Friday, September 16, 2011
Brave New World (2000)
From here on out, we're in the fourth and final era of Iron Maiden. This album and the three after it are sometimes referred to as "post-reunion," and what a reunion it was. Several years after their departure, guitarist Adrian Smith and vocalist Bruce Dickinson asked Steve Harris if they could return to the band. In a surprising twist, guitarist Janick Gers (who had replaced Smith) was told he wasn't going anywhere and now the band would have three guys doing the shredding. Unfortunately, two vocalists wasn't as feasible so it was time for poor underrated Blaze Bayley to say goodbye. He left on good terms and remains friends with the band, evidenced by this good-humored discussion between him and Bruce.
After the commercial failure of Virtual XI, there was a lot riding on the success of this comeback album and you can tell the band is playing it a little safe. This has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, I can't think of any song on here that I would consider weak and the longer songs make it clear the band is holding on to some of the progressive influences of the Blaze era. But even the ten-minute monsters all have a really catchy chorus. However, the subsequent albums make it clear that the guys were holding back some of their depth and ambition and it's a little sad that this approach is considered a recipe for success. Still, there's no need to dwell on that. Critics and fans were ecstatic and Brave New World is a great listen.
The cover of "The Wicker Man" puts Bruce's mug front and center, and the song announces the return of the classic lineup with exciting riffs and rampaging drums (Nicko really gives that snare a beating!). The lyrics don't seem to have much of a connection with the classic British horror film of the same name (and I'm NOT referring to the laughably ridiculous Nicolas Cage remake, this album came out before that), other than to suggest that the pagan ways of the past may return once humanity has destroyed most of our modern world. However, less importance is placed on the lyrics in comparison to the irresistable chorus and a fun sing-along finale that Bruce says was inspired by The Offspring.
"Ghost of the Navigator" starts with a beautiful introduction and then the thundering bass drums kick off the main event. It sounds like double bass, but according to Nicko it isn't, which is pretty damn impressive. While some of the lyrics reference The Odyssey, I get the sense that the journey is more metaphorical than literal. Iron Maiden likes songs about seeking out new experiences and challenging your own preconceptions. As with "The Educated Fool" on the last album, the song stresses that you're never done learning, no matter your age.
In the midst of the album's bombast, it may take a few listens to appreciate the elegant simplicity of "Brave New World." Borrowing only loosely from Aldous Huxley's famous novel, the song is a sad, poignant reminder of how the world seems to bleed compassion and humanity as our technology gets better. The references to "dying swans...beauty not needed here" is a hard-hitting bit of imagery. The swan is synonymous with the grace of the animal kingdom, and if its demise is met with indifference, the world may have finally lost its soul for good. In an album that is sometimes lacking in feeling, this song offers some welcome passion.
Live performances have made the already affecting "Blood Brothers" far more powerful than the band had probably anticipated. The protagonist clings to his loved ones as the world seems to be collapsing around him. Those who listen to this album knowing the history of the band at this point are likely to appreciate the song on another level. This song has Steve Harris's style all over it and the melody and rhythms are impeccable. I do wish that the song had a little bit more lyrics - I feel like that would fleshed out the emotion a little more. With its lighter-waving vibe, the song has become an anthem of solidarity when the band goes on tour. The band has played it as a tribute to the late Ronnie James Dio, in support of those recently afflicted by disaster, or as an expression of the bond between the band and its fans.
As Bruce put it in his typical..unique manner.."There's something about [metal] that unites people, and it doesn't matter what color they are, what religion they are, whether they're purple with black spots, male, female, somewhere in between, dolphin...This is a safe house, this is OUR house, this is Maiden's house, everybody is fucking welcome and we don't turn anyone away, no matter who they are! If you put yourself down as Jewish or Muslim or Christian or Hindu or Jedi...above all that, we are all blood brothers!" Amen.
