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A classic, but not a masterpiece. - 88%

failsafeman, August 27th, 2008

Author's note: Yeah, this review turned out to be much longer and a little more pretentious than I had originally intended, so if you're looking for a review that succinctly describes the music and tells you whether or not you should go buy the album, well, there are plenty of others on the site. If you've already heard the album a million times and want some insight into why it's a classic (beyond "it's, uh...really good, George!"), I try to give some, so read on. Also, the penultimate paragraph contains generalizations for the sake of a point (and brevity), so all you types who like to find exceptions can keep them. Anyway, on with the review.

Iron Maiden. Iron Maiden! What hasn't been said about Iron Maiden? Easily the most well-known and important band of the NWOBHM movement, and consequently one of the most well-known and important bands in all of metal, their impact on the genre is so great that it's all but impossible to imagine it without them. The paltry few that came before, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath the best-known of those, could still be considered a part of rock & roll, and indeed today might still be if not for NWOBHM and Iron Maiden. To me, that particular movement with that particular band perched at its prow like a figurehead represent the birth of Heavy Fucking Metal; not just as an idea or tentative theory or passing trend, but as a full-fledged genre, an important subculture, a force to be reckoned with.

After reading that last paragraph some of you may be wondering how I could give an album I recognize as being so important anything but the highest of scores; it's undeniable that they influenced a shitload of people (fans and bands alike), and left their permanent print on the genre so that it would be impossible to imagine metal without Iron Fucking Maiden. Even if a band sounds nothing like them, you can bet that band was aware of Iron Maiden, and so even the decision to not be like Iron Maiden is still influenced by them in a way. I mean, how in the hell did Iron Maiden do all that? What was so special about them? Obviously something has to be, as it's clearly more than just a case of being at the right place at the right time, though they certainly were. However, despite all that historical significance and subsequent influence, in an album review the album must be judged on its own merits and no others. For much of the album, Iron Maiden's genius shines through like a beacon, lighting metal's way to the future; but occasionally they clearly fall short of that. After all, they're only human, and as with all genre pioneers they were stumbling around in the dark; no one had done this before, so they had only their own mistakes to learn from.

Iron Maiden's brand of NWOBHM is at its best deadly serious and aggressive, eschewing rock's penchant for fun in favor of a dark, violent tone; still, the band takes a more musically sophisticated approach to composition, which separates them from their peers. Steve Harris apparently composed the bass parts first and then worked the riffs up around them, which may contribute to the band's unorthodox, bouncy sound, even when compared to similar bands like Diamond Head or Angel Witch. Also, at times the bass and guitars play close three-part harmonies, as with the opening melody on the title track; I think it's fair to say Iron Maiden invented or at least popularized the oft-imitated NWOBHM dual-guitar lead (the idea of counterpoint in a metal context? Quite possibly). It's certainly true I've never heard anything quite like that bit of instrumental magic in "Phantom of the Opera", and I can only imagine how it must've dropped jaws back then. Really, though, what I get from Iron Maiden is a kind of violence that I haven't heard in the metal that came before them. Sure, Black Sabbath were morose, but to me it seems they sang more about violence and evil than actually epitomized it themselves; the immortal "Black Sabbath" is from the perspective of someone being chased by that ominous figure in black, rather than the other way around. Judas Priest on the other hand were violent, sure, but songs like "Genocide" or "The Ripper" are still slick and clean, as if you're watching a high-budget movie version of violence rather than experiencing it yourself. Iron Maiden, however, put you right there in the rough, gritty midst of things with songs like "Prowler". Thematically speaking it's practically identical to "The Ripper", but compare the lyrics: both are from the perspective of their respective murderous protagonists, but while "The Ripper" is narrated in a fairly straightforward, almost gentlemanly manner, "Prowler" is told using barely coherent stream-of-consciousness rambling, as if you're inside the prowler's head and hearing his repulsive thoughts as he's stalking his victim ("Got me feeling myself and reeling around"), with a much more chilling result. The lead guitars and bass build on the riffs in classic Iron Maiden fashion, practically never staying still; with so many parts going on at once, it lends the song the illusion of barely-controlled chaos which again serves to heighten that violent and gritty tone. Overall, "Prowler" is a quintessential Di'Anno-era song, one of my all-time favorites from the band. The title track is also in this vein, and it's fucking awesome too. The way the main melody builds up with the first guitar entering, then the second, and finally the bass completing it is just fantastic. The chorus is a little disconcertingly upbeat, but it's fun and doesn't ruin the atmosphere, so whatever. I'm going to group the tracks based on similarity rather than album order, so bear with me.

