Planet
Next: Now firmly re-established, the band goes BIG with the epic "Dance of Death"
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Virtual XI (1998)
Commercially, this is Iron Maiden's least successful album. The fandom's disappointment about the departure of Bruce Dickinson was no secret, but The X Factor benefited from curiosity about what the "new" Iron Maiden would be like. Three years later, this album's lackluster performance on the charts was indicative of the fandom's rejection of Dickinson's replacement, "Blaze" Bayley Cooke. This reaction was really sad and short-sighted - Iron Maiden's not some manufactured pop band where only the singer matters. Bruce's vocals are legend, but the band is full of great musicians. This was also another album released during a dark time for metal as a whole. The grunge boom was about over and now insipid "boy bands" were everywhere you looked. Those who preferred music involving actual instruments had to look elsewhere and the internet was not as developed as it is now.
With its often futuristic vibe and heavy use of keyboards, (Michael Kenney returned but this is also the album where Steve Harris started to play the keys himself) Virtual XI is similar to Somewhere in Time. While it is not the brooding epic that The X Factor was, it has some great songs and is a nice demonstration of the band's versatility.
Things get off to a very corny start with "Futureal." This song was written at the height of late-90s paranoia that the internet and online gaming would kill us all. That, combined with Blaze's dead serious vocals, make the song impossible to take seriously. Still, the riffs and solos are fun and some parts are surprisingly evocative of the very early Paul Di'Anno era of Iron Maiden.
"The Angel and the Gambler" is one of the most unique, divisive and confounding songs in the band's entire discography. When that organ starts up, you might think you're listening to Boston rather than Iron Maiden. The upbeat story of a wayward rogue approached by a compassionate angel is held up by many fans as the poster child of everything that was wrong with the Blaze era. Some of them really hate this song. Most of it can be attributed to the fact that this is the most infamous example of the "repetition problem." The three-line chorus is repeated a whopping twenty-two times over the course of the ten-minute song.
Sorry, but I love this song. It's feel-good vibe is impossible to resist, the solo is superb, and the repetition doesn't really bother me. It is odd at first, but it's all part of a satisfying buildup that stretches several minutes. Frankly, there's another track that we'll get to later that is much more obnoxious in its repetition. The version of this song released as a single was actually shorted by six minutes, which did little to placate its detractors.
"Lightning Strikes Twice" is all about atmosphere. The instrumental work in the song is exceptional, creating vivid imagery in the head of the listener. The first half is more about buildup, evoking a darkening sky. Then everything kicks into high-gear. The centerpiece of this track is a blazing solo by Dave Murray that actually sounds like lightning. Really creative, impressive stuff.
The epic, emotional "The Clansman" is easily the best song on the album. It is considered the definitive Blaze vocal performance and still a favorite among fans. During the 90s, the Scottish struggle for independence in medieval times became prominent thanks to movies like Braveheart and Rob Roy. Steve Harris, who gets the sole writing credit, does a phenomenal job evoking the beauty of Scotland and the passion with which these medieval warriors fought. In an album with some odd pacing choices, the structure of this nine-minute epic feels just right.
"When Two Worlds Collide" is decent, but never really becomes all that interesting. It starts as a literal science-fiction tale of a planetary collision, but later uses the title as a metaphor for how differing cultures can come into conflict. "The Educated Fool" fares better. It's a very thoughtful, progressive song about how even the most intelligent person never really has all the answers. It also boasts some captivating riffs and a great middle section.
I'm happy to defend "The Angel and the Gambler," but when it comes to "Don't Look to the Eyes of a Stranger," the band is on its own. This song is very long and very repetitive. It seems to be about how the world feels a lot more dangerous when you have a child, but honestly, without all the repetitions the song's actual lyrics probably fit on a napkin. Still, even tiresome Maiden songs typically have fine guitar, bass and drums work and this is no exception.
The album closes on a surprisingly somber note with "Como Estais Amigos." The Falkland Islands War is probably not familiar to most Americans, but it will be for English citizens old enough to remember the 1980s. The United Kingdom and Argentina squabbled over who exactly owned tiny hunks of rock off the South American coast and numerous soldiers on both sides perished becuase of this pissing contest. Written by Janick Gers and Blaze, who had a friend who fought in this conflict, the song reaches out to the people of Argentina and urges both nations involved to commit to "no more tears." It's sad and powerful and makes ideal use of Blaze's low range.
Overall Strengths: Each of this album's eight tracks is very distinctive, and the best ones are full of emotion.
Overall Weaknesses: The album can feel slight when compared to the gravitas and massive size of The X Factor. The repetition of phrases in some songs can get really problematic for some listeners.
The Angel and the Gambler
Lightning Strikes Twice
Como Estais Amigos
Next: Big reunions ensue and the band kicks off a new decade with "Brave New World."