Janick has a writing credit on "The Mercenary," and this is an early example of what he began to bring to the band in this post-reunion era. He is geared towards short, tough little rockers which provides some nice balance, given that both Bruce and Steve tend to drift towards massive epics. The fandom has developed a consenus that this song is about the movie Predator, and while it wouldn't be out of character for the band, I can't find anything in the lyrics to confirm this. It suffers a little bit from that "repetition problem," but is still a solid song.
"Dream of Mirrors" is huge with the fans, and it's not hard to see why. The chorus is one of Maiden's most memorable and the whole thing is fun to sing along to. Still, I've never been totally convinced that the song justifies its massive nine and a half minute length. It's quite repetitive and the lyrics are less interesting than I'd expect from a song like this. It's like a longer, shallower version of "Infinite Dreams." I might be going a little overboard, feel free to tell me I'm full of shit because the song is undeniably fun to listen to.
"The Fallen Angel" starts with a nice Thin Lizzy esque intro, but other than that I've never found it hugely memorable. The titular angel is Azazel of Biblical lore and he is facing an impending apocalypse. I can't help but wonder what this one would have been like if it had been turned into a ten-minute epic where the band could have really ratcheted up the cosmic elements of the story. As it stands, it's sandwiched between two massive epics that are both more likely to stick in the mind of the listener.
"The Nomad" has it all. The three guitarists fire off a series of burly riffs while Dickinson belts out a soaring chorus. Some of the lyrics do get corny, the badassery of the title character is explored to Chuck Norris levels of goofiness. "Legend has it that you speak an ancient tongue, but no one's spoken to you and lived to tell the tale." However, what makes this underrated song a candidate for the album's best is the phenomenal middle section, which may be the most atmospheric three minutes in the band's discography. The listener is totally transported to the desert locale that the Nomad calls home. You would be forgiven for thinking that Iron Maiden brought in a string orchestra, but that's just great cooperation between the guitarists and some fine keyboard playing by Steve Harris. Getting to hear that awesome chorus one more time afterwards is just icing on the cake. This is how you do a nine minute song.
Coming after that masterpiece, "Out of the Silent Planet" might seem downright regressive in its evocation of the galloping classics that defined Maiden's early years. But that would be missing the fun. The gentle Gallic-sounding intro only serves to make the subsequent rush more effective. The song gradually gets faster and faster, boasting superb drums, great solos, and lyrics which are surprisingly intricate. The finale demonstrates that the repetition definitely has its place when used well. The chorus continues on and on until the song has whipped itself into a head-banging frenzy. Easily the most flat-out fun song on the album.
"The Thin Line Between Love and Hate" closes the album on an interesting note. The lyrics are a bit simplistic, but that can be forgiven by the awesomely high notes Bruce hits during the chorus. He's still got it! Still, the real stars of this final track are Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers. Never mind the solid riffs and solos, the whole second half of this song is the most sophisticated use of the new "three guitar" sound on the album. It's pretty clear the band said "Hey, we've got all these guitars, let's have some fun!" If you listen after the gentle outro finally ends, you'll hear Nicko shout "Ah, I fucking missed it!" He believed he had missed the final drum note, but the band members start cracking up because he actually hadn't. I guess the guys kept that on there for lulz.
Overall Strengths: A consistently catchy and enjoyable album, with the classic lineup back in place.
Overall Weaknesses: Not many, but some songs don't feel like the band at their best.
Brave New World
Out of the Silent Planet
Next: Now firmly re-established, the band goes BIG with the epic "Dance of Death"
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Virtual XI (1998)
Commercially, this is Iron Maiden's least successful album. The fandom's disappointment about the departure of Bruce Dickinson was no secret, but The X Factor benefited from curiosity about what the "new" Iron Maiden would be like. Three years later, this album's lackluster performance on the charts was indicative of the fandom's rejection of Dickinson's replacement, "Blaze" Bayley Cooke. This reaction was really sad and short-sighted - Iron Maiden's not some manufactured pop band where only the singer matters. Bruce's vocals are legend, but the band is full of great musicians. This was also another album released during a dark time for metal as a whole. The grunge boom was about over and now insipid "boy bands" were everywhere you looked. Those who preferred music involving actual instruments had to look elsewhere and the internet was not as developed as it is now.
