Friday, October 21, 2011
The Final Frontier (2010)
This album makes a good companion for a long car trip. At a massive 80 minutes, the (currently) last album in Iron Maiden's career is the most dense and complex of them all. As with A Matter of Life and Death, it takes numerous listens to fully appreciate the intracacies of each track. However, it's less grim and serious than its predecessor, closer to Somewhere in Time and Virtual XI in its varied offerings and overall futuristic vibe. It's very impressive work, even though it can sometimes feel like the density of the music comes at the cost of an emotional connection.
Earlier in Maiden's career, Steve Harris was asked how long the band would last and he quipped that "we'll stop at number 15." This is number fifteen (and it has the word "final" in the title), but Steve told the fans not to take that comment seriously. But this is the fourth decade the band has released albums in...and many of the songs deal with death, the afterlife, and an uncertain future. I hope that more work will come, but if it doesn't...this isn't a bad note to go out on.
"Satellite 15...The Final Frontier" is a two-part song, and the first half defies all expectations. An industrial-sounding, downright weird introduction is almost guaranteed to make listeners ask aloud, "This is Iron Maiden?" It still proves to be quite effective, with a dizzying bassline and thundering drums. Once the second half gets underway, it sounds more like traditional Maiden with burly riffs and blazing solos. The lyrics depict an astronaut who has become stranded with no way to contact help. He knows he will die in his small craft and realizes that the "final frontier," which often refers to space, is actually death, a realm which will forever remain a mystery to mankind until we arrive there ourselves.
Bruce Dickinson described "El Dorado" as "a song about all the economic crap that's been happening." Comparing the mystical lost city to the bullshit promises of ethically-challenged bankers and brokers, this song is a welcome takedown of the unscrupulous crooks of the Wall Street world that anyone in "the 99 percent" can probably appreciate. It kicks off with an angry-sounding explosion of metal and follows up with a menacing riff similar to the one from Heart's "Barracuda." The mischevious lyrics, from the point of view of one of these characters, are full of amusing zingers, but the last verse draws the most blood. "There is no easy way for an honest man today, which is something you should think on as my lifeboat sails away." These bastards trick you, make their money, and then leave you to starve...and nobody will help you, least of all the government.
This song won Iron Maiden their first Grammy Award (for Best Metal Performance), but to many metal fans it was the equivalent of Martin Scorsese winning a Best Director Oscar for The Departed while his 1970s classics went unrecognized. The band had been nominated before (for the song "Fear of the Dark" ), but it's also worth noting that the Grammy Awards didn't even have a category for Metal until the late 1980s, when most of Maiden's "Golden Age" was done. Better late than never, I guess.
The band once again revisits the horror of war with "Mother of Mercy," a grim tale of a Blackwater-esque mercenary suffering in the midst of some terrible destruction, learning the error of his ways as his life is about to end. It's a solid track with some really powerful moments, even if the lyrics take a left turn into religious matters in the second half of the song. It's not as coherent as the band's other examinations of spiritual conflicts - I still can't figure out what the protagonist means when he says he doesn't "hold with bad religion." The high chorus is audibly hard on Bruce...he's starting to sound like a man who has been singing heavy metal for 30 years. Just don't tell him that - I have a feeling he's going to keep it up until he drops.
The ballad "Coming Home" is very evocative of its subject matter, with an opening riff that conjures up images of flight. Written by Bruce, who is a licensed pilot, this is a poetic, beautiful ode to the freedom that comes from flight and the bittersweet feelings of returning home. The lyrics are just awesome and full of striking images, and the instrumentation is pretty complex without feeling overly complicated to listen to. A nice song for driving at night...and if any of us are lucky enough to fly our own plane, it probably would work even better for that.
"The Alchemist" is this album's fast and fun Janick Gers track, boasting a lot of similarities to "Man on the Edge." Based on the myths surrounding the Elizabethan-era British occultist "Doctor" John Dee, the catchy riffs and video-game vibe deliver a lot of enjoyment. It's refreshing that the guys in the band are still such nerds; most of the fans wouldn't have it any other way.