Thursday, September 1, 2011
The X Factor (1995)
This is where everything changes for Iron Maiden. Aside from the arrival of new singer "Blaze" Bayley Cooke, the difference between Fear of the Dark and this album represents the largest and most drastic style change in the band's history. The foundation for all the band's future material is laid here.
Most people expected the departure of Bruce Dickinson to mean the end of the band altogether. All this was also happening during the era of grunge, meaning that Steve Harris and the others had to answer obnoxious questions from music journalists about whether or not metal was still relevant. Fools, everyone knows you can't kill the metal! Still, Iron Maiden had the odds seriously stacked against them so it's pretty amazing how good this album is. Defying all expectations, The X Factor is a huge and powerful album with eleven great songs. The overall tempo of the music is slower than what Maiden fans were used to, and often began with lengthy, gentle introductions. Thematically, it goes into some very dark places, with songs about war, rage, depression and adaptations of some well-known cynical works of art.
I think this is seriously one of Maiden's best albums, but it won't ever get the respect it deserves. A huge part of the fandom never forgave Blaze for not being Bruce. Even now, idiots on YouTube will make claims that "Blaze has NO range." This is obviously bullshit - Blaze is a baritone where Bruce is a tenor, so what they mean is "Blaze can't hit the same high notes as Bruce." This is true, but honestly tenors like Bruce (and me) have an awful hard time with the kind of low notes Blaze hits in songs like "Fortunes of War." Part of the resentment had less to do with the content written for Blaze and more with live performances where the differences between the two singers became an issue regarding older songs. One time, Blaze was even spat on by a fan for his rendition of "The Trooper."
Still, Maiden fans who aren't whiny little morons will be very pleasantly surprised by The X Factor. It blows away the last two albums and charts an exciting new course for the band.
"Sign of the Cross," a massive 11-minute epic about the Spanish Inquisition, lets you know right away that this album is serious business. Opening with a Gregorian-sounding choir, this song boasts great riffs, furious solos, loads of atmosphere and a chorus perfectly tailored to Blaze's range. The structure is almost identical to a very early Maiden epic, "The Phantom of the Opera." Both start with some verses and choruses and the final chorus is separated from the rest by a huge instrumental section. This song conjures up an amazing amount of pure menace and listeners will probably be glad they weren't alive during the Inquisition.
"Lord of the Flies" is based on the famous William Golding novel of the same name, and its dim view of humanity is perfect fodder for this album. God knows Golding's thesis about the tribal nature and brutality of children has been well driven home by school shootings and the persistence of brutal bullying kids experience while growing up. This song is reasonably popular within the fandom for its exotic riff and catchy chorus, plus the lyrics display an acute understanding of the book's themes and symbolism. Steve's English teacher was definitely doing a good job. I don't think it's one of the stronger songs on the album, but that's not an insult with an album like this one. I do really like the sing-along part before the last chorus, though.
Blaze teamed up with the band's other relatively new member, guitarist Janick Gers, to write the masterful "Man on the Edge," a blistering song that I think can stand with some of Iron Maiden's finest material. It's tough not to relate to the story - a man going through some tough times encounters a lot of bullshit in one day and just...snaps. The lyrics chillingly state that the protagonist's violent rage is "a glimpse of the future." Hard to argue with that. Has the quality of life for your average person gotten better or worse since 1995? All the instruments are in top form and the solos are great. No wonder this song remained a live favorite for many years after the album came out.
"Fortunes of War" is one of two emotional, slow-moving dirges on the album that deal with post-war trauma. If classics like "Run to the Hills" or "The Evil that Men Do" gallop, this song marches. It's definitely not in any hurry, but it's power will sink in after a few listens. If I have any complaints about this song, it's that I wish it was easier to sing along with. Blaze hits some seriously low notes during this chorus. Oh well, just my limitations as a tenor.
Don't be fooled by the very soft, gentle introduction to "Look for the Truth." After about 90 seconds of building tension, this song just explodes. It never gets especially fast, but it is seriously epic. The song is one of Blaze's better vocal performances - he does a great job with the intro and his "Oh-oh-ohs" are infectious. Lyrically, it's one of The X-Factor's only tracks that is at least a little optimistic. A man summons up his courage and faces his worst fears in an effort to find the "truth" about himself and perhaps the world around him.
"The Aftermath" is the album's other lumbering epic about the horrors of war. The two songs are probably a little too similar, and listeners may have a hard time telling them apart at first. Still, there are differences. While "Fortunes of War" did not specify any particular war, this song mentions mud, rain, barbed wire and mustard gas, suggesting World War I as a setting. In terms of lyrics, I think this one comes out ahead. Aside from detailing a soldier's individual suffering, it asks tough questions about the world as a whole. "After the war, left feeling no one has won." It's really heavy, but honestly a song with this kind of theme should be. World War I would prove to be a very fertile subject for Iron Maiden...just wait until we get to the Dance of Death entry.