With its often futuristic vibe and heavy use of keyboards, (Michael Kenney returned but this is also the album where Steve Harris started to play the keys himself) Virtual XI is similar to Somewhere in Time. While it is not the brooding epic that The X Factor was, it has some great songs and is a nice demonstration of the band's versatility.
Things get off to a very corny start with "Futureal." This song was written at the height of late-90s paranoia that the internet and online gaming would kill us all. That, combined with Blaze's dead serious vocals, make the song impossible to take seriously. Still, the riffs and solos are fun and some parts are surprisingly evocative of the very early Paul Di'Anno era of Iron Maiden.
"The Angel and the Gambler" is one of the most unique, divisive and confounding songs in the band's entire discography. When that organ starts up, you might think you're listening to Boston rather than Iron Maiden. The upbeat story of a wayward rogue approached by a compassionate angel is held up by many fans as the poster child of everything that was wrong with the Blaze era. Some of them really hate this song. Most of it can be attributed to the fact that this is the most infamous example of the "repetition problem." The three-line chorus is repeated a whopping twenty-two times over the course of the ten-minute song.
Sorry, but I love this song. It's feel-good vibe is impossible to resist, the solo is superb, and the repetition doesn't really bother me. It is odd at first, but it's all part of a satisfying buildup that stretches several minutes. Frankly, there's another track that we'll get to later that is much more obnoxious in its repetition. The version of this song released as a single was actually shorted by six minutes, which did little to placate its detractors.
"Lightning Strikes Twice" is all about atmosphere. The instrumental work in the song is exceptional, creating vivid imagery in the head of the listener. The first half is more about buildup, evoking a darkening sky. Then everything kicks into high-gear. The centerpiece of this track is a blazing solo by Dave Murray that actually sounds like lightning. Really creative, impressive stuff.
The epic, emotional "The Clansman" is easily the best song on the album. It is considered the definitive Blaze vocal performance and still a favorite among fans. During the 90s, the Scottish struggle for independence in medieval times became prominent thanks to movies like Braveheart and Rob Roy. Steve Harris, who gets the sole writing credit, does a phenomenal job evoking the beauty of Scotland and the passion with which these medieval warriors fought. In an album with some odd pacing choices, the structure of this nine-minute epic feels just right.
"When Two Worlds Collide" is decent, but never really becomes all that interesting. It starts as a literal science-fiction tale of a planetary collision, but later uses the title as a metaphor for how differing cultures can come into conflict. "The Educated Fool" fares better. It's a very thoughtful, progressive song about how even the most intelligent person never really has all the answers. It also boasts some captivating riffs and a great middle section.
I'm happy to defend "The Angel and the Gambler," but when it comes to "Don't Look to the Eyes of a Stranger," the band is on its own. This song is very long and very repetitive. It seems to be about how the world feels a lot more dangerous when you have a child, but honestly, without all the repetitions the song's actual lyrics probably fit on a napkin. Still, even tiresome Maiden songs typically have fine guitar, bass and drums work and this is no exception.
The album closes on a surprisingly somber note with "Como Estais Amigos." The Falkland Islands War is probably not familiar to most Americans, but it will be for English citizens old enough to remember the 1980s. The United Kingdom and Argentina squabbled over who exactly owned tiny hunks of rock off the South American coast and numerous soldiers on both sides perished becuase of this pissing contest. Written by Janick Gers and Blaze, who had a friend who fought in this conflict, the song reaches out to the people of Argentina and urges both nations involved to commit to "no more tears." It's sad and powerful and makes ideal use of Blaze's low range.
Overall Strengths: Each of this album's eight tracks is very distinctive, and the best ones are full of emotion.
Overall Weaknesses: The album can feel slight when compared to the gravitas and massive size of The X Factor. The repetition of phrases in some songs can get really problematic for some listeners.