"Isle of Avalon" is a moody, slow-paced epic that sounds like a combination of a few other Maiden songs. Most of it resembles the middle section of "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son" (the song, not the album). The chorus is a bit like "The Pilgrim" from the last album, with its sustained high singing. However, as with "Mother of Mercy," it starts to sound like Bruce is just a tad over his head when it gets to the highest notes. While I do like it well enough, it feels like one of those songs that doesn't quite earn its nine-minute length. The lyrics play with Celtic imagery and mythology without really congealing into anything memorable. I feel like it might have worked better at six or seven minutes instead.
The haunting "Starblind" could pass as a sequel to "The Final Frontier," since it concerns a man who has just recently crossed over to the other side. What he finds is that none of Man's earthly conceptions of the afterlife were even close. This song may win the award for Iron Maiden's most dense, literary lyrics ever - a high school English class could spend hours dissecting its layered commentary on humanity's foolish assumptions about powers greater than our own. Musically, it's a classic example of a "grower." I didn't think I cared for it during my first few listens of the album...but the more I heard it, the more I appreciated its ethereal atmosphere and superb guitar work and it became one of my favorites on the album. The instrumental section starting at about five minutes in is some of the most epic, stunning work Iron Maiden's ever done...it's not uncommon for me to rewind the track numerous times to hear it over and over again.
More proof that Iron Maiden can make any subject matter epic and emotional comes with "The Talisman," a breathtaking story of the pilgrims who fled Europe for Plymouth Rock. You may never look at that part of history the same way again. The extended acoustic intro is distractingly similar to "The Legacy," but this song ultimately proves to be a very different beast. Once it gets going, the song rollicks ahead with relentless guitar and sublime vocal melodies. The solo here is the best coordination of the three guitarists I've yet heard - they all come together to evoke vivid images of a ship struggling against the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, it's truly incredible. What makes it all come together so well is the lyrics, which take on a tragic heroism in the emotional climax as the narrator succumbs to scurvy just after seeing the shores of the New World and knowing his companions will be able to start a new life. This is easily the album's best song and it's satisfying to know that Iron Maiden can still put together a masterpiece like this after fifteen albums of material.
"The Man Who Would Be King" is a good long song sandwiched between two better, longer songs. This is another track that takes a while to appreciate and improves with several listens. The guitars get quite a workout, with several excellent riffs and a complex middle section that sounds downright psychedelic. The guitars glide all over the place while Nicko seems to be enjoying an extended drum solo. I suspect what makes it stand out less than the songs before and after is that the lyrics are pretty vague - I have no clue if there's any connection to the Rudyard Kipling novel (or the movie adaptation) of the same name.
If The Final Frontier turns out to be Iron Maiden's last album, "When the Wild Wind Blows" is a fitting grand finale. Go back and listen to "Prowler" and marvel at the progression from that simple piece of classic metal to this 11 minute epic. The story seems to have been inspired by "When the Wind Blows," an obscure animated film about an old couple preparing for a nuclear attack...though the story ultimately goes into a very different direction. The Gallic-sounding melodies add a touch of tenderness to the story right away, and the instrumentation is superb. About four minutes in, there's one amazing sequence where after some particularly moving lyrics, the solo sounds like the guitar is actually breaking down and weeping.
This emotional roller-coaster of a song has a very surprising ending - the old couple in the movie did indeed have to endure a nuclear explosion, but in the song they poison themselves in anticipation of the disaster and it is revealed there was no nuclear attack coming at all, just overblown predictions from television news. The topic of the song is ultimately alarmism in the media, which is certainly worthy of discussion, but I can't help but wish the song had adhered closer to the film and delved into the horrors of nuclear holocaust. Perhaps the band had enough of that with "Brighter Than A Thousand Suns," and decided that the "wild wind" of fear and paranoia was, in its own way, just as dangerous.
Overall Strengths: This album is absolutely packed with intelligent, complex music and rewards multiple listens. More often than not, the lyrics are brilliant.
Overall Weaknesses: While not without some powerful moments, it doesn't quite hit the emotional highs of the two albums before it. Not all the songs justify their length.
When the Wild Wind Blows
Next: No more albums (for now?), but we will bring this series to a proper close with...lists galore!
