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During the 80's Maiden was getting bigger and bigger. Their true brilliance, however, came from their ability to go further than virtually any of their contemporaries, (with the possible exception of Manowar) with each album expanding their sound while at the same time making it even more commercially accessible than their previous offerings. Every album after Number Of The Beast almost feels like a game of "top this", as each successive record aspired to new heights; Piece Of Mind took the epic elements of the aforementioned album and turned it into an entire album, setting Maiden almost completely apart from the rest of the NWOBHM with its proto-power metal sound. Labels aside, it was indeed far more epic and overblown, yet it worked because of the band's combined songwriting skills, which adds up to one of the greatest combination of musicians ever - something they are known the world over as for a good reason.
But where could they take their sound after PoM, which also topped the charts just like its predecessor? The answer is right here - Powerslave, which took the epic sound of PoM even further, with only two songs here sounding remotely like the NWOBHM. Everything else has a proto-power sound, the same kind of epic storytelling style that Manowar were using at the time - they being virtually the only other band to do so, and much farther from the mainstream than their British "counterparts". In what they did, Maiden pretty much inspired the vast majority of the power metal genre, maybe even more than Slayer did for death metal with Hell Awaits and Reign in Blood, as well as hugely influencing progressive metal and everything element of the genre synonymous with "huge and epic".
...Boy, how opinions change. Not very long ago I was lambasting this album as the worst thing Maiden put out in their entire career. This was mostly due to my own ignorance about both metal and hard rock, but to have called Powerslave a "shitty, poppy hard rock album" was utterly ridiculous. I've heard real poppy hard rock and it is NOTHING like Powerslave. No, Powerslave is most definitely heavy metal. Perhaps not heavy "fucking" metal in the way Priest were and still are, but certainly close and equally as heavy, just not so "metal in your face screaming" like another masterpiece released this year by said metal gods, Defenders Of The Faith. (Which is for another review)
Could the album be called pretentious? If so, you may as well call Piece of Mind, Somewhere in Time and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son the same, if not more so. Either way such a statement would be foolish and incorrect. Yes, it's completely different from how Maiden started out. Does it matter? No, because it is equally as good if not better. The band's songwriting skills were at their peak during this period.
How is it innovative? Well, for one I don't think anyone had written a 13 minute long heavy metal song before this album. And that's just one example - songs such as Aces High and Two Minutes To Midnight are not particularly innovative, but the former is certainly somewhat epic, and the latter great for what it is. Songs such as Flash Of The Blade and The Duellists have stunning middle sections with fantastic guitarwork, and the latter could be considered progressive to a point, while the title track has plenty of everything - heaviness, a clean break, great solos, the works.
There is one slightly weaker song here, but it's not actually bad, simply less brilliant than everything around it. That aside, there is nothing on this album that could be called weak.
As for being epic - well, I don't think this really needs much explaining. Aside from Two Minutes To Midnight and Back In The Village, all the tracks on Powerslave have this sound to one degree or another.
So, onto the songs. "Aces High" is about as good an opener as one could ask for. The first riff is powerful despite not being typically heavy, ditto for the second which makes use of the typical Maiden harmonies, yet it isn't too obvious or anything - the speed and power is there, and in this case that's all that matters. The third riff is heavy. Bruce's performance here, while strong, is still not my favourite from him - when he tries a more subtle approach it usually works much better. Nevertheless his voice has that inner strength about it, which is probably another reason for this song's huge popularity. Whether one agrees with the lyrical subject matter or not is irrelevant provided they can get caught up in the song enough to enjoy it, which I now can do. The chorus is great, the guitar and basswork strong throughout and the drumming excellent. While I would say this song is a little overrated, for the most part it works fantastically well.
We now come to "Two Minutes To Midnight", another of the album's biggest hits. Yet it isn't pop, or even hard rock - it's still heavy metal. Of all the songs here it admittedly does have the most hard rock-ish sound and as the bluesiest riffs, but that's part of the appeal. In a way it's "rock 'n' roll" - not as we define it by the actual term, but basically heavy metal based on a hard rockin' vibe not too far off from said music done around this time, a crushing, down and dirty swagger that's just a bit heavier, lyrically darker, and longer. It also has an interesting middle section, a great main riff and a memorable chorus. In addition, Bruce gives one of his finest performances as a vocalist here, showcasing a grittier, harder style quite different from the "epic singing" he used in the opener and in most of the other songs. Considering the subject matter I'd say this was very appropriate. Either way this is one of Maiden's most beloved songs for a reason: it's mesmerising, it's lyrically intelligent, and it rocks.
"Losfer Words (Big 'Orra) " is up next, and considering it's an instrumental the band does an admirable job keeping it interesting. It starts with some heavy riffing, then some cool melodies appear just before the 1 minute mark. It goes back and forth like this for a while and then ends. There isn't much to say, but it works, especially in the context of the album's epic vibe.
"Flash Of The Blade" is a very interesting song considering its fairly short length. I have no idea why I used to hate this song - because of the clean guitar moments? Either way that whole thing was absurd. The opening riff isn't very heavy but it's good. Then the drums kick in, then the other guitar, and around the 40 second mark it gets both heavy and fast. Bruce gives a very good performance here, sounding very honest about a subject that may seem somewhat silly, but works in this context partly because of his singing. The middle section is one of the best parts of the song, with fantastic twin-guitar harmonies creating an almost neo-classical sound. After going through the chorus a couple more times the opening riff is played again, then the song ends. An excellent song.