Unfortunately "Sanctuary" is nowhere near as good; it's an upbeat, forgettable rock song with a mediocre main riff made all the worse through extreme over-repetition. Some instrumental parts partially mitigate its sucking, but frankly it displays pretty much none of the elements that make the previous songs so good. It's listenable, but barely. Guess it figures it was a single. And I know it wasn't on the original album, but it has appeared as track 2 on Iron Maiden for over ten years now, so I think it might as well be considered an official part of it (if you're really anal about it not counting, pretend I scored the album higher). "Running Free" is rockish and banal too, though better than "Sanctuary". Yeah, it's the other single. It has some cool dual-guitar leads, and a nice middle section, but that main riff is pretty fucking annoying (not as bad as the one in "Sanctuary", though). These two tracks definitely drag the album down, not because they're incredibly awful, but because they're common, mundane, mortal. On an album like this, they simply don't belong.

"Remember Tomorrow" is amazing; a slow, haunting ballad that occasionally bursts into heaviness during the chorus, and eventually explodes into a fast, upbeat section which totally clashes with the previous mood. However, that dissidence is calculated, and the upbeat mood descends by degrees back towards a final collapse into the morose, resigned, almost doomy atmosphere of the initial sections. It's a little crude, but definitely effective. "The all-seeing eye flickers above us," that bit is fucking chilling. This song also illustrates one aspect in which the Di'Anno era is far superior to the Dickinson era; read the lyrics, you won't have much of a fucking idea about what's going on. Vague and dreamlike events are described and statements are made in an almost impressionistic manner, but it leaves their interpretation more or less up to the imagination; Dickinsonian lyrics however too often read like book reports, with as many factoids as possible crammed into the allotted time. If only they'd written more songs like "Children of the Damned" than "Alexander the Great" with Brucey Bruce! "Strange World" is also somewhat in this vein, except instead of a power ballad it's just a plain ol' ballad. Still, it crafts a strong atmosphere not unlike the soft parts in "Remember Tomorrow", except less dark and more languid and floating. Di'Anno here shows us a rare glimpse of his softer side, singing serenely of what seems to be a dreamworld or perhaps a calm drug trip. The undertones however are rather darker, with the implication in the lyrics being that the protagonist is escaping the shit of his real life within his mind, reminding me somewhat of "Beyond the Realms of Death", but from a different perspective.

"Transylvania" is the first of the signature Iron Maiden instrumentals, and it's quite good. Harris hops around on his bass quite a bit, and the dual-guitar parts are excellent, the solos too. The problem with this one, though, is that I really think it would've sounded better as a song. While I'm certainly no songwriter, I can easily imagine Di'Anno singing over top of certain parts, and why not? He's a great singer, seems a rather odd choice to not include him where he could easily fit. On "The Ides of March" from their next album it wouldn't make sense to include him as it's under two minutes long, just a quick sketch, but "Transylvania" is over four. Oh well, it's still good. "Charlotte the Harlot" is rather upbeat, but much more complex than "Sanctuary" or "Running Free". It's fun, though a little weak at first; still, the dark interlude and subsequent high-octane buildup back to the main theme are fantastic. I'd rate "Transylvania" and "Charlotte the Harlot" in the middle of the pack for this album; quite good, but not quite great.

"Phantom of the Opera" is a fucking classic and deserving of said status. No two ways about it, and anyone who tells you different is a liar or a fool. The aggressive, unsettling mood of the verses and chorus serves to build up to the sweeping, epic bridge which is, simply put, one of the finest moments in all of metal.

