Friday, June 17, 2011

Iron Maiden Commentary - Part Three

The Number of the Beast (1982)

If you have only limited knowledge of Iron Maiden, this album (and its title song) are what you are likely most familiar with. This album, widely considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in Metal history was a phenomenal success worldwide. Fans consider it to be the beginning of the band's "golden age," a series of superb albums that continues throughout the rest of the 1980s. Part of this album's success came from the controversy around its use of Satanic vocabluary, but more on that later.

After the departure of vocalist Paul Di'Anno, the band chose someone with a radically different voice. Dramatic tenor Bruce Dickinson could shriek like few others, earning him the nickname "the Air Raid Siren." Iron Maiden had been putting out exciting metal from day one, but Bruce's voice adds a whole new level of drama. The music began to adjust accordingly - the songs began to get longer and the lyrics began to branch far beyond the tales of street violence that characterized most of the last two albums. You can make a convincing argument that the seeds of the subgenre that became "power metal" were planted with The Number of the Beast.

Drummer Clive Burr, whose work on this album is simply brilliant, would leave the band before the next album emerged. He was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and medical costs left him bankrupt. Iron Maiden's members are still close with Burr and they have staged multiple charity concerts on his behalf. His plight brought attention to MS within the metal community and the "Clive Aid" charity still works to raise funds for various MS-related programs around the world.

Given this album's formidable reputation, I'm still shocked at how much I dislike the first track. "Invaders," about the Viking conquests, is so cheesy that it borders on Spinal Tap territory. The verses go so fast that Dickinson barely has time to enunciate anything, and the chorus is impossible to take seriously. Bruce sings "In-VAY-ders!" and then there's a dinky little riff, followed by a shout of some Viking-relating gerund like "Pillaging!" It's not the worst track Iron Maiden ever made (those will come much later in this series), but it's pretty damn bad.

Things improve in a BIG way with "Children of the Damned." Based on the vintage horror film, this song features absolutely face-melting vocals by Dickinson. All of the instruments are in top-form, but this song is undeniably a vocal showcase, treating the listener to a pro singer at the top of his game. At one point, he holds a note for a good 20 seconds. If you think that doesn't sound like much, try it sometime. One more thing to note about this song - it's the first example of what I'll call the "repetition problem," an ongoing complaint from some people about Maiden songs which use the same phrase or phrases repeatedly to make up the chorus. In this case, it's "Children of the Damned" four times in a row, but it works just fine. This issue will come up many times over the course of this series, however.

Next is "The Prisoner," inspired by a 1960s British TV mini-series that the band were huge fans of. Iron Maiden even secured the permission of co-creator and star Patrick McGoohan to use audio from the series in the song's introduction. According to Maiden lore, the band was star-struck during a fateful phone call and babbled incoherently about their plans to pay tribute to the show. "A heavy metal band, you say?" McGoohan replied, before taking a dramatic pause. "Do it!" The song is an uplifting anthem about individuality and defiance that requires no knowledge of the show to appreciate. The solo is amazing too.

"22 Acacia Avenue" is a song I never really "got." It's the second installment of the "Charlotte the Harlot" saga. It seems like a song that was written for Di'Anno and lyrically, it's just as goofy as its predecessor (the line "it's no life for you, stop all this screwin'" always makes me laugh). This song has some ardent fans, but I guess I'm not seeing what they are.

From the ominous opening narration to Dickinson's legendary shriek, "The Number of the Beast" is one of the most famous songs in metal history. Indeed, all the pieces are in place - the twin-guitar assault, Steve Harris's busy bassline and Burr's dynamic drumming. It's popularity is well deserved, though most serious Iron Maiden fans will tell you that they enjoy the song, but feel that there is much better work to be found on this album and in the band's career as a whole. Kinda like how very few Metallica fans feel "Enter Sandman," while classic, is the band's best song.

This song inspired a wave of protests from the Christian Right following its 1982 debut, with many gathering to burn records and sentence all metal fans to eternal damnation. Let's be clear - anyone who actually thinks this song endorses Satanism is a moron who is only taking the song's name at face value and not bothering to read the lyrics, which make it clear Satan is something to be feared, not worshipped. It was inspired by a nightmare Steve Harris had after watching The Omen. Are we still allowed to talk about our nightmares? Is that okay with you? Well if it's not, too fucking bad. In the end, they shot themselves in the foot with this whole incident. Young listeners everywhere said "Hey, you don't get to tell me what music I can or can't listen to!" and thus a huge amount of new fans were introduced to the band and inspired other groups like Slayer to follow suit, after realizing that pissing off these so-called moral guardians was both easy and profitable.

