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"Killers" could be seen as a transition album for Iron Maiden. Although the band had a relatively firm grasp of their galloping sound since the debut, Paul Di'Anno's punkish style and image had a pretty significant impact on the way Maiden carried themselves. "Killers" indeed picks up where the self-titled debut left off, but nothing is done with the same sense of sincerity and excitement. Perhaps "Killers" was needed in order for the band to finally opt out of their ties with Di'Anno and move forward, but we have here a record that falls under a terminal case of 'second album syndrome'. Iron Maiden's signature sound is here, but the magic certainly isn't.
Looking back on my fond memories of the debut, Maiden may not have had the degree of sophistication in their sound and lyrics as they are known for today, but, as the towering "Phantom of the Opera" would testify, they were capable of great things, fusing raw energy with technicality and pomp likely influenced by the progressive rock of the decade past. The idea of moving one step forwards, and two steps back seems to apply here. Although there is a slight progression towards a grittier heavy metal sound, the aggression and intelligence have been siphoned out. "Killers" puts all of its best tunes at the front; although "The Ides of March" functions as a simple, anthemic intro to the record, its martial rhythm leaves a greater impression than most of the songs here. "Wrathchild" has become a bit of a fan favourite, and there's no doubt that it takes the dubious prize of album highlight. Steve Harris' bass licks on "Wrathchild" are some of the best of his early career, and though Di'Anno's performance throughout the album feels generally inferior to his vocals on the debut, he executes some incendiary wails. "Murders in the Rue Morgue" follows up "Wrathchild" quite nicely, delivering a faster pace more indicative of the album as a whole. After that, the songs begin to blur together. Iron Maiden deliver many of the same tricks each song, and though it is made a worthy listen for their consistent tightness as a band, the songwriting lacks the excitement and distinctiveness most of us have come to expect from this band. The one exception later in the album is the relatively long "Prodigal Son", which actually ends up feeling like an unwelcome change of pace for the album. It's as if Maiden suddenly decided to toss out their metal direction in exchange for a painfully watered down prog rock style. Di'Anno's vocals notwithstanding, "Prodigal Son" sounds like something Rush could have done on "Fly By Night", then decided to toss away.
The first two Maiden albums are usually seen as being apart from the rest, if only because Bruce Dickinson had not yet entered the fold. Paul Di'Anno is a great frontman with a charismatic delivery, but his vocal work on "Killers" lacks the precision and ballsy guts it sported on the debut. His performance is decent, but he favours the 'charismatic' angle of his inflections far too much over the more melodic aspects here. As a result, DiAnno's vocals still feel larger-than-life, but there's not a single vocal melody on the album that really sticks, even after several listens. In short, the worst thing that ever happened to "Killers" was the fact that it was being expected to follow one of the best heavy metal debuts ever. There is still much potential in Iron Maiden's style- which remains powerful and exciting- but it's a tough sell to say that the album is really worth checking out for anything more than the fact that it's Iron Maiden. Luckily, it wouldn't be long before the excellent "Number of the Beast" was released under the vocal guidance of Brucey, but considering the sort of artistic success Maiden had with Di'Anno with their first record, it's pretty difficult not to feel disappointed.