Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Iron Maiden Commentary - Part Seven

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.

Recommended Tracks
The Evil That Men Do
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son
The Clairvoyant

Next: The Golden Age comes to an abrupt end with "No Prayer for the Dying."

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