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The 1980s are widely considered to be the decade of glory for Iron Maiden; seven albums of varied brilliance, the last of which, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, was arguably the most epic and progressive. However, the arrival of the 1990s also saw a complete shift in Iron Maiden’s career: Adrian Smith left, the keyboard-based atmosphere was essentially thrown out the window, and the whole epic side of the band essentially disappeared. In the midst of all these changes is No Prayer for the Dying, the first of the widely-considered “decline” albums of Iron Maiden, and while such statements might be correct for the filler-happy Fear of the Dark, this here album is very solid heavy metal with three essential qualities: consistency, purpose and style.
No Prayer for the Dying is essentially a back-to-the-beginning effort from the band, having similar songwriting to the two Paul Di'Anno albums: this album is dirty and rocking, with perhaps even a slight punk influence; it’s a complete reversal of the previous five albums’ evolution. Such a shift in direction is highly commendable because it’s what the band desired, and they followed their artistic wishes to fruition. All the signs are there: the songs are relatively similar in terms of tempo variation as well as length: there are virtually no epics in the vein of the 1980s ones; even Mother Russia is a relatively brief (5:31) song which only has the vaguest resemblance to an Iron Maiden epic.
This album combines the three virtues of traditional heavy metal with surprising talent: catchiness is balanced very well with technical prowess and aggression. The former element is reduced when comparing this to the band’s earlier albums, and that’s essentially what makes No Prayer for the Dying such an externally unattractive album: there are relatively few individual moments that jump to attention here; this is an album that’s truly meant to be listened to as a whole. Its core is the very high quality of the guitar riffs: despite Adrian Smith’s departure, Dave Murray and the newly arrived Janick Gers work wonders with their instruments. Memorably riffs can be found on essentially all tracks, but particular highlights would have to be the title track, The Assassin and the especially the unforgettable Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter (including the superb mid-time solo).
Whereas the previous decade’s Iron Maiden albums relied on increasingly grandiose effects for atmosphere, No Prayer for the Dying sees a return to the dark basics that made the band great in the first place. The atmosphere is sombre and gritty, both musically and lyrically, while the impressive-as-usual artwork follows a similarly refreshing direction. One notable moment is the previously mentioned Mother Russia. Here, the guitars are used to great effect to create a strong atmosphere revolving around the theme of Russia, and the whole effort is a crowning success, despite not being an epic in the traditional sense for the band.
In the end, No Prayer for the Dying’s greatest quality is its consistency. Unlike many other Iron Maiden albums, there are absolutely no abominable tracks here, not a single one which I’d skip. Beginning with the “raw version of Aces High” that is the cool Tailgunner, everything is damn solid here, including a title track which just screams Iron Maiden due to the very recognizable riffs; this might even be called the stereotypical Iron Maiden track, the impressive and memorable (if oddly titled) Public Enema Number One to the addictively catchy Hooks in You (which I kind of hated at first... it’s something of a grower).
No Prayer for the Dying is Iron Maiden’s most underrated album, by a pretty damn wide margin. It simply rocks, having all the qualities that make Iron Maiden great. Many of these songs should by all rights be considered Iron Maiden classics and it’s a shame that they’re usually overlooked. The 1990s might not have been the band’s best decade, what with the terribly inconsistent Fear of the Dark (whose best tracks do however rival and even surpass this album’s) and the two others, but this album certainly isn’t at fault in any way. I strongly suggest this be approached with an open mind, for it’s a magnificently solid Iron Maiden album. It’s not their best, but is pretty much essential.