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."
Saturday, August 13, 2011
No Prayer For The Dying (1990)
I suppose nothing good lasts forever. This album was released during a time of upheaval for Iron Maiden, and it shows. If you recall, guitarist Adrian Smith left the band after Seventh Son of a Seventh Son out of creative differences with band leader Steve Harris. Fellow guitarist Dave Murray stuck around, but Smith was replaced by Janick Gers, who is a solid guitarist but it would take several albums before he came into his own. After the fantastical bombast of Seventh Son, No Prayer for the Dying was a deliberate step back towards "stripped down" metal...which kind of baffles me. After all, Smith was the one complaining and he left? So why did they still feel compelled to regress like this?
Wanting to tone down the synth/keyboards is defensible (though they are still heard on a few of these tracks), but something else definitely got lost in the process. The riffs are weaker, the songs are shorter and much less complex, and singer Bruce Dickinson suddenly decided he wanted his voice to be less operatic and much raspier. It's humorous just how unpopular this affectation turned out to be with the fanbase - this approach completely negates all the strengths of Bruce's voice, and everyone knew but him.
"Tailgunner" is a song about aerial warfare, following in the footsteps of "Aces High." The comparison really hurts this song. "Tailgunner" has about one tenth of that song's energy, though raspy Bruce does make an amusing pun involving Dutch aircraft ("Nail that Fokker"). This is not a bad song by any means...it's just okay, which is a good way to describe this entire album.
If a solid track like "Holy Smoke" appeared on one of the "Golden Age" albums, it probably would not have ranked among the best songs. On this album, however, it's easily the best. Perhaps still seething over the Religious Right protests against "The Number of the Beast", Iron Maiden delivers a scathing, hilarious takedown of televangelism. Adding to the humor is that the song is actually narrated by Jesus himself ("I died on the cross...that ain't funny, but my so-called friends are making me a joke"). Despite the venom, the song is deliriously upbeat, the musical equivalent of giving the middle finger with a big grin. With its catchy riffs and impressive solo, it's a shame that the quality of this song proves to be an exception rather than the rule.
"No Prayer For The Dying" is a ballad that can't really decide if it wants to remain a ballad. The guitar work is nice and the lyrics seem sincere, though Bruce attempts to apply his new style to meet the needs of an emotional song like this...with mixed results. About halfway through, the song explodes out of nowhere and throws out some insane solos. It's not bad, just a bit unexpected. This song isn't bad, but it doesn't feel particularly polished.
With "Public Enema Number One," Iron Maiden beat Blink 182 by several years when it came to puns involving buttsecks. The title might be lame, but this song is okay. As usual, raspy Bruce grows tiresome quickly but the instruments fare pretty well. "Fates Warning" has a very cool intro, but Bruce's vocals drag it down. Jeez, why the hell did he think this was ever a good idea? These songs still have a lot of what makes Maiden appealing, including some nice solos in this one...but the songs themselves just don't turn out to be very memorable.
Hey wow, is that actual atmosphere? "The Assassin" has a nice Arabic vibe to it and gets into the psychological elements of assassination. The killer stalks the intended victim and tries to get inside his head. The song definitely has a lot of cheese (towards the end, Bruce just starts shouting "Assassin!" over and over) but all the elements come together reasonably well.
"Run Silent, Run Deep" is definitely one of the better tracks on the album. A tale of submarine warfare, it does a masterful job of conjuring up some claustrophobic atmosphere and Bruce actually cleans up his vocals for the chorus. I particularly like the ending, where the instruments calm down and the chorus rings out one more time to haunting effect.
You know Iron Maiden's in a bit of a rut when they have to trot out Charlotte the Harlot once again. She's not mentioned by name in "Hooks in You," but her address (22 Acacia Avenue) is referred to early on. The song is basically a series of terrible puns about sadomasochism and I'm not even sure what it has to do with Charlotte (some fans dispute whether this is really part of her storyline). The instruments make a valiant effort to salvage this song (it actually has some of the album's better riffs) and it almost works. Almost.
