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Metal Curmudgeons: Iron Maiden - Part II

by MetalMike & Sargon the Terrible



Piece of Mind

MetalMike: Piece of Mind, Iron Maiden's fourth album, released in 1983, was my first true heavy metal album. I was on the lookout for music heavier than AC/DC, Van Halen and KISS and I bought Piece of Mind strictly because the logo font and cover art looked like nothing I'd seen before. I actually put it aside after listening once because it was too heavy and fast. I clearly wasn't ready for it, but that soon changed and once I warmed to it, I played the album almost non-stop until their next album was released. For me, the first album I hear from a band often sets the bar and subsequent albums I obtain, whether new or prior output, don't often top it. That is not the case with Piece of Mind, which is my least favorite among the first five the band put out.

Let me start by saying this is the first truly consistent Maiden album. Their post-NWOBHM sound is firmly in place. There are no garage/DIY elements like on the Di'Anno albums and none of the split personality complex The Number of the Beast possesses. It is a remarkably consistent record in sound and songwriting despite increased contributions from Dickinson and Smith, though, to be fair, Bruce probably contributed quite a bit to Beast but couldn't take credit due to his contract with Samson, his former band. This album contains one of the best songs Iron Maiden ever wrote, "The Trooper." Driven by an amazing riff, Steve Harris' signature galloping bass and Dickinson belting out the passionate and evocative lyrics about the Crimean War, this song has been part of their live set for nearly 40 years, and I'd ask for my money back if I attended a show that didn't feature it. Steve Harris has always loved to give movies, books and TV shows the metal treatment, and he does an admirable job with Frank Herbert's Dune on "To Tame a Land". If you've ever read the book, which is the epitome of "dense," you know that it is no small task to distill it down to 7 minutes and 25 seconds, but it works remarkably well. Now comes the hard part for me. After those two songs, there is a precipitous drop in the quality of the songs. After taking on Dune, and stories like The Phantom of the Opera and cult TV shows like The Prisoner on previous albums, we get "Where Eagles Dare" which is based on the melodramatic novel by Alistair MacLean, later turned into a melodramatic movie starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton. It's an OK song and I like the riff and pacing, but it can't rise about the source material. Other adaptations include the Dickinson-penned "Revelations," a song with slow, baggy verses weighing down a much better middle section, and the absolutely pointless "Quest for Fire," once again based on a movie, this one a crummy '80s vehicle of interest mainly for teenage boys as Rae Dawn Chong runs around naked a lot. And don't get me started on the opening line, "In a time when dinosaurs walked the earth," which is stupid because dinosaurs went extinct 60 million years before anything remotely human walked this planet. This song, along with the exceedingly odd "Still Life," are aggressively bad and painful to sit through. Other songs like "Flight of Icarus" or "Die with Your Boots On" are average at best. The only song that has gotten better with age is "Sun and Steel." I initially felt like this was a nuisance track on the way to "To Tame a Land" on my cassette version of the album, but today I really enjoy the energy and insanely catchy chorus.

There you have it. Iron Maiden's fourth album is a good heavy metal album, one a lot of bands would love to have written. When held up to Killers or the best stuff on The Number of the Beast (to say nothing of its follow-up), however, it is clearly the weakest by far of the band's first five years.

Sargon: I came to Piece of Mind after I had already heard Powerslave, and so you can imagine how that went. I haven't even listened to it for a long time, as when I reach for a Maiden album it tends to be Somewhere in Time or The Final Frontier–not this one. It has to be said that after the meteoric success of The Number of the Beast the band was not in an enviable position with the follow-up, as anything they did was going to be held to a really high standard. In one album they had gone from a noisy garage band to the vanguard of the NWOBHM sound, and they were no doubt under a lot of pressure.