The Angel and the Gambler
Lightning Strikes Twice
Como Estais Amigos
Next: Big reunions ensue and the band kicks off a new decade with "Brave New World."
Thursday, September 1, 2011
The X Factor (1995)
This is where everything changes for Iron Maiden. Aside from the arrival of new singer "Blaze" Bayley Cooke, the difference between Fear of the Dark and this album represents the largest and most drastic style change in the band's history. The foundation for all the band's future material is laid here.
Most people expected the departure of Bruce Dickinson to mean the end of the band altogether. All this was also happening during the era of grunge, meaning that Steve Harris and the others had to answer obnoxious questions from music journalists about whether or not metal was still relevant. Fools, everyone knows you can't kill the metal! Still, Iron Maiden had the odds seriously stacked against them so it's pretty amazing how good this album is. Defying all expectations, The X Factor is a huge and powerful album with eleven great songs. The overall tempo of the music is slower than what Maiden fans were used to, and often began with lengthy, gentle introductions. Thematically, it goes into some very dark places, with songs about war, rage, depression and adaptations of some well-known cynical works of art.
I think this is seriously one of Maiden's best albums, but it won't ever get the respect it deserves. A huge part of the fandom never forgave Blaze for not being Bruce. Even now, idiots on YouTube will make claims that "Blaze has NO range." This is obviously bullshit - Blaze is a baritone where Bruce is a tenor, so what they mean is "Blaze can't hit the same high notes as Bruce." This is true, but honestly tenors like Bruce (and me) have an awful hard time with the kind of low notes Blaze hits in songs like "Fortunes of War." Part of the resentment had less to do with the content written for Blaze and more with live performances where the differences between the two singers became an issue regarding older songs. One time, Blaze was even spat on by a fan for his rendition of "The Trooper."
Still, Maiden fans who aren't whiny little morons will be very pleasantly surprised by The X Factor. It blows away the last two albums and charts an exciting new course for the band.
"Sign of the Cross," a massive 11-minute epic about the Spanish Inquisition, lets you know right away that this album is serious business. Opening with a Gregorian-sounding choir, this song boasts great riffs, furious solos, loads of atmosphere and a chorus perfectly tailored to Blaze's range. The structure is almost identical to a very early Maiden epic, "The Phantom of the Opera." Both start with some verses and choruses and the final chorus is separated from the rest by a huge instrumental section. This song conjures up an amazing amount of pure menace and listeners will probably be glad they weren't alive during the Inquisition.
"Lord of the Flies" is based on the famous William Golding novel of the same name, and its dim view of humanity is perfect fodder for this album. God knows Golding's thesis about the tribal nature and brutality of children has been well driven home by school shootings and the persistence of brutal bullying kids experience while growing up. This song is reasonably popular within the fandom for its exotic riff and catchy chorus, plus the lyrics display an acute understanding of the book's themes and symbolism. Steve's English teacher was definitely doing a good job. I don't think it's one of the stronger songs on the album, but that's not an insult with an album like this one. I do really like the sing-along part before the last chorus, though.
Blaze teamed up with the band's other relatively new member, guitarist Janick Gers, to write the masterful "Man on the Edge," a blistering song that I think can stand with some of Iron Maiden's finest material. It's tough not to relate to the story - a man going through some tough times encounters a lot of bullshit in one day and just...snaps. The lyrics chillingly state that the protagonist's violent rage is "a glimpse of the future." Hard to argue with that. Has the quality of life for your average person gotten better or worse since 1995? All the instruments are in top form and the solos are great. No wonder this song remained a live favorite for many years after the album came out.
"Fortunes of War" is one of two emotional, slow-moving dirges on the album that deal with post-war trauma. If classics like "Run to the Hills" or "The Evil that Men Do" gallop, this song marches. It's definitely not in any hurry, but it's power will sink in after a few listens. If I have any complaints about this song, it's that I wish it was easier to sing along with. Blaze hits some seriously low notes during this chorus. Oh well, just my limitations as a tenor.
