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Well blow me...this album is underrated. I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised by that though - most good things are, unfortunately.
A strange statement, you may be thinking right now. Piece Of Mind? Underrated? Is he mad? That album is a well known classic!
Yeah, except in comparison to its painfully opposite followup, it is. That album suffers from the reverse extreme - it's overrated, and doesn't deserve it. In fact, for the most part it's total crap. But that's another review.
Still, it's an important factor, one that I feel is often missed in discussing the albums of our favourite enormous heavy metal band, a band so well regarded, known, and praised by damn near everyone from 13 year old teeny boppers(who may as well be emo faggots, and a lot of them probably are)to 68 year old geriatrics with "nostalgia" for the "good old days". Of course, in doing so they often neglect the true Metal Gods, a band that laid down all of the blueprints for pure heavy metal following Sabbath, and without which Maiden would be nothing like they are. Sad as it may be it's true - face it, Judas Priest is not as well regarded by the majority of the world, or even by most metalheads, as Iron Maiden. Is this right? No, and in fact the opposite should be true. But it isn't, because mediocrity draws people to it in droves like a swarm of flies is drawn to a dung heap. Sure, it tastes like crap, and it is crap, but it's sustaining.
Ok, that was a cruel and unfair comparison. Iron Maiden aren't remotely a dung heap. Nevertheless, their music has and never will be as influential or as purely great as Priest's, in my opinion, and hopefully the opinions of everyone with genuine intelligence.
How is this relevant to my review of Piece Of Mind, you may ask? Well, much as I far prefer Priest, I still like Maiden, and comparing their stuff to Priest's albums from the same period is very interesting. What we have here is exactly the reason why Maiden have been more respected everywhere, including a lot of the most extreme fringes of the metal world, than Priest - an album of daring inventiveness, with epic lyrical subjects, brilliant compositions, fantastic musicianship, and awesome performances all around. By comparison, Priest in this time was releasing albums that, while great, were not, for the most part, either as progressive or(and this is the false part)as "properly metal" as Maiden were. Do I agree with this? On the former, yes, but most certainly not on the latter, which is why I labeled it a "false part", because it is. Judas Priest are and always will be more purely and truly heavy metal than Iron Maiden could ever be.
But I digress. The main point is that It's albums like this that have gotten Maiden an almost ridiculous amount of respect and recognition from everyone, even pop critics, as they are daringly progressive and epic, not afraid to go way over the top in order to fulfill this potential while still keeping a tether on the level of cheese to make sure it doesn't go too far. And here, they genuinely succeed at this brilliantly, with only a couple of weaker songs amongst(gasp)actually consistent quality for once.
One of my biggest gripes with Maiden(which I still have)that applies to almost all of their albums, including the "classics", is their level of consistency, or lack thereof. They have a good song which becomes shitty due to some idiotic songwriting, then a brilliant song, then an average one, then a great one, then an overrated good one, then an overrated bad one, then a terrible one, then an underrated good one, and end it with a brilliantly thought out, stunningly epic closer which somehow manages to overshadow the vast pool of mediocrity that fills a lot of the previous tracks on the album. What I just described is, in a nutshell, The Number Of The Beast. Great in places but painfully shitty in others, and still dreadfully overrated.
It seems to me as if Maiden has "wild streaks", or something along those lines, as after an extremely inconsistent yet still widely loved classic, they released this piece(pun not intended)of proto-power metal majesty, which believe or not is completely consistent from start to finish. Even the weaker tracks are as they fit within the pattern properly - there's nothing here along the lines of "Gangland" being followed by "Total Eclipse", or on the original version of that album, "Hallowed Be Thy Name". Instead, the worst of this album is simply boring and not all that great. Not to mention, the first six songs on the album are all good! Wow...for Maiden that is really impressive. If only the same was true of their next record...