"Run to the Hills" is another all-time classic, and it's appeal is best summed up by a coundtown of the great hard rock/metal songs aired on VH1. "Everything about that song is impossible," said music critic Steve Huey. "The drums are impossibly fast, the bass playing will give you tendonitis, and the chorus has impossibly high notes." A brutal account of the Native American genocide, the song is a four minute blast of pure metal that retains its ability to stun listeners (and the fact that it was turned into a laughably difficult song on Rock Band on ALL the instruments led to a whole different sort of appreciation). Wisely, Maiden never really tried to out-do this song in terms of speed. A few come close (we'll get to "The Trooper" and "The Evil That Men Do" in future entries), but the band could hardly be called a one-trick pony...many other tricks were up their sleeves.

"Gangland" kicks off with an awesome drum solo from Burr and makes for a very fun listen overall. With its story of gang violence, it was probably written for Di'Anno but Dickinson manages to make it his own. This song seems to have a weak reputation among the band's fandom at large, but I've always enjoyed it.

"Total Eclipse," a dark story of environmental devastation, was originally left off the album but later restored on a 1990s re-release. Listening to it today with a knowledge of Iron Maiden's later work makes it feel way ahead of its time. It may be the first time the band lent their voice to a current issue, and the progressive elements hint at some of the experimentation that would come in later albums. The mournful section that starts about 3 minutes in is a highlight.

As good as most of these songs are, none of them can match the epic grandeur of the album's final track, "Hallowed Be Thy Name." Most Maiden fans consider this song to be not just the crown jewel of the album, but the band's finest work and arguably the greatest metal song ever written. A tale of a man whose religious convictions are put to the test as his faces his own death, the genre had never seen anything with this much sheer power. The long instrumental section likely represents the protagonist's soul leaving his body and facing the great beyond, and what exactly is meant by the song's final invocation of the Lord's Prayer is left to the listener. The whole band is at the top of their game, but special attention needs to be given to Dickinson and especially Burr. With its elaborate drum fills, this song was the perfect way for him to go out. One final thing to note - whenever I make CDs or ITunes playlists featuring Iron Maiden, this song is always last. Why? Because nothing can follow it.


Overall Strengths: The album is a bona fide milestone and features several of Iron Maiden's best and most beloved songs.

Overall Weaknesses: Some songs make it clear this is still a band in transition. "Invaders" is just bad.

Recommended Tracks
Children of the Damned
The Prisoner
Run to the Hills
Hallowed Be Thy Name

Next: Nicko McBrain takes over on drums and the classic line-up is complete for "Piece of Mind."

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Iron Maiden Commentary - Part Two

Killers (1981)

Longer and nastier than its predecessor, Iron Maiden's second album is an impressive demonstration of the style of metal the band helped create. They would evolve a great deal over the course of their career, and while the music would get much more complex and sophisticated, I don't think it ever got faster than some of the songs on Killers.

While Iron Maiden was something of a metal potpourri (there's a Jeopardy word for you) with little similarity between the individual songs, Killers is much more unified in both style and subject matter. As the name would suggest, the thematic element tying this album together is murder. Insane serial killers (the title track), punks plotting the demise of their enemies ("Wrathchild"), unfortunate saps who have been wrongly accused ("Murders in the Rue Morgue," "Innocent Exile"), victims communicating from beyond ("Twilight Zone"), scoundrels hoping to atone ("Prodigal Son," "Drifter"), it's all here.

Guitarist Dennis Straton left the band after the first album and was replaced by Adrian Smith. With him on the team, the entire ensemble is even stronger, though more changes would be on the way. Singer Paul Di'Anno, who contributes a lot of great vocals this time around, was kicked out of the band after his rampant cocaine and alcohol use began bringing down the band's live performances. The rest of the band avoided most of the drug-related pitfalls that plague musicians, and Di'Anno already had a reputation for troublemaking. He went on to a semi-successful solo career and is apparently still quite a scoundrel - he just recently completed a jail sentence for welfare fraud.

The album's first track is the instrumental "The Ides of March,", a very brief song that serves mostly as an epic intro to "Wrathchild." Though never released as a single, it remains the most consistently popular track off this album and it isn't hard to see why. Everything just works - Steve Harris's badass bass intro, Smith and Murray's screaming guitars, Di'Anno's growling, and Clive Burr's verstatile drumming. The brief drum solo in the middle is right up there with "In the Air Tonight" in terms of air-drumming potential.

"Murders in the Rue Morgue" has a slow intro that quickly revs up into a series of furious riffs that evoke a high-speed pursuit. Based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, the lyrics are unusually detailed as far as this early Maiden stuff goes. Our protagonist is on the run after being accused of two murders he didn't commit (or did he?)