Don't be fooled by the very soft, gentle introduction to "Look for the Truth." After about 90 seconds of building tension, this song just explodes. It never gets especially fast, but it is seriously epic. The song is one of Blaze's better vocal performances - he does a great job with the intro and his "Oh-oh-ohs" are infectious. Lyrically, it's one of The X-Factor's only tracks that is at least a little optimistic. A man summons up his courage and faces his worst fears in an effort to find the "truth" about himself and perhaps the world around him.
"The Aftermath" is the album's other lumbering epic about the horrors of war. The two songs are probably a little too similar, and listeners may have a hard time telling them apart at first. Still, there are differences. While "Fortunes of War" did not specify any particular war, this song mentions mud, rain, barbed wire and mustard gas, suggesting World War I as a setting. In terms of lyrics, I think this one comes out ahead. Aside from detailing a soldier's individual suffering, it asks tough questions about the world as a whole. "After the war, left feeling no one has won." It's really heavy, but honestly a song with this kind of theme should be. World War I would prove to be a very fertile subject for Iron Maiden...just wait until we get to the Dance of Death entry.
After that comes the tear-jerking "Judgment of Heaven," a deeply moving song with mysterious lyrics. It paints a frank picture of depression and regret, but I'm not sure it's meant to bring down the listener. The riffs are actually upbeat, Blaze lets out a few triumphant-sounding yells and the light synth in the chorus evokes hope. I just have never been able to figure out if the "judgment" the narrator is waiting for will be a good or bad one. Maybe he doesn't know either. Still, this is a very powerful song...the kind that can make a huge difference to a troubled listener if he or she hears it at the right time. As one internet commenter puts it - "I hear this and I know I have to go on, no matter what."
"Blood on the World's Hands" is the only song on the album that clunks a little bit. It chastises the world's most powerful nations for being indifferent to the suffering in lesser-developed countries, but the in-your-face lyrics and Blaze's scolding delivery bring it dangerously close to unintentional humor territory. That said, there's plenty to recommend about it. Steve Harris pulls off a very impressive acoustic bass intro, and the song as a whole has an effective apocalyptic vibe.
Iron Maiden and Apocalypse Now is the match proposed by "The Edge of Darkness," and damn they go well together. This song does a great job conjuring up the iconic images of the film - If you've seen it, it's hard not to imagine helicopters against the sunset of Vietnam or a man slowly rising out of a pool of water in the dark. The lyrics encompass the film's plotline nicely and even incorporates dialogue from the film. Check out Blaze's uh, interesting, pronounciation of "extreme prejudice."
"2 A.M." is a bleak, beautiful song that might be too much for some listeners. Unlike "Judgment of Heaven," there's no hint of hope to go along with this tale of depression and the futility of life. The solos on this song are probably the album's best - they do an amazing job conjuring up the despair in the lyrics. Probably not a song that would work very well live, but truly sad songs often have a lot of beauty in them and that's definitely the case here.
The album's final song, "The Unbeliever," is hard to digest at first. It's a pretty progressive song with a lot of unusual rhythms thrown in. The narrator has lost his religious faith and it's unclear whether he actually misses it or not, but I get the sense the song is highly personal for Steve and Janick, who wrote it. It's got a nice middle section with great drumming from Nicko and the chorus is absolutely blistering. The band seems to be aware of its power, since the chorus is repeated a great many times. An interesting ending to a complex album.
Overall Strengths: A great album made even more impressive by the adversity faced by the band during this time in their history. A very consistent set of tracks filled with emotion and creativity. Picking only four tracks to recommend was tough.
Overall Weaknesses: I'm not sure if this is necessarily a weakness, but the album is very different from what Maiden fans are used to and can be a lot to take in at first. This one requires a lot of patience to appreciate.
Sign of the Cross
Man on the Edge
Look for the Truth
Next: The experimentation continues on "Virtual XI."