"Where Eagles Dare" is a great opener, using all of the classic qualities of the band to its advantage. Starting with an almost pulse-pounding drumbeat by the then new drummer Nicko McBrain, the heavy riffing kicks in soon afterwards, and it's great. At the same time, the album's one significant flaw becomes apparent instantly - the guitar tone. It's quite shitty in a lot of ways, sounding cardboard and fairly thin, and gives the album more of a hard rock vibe than a heavy metal one. This is a problem I've always had with Maiden, that frequently makes me question their metal status - if they are the best example of true heavy metal, then why does even one of their classic albums sound more like hard rock than heavy fucking metal?
One could blame the producer I suppose, but he's Martin Birch, the same chap who produced Killers, Number Of The Beast, and the next five albums after this one, so I don't know why. It's a problem that Powerslave also shares(and which is even worse in that regard), but that Somewhere In Time does not, and then Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son just sounds weird. What the fuck? It's weird. I find it very hard to believe that Maiden intentionally asked Mr. Birch to make the guitars sound shittier than they did on the previous album, or to make everything slightly less loud and heavy, yet that's exactly what happened. Of course, maybe Birch was ordered to make it sound weaker by the record company in the hopes that it would be less abrasive to pop listeners and thus make more money. Considering that it did, that's entirely possible. And despite the fact that Maiden supposedly never sold out during this period(which is a lie anyway), I bet they liked the idea of extra cash, so they thought "fuck it, who cares...we'll be richer. If it's a little less metal, we can just tell the fans that ol' Martin was drunk when he produced it or something! Yeah, that'll work! No one will figure out the real truth!" Sorry, Maiden, but you didn't fool this metalhead.
Sarcasm aside(and I wasn't joking entirely, in fact a large part of me believes that could genuinely be the reason why the guitars sound so weak), this aspect of the album is it's one serious failing, and a rather large one at that, one that made me detract points from the score which would be a lot higher if the album actually sounded completely like a heavy metal album.
In any case, Where Eagles Dare is a good song, maybe even a great one, and certainly more consistent and interesting than "Invaders" from NOTB. However, it's not perfect. Its middle section is way too repetitive. The solo is pretty good, but as good as they are, Dave Murray and Adrian Smith are no K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton. Also, this song isn't very progressive, but it goes on for far too long. However, this is still a very good song and easily the best way Maiden could have opened the album. I must also point out that Bruce's singing here, while great, is far from flawless. Try as he might, Bruce is no Rob Halford. He just doesn't have that indelible "inhuman banshee" quality that Rob is possessed of. To be blunt, he's too ordinary a singer in comparison. Sure, he wipes the floor with the majority of normal rock singers in terms of range and ability, but those two aspects of singing aren't everything, and sometimes a little grit is nice. Bruce has none here at all - he's constantly hitting the high notes, often sounding very cheesy in his vocal acrobatics, and at the same time not extreme enough to transcend cheesiness and go beyond normal human singing.
Next we have a power ballad, "Revelations", a tune penned by Dickinson. Considering Bruce is responsible for co-writing two worthless abominations on Powerslave, and for directly and solely writing another song on that album so terrible that it makes me want to eat my own shit, I don't have all that much faith in his songwriting skills, and it's a telling fact that Somewhere In Time, which is probably the best album Maiden ever released, has no contributions from Dickinson at all. However, in this case, "Revelations" is actually a great song. Very well written, and while it's obviously tailored for the best possible usage of ol' Bruce's vocals(understandable I suppose as he wrote it, but still, metal is not about vocals), it works excellently from start to finish. Very dark, beautiful atmosphere, and some great guitar moments too. Here Bruce's singing is at it's best too: instead of wailing high all of the time, he uses much more of his range; not sounding gritty or anything, but singing both forcefully and softly depending on what's needed. Unlike his over the top performances on Maiden's faster songs, Bruce is completely convincing here, which I think is partly because he doesn't try so hard. Either way, despite its non-metal elements, this is a great power ballad, with a fantastic atmosphere and really is a proto-power metal song in numerous ways.