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
A Matter of Life and Death (2006)
This album made it overwhelmingly clear that the "post-reunion" Iron Maiden no longer resembled the 1980s incarnation of the band. It was closer to the late 90s era, but it was not quite that either. With the exception of the first track, A Matter of Life and Death has a consistently grim atmosphere and the experience is a little similar to listening to The X Factor (which is ironic, because the next album is kind of like Virtual XI). Filled with songs about war, death and hypocrisy, this album is said to draw on the band's memories of growing up during the Cold War in addition to anxiety about the sorry state of the world in 2006. Nice to know it would get so much better, right?
Critics loved this album, but the fandom reaction was not quite as enthusiastic. The band had left behind most of their interest in catchy riffs, opting instead to further embrace the progressive elements they had been exploring for a while now. The result is a very dense album that is impossible to fully appreciate with one listen. It takes quite a while to appreciate the nuances in each of these massive tracks, particularly a trio of songs I call "the three epics." Huge and powerful, these songs are the highlight of the album and are so overwhelming that there is a big risk of overshadowing the rest of the tracks. Fans will find much to admire on this album as long as they can accept that the 80s are long gone.
"Different World" is a fun song that really has no business being on this particular album. It's nimble guitar and impassioned vocals have made it a fan favorite, but the upbeat tone sticks out like a sore thumb if you've heard the rest of the album. I don't know if Iron Maiden's ever made it more obvious which song is meant to be a single...though to be fair, the other single on this album is a downright weird choice. I don't want to be too hard on this song, as I do find it pleasant enough to listen to...but I can't help but feel a message of "everybody has a different way to view the world" is kind of pedestrian by Iron Maiden's standards.
"These Colors Don't Run" is the real thematic beginning of this album. The song explores the reasons why people sign up to fight in wars. Why subject yourself to such incredible risk? Many potential reasons are mentioned, but the chorus suggests that the dominant one is pride. This is a driving song with an especially affecting middle section. Incidentally, "these colors don't run" is also what Bruce shouted while brandishing a British flag at Ozzfest 2005, when a public feud between him and the Osbournes led to the band being pelted with eggs during one of their performances. Actually, he said "these colors do not fucking run from you asswipes," but for some reason the band opted not to make that the song's official title.
"Brighter Than A Thousand Suns" is the first of the three epics. This is a brilliant, absolutely towering statement against nuclear weapons that employs various time signatures that I'm not sure I can fully explain without a music degree. The lyrics are filled with powerful imagery as man's capacity to destroy is pitted against God's capacity to create. "Take at look at your last sky," the song tells an unfortunate civilian, "chances are you won't have the time to cry." Did I mention that there are also references to Dr. Strangelove, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the theory of relativity? Yeah, it's that kind of song. Bruce's shrieks ring with righteous indignation and the instrumental work is nothing short of superb. For a band often pitted against religion, this song has a very spiritual message in the end - nuclear weapons are a crime against God.
"The Pilgrim" is a classic Janick Gers track, short and sweet. Extending the album's themes back a few hundred years, the song explores the motivations of "knight templar" types. Will violent service in the name of God cleanse a person's past transgressions and ensure them a seat in Heaven? These warriors thought so. What always impresses me about this track is the vocals. They are consistently high through most of this song, and it's pretty impressive that Bruce can still pull off a track like this when I can end up winded after singing along in the car.
The Allied invasion of Normandy is even more iconic for World War II than the Battle of Paschendale is for World War I, so I had high hopes for "The Longest Day." Unfortunately, this song is weaker than you would expect an Iron Maiden treatment of June 6, 1944 to be. The first two minutes or so are promising, but over the course of the lengthy song, the band relies way too much on repeating the phrase "How long, on this longest day, till we finally make it through?" It's a powerful line the first time, not so much after nine or ten times. "The Angel and the Gambler" may get the most shit for being repetitive, but in my opinion, this is a much better example of the risks associated with this pattern. I'd expect an eight minute song to have the time to paint a more detailed, vivid picture of this legendary battle like "Paschendale" did. Just repeating that line over and over again is a huge waste of potential. A good song, but it should have been great.
