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From 1980 to 1990, Iron Maiden released seven studio albums, none of which I think of as failures. Considering how easy it is for bands to fall off the wagon after a decade of such rabid productivity, this is no small feet. More impressive, many would argue that, not only were none of those records failures; contrarily, most of them were masterpieces. The commercial and critical acclaim garnered by such works as The Number of the Beast and Powerslave cemented Maiden’s status as one of the greatest acts ever regardless of genre, and provided a foundation for aspiring metal bands so powerful that the group could be mentioned in the same tier as Black Sabbath in terms of influence.
So, most Maiden fans are probably still puzzled as to why their first couple of records to come out of the ‘90s, No Prayer for the Dying and Fear of the Dark, were such disasters. Personally, I never thought either was entirely horrible, but general consensus says that those records were underwhelming, and even the fanboys agree. In particular, it’s the former most people point to as being the low point of Bruce Dickenson’s first stint with Maiden before he left them in 1994, giving way to the dreaded Blaze era.
What’s most surprising about No Prayer for the Dying is that it’s not particularly different compared to its predecessors. Usually, fans react most negatively to albums that fall victim to merciless experimentation, but that’s not the case here. The record is bred from the same style as every other Maiden album, and sounds like a logical follow-up to what came before it. So, then, why is it that it fell so short of the high expectations established for it, and why is it such a bore? I have several theories as to why.
Theory One: Although the vast majority of the legendary Maiden lineup remained intact for the album (Adrian Smith being the lone glaring omission), they don’t sound like themselves. Dickenson’s voice is as unique as ever, but he seems like he’s struggling. On every outing before, he dominated. There was a live-like energy to his vocals that captured you and drove the songs forward in rare fashion. Here, he sounds bland. The guitars as well, despite providing a handful of unisons in Maiden’s inimitable style, aren’t nearly as powerful as they were as recently as Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.
Theory Two: Because Maiden never strayed far from their comfort zone, they were bound to lose interest at some point. The record reflects that. As mentioned above, it doesn’t sound far removed from what came before it, but it’s less satisfying because it falls short on the intangibles. It’s formulaic, it’s passionless and it’s stale. There’s no better example of this than its closer “Mother Russia”, which epitomizes everything the band’s come to be known for, but is still somehow hugely forgettable. Compare it to other closers like “Hallowed Be Thy Name” and it flutters.
Theory Three: A combination of what’s listed above, the primary reason why No Prayer for the Dying fails is because it’s simply not hooky. The best songs off the record are probably the title track, “Holy Smoke” and “Bring Your Daughter… To the Slaughter”, but they’re still easily forgotten. I remember when I heard “The Prisoner” or “Powerslave” for the first time, the melodies enticing me the same way a drug addict gets enticed by and never forgets his first doobie. There’s nothing remotely close to that on Prayer, so why invest time in it, especially when the instrumental work and performances aren’t very good either?
Experience has taught me that there are two types of bad albums: Those that annoy you and those that bore you. In this case, the album falls into the latter category. It’s a collection of average Maiden compounded against average Maiden, the group’s already-present penchant for the monotonous rising to unbearable levels. It’s not a horrible effort from them, but it’s not an interesting one either, and it would go on to mark the outset of an eight year stretch of studio albums that only got bleaker as the ‘90s unraveled.