After that comes the tear-jerking "Judgment of Heaven," a deeply moving song with mysterious lyrics. It paints a frank picture of depression and regret, but I'm not sure it's meant to bring down the listener. The riffs are actually upbeat, Blaze lets out a few triumphant-sounding yells and the light synth in the chorus evokes hope. I just have never been able to figure out if the "judgment" the narrator is waiting for will be a good or bad one. Maybe he doesn't know either. Still, this is a very powerful song...the kind that can make a huge difference to a troubled listener if he or she hears it at the right time. As one internet commenter puts it - "I hear this and I know I have to go on, no matter what."
"Blood on the World's Hands" is the only song on the album that clunks a little bit. It chastises the world's most powerful nations for being indifferent to the suffering in lesser-developed countries, but the in-your-face lyrics and Blaze's scolding delivery bring it dangerously close to unintentional humor territory. That said, there's plenty to recommend about it. Steve Harris pulls off a very impressive acoustic bass intro, and the song as a whole has an effective apocalyptic vibe.
Iron Maiden and Apocalypse Now is the match proposed by "The Edge of Darkness," and damn they go well together. This song does a great job conjuring up the iconic images of the film - If you've seen it, it's hard not to imagine helicopters against the sunset of Vietnam or a man slowly rising out of a pool of water in the dark. The lyrics encompass the film's plotline nicely and even incorporates dialogue from the film. Check out Blaze's uh, interesting, pronounciation of "extreme prejudice."
"2 A.M." is a bleak, beautiful song that might be too much for some listeners. Unlike "Judgment of Heaven," there's no hint of hope to go along with this tale of depression and the futility of life. The solos on this song are probably the album's best - they do an amazing job conjuring up the despair in the lyrics. Probably not a song that would work very well live, but truly sad songs often have a lot of beauty in them and that's definitely the case here.
The album's final song, "The Unbeliever," is hard to digest at first. It's a pretty progressive song with a lot of unusual rhythms thrown in. The narrator has lost his religious faith and it's unclear whether he actually misses it or not, but I get the sense the song is highly personal for Steve and Janick, who wrote it. It's got a nice middle section with great drumming from Nicko and the chorus is absolutely blistering. The band seems to be aware of its power, since the chorus is repeated a great many times. An interesting ending to a complex album.
Overall Strengths: A great album made even more impressive by the adversity faced by the band during this time in their history. A very consistent set of tracks filled with emotion and creativity. Picking only four tracks to recommend was tough.
Overall Weaknesses: I'm not sure if this is necessarily a weakness, but the album is very different from what Maiden fans are used to and can be a lot to take in at first. This one requires a lot of patience to appreciate.
Sign of the Cross
Man on the Edge
Look for the Truth
Next: The experimentation continues on "Virtual XI."
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Fear of the Dark (1992)
It's hard to decide whether this album is better or worse than No Prayer For The Dying. While the previous album was consistently average, there are some songs on here that are stunning and emotional, examples of Iron Maiden at their best. On the other hand, some songs on Fear of the Dark are just awful, far worse than anything on the last album and indeed among Iron Maiden's absolute worst. This set of tracks is jaw-droppingly inconsistent - you'll literally hear a masterpiece followed by a disaster followed by more greatness...call it musical whiplash.
There's a lot of experimentation going on in Fear of the Dark which may attribute to its inconsistency...there are a lot of unique sounds on here that the band had not really tried in the past. Another reason could be the turmoil within the band itself. Singer Bruce Dickinson left the band after this album to pursue a solo career, leaving Iron Maiden's future in doubt.
"Be Quick or Be Dead" is awesome for about 20 seconds, and then Bruce starts with the verses. Yes, he's still got that insufferable raspy style from the last album and it's even more unwelcome. Sometimes it sounds like he's about to cough up a hairball. It's really a shame, because the instruments are on fire and the satirical lyrics are pretty effective. There are some really bad songs on this album, but this one should have been good.
"From Here to Eternity" seems to be Iron Maiden auditioning to be an AC/DC tribute band, complete with Bruce's bad impression of Brian Johnson. It's kind of impressive how well they nailed that AC/DC sound, but you can't help but wonder why. Sure, AC/DC gave us some hard rock classics, but Iron Maiden's in a whole different league. Lyrically, it's just terrible. Charlotte the Harlot has returned once again, though this is the end of her tale as she and her motorcycle riding boyfriend take a wrong turn off a cliff and die. Most of the song is just annoying puns about motorycle parts and it's really just dumb.
