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Metal Curmudgeons: Iron Maiden - Part III

by MetalMike & Sargon the Terrible



Seventh Son of a Seventh Son

Sargon: As I have said, discussions of which Maiden album of the ‘80s is the best usually come down to arguing whether Somewhere in Time or this one is better, and that really comes down to taste. I am on record as saying I think Somewhere in Time is the winner, but Seventh Son comes very close. After the success of its predecessor, this seventh full-length had a tall order to live up to, both in the context of the band itself as well as in the larger metal scene.

Because the scene had changed a lot in the eight years since the debut album in 1980. When Iron Maiden burst upon the scene, there had barely been a scene at all, and since 1980 a tremendous amount of change had taken place. The NWOBHM had passed from present to past tense, leaving a few bands like Saxon and Motorhead still kicking, but most of the rest of them broken up and largely already forgotten. Metal had become a much more Euro/US-centric phenomenon, and waves like Thrash and Death Metal were taking over the landscape once dominated by melodic bands.

And not only had the scene changed, but Maiden had grown enormously in the years since they started. This was their fourth album with the same lineup, and that solidity is reflected in the songwriting. This is a band that had become more and more influenced by prog rock as the years went on, and their songs had largely become longer, slower, and more technically challenging. Some accused the band of selling out, but the truth was the metal scene around them had changed more than they had, and while they had once been on the forefront of speed and heaviness, by 1988 they were long past those days.

This is, I think, the most mature-sounding album the band did in the ‘80s, as it pretty much seems to know exactly what it wants to do and then does it. "Moonchild" is a fantastic opener, because it is a faster, meaner song than you expect, and the evil lyrics are refreshing after the more cool themes of the previous album. "Infinite Dreams" is a song I go back and forth on, as while I feel the lyrics are too dense and awkward, it’s never one I skip, and the melodies are compelling.

"Can I Play with Madness" is the obvious single, and even if the harmonized vocals on the chorus are a bit much, it’s a fucking catchy tune, and I defy you not to sing along. "The Evil That Men Do" is one of the very best songs on the album, with great riffs and galloping speed. One thing I notice here is that Bruce is focusing on his tone a bit more, using his grit and nasality to add character to his vocals rather than just powering out the notes like he did on Somewhere...

The slowdown hits with the title track, as while it’s a pretty good epic, in the middle it has a long, slow break – just like "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" did – and it loses momentum and in some ways the album never quite recovers from that. The song is too long, and spends too much time noodling around. Then "The Prophecy" is another slower, more studious song when what you really want is something to kick your ass. Thankfully then you get "The Clairvoyant," which has great melodies but lacks a really strong chorus, followed by "Only the Good Die Young," which is only marred by sounding a little too much like "The Evil That Men Do."

Riggs’s cover art is the antithesis of the busy, overheated cover for Somewhere in Time and instead creates a cold, impressionistic space with a unified look to the whole piece in a similar way to what he’d been doing since Powerslave. It remains one of my favorite Maiden covers because it looks like nothing else. It stood out then and it stands out now.

This album is pretty much the end result of where the band had been going ever since Piece of Mind. There are more progressive arrangements, a central concept that is more a mood than a story, more keyboards and more technical complexity. It’s a cooler, more measured album than I think a lot of people expected, and it stood in sharp contrast to the nastier, gnarlier sounds then making waves in the underground. I can see why the band felt they wanted to strip things down and get back to their roots for the follow-up, but eh, that didn’t go so well. This remains a high point in Maiden’s catalog and in the metal landscape in the ‘80s overall.

MetalMike: After disagreeing about Somewhere in Time, I’m back in sync with a lot of what you have to say about Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. I certainly wasn’t losing sleep waiting for this one to come out, not after the dullness of the last one and, quite frankly, it didn’t hit so hard back in 1988. It is most assuredly better in many ways than its predecessor but what struck me upon first listen were the things I didn’t like. The sound of this album is far too smooth and measured, like the band is playing behind a wall of sound-dampening foam or maybe compressing the input of the instruments too much. The whole album lacks the edge of Maiden’s early records and, while I will extol the virtues of the songwriting in a bit, I wish there was more energy in the presentation. The progressive element is once again on full display, but it isn’t nearly as dense or stultifying as on Somewhere in Time and I think that has more than a little to do with the return of Dickinson’s writing. He contributed to half of the eight songs and what a welcome return it is.