The lyrics in "Out of the Shadows" are surprisingly sparse, but the song still winds up being quite moving. It's a solid power ballad, though unlike "Different World," it does not feel out of place. If anything, it's a much needed touch of gentleness before we descend into the pitch black world of the remaining four songs. The lyrics seem to be about the circle of life, perhaps about how the beauty of birth can offset some of the grief that comes with death. This is not a power ballad just for the sake of having one on the album. The tenderness in this song is genuine and that's what makes it stick in the mind of the listener.
"The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg" is one of Iron Maiden's oddest songs, and easily the strangest choice for a single. This moody, mid-tempo song is known for dividing the fanbase. Personally, I've found it to be a grower. After a few listens, the song's virtues became more apparent and I realized how impressive the brooding atmosphere created here really is. We knew that Iron Maiden could play their instruments fast and furious, but this is a nice demonstration that they don't lose their touch if they slow things down some. The lyrics completely perplexed the fandom until Nicko let it slip that the song is some kind of origin story for Eddie himself. Who knew that genial-looking zombie had such a tormented past?
The blistering "For the Greater Good of God" represents the second of the three epics. Boasting great guitar work and haunting lyrics, it's a deeply affecting indictment of how religious extremists continue to bring suffering to the rest of the world, even though most of their core texts emphasize peace and goodwill. In the case of Christians, the song invokes Jesus and notes that his sacrifice was meant to end suffering, not to become an excuse for it. The title of the song ultimately becomes sarcastic, as if a mindless rationale like that could ever justify war and bigotry. The song is ultimately very mournful, and the middle section combines fantastic guitar playing with light keyboard accompaniment in a way that might wring tears out of you when you least expect it. If I have any complaints about this song, it's that I wish the "please tell me now what life is" section wasn't repeated quite so many times, but in the end that doesn't do much to dull the song's power.
Can a song be too dense? I'm not sure, but I do know that I've listened to this album many times and I still don't know what I think of "Lord of Light." A chilling story of demonic temptation, I feel like I notice something new in this song each time I hear it. Last time it was the phenomenal drumming section in the middle, who knows what it will be next time? The placement of this song isn't ideal - it's right between two songs that more memorable and emotional - but there's clearly a lot to appreciate about its complexity.
"The Legacy" is the third, and best, of the three epics. If "For the Greater Good of God" was driven primarily by grief and sorrow, this song is powered by pure righteous anger. You wouldn't know it right away, though. It kicks off with a haunting acoustic introduction that goes on for some time, following by an apocalyptic guitar/synth riff that lets you know that shit is about to get real. The amount of menace and power in that riff needs to be heard to be believed. The lyrics are directed at some older politican who "had us all strung out with promises of peace, but all along your cover plan was to deceive." Now that this manipulative bastard is about to die, our narrator doesn't have any problem telling him that his life has made the world a worse place to live. Can we get this played at Dick Cheney's funeral? Sorry, maybe I'm being an asshole, but this song is just about perfect both musically and lyrically. It sums up nicely the major problems with our world today and also manages to be a showcase for all of the band's members. The album could not have ended on a stronger note.
Overall Strengths: Atmospheric and powerful, this album is a nice demonstration of the band's continually evolving talents. The "three epics" are all brilliant.
Overall Weaknesses: Some of these songs don't justify their huge length. It's hard to maintain the standard set by the "three epics."
Brighter Than A Thousand Suns
Out of the Shadows
For the Greater Good of God
Next: For their final (to date) album, the band goes even bigger (if less ominous) with "The Final Frontier."
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Dance of Death (2003)
This album shows us what Iron Maiden is truly capable of. After Brave New World was greeted with near-universal acclaim from critics and fans, the band was emboldened to start pushing themselves. The progressive instincts that developed during the Blaze Bayley era serve the band very well and the result is an epic, emotional, almost overwhelming album made rich by its contrasts. The songs take us into very dark territory at times, but there is also a thread of perseverance and self-discovery that frames the album and leaves the listener feeling stronger. Not every track is great, but the best ones are simply phenomenal.