Heavy metal has never been about trying to express great truths through precise logic or methodical argumentation; rather, it attacks these truths head-on, on a visceral emotional level. Blunt force trauma, rather than surgical strikes. The genre doesn't seek through years of education or meditation to lay these truths bare for our inspection by translating them into a language everyone can understand; rather, the musicians just transmute their deep emotional responses directly into music, without often letting pesky left-brain interference seep in. This is why most of the great metal singers are far from talented in a classical sense; could you imagine Dio, Halford, Dickinson, or Di'Anno singing opera? Certainly not, as they go for a raw, emotional approach, as had been common in rock & roll for decades. Compare that to highly regimented, disciplined composers of the past, like JS Bach; his fugues are practically mathematical equations, where you plug in a melody or two and extrapolate them and their permutations to their logical conclusions. The beauty is in the symmetry, like a balanced checkbook or a perfect sphere; a left-brained, Apollonian ideal, with a result that can be analyzed and dissected without losing its essential character. My dad for example loved taking out the sheet music for The Well-Tempered Clavier and going through the fugues, following all the different voices with multicolored markers, cataloging the variations on the melodies, not to mention a whole host of other studies. If you tried something like that with metal, it would end laughably; compared on paper to Bach's counterpoint, the counterpoint of "Phantom of the Opera" or even some ultra-techwank metal band seems child's play. Of course it bears remembering that the harpsichord is an instrument almost wholly lacking dynamics and finesse which perhaps forced Bach to take counterpoint further than he would have otherwise (the organ suffers from similar problems, though not as pronounced), but that's not all there is to it. And just look at the sheer volume of Bach's compositions; it's staggering under any light, and when compared to how much quality material even the best of metal bands create over the course of their careers, the disparity becomes almost farcical. Clearly metal is of the Dionysian sort, and though the bands may assail Truth with hot passion, the light that burns bright burns fast. Such passion is unsustainable in the long run, for the vast majority.

Thus one of the great downfalls of metal is that many are unsatisfied with this, and seek to become something more Apollonian; to "intellectualize" metal, with the aim perhaps of being respected by their professors, admired in aristocratic society, becoming something logical and clean and objectively defensible and devoid of that nasty honest human sentiment that the irony-obsessed modern culture so loves to mock. In a sense, these misguided metalheads just want to have their cake and eat it too; metal cannot change so drastically without giving up its essential character. It is, at its core, modern folk music; music by metalheads for metalheads, most often composed by musicians without formal training and appreciated on a deep emotional level by those who are not completely at home in mainstream modern society. For some, metal is cathartic; for others, it is a call to action; and it's probably many more things to many more metalheads as well. Regardless, a unique subculture of sorts has sprung up around it. Can you imagine well-groomed ladies and gentlemen wearing evening gowns and tuxedos sitting politely in a concert hall listening to "Theme and Variations on Iron Maiden's 'Hallowed Be Thy Name'" as performed by the New York Philharmonic? Of course not; the mere thought is ludicrous. Jazz has already partially made that transition, but I cannot see metal going from hot to cool and surviving. That passion and violent energy are a part of its essential character; symbol-laden though the genre may be, it is basically a gut-level negative response to modern existence, and the morose realization that there are few alternatives, if any. That's where I believe Iron Maiden and their NWOBHM brethren were important; Black Sabbath perceived this darkness, this bleak but unalterable truth of reality, Judas Priest developed it a step further: what is "Beyond the Realms of Death", if not the epitome of what I've been talking about? If they are the mother and father, the first of the family to settle in a new country, then the NWOBHM bands are their children, the first raised with metal as their first language. These children possessed a youthful energy, something naive yet cynical, jaded yet hopeful, that I just don't detect in the bands that came before (at least not to the same degree); and this was a new component that is now essential to the overall character of metal. While certainly not the final step in the coalescing of the genre's defining traits, it was certainly a crucial step. Perhaps the most crucial of all.

That is one reason I am incredibly annoyed whenever I see people pointing out any kind of Iron Maiden influence in a later band as something significant and negative, as if every album that fails to reinvent the genre is somehow inferior. This is, of course, ridiculous; am I any less of a reviewer, because I write in English and not a language of my own invention? Though pioneering bands are obviously extremely important to the development of any genre, at the risk of over-generalization I will say that they rarely, if ever, exhibit the best their respective genres have to offer. After all, as pioneers they don't have the benefit of hindsight, and must explore by groping in the dark; Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Manowar, and many other such bands write great songs, but have far from perfect track records even on their best albums. Still, these bands are not mere historical curiosities on the path to progression either, as if they were steam trains or Model T Fords that have served their purposes and now belong in a museum; this attitude is just as odious as the reverse. Great art does not age poorly, and that is exactly what songs like "Phantom of the Opera" and "Remember Tomorrow" are. Of course the music of Iron Maiden is also more developed than that of their predecessors, but these advancements are incidental (as are all truly great advancements in technique). They simply sought to express themselves as best they could, and as they found the tools at their disposal lacking, they had to invent some new ones or new ways to use old ones. It is not the tools themselves or their invention that ultimately deserve the praise, but rather the creations that made the best use of them.