"Moonchild" kicks ass, even if the smoothness of the production does it no favors, and it kicks off the album in style. I’m going to come back to "Infinite Dreams" in a moment. "Can I Play with Madness" is exactly what you said, the "single" and no, you cannot hear this song and not sing along? "The Evil That Men Do" is a good song, even if the chorus suffers from a bit of repetition. "The Clairvoyant" has one of my all-time favorite Harris bass lines and "Only the Good Die Young" is such a classic Maiden song that gets so little love. It is catchy in the way "Run to the Hills" and "Aces High" is with a great riff and a superb chorus. I don’t mind the title track, though I agree it is overlong. Back to "Infinite Dreams" and its Side B partner in being boring, "The Prophecy." Both songs are slow and dull with clumsy choruses (and Dickinson is not credited with the songwriting for either). The only reason I don’t skip "Infinite Dreams" is the middle part which has something of a pulse, but otherwise both these songs are chaff. The cover is so weird yet so memorable. You can sort of chart Eddie’s journey from newly risen zombie (or whatever the hell he is) to serial killer to taking over in hell to being committed to an insane asylum, jumping into the past as an Egyptian pharaoh then to the future as a Deathlok-style cyborg and it makes sense in a strange, metal way. Then you get this cover with its obscure symbolism and all I could think was "what the hell am I looking at?" I IS memorable, you pegged that.

Seventh Son of a Seventh Son has been a "grower" for me. In 1988, I was looking for harder, faster, heavier music and it seemed like my go-to band for so many years was getting a bit soft. Other bands were working in and around prog with much heavier and more visceral results (Operation: Mindcrime came out the same year). That said, I like this album quite a bit as of today and while it will never equal Powerslave in my eyes or likely ever earn as much love as the first five albums get from me, I think it is a solid and entertaining entry into the Maiden catalog. Oh, and it is probably the last really good album the band has ever made.

No Prayer for the Dying

Sargon: And now we come to the one album that pretty much everyone can agree is not good. I am sure this album has its defenders, but I’m not one of them, and there aren’t many. I can remember anticipation being high among the metal community, people hanging on words from Dickinson saying the forthcoming album was going to be "their heaviest yet," and the general high note metal was experiencing in 89-90. The underground was reaching what would become the greatest level of mainstream exposure it would attain, and there was a feeling that there was no way this would not be the best Maiden album ever.

The band themselves don’t have a lot of good to say about this one. There was a feeling in the band at the time that they had gotten too intellectual and too proggy, so there was a decision made to try and get back to a more "street level" sound with more direct songs and a more stripped-down production. Adrian Smith didn’t agree with this move, and ended up leaving the band to be replaced by Janick Gers – the first lineup change the band had experienced in eight years at that point.

I don’t disagree with the idea that a more back-to-basics album was an idea with merit, my problem with this album is that is kind of sucks. The songwriting just is not there, and the only really memorable song is the opener "Tailgunner," which is trying so hard to be "Aces High" that it’s embarrassing. After that the songwriting falls completely off a cliff, with songs that either make no impression or are just bad. The title track is slow and moody – very much in line with a leftover from Seventh Son. You get nothing tracks like "The Assassin" and "Run Silent Run Deep" which just don’t have any identity or musical ideas. I remember listening to this after all the hype and wondering what the hell had happened. It wasn’t that it sounded different, it was that it wasn’t any good.

The lyrical content, and the general themes and feel of the album are miles off from the epic approach of the past four albums. You get stupid song titles like "Public Enema Number One" and "Holy Smoke" – silly puns and wordplay in place of the genuinely thoughtful ideas we were used to on Maiden albums. Plus you get a song called "Fates Warning" – a band who had released an album about 10,000 times better than this a year prior. Using that as a song title made Maiden look extremely out of touch, like they weren’t paying attention to the genre they were supposed to be part of.

The much-touted "heavy, stripped-down" production sounds like crap. It doesn’t sound raw, it sounds cheap. Heaviness is completely off the table, and it’s laughable if the band thought this would count as "heavy" in 1990. The death metal and thrash waves were cresting at the time, and there were plenty of bands laying down music so heavy it made this album sound like Buddy Holly. Bruce uses a raspy style to try and make this sound tough, but it just sounds terrible. Combine the lazy-ass production with the weak songwriting, and you have what is obviously the worst album the band had done to this point. I can’t say the recording is worse than on the debut or Killers, but by then we knew what the band could do, so this level of effort simply isn’t going to fly.

Here and there, because this is still a fundamentally good band, a few riffs or musical ideas perk things up – the album isn’t completely worthless. It’s just meh, it’s nothing. After the incredible run of albums that led to this point, it was a massive letdown in recording, composition, and style. This was the sound of Maiden dealing with obvious internal stresses, plus the fact that the scene had changed a lot around them. Once they had been the vanguard of a movement and the fastest, heaviest band around, but they had stayed in their niche and the landscape had shifted so far that they had become almost stodgy. No Prayer for the Dying was an obvious attempt to reclaim some of their primacy from younger, hungrier, harder bands, and it failed spectacularly.