I am surprised, listening to this again, at how much development they did with their songwriting in the year or so between the release of Beast and this one. With the addition of drummer Nicko McBrain the lineup had solidified, and wouldn't change again for over a decade. This was the period of Maiden's greatest success, popularity, and creative power, and so it is surprising that they signaled their arrival with an album that is not any better than this one.

Let me just mention the cover art here–which I would say is my least favorite Maiden cover were it not for the Blaze Bayley albums. It is actively ugly, with a flat, piss-yellow color palette and not enough contrast to make the design pop at all, not to mention the composition itself is flat and boring. I hate it so much.

The album shows off a much more solidified sound, with all the extraneous shit left over from earlier incarnations cleanly jettisoned. The guitar sound is dialed-in, the mix is actually professional, and all the players are on their game. This is the Maiden sound, and the band would spend the next ten years perfecting it before they felt any need to change it up.

There are some good songs here, though it has to be said that the only enduring classic is "The Trooper," which has remained on their set list ever since. It has that great riff, and the sing-along chorus that doesn't even have any words. It's a quintessential Maiden song. Other songs don't fare so well.

You have songs that are not-as-good, like "Die with Your Boots On"–which is trying to be "The Trooper" and failing, and you have "Flight of Icarus," which has a good groove but doesn't go anywhere with it. Then you get the boring songs, like "Where Eagles Dare," "Quest for Fire," and "To Tame a Land"–songs that have some good musical ideas but draw them out too much and don't have enough going on. But at least they are not down in the steerage with inexplicable stuff like "Revelations," "Still Life," or "Sun and Steel."

On this album Maiden have clearly figured out what they are trying to do, they are just not hitting it yet. You can hear a lot of ideas here that will come to fruition on later albums, and in a lot of ways this is like a dress rehearsal for Powerslave.

Powerslave

MetalMike: Where I bought Piece of Mind because of the cover and fell in love with it because the music was so different from anything I had ever heard, for the release of Powerslave, I was ready. I knew from reading the magazines of the day (Hit Parader, Creem) that it was coming, but the exact date was not something I was aware of. I must have called the local record store a dozen times in the days leading up to it finally arriving and I bought it that day. I have never been so excited for a new album, and I don't think I've ever been that excited since. With that kind of anticipation, it seems almost impossible that Powerslave could have met my expectations, but it did more than that, it blew them away.

Do we even need to talk about what might be their most iconic song, the album opener "Aces High"? How many live shows has this amazing song opened? 1000? It truly captures what those of us where weren't there imagine what those pilots must have felt when the air raid sirens went off in terms of nervous excitement and the knowledge that they stood between their country and the enemy. "2 Minutes to Midnight" was the lead single and I remember hearing it on the local radio station's metal show prior to the album's release. I loved it then, but it hasn't held up that well, yet remains an OK song. I liked "Sun and Steel" from Piece of Mind, Bruce's first ode to his love of fencing, but "Flash of the Blade" annihilates it with better riffs, better vocals, better everything. It seems like everything on Powerslave is a better version of something that was on Piece of Mind. "Powerslave" is a biblical/historical track more focused and grander than "Revelations" and, of course, my favorite Iron Maiden song of all time, "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is a perfect adaptation of Samuel Coleridge Taylor's poem and doubles down on Steve Harris' treatment of Dune with "To Tame a Land". Only the instrumental "Losfer Words" seems out of place and is kind of pointless. I think with some decent lyrics this could have been a decent song as the riffs aren't bad.

Powerslave is my favorite Maiden album, bar none. Even the weak songs are better than a lot of bands' best stuff. Everything clicked from the music to the lyrics to the imagery. It doesn't hurt my feelings toward this album that I saw Iron Maiden twice on the supporting tour (which would be immortalized with the Live After Death album). I am probably biased but it is an indisputable fact this is one of the best Iron Maiden albums of all time.

