Saturday, July 23, 2011

Iron Maiden Commentary - Part Six

Somewhere in Time (1986)

After three albums of universally acclaimed metal glory, Iron Maiden decided to experiment. Somewhere in Time is the band's first album to feature synthesizers, manned by bassist and creative leader Steve Harris. While the synth is not nearly as excessive as other music to come out of the 1980s, the addition earned an ambivalent response from fans and would gradually cause tension in the band as well. It's worth noting that the most successful single off this album has no synth at all.

This album doesn't have the same kind of prestige as the rest of the "Golden Age" material, though the passage of time (there's a bit of irony) has been kind to it. The synth isn't the only thing that's different. The subject matter and lyrics are often surprisingly upbeat - the usual "war is hell" stuff is notably absent. However, this may not have been a negative in the end...that same big single I mentioned in the first paragraph is by far one of Maiden's most hopeful songs. As for the synth, Harris would slowly refine his skill with this powerful tool over the years and eventually switch to a real keyboard.

The epic intro to "Caught Somewhere in Time" lets you know immediately what you're in for. While the synth element does place this song a bit more firmly in the 80s than some of the band's other material from this era, I still think it sounds pretty cool. This song has a blindingly fast drum part (in general, Nicko gets a real workout on this album) and a quality sing-along chorus. I'm not sure the 7-minute length is totally justified, but it's a good listen.

"Wasted Years" is the only track from this album that has achieved the sort of fame even close to some of the band's past hits. The opening riff, fast and menacing, is legendary among metal enthusiasts, though what's also worth noting is how non-menacing the song turns out to be. The narrator wonders if he's truly making the most of every moment, only to realize that there are no "wasted years," and worrying about that will just make you miss the "golden" ones. The upbeat chorus could just as easily be transplanted to a classic rock piece, though then you probably wouldn't have that awesome riff. The uplifting lyrics shouldn't work so well with that intimidating guitar sound, but somehow the whole song just comes together.

There's a lot going on in "Sea of Madness," maybe too much. The guitar and especially the bass are going non-stop and Nicko doesn't seem to ever remove his foot from the kick drum. It always feels like this song should be more memorable, but it never seems to make much of an impression on me. Lyrically, it's definitely the downer in this group of tracks. The narrator looks at the insanity all around him and just...walks away. There's only so much bullshit you can deal with before it just gets to be too much, which is a theme that would return many times in Iron Maiden's work.

The epic "Heaven Can Wait" never became a single, but has become beloved within the Maiden fandom. The emotional, evocative lyrics depict a man in the throes of a near-death experience. He gets right to the gates of heaven before deciding that it can "wait for another day" and returning to life. During live shows, the band capitalizes on the song's feel-good vibe by inviting a group of fans onstage to participate in the irresistable sing-along section about halfway through the song. Good luck trying to stay in a bad mood after listening to this one.

For whatever reason, songs with very long titles don't inspire confidence. So when I looked at this album's track list and found "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," I thought "what the hell kind of title is that? Good luck making that work." Well, that shows how little I know. This consistently underrated song is one of the album's best and another track that can really lift your spirits. All the instruments work together to conjure up the feeling of sprinting and watching scenery fly past. The lyrics work off the obvious metaphor for perseverance that can be derived from a long-distance race. "Must be so determined and push myself on" applies to all of life, not just a marathon.

"Stranger in a Strange Land" is a cool mid-tempo song that nicely balances the synth with the rest of the instruments. It tells the story of an Arctic explorer who is eventually frozen in ice and discovered in the future by scientists. The song was another single off the album, which is hardly surprising with the catchy riff and singing in the chorus. Interesting to note the repeated use of the phrase "brave new world," a concept which clearly resonated with the band for decades after this album was released.