"Flight Of Icarus" follows, and while a good song, I wouldn't say it's great. For a start, aside from Bruce's fairly good(if, again, slightly cheesy)performance, it's not very metal at all. From the tempo, to the breaks, and that awful, weak guitar tone that is a constant weakness on the entire album, this is more hard rock than heavy metal. It's no wonder it cracked the Billboard 200 - plenty of hard rock has and still does. The only truly metal aspect here, aside from the lyrics and(to some degree)the singing, is the occasional chugging in the riffs, and even that isn't anything special. So why did I say this album is consistent? Well, it still is - even though this song isn't great, it's good, because of Bruce's singing, the fun and easily headbangable riffs, and the solo, which is fairly inspired for once. It really does scream "single", though, which is hardly a very metal quality and one more likely to be seen on a very commercial hard rock or pop album than a metal one. It's not perfect, but it's good nevertheless.
Next up is "Die With Your Boots On", another song with a somewhat hard rock vibe to it, that all the same remains metal for the most part. Here Bruce's singing is far more interesting - for once, there's a little grit to his voice in some of the verses. Also, the riffs are quite aggressive almost and pretty heavy, and the lyrics are very dark. Not much else to say really - another good song, not as good as the first two really but better than Flight Of Icarus.
Now we reach one of Maiden's supposed "finest classics", The Trooper. However, does it live up to its reputation? Absolutely. Yes, this is one of those songs that really is "all that", like Hallowed By Thy Name, Killers, Phantom Of The Opera, Wrathchild, and numerous other classic songs by numerous other bands. Although it's very melodic in a way that could be considered overly commercial, I wouldn't say this is nearly as sickeningly prominent a 'quality' as it is in "Run To The Hills", "Aces High", Two Minutes To Midnight", or even Flight Of Icarus from earlier on this same album. For a start it's quite pounding. It's very fast, and has heavy riffs throughout as well as a good performance by Dickinson that, while again going over the top on more than one occasion, works very well here. I still have a lot of trouble seeing most of the stuff on this album as pure heavy metal, especially with that horrible guitar tone, but this song really is genuinely great. A little overrated, but nowhere near as badly as the shit on Powerslave.
"Still Life" follows, and here we reach a song that is often criticised. Why? I have no idea. If people really allow themselves to be bothered by a humourous intro or the fact that a song that is SUPPOSED to have a long buildup does have one, then they obviously have other issues in their lives. Seriously, this song kicks arse. I find the backwards intro to be quite funny, and the rest of the song just bleeds atmosphere. So very dark, and that's another thing I love about it. It's quite a disturbing subject, about a man who loses his mind and, seeing faces in a pool from his madness, commits suicide and forces his woman to do so at the same time. Bruce's performance here is fantastic - really using the calmer side of his vocals earlier on in the song, and then taking on a great tone for what follows after the heavy guitars come in at around 1.21. The one and only weakness here is the "Nightmares! Spirits calling me!" section, which comes across as cheesy due to its hokey and obvious nature. Other than that, a great and unfairly underrated song.
"Quest For Fire" then starts, and I have to ask myself: Just what is wrong with this song? Why is it so widely panned and even hated? Oh, yeah...the lyrics. They're silly, inaccurate, and cheesy. So what? I'm more inclined to believe it was an intentional bit of fun on Maiden's part when they wrote the part that mixed dinosaurs with humans in the same time period, rather than them actually getting something very important wrong by accident. One of metal's biggest problems is that it often takes itself too seriously, and what I really do like about Maiden is that they don't usually do this. This song may be somewhat silly, but Maiden knows that - they're just goofing around, writing a fun yet epic little song that makes one feel invigorated and inspired. Its simplicity is its beauty - it only has a couple of riffs, but all of the guitaring here is uniformly excellent. In addition, the epic feel created by Bruce's singing, the lyrics themselves despite(or perhaps because of)their cheesiness, and the guitars all add up to create a marvelous atmosphere that really is a proto-power metal sound. If I had to name one song as possibly the first power metal song ever, this would likely be it, silly lyrics or not.