Sargon: This is one I can't argue with. It is incredible to me that the band had come so far so fast. Powerslave was released a mere sixteen months after Piece of Mind, and only four years after the debut. The amount of songwriting advancement that took place in that time period was immense. Some bands take decades to get this good, and most never do it. That the same noisy, crude band that bashed out "Prowler" was now producing metal classics like "Aces High" is frankly amazing.

One thing here is that the production has been absolutely nailed. The guitar sound is warm, textured, and perfectly mixed. The rhythm section is dialed-in, and that upfront bass always makes it sound like proper Maiden. Bruce has gotten even better as a singer, and this time a big difference is they have gotten the backing vocals down cold, and the mix on the instruments and especially on those backing vocals makes this sound really professional for maybe the first time. The sound has so much more personality and depth than on any of the previous albums.

And the songs. "Aces High" is an absolute classic, "2 Minutes to Midnight" is the perfect chaser, with the darkest lyrics on the album. "Flash of the Blade" sports one of the best riffs they ever wrote, and the title track has that chorus you will never forget, even if it's not flashy. There are some weaker tracks here, like the rather out of place "Losfer Words," the weak "Back in the Village," and the overlong "The Duellists."

"Rime of the Ancient Mariner" gets a lot of ink, and I think it is probably Maiden's most successful epic, but it's not really as good as its reputation. It drags. There are parts that go on too long just to ram in the plot points, and while there are some stellar moments, I think it could have been half the length and been better for it.

But even with some weaker parts, this was clearly the best Iron Maiden album to date when it was released, and it set a very high standard for musicianship, production, and songwriting that fortunately the band was entirely up to maintaining for the rest of the '80s. Powerslave is the first Maiden album I can call definitively good. For a lot of bands this would be a high point, but this band was just getting started.

Somewhere in Time

MetalMike: Even though we could pick nits about which songs are the best or which ones aren't as good, with Piece of Mind and Powerslave, our opinions seem generally aligned. Now we move to Maiden's sixth album, 1986's Somewhere in Time. I don't remember being as all-consumed with the release of this one the way I was with Powerslave. I remember knowing it was coming, but whether it was some kind of "Maiden fatigue" after playing Powerslave a million times, seeing them twice on the supporting tour then listening to Live After Death half a million times, or because my tastes were moving away from mainstream metal, no matter how good, I just wasn't as excited. I still picked it up the day it was released, as I recall, and I'm sure I popped it into the car's cassette player on the way home from the record store. I was well acquainted with "Wasted Years" as that was the advance single and terrestrial radio played the crap out of it (we didn't have cable in '86 so if there was a video, I never saw it). In my opinion, this might be the catchiest song Maiden have ever written and it is an earworm that I will take to the grave. "Caught Somewhere in Time" and "Heaven Can Wait" are also solid, upbeat Maiden numbers, nothing unusual but Side A averages out pretty good, but there was something bothering me that I couldn't put my finger on right away.

Now Side B is a different animal. You've got the throwaway Dave Murray, every-other-album contribution in "Deja-vu" nestled among epics "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" and "Alexander the Great," plus the esoteric "Stranger in a Strange Land." "Alexander" is trying to be grandiose but is actually turgid and unexciting while "Loneliness" is probably the least interesting topic a heavy metal song has ever been written about. "Stranger" has a cool lyric, but the music is flat, and Bruce sounds like he's forcing some emotion into the song that just isn't there. I went back to Side A and what was bothering me became apparent; the lack of creativity and repetition in the songs. The phrase "Caught Somewhere in Time" is repeated six times every time the chorus comes around and in "Heaven Can Wait" we get that line repeated eight, eight and a whopping sixteen times before the song ends. It's like Harris and Smith had no idea what to do when the choruses of these songs came around so decided to repeat the title until people couldn't stand it anymore. There's also the length of the compositions, with only one song ("Deja-vu") coming in under five minutes. Looking back, this is where Maiden's fascination with padding out songs far too long by repeating lyrics and riffs begun, a habit that has hamstrung almost every album since the second Bruce era began in 2000. Like those later albums, Somewhere in Time has plenty of good ideas but plenty of needless repetition and pointless running times. I wanted to like this album when it came out and I still want to like it today, but it is never not going to be dull and repetitious to my ears.