Iron Maiden may be able to make seemingly mundane things like getting older or running sound totally epic with their musical style, but "Deja Vu" is pushing it. Never mind that some parts are a little too similar to "..Long Distance Runner," the lyrics combined with Bruce's singing go way into unintentional humor territory. Is having vague recollections of past events really this epic? When I'm listening to this and I hear Bruce sing "Ever had a conversation that you realize that you've had before? ISN'T IT STRAAAAANGE?!" I can't help but laugh. Maybe I'm being a bit too mean. This is still a good song, just impossible to take seriously.

Iron Maiden has never played the eight and half minute "Alexander the Great" live, which has mystified fans for decades. The closest they got was Bruce singing the chorus through the kazoo as a gag during one of the concerts. It's a bit of a shame, since I suspect the absolutely tremendous instrumentation would carry over very well on stage. Just try not to get pumped up by the gentle, epic introduction. It definitely matches a song like "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in terms of atmosphere, but not even close in terms of lyrics. In fact, there's a surprising lack of poetry and imagination in them. It's just a list of names, places and battles. It might make a decent study guide to Hellenistic history, but I would think they would try harder given that this is one of the most legendary warriors of all time. That said, the instruments are absolutely on fire for this one and are able to make up the difference.


Overall Strengths: The synth often adds interesting textures to the music and some of the songs reveal the band's surprising prowess at crafting uplifting songs.

Overall Weaknesses: Perhaps not quite as superb as some of its predecessors. The reasons for this vary among fans, but I personally would cite lyrical inconsistency. The writing for a few songs is paper-thin.

Recommended Tracks
Wasted Years
Heaven Can Wait
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Alexander the Great

Next: The band produces an epic concept album with "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Iron Maiden Commentary - Part Five

Powerslave (1984)

For the third time in a row, we have a revered album speculated by some fans to be Iron Maiden's absolute best. Seeing a pattern? This era of their discography isn't called the "golden age" for nothing. Powerslave kicks off with two of Maiden's most famous songs, and ends with one of their most respected epics, and the longest song they ever wrote. Aside from the songs generally being longer, the band didn't change much of what worked from Piece of Mind.

In discussions of this album, it becomes clear that the list of tracks is a bit polarized. Half of the eight songs are all-time classics. The other half...well, none of them are bad, but they're not on the same level. I personally don't find this album as easy to listen to all the way through as some of the band's other work. I'm always skipping ahead to get to the great stuff. Still, the quality of the best tracks on here easily makes it one of the band's best.

Album openers don't get much better than the thrilling "Aces High," a rip-roaring tribute to the English pilots who defended London from Nazi bombers during the Battle of Britain. You won't find the band's signature anti-war commentary here (that's saved for the next track), just an exciting song filled with nerdy details about ME-109's and "guns sending flack." The instruments are unusually well-synched, even for Maiden, and the vocals soar higher and higher during the chorus just like one of those planes. One of the band's all-time best.

The title of "2 Minutes to Midnight" is a reference to a "doomsday clock" utilized by Cold War scientists as a symbolic method to predict just how close the world was to nuclear annihilation. Midnight would be the end times, and the scientists set the clock at 23:58 when the USA and Russia both tested out hydrogen bombs. Armed with another classic riff and a blistering chorus (listen to those harmonies!), this is one of the angriest songs Iron Maiden has ever written. Anti-war themes are consistent throughout their work, but I don't know if they ever released another song with this much frothing-at-the-mouth contempt. The lyrics have a furious poetry and hit hard - "As the madman play on words and make us all dance to their song, to the tune of starving millions to make a better kind of gun." The ending warns that " all night." Let's hope it never comes to that.

After that amazing one-two punch comes "Losfer Words (Big Orra)," the fourth and final instrumental track in their career. Like the others the band did earlier, this song is entertaining but nothing to blow your mind. The next song, "Flash of the Blade," has a badass riff going for it and not much else. The subject matter is very similar to "Sun and Steel," with a medieval Europe setting instead of Japan. Not quite as catchy, though.