MetalMike: We are in agreement that No Prayer for the Dying is Iron Maiden losing their way. I remember not really caring about an Iron Maiden release for the first time in six or seven years as it felt like they were out of touch with how the scene was changing. They certainly weren’t going to go "extreme," but after trading on being a true heavy metal band the trends were catching up with them and on at least a couple of tracks on this album, caught them by their guitar straps.

There are some good things on No Prayer for the Dying. It’s Iron Maiden, after all, it isn’t like they completely forgot who they were. "Tailgunner" is a good song with a decent riff and cool lyrics, even if it is trying to be "Aces High Pt. 2." I like the opening guitar and bass work and the verses are solid, but where "Aces High" has that memorable Bruce air raid siren wail, on this song he just kind of mumbles the title over and over. "Run Silent, Run Deep" is another song recalling something they’d done previously, namely "Where Eagles Dare" from Piece of Mind, and it is about as successful, which is to say not bad, but by no means amazing. The title track is completely forgettable, not what you really want from the song you named your album after, and "Fates Warning" and "The Assassin" sound like tracks that may have been left over from the Seventh Son album. They have that same proggyness to the songwriting and a little different from the rest of No Prayer which is generally much simpler in songwriting and performance, but in the end, sound like actual leftover ideas that needed more work. I actually like "Public Enema Number One" as a song, but it has about the dumbest title Maiden have ever let slip by. It is so out of character. I’m all for trying something different, but trying to be clever and sounding stupid is probably not the way to go.

"Hooks in You" is the obvious "single," but unlike "Can I Play with Madness" and "Wasted Years" it is a horrible song with pedestrian lyrics and a riff that is so hard rock, it could have been borrowed from Def Leppard (that is harsh, but this song really sucks). Finally, we have the Dickinson solo song "Bring Your Daughter...to the Slaughter" which he originally recorded for the Nightmare on Elm Street 5 soundtrack, but the band liked it enough to rerecord as an actual Maiden track. Like "Hooks in You," it has an infinitely accessible melody and vocal line, as soundtrack songs should, which also means it is once again completely out of step not only with where heavy metal was at this time but also with what Iron Maiden were supposed to be as a band. Bring your Daughter...to the Slaughter, but leave her off the album please.

It is fashionable to hate on No Prayer for the Dying, but sadly justified. The band tried to get back to a simpler sound but completely misjudged the leap and ended up perilously close to the commercial hard rock of the day. They also wrote some plain old boring songs, no doubt hindered by the loss of Adrian Smith’s songwriting talents as he left the band early in the writing (and much the same way Somewhere in Time suffers without Dickinson’s contributions) and fans ended up with an album that failed to meet even modest expectations in any way.

Fear of the Dark

Sargon: This is the last album of the band’s "golden age," before Bruce left and before the music landscape changed radically in the ‘90s. It’s a divisive album, because while it is a definite step up from No Prayer, it is still quite different from the sound of the band’s classic era, and still has a lot of influence from Dickinson’s rockier solo works. I still think this is a really good album, and even if it lacks the unified mood and amazing recording of Somewhere in Time or Seventh Son, it has some first-rate songs.

The opener, "Be Quick or Be Dead" sets the stage well, being the fastest, heaviest song the band had ever done. Bruce’s vocals are back in air-raid mode and the riffs and chorus are memorable and will get you singing along. There are other real barnburners on the album, like "The Fugitive" and "Judas Be My Guide" which have really strong hooks and the kind of energy that was a band trademark on their best stuff. These songs sound like what the band wanted to do when they aimed for a more direct approach on the previous album, but couldn’t seem to figure out, whereas here they nailed it. These songs are composed more like early Maiden songs, while still having a lot of polish.

The production is a lot better here, as after No Prayer they actually spent money to improve Harris’s barn into a real studio – or at least a better imitation of one, as it was apparently still not great. Still, it resulted in an improved sound, even if it was not on a level with their classic albums. I mean, if you listen to Somewhere in Time next to this one, there is really no comparison at all. But at least this time the production is not embarrassing.

A lot of this album is made up of songs that are perfectly good, but don’t especially sound or feel like Iron Maiden songs. "From Here to Eternity" is a great stomper, but it almost sounds like a Mötley Crüe song, "Wasting Love" gets flack for being a power ballad, but at least it’s a good one, "Chains of Misery" has a hell of a groove, and even "Childhood’s End" is pretty good, with some really strong melodies.