One of my most frequent criticisms with regards to Maiden is their lack of consistency between either albums or songs. I used to think this was the case for Powerslave. This was really due to my own misguided beliefs about the album's "metalness", which in turn came from me not having actually listened to it properly. Thankfully I have now realised that not only is Powerslave overall a masterful album, but also an extremely consistent one.
There is but one genuinely weaker song here, and it ain't "The Duellists", which is one of Maiden's greater songs to say the least. Beginning with a drumbeat, it goes into some brilliant heavy chugging riffs which then continue under Bruce's vocals. He gives another great performance. The song's only real weakness is its lyrical similarities to Flash Of The Blade. Musically pretty much everything here is brilliant. The one and only point of contention I have is the "chorus" where Bruce goes: "OHHHHHHHHHH! Fight for the hoonnouuuurr, blah blah blah" which is just a little too happy and cheesy for my tastes, although nowhere near as bad as the chorus of Invaders from Number Of The Beast. Ignore that and you've got another great song. The middle section is amazing, with the first more melodic riffs starting around 1.50 into the song and continuing for three full minutes! This section goes between melodic harmonised (and also ordinary) riffing and great solos played over heavy lower riffs, all of which demonstrate Maiden's fantastic musicianship and key ears for good melodies. It's stuff like this that makes Maiden the legends they are, and that rightly earns this album labels such as "proto-power metal" and claims such as being influential to prog metal. The song finally ends the same way it began. Pure brilliance.
Sadly, Maiden pretty much never made an album that absolutely, definitively ruled from start to finish, hence the oft said "great albums overall, but with some filler tracks". "Back To The Village" is a very good example of such a song. Musically it's actually very good, but compared to the first five songs it just ain't as memorable or interesting. The lyrics are a sequel of sorts to The Prisoner from Number Of The Beast, and really, do such lyrics belong on an album about dogfights, war, swordfights, pharaohs, and sailing ships? To a point perhaps, but they're hardly the definition of epic, or imaginative for that matter.
Musically the song is also pretty nondescript, and the only track here with any significant NWOBHM influence aside from Two Minutes To Midnight. The difference is that the latter is interesting both lyrically and musically despite being reasonably simple while the former wallows in an already used subject and in comparison is thus rather tepid. Not a bad song, simply a less good one.
But this album is not known as mostly filler-less for nothing, and indeed, the title track then comes pounding in with a mighty riff that reminds me why I love Maiden so much. The use of the harmonic minor scale here is completely appropriate considering the subject matter (even though Ancient Egypt may not have actually used such scales. I have no idea either way) and Bruce gives a great performance once more, showcasing how much variety he has as a vocalist. Too many people think of him doing the high-pitched operatic wailing and little else. There's far more to him than that, as he would also prove in subsequent albums.
Although the song is pretty straightforward from a compositional point of view, with just two main riffs, it is actually fairly progressive as a whole. After the verses and chorus repeat a couple of times, the song becomes much quieter, and a lovely melodic solo is played over clean guitar. About a minute or so later the heaviness returns, but the solo continues. A few more twists and turns follow and then the song goes back to the verses and chorus, finally ending with some more great harmonic minor riffs. All in all, a true classic.
After all of this brilliance, with six great songs and just one of a more average kind, one might imagine that the album could not really be any better than it already is. They would be mistaken, as Rime Of The Ancient Mariner opens with a crushing riff sure to get any heads banging instantly. This song is known not only as another classic but also as one of, if not [I]the[/I] greatest epic composition Maiden ever wrote, and it can be safely said that this is completely true. Although the main riff is simple, it works. The harmonised twin-guitar riffs are fantastic, with the section just after Bruce's "and the ship sailed on and on into the sea" being superlative, regardless of whether it is complex or not. The song as a whole is definitely that, though, with many stops and starts, one long break, and plenty of changes from start to finish. Said break is a very cool part - a little overlong perhaps, but it works. As a contrast between the first and second parts of the song it works even better. The latter half is very positive, with a fairly light riff playing over Bruce's singing of how the Mariner survived his horrible ordeal, and then the heaviness returns and a fantastic solo - one of Maiden's best ever - follows. Finally the song goes back to its original main riffs, both the normal and harmonised ones, as Bruce finishes the tale by explaining that the Mariner had learned greater respect for all life by the time he returned home. A fantastic and very heroic and positive end to a magnificent song.
So there you have it. While nothing is perfect, this is one of the only two Maiden albums that have no genuinely weak songs. The other is Somewhere in Time. That album is my favourite of their entire discography, and this one is now second. Considering how I used to feel about it that might seem strange, but it's true. I simply hadn't listened to it properly before. It really is all that - like its predecessor and next two successors it influenced the epic side of metal hugely, and by that I mean HUGELY. It represents the furthest they could take their songs without the use of keyboards or synths, and they succeeded admirably at everything. From the twin-guitar harmonies, to the heavy yet melodic riffs, soaring vocals, fantastic storytelling and often progressive, massive compositions, this album was easily as influential as Number Of The Beast in its own way, as were the other three directly around it.
Now the biggest question: is Powerslave overrated?
Hell yes. But it is also one of the best albums the band ever created, and almost perfect from start to finish. That might seem like a bizarre statement, and technically speaking it is: the very term overrated implies a sense of hype, of making something up, that the true contents are not as awesome as the pretty wrapper. But this album somehow manages to be beloved by all - hardcore fans, casual fans, non-fans who simply like Maiden, and even ordinary rockers alike, and yet still remains utterly outstanding in every way. Very few albums are like that, and that's another part of this record's charm, I guess.
So to sum up: essential, whether you love Maiden, love Heavy Metal, just love good ol' heavy rock, or love all three. Influential beyond belief, and all around fantastic.