"The Duellists" is yet another song about sword-fighting...two in a row? Really? This one has a creative instrumental section in the middle, but overall goes on for too long, has a bit too much cheese in its chorus, and doesn't wind up being especially memorable. Next up is "Back in the Village," which is actually a sequel to "The Prisoner." Unfortunately, it doesn't really capture the thrill of its predecessor. The bouncy riff and drums can get you banging your head, but something just doesn't click. I think it's Bruce's vocals, which are unusually nasal in this song. However, it does end with a very cool outro that leads into...

"Powerslave." We're past the album's iffy middle section and from here on out, we're good. The album's title song is awesomely ominous, with a bizarre vocal melody and a superb three-chord riff that precedes each chorus. The lyrics depict the thoughts of a spoiled Pharaoh who has to face the reality of death, something no amount of money or influence will prevent. I've also heard many times that this is a metaphor for the band's resentment about being slaves to record companies. I'm not sure I buy that; Maiden's not the type to let anything get in the way of their creative expression. But the lyrics to this are almost an afterthought, because the real selling point of this song is the phenomenal middle section. In the span of a couple minutes, you get a slow guitar solo, a faster solo, a section that highlights the bass, yet another guitar solo, and a drum solo. It's truly incredible and if I'm driving while this part is playing, I have to be careful or else I'll be at 90 mph and not even realize it. This song is a perfect demonstration of another thing I really appreciate about the band...the rhythm support during solos. During the solos, pay attention to what the other guitar is doing...and what Nicko is doing on drums. It's a large part of the reason these solos are so effective.

Only one more song? Don't worry, you're going to get your money's worth. "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is 13 minutes and 34 seconds of brilliance and still the longest song the band has ever written. If you remember Samuel Taylor Coleridge's elaborate poem from high school English class, you will be surprised at just how solid an adaptation this epic is. The song explores the core themes and motifs of the poem and is a hell of a lot more entertaining, if I may be so bold. After the busy first few minutes, we get a chilling section the middle where Steve Harris's bassline evokes the Mariner's lonely voyage on the sea. Meanwhile, Bruce actually reads a passage from the poem out loud to eerie effect. After following that up with some powerful vocals and one of his highest screams ever (no matter how hard I try, I can't hit it), we sprint to the finish line with solid solos and a return to the style of the intro. It was easily the most thrilling and evocative composition of the band's career at this point and still has few equals. Now this is how you end an album.


Overall Strengths: This album's best songs are some of the finest songs Iron Maiden has ever done. "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" justifies buying the whole album itself, never mind how great some of the other stuff is.

Overall Weaknesses: Half the album is phenomenal, the other just okay. Not the most consistent set of tracks in the band's catalogue. Picking four tracks to recommend probably shouldn't be this easy.

Recommended Tracks
Aces High
2 Minutes to Midnight
Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Next: The band begins to experiment with new sounds on "Somewhere in Time"

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Iron Maiden Commentary - Part Four

Piece of Mind (1983)

With Nicko McBrain replacing the departing Clive Burr on drums, the classic Iron Maiden line-up is complete for this album. We're still firmly in the band's "golden age" here...and many Maiden fans feel that while The Number of the Beast always gets more attention, this album is actually better and may be the band's best. Of course, nearly all of these "golden age" albums have a crowd that will place them at the top of the heap, so make of that what you will.

What is definitely significant about Piece of Mind is that the band has fully adjusted from the departure of original vocalist Paul Di'Anno and established its signature style. The scruffy tales of street violence are long gone - most of the subject matter here is rooted in mythology, history or literature. There is also more experimentation going on in terms of structure (most evident in "Revelations" and "To Tame A Land"), and that progressive undercurrent will continue to mature throughout the band's entire career.

Note: Corporate bullshit at YouTube is giving me a hard time about using these songs in playlists, even though they still can be shared individually. Yeah, it's completely and utterly stupid, but that's the commercial music industry for you. I had this entry up with one video for each song, but that looked sloppy. So instead, the song titles will link to the YouTube video. I'll miss the playlists too, but that's the shitty card we were dealt.