Still, "Hooks in You" is Beethoven compared to the awful "Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter." A super-cheesy tale of deflowering virgins, this easily has the worst lyrics of the band's entire career. "Unchain your back door and invite me around," Bruce growls. Get it? He's going to pound your daughter in the ass, LOL. Everything about it is just dumb, including the cover where Eddie is apparently on a date with Jessica Rabbit. Raspy Bruce also has the writing credit for this song and once boasted to journalist Mick Wall that he wrote it in three minutes. It shows, buddy. In part because it was attached to the soundtrack for A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, this is actually the highest-charting single of the band's career, despite it winning a well-deserved Golden Raspberry. Still, the commerical success meant that this turd would be guaranteed to appear on all future greatest hits compilations. I can't stand this song, and I hate that the chorus is catchy enough to make me want to sing along despite hating it.
At five and a half minutes, "Mother Russia" is the album's longest song...a far cry from the previous albums. It turns out to have the best instrumental work on the whole album, especially the haunting introduction and middle section. The lyrics are a salute to the Russian people and the impending end of Communism there. It doesn't exactly feel like a deep exploration of the country's history and I wouldn't be surprised if Russian listeners felt patronized. This song wouldn't be out of place on one of the Golden Age albums...kind of a shame it got stuck here.
Overall Strengths: This is still Iron Maiden, and there are some solid songs here. The acerbic social commentary in "Holy Smoke" is a nice new addition to the band's bag of tricks.
Overall Weaknesses: Very weak when compared to all of its predecessors. Bruce's odd vocal style is mostly off-putting. "Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter" is just fucking terrible.
Run Silent, Run Deep
Next: The turmoil within Iron Maiden continues as the band releases the varied, wildly inconsistent "Fear of the Dark."
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988)
If I'm forced to choose, this is probably my favorite Iron Maiden album. The last of the "Golden Age" albums, it is often underrated in comparison to Powerslave or The Number of the Beast, but still has a strong contigent of the fanbase advocating on its behalf. It is the band's only "concept album" and adapts folk tales about how great power was supposedly gained by a seventh son, provided that his father is also a seventh son. Unlike some other famous concept albums like Pink Floyd's The Wall or Queensryche's Operation Mindcrime, the album's storyline is not detailed and the tracks form a loose narrative at best, leaving a lot open for interpretation. It's entirely possible to enjoy the entire album without having any clue about the overarching story.
The new sounds introduced on Somewhere in Time continue to evolve, this time with a real keyboard played by Michael Kenney. The album delivered big hits for the band and still stands as one of their best, but the more fantastical direction that the band was going in began to alienate guitarist Adrian Smith, who also had some solo projects he wanted to pursue. He stuck around for the "7th Tour of a 7th Tour," but left shortly before the band began work on the next album.
"Moonchild" begins with a brief acoustic segment followed by a lengthy keyboard intro. In terms of this story, the song is from Satan's point of view as he boasts about how the impending birth of the fabled seventh son will present him with an opportunity to take advantage of his power and corrupt humanity. Amusing to note that this song, which is actually narrated by the Devil, did not attract anywhere close to the same level of controversy as "The Number of the Beast." Just goes to show that those morons only read the song title and don't bother with the actual lyrics. Context is for sinners and elitists, right? Anyway, this is a fun, catchy song with some insane solos and some really hammy vocals from Bruce - check out that hardcore cackle at the end.
"Infinite Dreams" is a mature look at spirituality from the point of view of the first Seventh Son - let's call him "The Father," for simplicity's sake. He's been having awful nightmares. Despite how frightening they are, he is also intrigued because these dreams might also offer some insight into the afterlife, a topic which has clearly troubled him. "You tell me you're a nonbeliever...or a spiritualist, well me I'm neither." So, basically an agnostic, but one who would really like to know "what side we're on." It's a captivating song with great work from all the band members. I especially like a section in the middle where Nicko busts out some solid drum rolls.
