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"

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