"Where Eagles Dare" opens with an awesome drum roll that introduces the world to Nicko. The story of a daring wartime rescue mission, half of this song is devoted to a long instrumental section (gunfire sounds are tossed in for another bit of flavor). Lest you think Bruce Dickinson has gotten the short shrift, he closes out the song with a mighty high note. This song kicks some serious ass.

"Revelations" is an odd mid-tempo song that takes many listens to sink in. I can't really figure out if it's supposed to be about anything other than a verbal salad of apocalyptic imagery, but it is strangely compelling nonetheless.

The Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus gets a bombastic (though not entirely accurate) dramatization in "Flight of Icarus." Guitarists Adrian Smith and Dave Murray turn in blazing solos and Dickinson makes the chorus soar just like Icarus did before the sun melted his wax wings. In general, this is one of Big Bruce's most unrestrained performances - he hits inhumanly high notes at the very end. A highlight of the album, though the next two tracks are even better.

It's impossible to sit still during "Die With Your Boots On," a burly beast of a song with great riffs and thundering drums. The lyrics are a gleefully irreverent takedown of fearmongering by political and religious demagogues "predicting war for millions, in the hope that one appears." Despite the sarcasm, it seeks to empower the listener, declaring that "the truth of all always in your hands."

"The Trooper"does not need much introduction. This metal classic has gained the same level of fame as "Run to the Hills," even getting a shoutout in the novel World War Z as the song played by American troops to get them pumped up for zombie-killing action. A stunning riff that synchronizes the guitar and bass kicks things off, followed by a series of trills that is meant to evoke the galloping of horses. The title character is a soldier in the Crimean War, and this was the first of many Maiden songs that discussed the horror and stupidity of war, though it's more subtle here. After the trooper gets shot, the final lines state that he is "forgotten and alone." Some reward for wartime bravery, eh? This song is a true masterpiece that fully deserves its enduring fame.

What most people remember about "Still Life" is the garbled nonsense during the intro. Iron Maiden decided to have some fun at the expense of their Christian Right critics - when they weren't demonizing metal fans over "The Number of the Beast," they were searching for Satanic messages played backwards on records. If they bothered to reverse it, all they would have heard was Nicko's drunken impersonation of African dictator Idi Amin. The song itself is a spooky, macabre story about a man who becomes obsessed with the images he claims to see in a pool of water...obsessed to a dangerous extent. The lyrics do a very impressive job of telling this tale.

"Quest For Fire" is based on the movie of the same name about tribes of cavemen searching for a power they did not yet understand. The first line makes paleontologists cry and the whole thing is massively cheesy. Still, it's a charming kind of cheese and is still fun to listen to.

Next is the samurai tale "Sun and Steel." It's short and simple, with a devilishly catchy chorus. One thing worth noting about this album is all the tracks that seem like filler are more enjoyable than they probably have a right to be. This is probably one of the most solid albums to listen from beginning to end.

This album's concluding epic is "To Tame A Land," based on Frank Herbert's Dune. In fact, the band wanted to name the song after the book but the author made it clear he hated metal and wanted nothing to do with it, so the name was changed. Bruce got some revenge in the subsequent tour - while introducing the song, he referred to Herbert as "a bit of a cunt, actually." This track is no "Hallowed Be Thy Name," but it does a damn good job of evoking the barren scenery of its source material and Steve Harris gives a phenomenal bass performance. The lyrics prove to be a bit of a drawback...they are so full of Dune jargon that it becomes utterly incomprehensible to all but the hardcore fans of the book.


Overall Strengths: A very solid album with few, if any, weak points.

Overall Weaknesses: Not many, but this album doesn't produce as many all-time classics as some other "golden age" material.

Recommended Tracks
Where Eagles Dare
Flight of Icarus
Die With Your Boots On
The Trooper

Next: The band keeps things going strong (and crafts its longest song ever) with "Powerslave."