So far so good, though things falter a bit with the next few tracks. I'm forever getting "Another Life" and "Innocent Exile" mixed up - both have scant but repetitive lyrics and long instrumental sections. Sandwiched between them is another instrumental track, "Genghis Khan," which does a decent job evoking the kind of epic battles associated with its namesake. That said, I'm not sure the album needed another track sans lyrics. Upon closer examination, "Another Life" is the weaker of the two songs. It's basically one verse repeated multiple times and there's very little that stands out musically either. "Innocent Exile" fares better, with a nice bass intro and some quality Di'Anno shrieks.

"Killers" is one of the best tracks on the album, which is evident from the stunning introduction. It leads off with another awesome bass intro by Harris (this album as a whole is a perfect demonstration of his skills) and a series of spooky yells from Di'Anno. Then it kicks into high-gear and doesn't stop until the very end. The drum part that starts at about 2:18 is jaw-droppingly fast. Lyrically, it's complex and interesting. The killer seems to be driven by some twisted moral motive and seems to have moments of guilt...but in the end, "his bloodlust defies all his needs."

"Prodigal Son" doesn't really do much for me. Normally, I'm a big fan of Maiden's ballads, but this one lacks the haunting qualities that made "Strange World" so great. It's not bad, but usually when I'm listening to this album in full, I find myself waiting for this one to be over.

Then there's "Purgatory." Holy shit, "Purgatory." Iron Maiden crams more awesome riffs into this three and a half minute song than most bands do in entire albums. It careens forward at top speed, and Di'Anno sounds like he's having an absolute blast singing this one. It never fails to get me psyched up, but for whatever reason it's a consistently underrated song in the band's catalogue.

Next is "Twilight Zone," a trim song with no connection to the television show of the same name. Given its 70s rock vibe, a better comparison might be to Golden Earring, who has a song with this same title. It's enjoyable, though I find it a little too short. You start getting into it and then it just ends.

The lyrics of "Drifter" make references to the idea of moving on and hoping for a better future, and I can't help thinking of Di'Anno's departure when I listen to it, though I don't think that was intentional. It's a pretty complex finale to the album, with a lot of tempo changes and some interesting solos.


Overall Strengths: The skills of all the musicians involved was already impressive on the last album and on this one they have only gotten better, especially Steve Harris's phenomenal bass. A very strong album with a unified theme and feel.

Overall Weaknesses: The songs can be a little too similar at times, particularly in the same-ey middle section.

Recommended Tracks
The Ides of March/Wrathchild
Murders in the Rue Morgue

Next: Bruce Dickinson arrives and the band changes metal forever with "The Number of the Beast."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Iron Maiden Commentary - Part One

Part review, part tribute, all metal.

This series, which I intend to finish over the summer but could also wind up reaching well into fall, will go through each of the band's fifteen studio albums in an attempt to articulate the qualities that have made Iron Maiden such a highly-respected and unstoppable force within the realm of metal music.

So why them? Well, there's a lot to say about this much so that a website with the name "The Iron Maiden Commentary" exists and can keep you busy for hours if you like. This series won't go into that exhausting level of detail and will be more personalized. Believe it or not, I'm a late-blooming fan of Iron Maiden. I feel like I should have discovered this stuff as a teenager like most other fans, but I didn't. In fact, for most of my teenage years and even early college years, my musical preferences were limited to The Offspring and video game soundtracks. But metal slowly crept in over the years and before I knew it, it dominated my iPod.

It's been about two years since I became a "serious" Iron Maiden fan, meaning that I sought out songs that weren't "The Number of the Beast" or "Run to the Hills," and I keep waiting for my "Iron Maiden phase" to end. But it doesn't...and I'm not sure it will. Something about this band's work resonates deeply, and there are times when I feel like it was made specifically for me. That is, of course, ridiculous because this is the second-most commercially successful metal band in history we're talking about (Metallica is first). Still, the key to their success is somehwere in there - this band projects a sense of sincerity like few others...and the actual music...well, there will be time for that.

So here's how these entries will work. I'm being more ambitious with my blogging here - there will be a YouTube playlist featuring all the songs on the album that's in the spotlight. First, we'll have an introduction. Then we start talking about each individual track. At the end, we assess the strengths and weaknesses of the album. Finally, I'll pick four "recommended tracks" that I especially like. So let's get this started with their self-titled debut album.

Iron Maiden (1980)

The band had been performing for a few years in their native London by the time this first album came out, but this marked the beginning of what would be a decade of dominance for Iron Maiden. The lineup at the time was Steve Harris on bass, Dennis Straton and Dave Murray on guitar, Clive Burr on drums and Paul Di'Anno on vocals. Only two of these guys are still part of the band today.

