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Iron Maiden's vocalist Bruce Dickinson's solo career started in 1989 and his first album 'Tattooed Millionaire' (1990) was not heavy metal, after all. Its hard rocking approach must have made a huge amount of Maiden fans feeling disappointed. Four years later, the sophomore album 'Balls to Picasso' didn't much ease their heartfelt pain. So, when the announcement for the release of Mr. Dickinson's third solo piece 'Skunkworks' was made, was there still excessive expectation for a heavy metal album from The Air Raid Siren? I believe there was. But what happened? With 'Skunkworks', Bruce Dickinson wanted to, understandably, try to get away from Iron Maiden sound. Regarding to the producer Jack Endino, Dickinson wanted this to be a more modern-sounding album. Well, they managed to make it sound modern, plus also one bloody far from the Maiden sound and style.
Skunkworks was also the name for the band itself, with Alex Dickson on guitar, Chris Dale on bass and Alessandro Elena on drums. So, this album is a band album, not just another Dickinson solo work (like any of 'em ever totally was?!). Other band members pushed the music towards modern rock, even though Dickinson had some ideas for heavier sounds. What happened, and was there any chance for this to work out?
The unexpected answer is yes, it does work. And at times it works like a dream (this has nothing to do with the fact, that I'm a Iron Maiden fan, and also love Bruce's voice). The easiest way to describe this is to say, that this sounds like British rock, but still very individual at that. The thirteen songs the album consists of are quite different to each other, but then again the band identity is strong. The instrumentalists wanted to show off a bit, so it's all pretty curiously performed, and there's nothing too basic to be heard for most of the time. Anyways, this solidifies the band identity. All of the guitar playing isn't riff-based, but more like open-stringed moody style. The rhythm section is absolutely wild yet tight. Hard sounding bass guitar backs up the wandering guitar brilliantly, with playing the riffs. So, this album was meant to sound as live as possible with the lineup it had.
Since the first time I heard the album, I've tried to compare it to some other artists' works, to find out where it belongs to. I really haven't managed to come up with anything, that would make any sense. The music here has bits of older and newer Bruce Dickinson solo works, that's what is clear. However, this album is not for those, who listen only to metal music and nothing else. This album is for those, who love good simplistic songs and respectable musicianship, and above all, can take in something else than metal music alone. The songs and their moods are varying enough to give a lot of space for Dickinson's broad voice, even though he intentionally left most of his highest singing out from this album. Most of the songs are rockers and for them, my tips are 'Back from the Edge', 'Inertia', 'Solar Confinement', 'Inside the Machine', 'Headswitch' (the simplest, most typical song here) and 'Innerspace'. Whoa, most of them, I see! Well, they just work, even though sometimes there is not so much variety between each other. There are some slower pieces, but they have nothing to do with a thing called ballad. Nor are they beautiful songs, tune-wise, (except for 'Octavia' and 'Strange Death in Paradise' in places) but more like dark and sullen. The two above-mentioned are the better slow songs, and the closer is absolutely epic at times. Epic can be tranquil in its essence, too. The Endino production is kicking and powerful, but still very clear indeed. As with the music, the stylish cover artwork and multifaceted lyrics make this album truly unique.
After all, next time around when a Bruce Dickinson solo album came out ('Accident of Birth' in 1997), all fans of Maiden could at last rejoice the return of The Air Raid Siren. Skunkworks the band always had artistical differencies, so no wonder this one got no similar continuation. In its own, 'Skunkworks' is a fine piece of rock music, and not worth solely for the voice heard on it. It still sounds unique, after 15 years. Oh, at the moment I'm writing this, NASA's Space Shuttle program is running its last flight, ever. Where's the space race going next..? Where's Bruce Dickinson going next?!
(originally written for www.ArchaicMetallurgy.com)