I mean, make no mistake, there are some dogs on this disc. "Fear is the Key" is dull as hell, "The Apparition" is like all the boring parts of Seventh Son distilled into one song, and let’s not even discuss how embarrassing "Weekend Warrior" is. It sucks so completely there’s no defending it. "Afraid to Shoot Strangers" is a song that gets a lot of positive ink, and the band seems to like it, as it turns up on their setlist a lot, but aside from that cool guitar melody in the middle it doesn’t really do anything. It’s another fussy, overly intellectual song with a baggy structure and too many lyrics.

Of course, the biggest takeaway from the whole album is the closing title track, which would make this album worth hearing even if it was the only good song on here. "Fear of the Dark" is like you distilled all the good parts from Seventh Son into seven minutes of pure Maiden goodness. This song has it all, from a nice smooth intro, killer riffs galore, and one of Bruce’s best performances. The titular line probably gets repeated a few too many times, but eh, this is Maiden, that’s always going to happen. This is a song that’s remained on the band’s live set list ever since, and now no Maiden show would be complete without it, as it’s as much of an essential as "Aces High," or "The Trooper."

After this album, Bruce left, barely finishing the subsequent tour, and the golden age of Iron Maiden was over. From The Number of the Beast to this one, they had cranked out seven albums in ten years – an impressive record for any band – and a high proportion of those albums were not just good, but undeniable classics of the genre. If they had to close out this era, at least they did it on a strong note with a solid album and one of their best songs.

MetalMike: Yup, Fear of the Dark sounds so much better than No Prayer for the Dying, it makes you wonder how the band ever sat around the mixing desk when wrapping up No Prayer and all agreed it was within miles of the bar they’d set for themselves. All the instruments are clear and even Janick Gers is starting to sound like he’s realized which band he joined. Bruce, thankfully, has abandoned most of the crappy hair metal, affected "yeahs!" growls and various bullshit he spewed on the last one and has gone back to being a metal singer.

"Be Quick or Be Dead" is an amazing song, so thoroughly Iron Maiden it is hard to understand how it hasn’t become a live staple. Other songs have aged a lot better than I remember. "Afraid to Shoot Strangers" starts slow but the middle section is pure Powerslave and had me repeating the song often. "Judas Be My Guide" has a great opening riff and excellent vocal lines and the overall epic vibe we’ve come to expect from this band. And after decades of hating "Fear of the Dark" every time I heard it live, I must admit it is a really strong song. The riff is fantastic, Harris contributes one of his distinctive bass lines and it ends an otherwise overall shaky album on a high note. I don’t even mind how "Fear Is the Key" sort of rips off Rainbow’s "Stargazer" and its Middle Eastern melodies.

After those few songs, I find very little to like on Fear of the Dark. "From Here to Eternity" is boring and repetitive as is "The Apparition." "The Fugitive" has an interesting time signature that sounded off to me the first few times I listened but kind of sucked me in but that could have been because I was trying to figure out how Bruce rammed so many words into such a small amount of time. "Chains of Misery," "Childhood’s End," "Wasting Love" and the abominable "Weekend Warrior" contain too much of the hair metal DNA (and Bruce shouting "yah-YUH!" like James Hetfield) from No Prayer.

As you said, the "classic" era of Iron Maiden ended with Fear of the Dark and while it wasn’t their worst album of a nine-album run that can only be described as unequalled, it can’t hold a candle to any of the first five, or even Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. I think this series has proved to be an interesting exercise in where we (mostly) agree (Powerslave, Seventh Son) and where we differ (I like the Di’Anno albums, Somewhere in Time works for you) and at least some of that is probably due to when we first were exposed to the band, with me a few years earlier. Iron Maiden is undeniably a titan among heavy metal titans, and they have released plenty of music post "golden age" but even if the band had never released another album, based on the quality of their initial output there are few groups that even come close.

Sargon: For me, the most interesting thing about this little retrospective has been going back and seeing how much the band evolved over what was really a very short period of time. When I first discovered Maiden, I was like 16 and a decade would have seemed like a geologic epoch, but now it is incredible to me how many albums they put out in that short time, and how much they developed as musicians and songwriters in those few years. Also, you have to think about how much metal as a genre was changing in those days, and how much influence the band had over that. After all, the albums we have been discussing here were massively influential then and remain so now. That’s a huge amount of legacy to pack into a decade.

It’s true that the band has never been the same since those days. They meandered around with Blaze Bayley for a few albums, while Bruce had his uneven solo career, and when they finally got back together, their direction and sound was – and is – quite different. This later era has never engendered the same respect their classic era garners, though I myself think that The Final Frontier remains one of their very best works. Whatever you think of them now, it is a remarkable achievement that the band keeps producing worthwhile music and is still at it after this long, when many other bands have not aged nearly so well, if they have managed to stay together at all. From a bunch of noisy kids in London, Iron Maiden forged one of the longest, most influential, and most remarkable careers in music.




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