The part that "Can I Play With Madness" has in the album's narrative is tough to figure out. This much we know - the Father has decided to speak with a psychic about his prophetic dreams and he's not very happy with what he's told. The odd chorus is what's tough to interpret. The Father looks into the crystal ball and says "There's no vision there at all," but the psychic seems to be arguing that this is the whole point and that the Father is just "too blind to see." Is this a subtle admission that this prophet believes that clarivoyance doesn't exist? When pressed by the Father, the prophet gets vindictive and "predicts" that his customer is going to Hell. A strange story, but the overall upbeat feel of the song turned it into a hit single for the band.
The most popular track off this album would prove to be "The Evil That Men Do," and it's not hard to see why. This is a snarling beast of a song, four minutes of balls-to-the-wall metal that begins with a badass riff and then kicks your ass with sheer momentum. Storywise, it depicts the death of the Father, but his seventh son (we'll call him just "The Son") has been conceived. We're not really told how he dies, but given the title, it seems safe to assume that it was agents of the Devil. Having the Father out of the way could make it easier to control the Son's power, after all. As he dies, he realizes that "beyond is where I learn," and the knowledge that he will finally find the answer to his existential questions provides some final comfort. A true Maiden classic, but the "repetition problem" takes a bit of a toll on the lyrics. The band must have really liked the sound of rhyming "edge" with "ledge," because it shows up about a dozen times in the song.
The massive, ten-minute "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son" depicts the birth of the title character. The other six sons gather as the family is told of the power this mystic child will have - specifically, the power of healing and the "second sight." Drowning in atmosphere, the song immediately brings to mind images of a dark ritual and the first half features some epic vocals from Bruce, who holds an inhumanly long note at one point. The second half is all instrumental and boasts some fine riffs and solos. The work from the rhythm guitar is so good, it's likely to take your mind off the actual solos at a few points.
"The Prophecy" is a slower, progressive piece that opens with a soothing keyboard melody and ends with a soft acoustic outro. The Son is now an adult and has become a bit of a Cassandra figure. He has visions of an imminent catastrophe but the villagers around him dismiss his claims. The Son claims that "Lucifer smiles, looks on and waits," implying that the disaster is his work. When the calamity strikes the village and takes a harsh toll, the villagers begin to blame the Son, who they should have listened to in the first place. God, people are idiots.
The next song, "The Clairvoyant" is a haunting masterpiece that kicks off with a phenomenal bass intro from Steve Harris. The Son has become frightened by the extent of his powers, which he fears he will no longer be able to control. By the end of the song, something dreadful has happened because the final verse is narrated by someone else who describes how the Son, despite the psychic power, "couldn't foresee his own demise." What exactly killed him? We're never given specifics. The song does reference reincarnation at the end, implying that perhaps another Seventh Son of a Seventh Son will emerge someday. This is a great song that was eventually released as a single, though it never got quite as popular as it deserves to be.
Definitely not to be confused with the hit song by Billy Joel, "Only the Good Die Young" provides a cynical finale to the album. The Son seems to be speaking from the afterlife and has nothing but withering contempt for the society that failed to recognize his powers. He marvels at how the people can accept the more absurd aspects of organized religion but can't buy his mystic powers - "Walking on water, are miracles all you can trust? So I think I'll leave you, with your bishops and your guilt." A friend of mine once said this song sounded like something from one of the Mega Man games, and it was such an astute/amusing observation that those games cross my mind every time I hear it. The end brings back the acoustic bit from "Moonchild," perhaps implying another impending clash between good and evil. "So until next time...have a good sin."
Overall Strengths: A brilliant album that is consistently satisfying to listen to from start to finish. The storyline does not overpower the music, but still adds layers of depth.
Overall Weaknesses: Uh...it ends too soon? Sorry, I can't come up with much.
The Evil That Men Do
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son
Next: The Golden Age comes to an abrupt end with "No Prayer for the Dying."