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In many ways “No Prayer for the Dying”, which was fraught with the unenviable burden of being the follow-up to the monumental “Seventh Son of the Seventh Son”, has never gotten a fair shake. First of all, writing an album that would match the sheer genius of its predecessor was probably a hopeless endeavor right from the start, particularly considering that Adrian Smith, the band’s talented second guitarist and an integral part of Maiden’s songwriting team since “Killers”, had just left the line-up and been replaced with Janick Gers, who was a competent substitute but couldn’t match Smith’s songwriting prowess. The fact that Steve Harris insisted on recording the album “live”, effectively curtailing Martin Birch’s influence on the production process and resulting in a rather substandard overall sound, certainly didn’t help matters.
To this day, “No Prayer for the Dying” is still the one Iron Maiden album – perhaps excluding Blaze Bayley’s ill-fated stint behind the mic – that is most maligned by fans and critics alike. Even band mastermind Steve Harris has often stated that the album was a mistake and that the band had gone in the wrong direction, mentioning Queensryche’s epoch-making “Operation: Mindcrime”, which had made a huge impact on the metal scene just two years earlier, as the album the band should have used as a model and blueprint instead. Then again, we’re talking about the same guy who has repeatedly admitted to not being fond of “Somewhere in Time”, one of the band’s most revered and perhaps best albums, because of (among other things) its supposedly “dated” sound. That just goes to show that a band’s opinion of a certain album does not always coincide with that of the fans, although in the case of “No Prayer for the Dying”, it mostly does.
As far as the actual music on “No Prayer for the Dying” is concerned, there isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been mentioned a thousand times. It is undeniably different from most of Maiden’s other albums, opting for a far less epic and much more direct, “hard-rocking” approach, but comparing it to some of the milestones in Maiden’s discography is the wrong premise anyway. To those who can keep an open mind, however, “No Prayer for the Dying” may turn out to be a surprisingly entertaining and rewarding affair. It’s true that the lyrics are probably the corniest and most clichéd Maiden have ever written: you usually don’t expect profanities (such as the infamous “flies around shit, bees around honey” line in “Holy Smoke”), hilarious song titles (“Bring Your Daughter … to the Slaughter”) or satirical excursions into the field of sadomasochism (“Hooks in You”) on an Iron Maiden album. At the same time, these lyrics fit the hard-rocking vibe of the songs while Bruce Dickinson’s altered singing style – his vocals are decidedly harsher, raspier and less operatic than usual – is the perfect way to present them.
In the relatively epic “Mother Russia”, there is only one song longer than five minutes on this album, and even it is a far cry from such monumental, grandiose compositions like “Alexander the Great” or “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”. Then again, who cares when the songs on offer rock as hard and are as much fun to sing along to as, to name just a few, “Public Enema Number One” with its intricate and melodic soloing, the galloping “Fates Warning” with its very heavy riffing or the aforementioned “Bring Your Daughter …” with its amusing yet amazing “wohohoho” choir. Further songs deserving special mention are the thoughtful title track and the opening “Tailgunner”, which is definitely an inferior “Aces High” rehash but a very good song nonetheless. It sometimes seems like those dismissing “No Prayer for the Dying” as bland and unimaginative are the same ones constantly criticizing the band for its cerebral and progressive leanings of more recent years. You just can’t have it both ways, and while “No Prayer for the Dying” is hardly Iron Maiden’s most original effort, it’s hard to find too much fault with an album as consistent and entertaining as this.
Even twenty years after its publication, “No Prayer for the Dying” is still being analyzed way too much when in fact it’s just a no-frills metal record that doesn’t claim to be or pose as anything else. While it should in no way be counted among the band’s best efforts and may not be what most of us expect from an Iron Maiden record, that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed for what it is or that it doesn’t have its rightful place in Maiden’s exquisite discography. On the contrary, it adds another interesting facet and is therefore an asset to Maiden’s extensive catalog, which would not be quite as fascinating without it.
Choicest cuts: “No Prayer for the Dying”, “Public Enema Number One”, “Fates Warning”, “Bring Your Daughter … to the Slaughter”