The reception wasn't as unanimous as the last album - the largesse was simply too much for some critics. The fans seem to like the actual music but will never get over the laughable cover, which looks like a blooper reel from some first-generation CG film from the late 80s. One thing I've learned about Maiden fans since becoming involved with the music is that the artwork on the album covers is serious business. Still, we're here to talk about the music.
At first, I didn't think I cared for "Wildest Dreams" all that much. It felt slight and simplistic compared to the complex beasts we'll talk about later. It grew on me when I began to notice the excellent guitar and drums work and started to appreciate the important role it plays in the album as a whole. It begins the "subplot" of self-actualization that will reach its apex in the last track. Plus, the solo nearly burns a hole in your CD player and Nicko's drumming is superb.
"Rainmaker" is a stunning, beautiful little song. The indispensable Dave Murray (who has a co-writing credit with Bruce and Steve) comes up with a classic riff and his blazing guitar work masks the song's tenderness. The lyrics pay tribute to an unknown person who has made the narrator not only feel better about his own life, but given him motivation to go out and make the world a better place. The effect is likened to a cleansing rain, which fills up "the cracks in our lives." It's deeply romantic without even a hint of cheesiness. What would you rather be told by your significant other? "Oooh baby baby baby baby" or "you are the healing rain that fills up the gaps in my life?"
I can't say that it's Iron Maiden's very best work (a serious contender for that title is coming soon), but "No More Lies" has meant more to me personally than any of their other songs. With its gentle Celtic intro and understated first verse that gradually gives way to primal shouts of defiance, this song has been hugely inspirational and fostered a great deal of creativity within me. Standing on its own, it still is pretty impressive. The lyrics depict a man facing a major life change (probably death, but this is highly open to interpretation) and is sick of all the world's....well, lies. Fans sometimes deride the repetition in the chorus, but on this song I find it essential. The passionate shouts of "No More Lies!" each followed by a burst of notes, creates a very powerful effect. If I have any complaints, I wish it didn't adhere quite so closely to the typical structure of the Steve Harris epic and that maybe the parade of fierce riffs and solos that make up the middle section was broken up by some more vocals. That aside, this is a song with great power that I can definitely say I've felt firsthand.
The burly, swaggering "Montsegur" would have fit in perfectly on Powerslave. Sporting muscular riffs and a huge operatic vocal performance from Bruce, the song evokes the "Golden Age" material and has become a fan favorite. So what is Montsegur? It's a fortress in Southern France that was once a stronghold for the Cathars, a religious sect that was demeed heretical by the Catholic Church and ultimately conquered during the Crusades. The song skewers the hypocrisy of "knight templar" types, who always seem to ignore the compassionate tenets of the religions they are so eager to fight for. These people used to lay siege to castles, now they blow up buildings and protest military funerals. They sucked then and they suck now.
"Dance of Death" is a playful epic with truly stunning instrumentation that makes a pretty compelling case for the often discussed link between classical music and metal. Steeped in the voodoo culture of the Caribbean region (the lyrics even mention the Everglades), the band conjures a spooky tale of a poor sap who stumbles onto an undead ceremony. A distinctive melody is repeated many times to represent the actual dance while our nervous narrator continues to give his thoughts. The three guitarists go for broke on the solos and Steve adds some texture with prominent strings. The vocals, while mostly great, have a few weak points. The line about "lifeless figures" always sounds out of tune when I hear it, and Bruce randomly sings along with one of the riffs near the end, a bit which always struck me as dinky and unnecessary. It's instantly memorable, and one of the most ambitious tracks on an already ambitious album.
The next two tracks threaten to derail the album a bit. "Gates of Tomorrow" relies heavily on an exotic riff that sounds almost identical to the one in "Lord of the Flies." The lyrics seem to express ambivalence about humanity's advancing technology, but honestly it's hard to care that much. The verses are quite plain, though it does sport a decent chorus. It's certainly not bad, but feels like quite a drop in quality after the last couple of songs. "New Frontier" is the only song in Maiden's catalogue where Nicko McBrain gets a writing credit, and the lyrics reveal a striking difference from the worldview of the other band members. Nicko expresses his disapproval of cloning, with the rationale that only God can create life. Usually Iron Maiden has contempt for this kind of regressive religious argument, but the others are good sports and give it their best. Instrumentally, it's not bad at all and, as you might expect, the drums are quite good.
