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Widely considered a letdown after the popular Seventh Son of the Seventh Son, No Prayer for the Dying often gets dismissed as a lackluster album. Partly it is a return to root, of sorts. It's not a return to the musical roots of the band itself - there are no traces of the punky aggression of the first two albums here - but to the roots of the members' musical influences. In contrast to the soaring metalness and over-reaching theme of Seventh Son, on No Prayer for the Dying we find the band going for a more rockier sound with a jumble of songs with no real links to each other. It is funny that Adrian Smith left the band prior to this album to record hard rock with his own project, A.S.A.P., while Maiden moved towards that direction as well.
This is very evident with songs like Holy Smoke and Hooks in You (written by the aforementioned Smith prior to his departure and finished by Dickinson). While they don't sound rooted in their time, it's clear with the rise of grunge that this kind of change of pace wasn't the right one if Maiden were looking to score big sales. Both of the aforementioned tracks are simplistic hard rock songs, but the single, Holy Smoke, is pretty much the epitome of that. It's got about three riffs, four if you count the intro melody as one, and two of them, chorus AND verse, are primitive, a chord per bar wallflowers. Fortunately Dickinson's gruff vocals, catchy lines and biting lyrics more than make up for the insipidity of the riffs. You won't even notice it, unless you pay particular attention.
The song also clearly exhibits the greatest downfall of this album: lazy songwriting. The band lost a member who used to write a great deal for them, especially lately, and now they are throwing everything they got into this album (hell, Bruce had to sacrifice one of his solo songs for it) and sometimes it shows. The song structures are uniform except for the title track and Harris's usual epic closer, Mother Russia. The choruses rely strongly on repetition and the songs on Dickinson's vocal lines to move the songs forward and keep the listener interested. Of course, there's a catchy riff or two for a song, maybe substituted for a lead in some and while they make the songs easier to differentiate from each other, they don't bring enough variation and the songs end up being quite samey. With almost all of them being just a tad longer than four minutes doesn't help.
Maiden seem to have taken an interest in social matters with the lyrics dealing with matters like Televangelism, things (metal) getting scapegoated to gloss over more important matters, religion, the fall of Soviet Union. Of course, they always write from their own bias and point of view that may end up being rather silly, but you take things as they come. The vitriol that Dickinson eschews in Holy Smoke is tangible as is the desperation in the title track and the want to fight even in face of certain defeat that is present in Public Enema Number One. So the shift from Fates Warning to The Assassin seems rather off. After four songs with emotional delivery and lyrics that seem more or less passionate, we get a cheesy rocker about a killer for hire that Dickinson sings with the conviction of a first time karaoke participant. It is followed by three songs with little seriousness to them, but at least Dickinson's performance picks up on Run Silent, Run Deep and Bring Your Daughter. It feels like the band was going through the motions in a hurry. Not much thought went into the arranging of the album nor into the songwriting itself so it is no surprise listeners feel a little letdown by it. But songs like No Prayer for the Dying, Public Enema Number One or Mother Russia makes this album worth a spin every now and then.