Sargon: And yeah, here we are going to differ, because I think Somewhere in Time is probably their best album of the '80s, and only Seventh Son comes close to it. The opening riff of the sort-of title track sets the mood perfectly, with that harmonized bend and the production that is again a big step up from their last album. This is definitely a slick-sounding record, and some people no doubt find it too slick, but I think it perfectly matches the Sci-Fi themes and the polished songwriting. "Caught Somewhere in Time" launches the album on the perfect note with a song that is in every way a quintessential Maiden song.

"Wasted Years" also gets some flack for being too commercial, but Maiden have always had that DNA in them, and every album has a song that sounds a bit too accessible, and let's be honest, it's just the fact that this is their "road song" that gets people down on it. In terms of composition, energy, and catchiness it is easily one of their most iconic works, and it has a really stellar, classic solo.

You would think that on a Maiden album it would be time for a filler cut, but "Sea of Madness" is not that at all. It features the heaviest riffs on the album, complex lyrical structure, and a really hooky chorus. The rhythm section really gets a workout here, bringing a lot of depth to it and driving it forward. This is just an overlooked song on this album.

"Heaven Can Wait" is a definite weak spot, as the lyrics are kind of crammed in and the chorus falls into that Maiden tendency to repeat things, which would not come off so badly here if the chorus on this song was good, but it's just kind of meh.

"Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" gets a lot of bullshit because of what it's about, and it's not my favorite Maiden song lyrically, but the riffs are gold, and the chorus smokes no matter what the words are. The verses are heavy, and even though Bruce is once again cramming too many words in, the power he conjures up makes it work and carries it. It may be hip to bash on this song, but the music here is first-rate. I mean, listen to those harmonized riffs and leads. Has anyone ever done it better?

For me the centerpiece of the album is "Stranger in a Strange Land," with a pretty much perfect combination of great riffs, technical complexity, songwriting depth, and hooky vocal melodies. The rumbling bass that drives the song through both the more percussive sections and the moodier verse structures, the shaded chords, the energy–it's all so good. The story of a man lost in the arctic provides a gloomy atmosphere, and it's one of Bruce's best vocal performances on the whole album. Adrian Smith's guitar solo is absolutely iconic, breaking from the expected sheer speed to add a lot of detail and texture. One of the band's all-time best songs.

"Deja-Vu" is a weird one, as it has a lot of energy and some hooks, but it is—perhaps intentionally—too repetitive. It's the one song on the album I often skip. "Alexander the Great" is a memorable epic, even if it is not as good as it wants to be. I think it's a testament to the high the band was on at this point that they can make a song this ponderous really come alive. The main riff is pure gold, and the thumping rhythm section carries you through, but those verses are like reading from a textbook.

It's beyond dispute that Derek Riggs completely outdid himself for the album artwork. He set a standard that no other Maiden album would ever be able to measure up to. It's futuristic, retro, and so completely '80s all at the same time. There is so much detail worked into the background that it is worth sitting down and reading about it with a big copy and seeing exactly how much insane detail and fistfuls of references he crammed in, all while simultaneously creating a rich and iconic image.

The production on the album is maybe the best they ever got, as it is clear and clean, but it has so much depth and warmth to it. It's a rich, textured analog sound, and one of the few Maiden albums I have heard on vinyl and the one that really demands it. There is so much tube-amp life in the sound, it's like a transmission from another planet. Heard on an analog stereo on good speakers this album is transformed from a great album to an all-engulfing experience.

Discussions of Maiden in the '80s pretty much boil down to bickering over whether this one or Seventh Son are better, and while you could come down either way, I really think I have to give Somewhere in Time the palm.




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