If you've been following this series, you know that Iron Maiden has put out a lot of great songs. The next one is beyond that. "Paschendale" is special. If any song could dethrone "Hallowed Be Thy Name" and claim the mantle of Best Maiden Song Ever, this is it. This is the band's most sweeping and emotional tale of the horror, pointlessness and unspeakable tragedy of war, with the infamous World War I battle as its setting. Adrian Smith and Steve Harris have co-writing credits for this one, with the former offering his elegant guitar composition and the latter adding his usual emotional depth. It's perfectly structured, beautifully written and above all, deeply moving. It doesn't need the anger of "2 Minutes to Midnight" to make the case that war is a horrible crime against humanity - all it needs is the detailed description we get here.
The slow drumming at the intro is actually Morse Code for "S.O.S." The first third of the song, which alternates between quiet verses and very loud bursts of sound, are meant to mirror the rhythms of war. Waiting, followed by horrifying violence, and then more waiting. The solos here are just larger than life. You hear them and you feel all the tragedy of the war. Even if the lyrics were awful, they could drive home the message by themselves...but the lyrics are brilliant too. The chorus - "home, far away, but the war, no chance to live again" has a double meaning. A literal death will obviously keep the soldier from seeing his home again, but having to kill another human being is also a spiritual death. "The sound of guns can't hide the shame, and so we die at Paschendale." That's the real, heartbreaking, point of this song. Even if you manage to survive the battle, there's a good chance the person you were is gone forever. The ending predicts that the ghosts of the dead, "friend and foe," will gather together in peace. Without the phony rationales for war, there's no need for them to be enemies.
Scattered around the internet are several stories of combat veterans (not necessarily from WWI, there aren't many of them left alive) who break down in tears when they listen to this song. Others have reported that it's starting to be used in a few history classes. The superlative quality of this particular song could take over this entire entry, but I'll end it by hoping that the song's legacy is a long-lasting one (hard to tell with only eight years since its release) and that at least some people out there take its lessons to heart.
Following that song is a daunting task indeed, but "Face in the Sand" fares well. Steve ably uses strings to create a haunting atmosphere for the intro, shortly before Nicko bursts in with thundering double-bass. Fun fact: this is the only Iron Maiden song where he uses two bass pedals. The lyrics have a rueful cynicism - the world is getting worse, and a lot of folks in politics, media and fundamentalist circles seem to be enjoying it a little too much. The use of "sand" in the title likely refers to the Middle East, the origin of civilization itself and perhaps also the place where its destruction will begin.
"The Age of Innocence" provokes a very complex reaction from me. It has nothing to do with the iconic novel, but is about Steve Harris's grievances with the British judicial system. The disgust was likely inspired by the case of Tony Martin, a man who was put in jail for shooting thugs who broke into his house. Europe tends to go easier on its criminals than America, but I think folks in the USA could also sympathize. After all, convicted criminals in jail have better health care than a lot of well-behaved citizens. While it may be a worthy subject for discussion, the lyrics have all the subtlety of a frying pan to the face. One section where Bruce has some kind of growling-rapping thing going on is just bizarre. It has a nice chorus, but there a lot of style changes and overall the song feels very inconsistent.
Thankfully, "Journeyman" will cleanse your musical palate and send you home happy. Surprisingly, the guitar in this one is totally acoustic (though a solid electric version does exist) and the soothing nature of the song ultimately makes the defiance of the chorus ("I know what I want, I'll say what I want, and no one can take it away!") even more authoritative. It's a song about freedom and more importantly, the freedom to create and comment on the world through art. The empowering theme of the album's first three tracks returns and gives the listener hope in spite of the tales of war, injustice and discord that have preceded it.
Overall Strengths: This massive album reaches stunning emotional highs and the majority of the tracks are great. It was hard to pick just four to recommend.
Overall Weaknesses: When you have material like this, anything that doesn't measure up becomes glaring and this is the case with a few songs.
No More Lies
Dance of Death
Next: The band goes to a dark, fearful place with "A Matter of Life and Death."