Then we ge to the album's first actual weak spot, Sun And Steel. Not a bad song at all - just plain boring, to be honest. Not much to say...the special part is Bruce's vocals, which are overdubbed during several points in the song to create a choral effect. Very epic and definitely a precursor to power metal vocals. This was done several times before on the album too, but it stands out the most here, I think, although that could be because the rest of the song is so boring and ordinary, which is rather disappointing.
Finally, there is "To Tame A Land". This song is based on Frank Herbert's Dune, an excellent book well worth reading, although I'm not sure if the lyrics here are entirely accurate or not. Either way, this song is excellent and a great and suitably epic closer to the album. From the soft(ish)melodic intro to the heavy chugging riffs that follow, plus all the other numerous sections, this song is close to a masterpiece and has no problems. While not the best of their "epic" songs, it fits this album perfectly. Maiden was going into really grand stuff, but they didn't want to take it too far at this point, with this new proto-power metal style they were playing only starting properly right here, on Piece Of Mind. So, while this song isn't a work of compositional genius, it doesn't have to be - it's great on its own terms.
The most interesting aspect of this song is the history behind its conception and inception. Apparently Steve Harris asked Frank Herbert for permission to title the song "Dune". However, Mr. Herbert's agent apparently said something back along the lines of: "No. Because Frank Herbert doesn't like rock bands, particularly heavy rock bands, and especially rock bands like Iron Maiden". Hilarious. Another example of the "older generation" pooh-poohing metal, supposedly at least. In actuality they probably all love it but just pretend to hate it because it's how they are perceived. Thankfully this didn't become a big controversy like the idiotic "Maiden are Satanists" hype that took off in the US because of Number Of The Beast. Funny nonetheless.
To conclude: this is a very good album, one of the better 80's Maiden records. Its biggest strength, and the thing that firmly keeps in in metal territory despite its weak and hard rockish guitar tone, is this: it actually uses heavy guitar riffs as the basis for driving a song forward. On Powerslave and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, instead of doing this, Maiden would start with a heavy riff, and then subside into a melodic and weak one that one couldn't even headbang to, and vice versa. Instead of staying heavy, like heavy fucking metal is supposed to do, and keep the flowery melodies in the solos where they belong, Maiden planted their sickeningly commercial flowery melodies all over the place, but because they covered it up with "amazing songwriting" and "progressive tendencies", they got away with it and weren't called sellouts and pop-metal wannabes when they rightly should have been. Meanwhile, Priest laboured on producing real heavy fucking metal, and releases such as Defenders Of The Faith, a masterwork of heavy metal if there ever was one, were largely ignored in favour of the likes of Powerslave. It's disgusting, and just goes to show how the majority of people are too stupid to look past mediocrity for genuinely good music, and would sooner accept the former than the latter. That would be bad enough, but let's face it, the majority of people are not metalheads. If an album reaches No.1 on the charts, it's because everyone is buying it, not just metalheads, but rockers and evidently even pop lovers as well. So I could look past that. I can't and won't look past the fact that Powerslave is to this day more respected in the metal world, amongst genuine metalheads, than Defenders Of The Faith is, even though the former is a lame proggy hard rock album with an obscene level of cheese and disgusting poppy tendencies while the latter is a heavy fucking metal album with real balls.
That said, this album is also infinitely superior to Powerslave, yet gets less good reviews on average everywhere than it. Shows you just how easily people accept mediocrity.
Keeping all of that in mind, this album, while not fantastic, is extremely good, with no real weaknesses aside from the occasional overuse of silly vocal acrobatics by Bruce and a guitar tone more suited to hard rock than to heavy metal. It's a great album, underrated as it's stuck between two horribly overrated records, neither of which are as good as it is. If you are a fan of power metal(especially the earlier stuff), epic songs, interesting lyrics, or just good old classic heavy metal, then this album is well worth getting.