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 predictions...is 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."

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