Right from the start, you can see the advantage of having two lead guitarists, which was not common at all at the time. The harominzed riffs, plus the indispensable creativity of Harris's bass lines, are the blueprints for that distinctive sound. When describing Clive Burr's lightning-fast drumming, it's worth nothing that even though popular culture tends to associate metal with very fast music, it wasn't always that way by a long shot. Black Sabbath, who more or less created metal, wrote songs that were slow and ominous, a style which is now described as "doom metal." Deep Purple wrote mostly mid-tempo stuff that frequently gave way to psychedelic jam sessions that went on for ages. That was before the "New Wave of British Heavy Metal," typically referred to as NWOBHM by fans. Along with bands like Motorhead and Judas Priest, Iron Maiden sped up the tempo and ditched the jam sessions, creating a leaner and meaner brand of music.

While a lot of the core Maiden elements are present in this first album, there is one element that can be jarring. Today, the voice of singer Bruce Dickinson is synonymous with the band...but the group made two albums before he joined up. It's a safe bet that only the fans who were there at the beginning heard Paul Di'Anno's singing before Dickinson's, and now it can be a bit jarring for newer fans. He didn't have the same range, but his snarling style is pretty illustrative of how a lot of early metal singers sounded...and he'll surprise you with some of his high notes. His is the voice I picture coming out of the mouth of Eddie, the band's longtime undead mascot.

"Prowler" is the first song off the first album, and it's a winner. It shows right off the bat what the band is capable of with its catchy riff and solid solos. If the melody feels a little sleazy, it's nothing compared to the lyrics. The title character is a pervert who likes to flash women...yeah, not quite as sophisticated as "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," but what are you gonna do?

Next up is "Sanctuary," which eventually became a single. Iron Maiden got in a little bit of hot water after the cover of the single depicted Margaret Thatcher freshly murdered by Eddie. Ironically enough, she was sometimes given the nickname "the Iron Maiden." The song itself is a good example of the punk-rock influences that contributed to this early stuff, though I could do without a few of the gimmicks - the siren in particular. Lyrically, it's pretty typical of the Di'Anno albums, which often told stories of young troublemakers on the run.

The next track is the ominous "Remember Tomorrow," one of the best on the album. It's structure, alternating between slow and frenzied sections, was a major inspiration for future classics like Metallica's "Fade to Black" or Pantera's "Cemetery Gates." A great example of Di'Anno's vocals and especially Harris's bass work.

With "Running Free," we have an enduring classic that still shows up at concerts. It's a little ironic, because this particular song sounds nothing like most of the material Iron Maiden has made could almost mistake it for a piece of 1970s classic rock. It's still hard to resist and it makes sense that the band chose it as their very first single.

The band would create its first real epic with the seven-minute "Phantom of the Opera," which is probably the most effective use of the dual guitar sound on the album. Throughout their career, Iron Maiden would frequently center songs on various books, movies and historical events. The song remains a fan favorite, and it isn't hard to see why - The instrumental section in the middle is simply brilliant. If I have any complaints about this song, it's that I feel like Di'Anno isn't given much to do. He mostly winds up singing along to the main riff. Still, it was clearly a milestone song for the band.

"Transylvania" is an instrumental track, one of four Iron Maiden would release in their career. It's probably the best of the four, and it flows nicely into the next track, "Strange World." This song is a striking change of pace, a melancholy ballad that wouldn't be out of place on a Pink Floyd album. The bizarre lyrics are either referring to some dystopian future or a really bad drug trip...I'm not really sure which. I'm a big fan of this one, I think it features Di'Anno's finest vocal performance on the album and the guitar solo in the middle is damn good too.

The riffs in "Charlotte the Harlot" are so catchy, they should be illegal. The title character would make a handful of appearances in Iron Maiden's songs, but I always felt that prostitutes weren't really worthy subject matter for a band this intelligent. These guys eventually would write a song about the siege at Montsegur...singing about whores just seems metal. Still, the song is quite enjoyable, with a bluesy interlude that comes out of nowhere.

Last is "Iron Maiden," off the album Iron Maiden, by Iron Maiden. See a pattern? The song remains a metal anthem, thanks to its distinctive harmonized riff and drums that are tailor-made for head-banging. Lyrically, it's laughably weak, but that can be forgiven this early in the game. It became a tradition at concerts for someone dressed in the Eddie costume to emerge while this song is played.


Overall Strengths: This first album shows off the versatility of the band right away, introducing a number of songs that are still considered classics.

Overall Weaknesses: The lyrics and subject matter aren't nearly as interesting as some of the material that would come later.

Recommended Tracks
Remember Tomorrow
Phantom of the Opera
Strange World

Next: Guitarist Adrian Smith joins the band for the second album with Di'Anno on vocals - the ambitious "Killers."