Anyone ready to give up on the album is about to get blindsided by the stunning "Afraid to Shoot Strangers," a powerful story of a soldier's anxiety about having to murder another human being. Sure, he might be "ready to die," but to take another life is different. He tries to reassure himself with the typical platitudes offered by politicians ("there's no other way"), but that doesn't seem to bring him much comfort. After the gentle introduction, one of Iron Maiden's all-time best riffs kicks in at about 2:45. There's so much emotion in this guitar playing that it brings home the tragedy of the subject matter more than the lyrics themselves and really has to be heard to be believed. Then the song explodes into a faster section, probably to mirror the soldier's descent into war. The brilliant riff returns for the finale, a beautiful ending to a masterful song.
That song demonstrates that Iron Maiden is very good at using their music to drive home social and political commentary, but "Fear is the Key" is a grevious exception to that rule. The song is about the AIDS virus, but instead of a powerful statement about the issue, it winds up sounding like an incoherent blog entry written by someone with a visceral need to just complain without any overriding point. The song laments how paranoia about AIDS made youngsters frightened of sex ("I remember a time we thought that passion was free") but at the same time, chastises the public for not showing enough concern about the disease ("nobody cares until somebody famous dies.") Which is it, fellas? We can't suck for both of these reasons at the same time, so pick one. It's a mess lyrically and what's worse, the plodding song is just tedious to listen to.
The whiplash continues with the devastating "Childhood's End," an elegy for starving children that hits the listener like a ton of bricks out of nowhere. Opening with one of the best introductions in Maiden's entire discography, this song is just phenomenal on all the instruments, especially Nicko's drumming. Even Raspy Bruce can't take anything away from it's power, and you might find yourself eager to donate to charity after the first time you hear it. "Will we learn someday?" I hope so.
"Wasting Love" is unique in the Maiden catalogue for being a fully traditional power ballad. Unlike many of the band's more heartfelt material, there's no galloping section at the end to bring the song to a fast conclusion. It's a sensitive tune filled with yearning and Bruce wisely cleans up his vocals to powerful results. Good luck resisting that sing-along chorus.
"The Fugitive" is based on the classic TV show and film adaptation of the same name. The rumbling drums do a fantastic job conjuring up the suspenseful atmosphere that the story is known for, and the song is strong enough musically to make up for the somewhat simplistic lyrics. "Chains of Misery" is a catchy, fun song that evokes some hair metal cheese, but not in a bad way at all. The song was co-written by guitarist Dave Murray, who typically is not as involved as the other band members when it comes to composition. The very strong guitar in this song is a good reason to give him a vote of confidence.
"The Apparition" is an odd song that winds up being fairly unmemorable. Lyrically, it seems to be a motivational speech given by a ghost. It's not bad at all, and it does have a cool middle section. I especially like the random little riff between 1:48 and 1:57, though. Sounds kinda like old-school Nintendo music. "Judas Be My Guide" is quite popular with fans, and it's easy to see why. Filled with blazing guitar work and only about three minutes long, it's a fast and furious piece of metal. "Judas" seems to refer to a person's inner urges to cause trouble, and adds a bit of irony since the song itself reminds me of Judas Priest...but maybe that's just the title's influence.
Well, we were having a good run until we hit "Weekend Warrior," which I seriously think is the worst Iron Maiden song of all-time. In the same album as songs about poverty and war, the band decided to write a six-minute tirade against...assholes at soccer games. Oh sorry, football. The band must have had a REALLY unpleasant experience at the stadium. The song is unbelievably tedious, Bruce's vocals are a mess, and it just feels like a massive waste of time. Gah, get that shit out of here, because it's time for...
"Fear of the Dark." That's right, the worst Maiden song is followed immediately by one of the all-time best. I heard this piece of metal perfection long before the rest of the album, and it was love at first listen. With its blazing riffs and phenomenal vocals, the song is all the evidence you need that even the worst internal turmoil can't keep this band from producing excellence. The lyrics are exactly what you expect from the title - a charming, unpretentious discussion of a timeless, primal fear. The fandom embraced this song immediately and it has endured over the years as a staple of live shows, where the crowd sings along to the guitar melodies to haunting effect. The band has put out six albums since 1992, but this song is guaranteed to be played at almost any Maiden concert. And so, an album with a LOT of ups and downs ends on a brilliant high note.
Overall Strengths: Certainly not a flawless album, but there is some brilliant stuff here, especially the title track.
Overall Weaknesses: The expression "mixed bag" feels inadequate. Some of these songs are just painful.
Afraid to Shoot Strangers
Fear of the Dark
Next: With a new singer at the forefont, Iron Maiden changes forever with "The X-Factor."