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The title to Iron Maiden's 7th album functions on a great many levels. One of these was obvious if you'd been following the band, but it's also a partial concept album which centers on the hereditary mystique of the number seven, in both folklore and theological history. Ever a fan of science fiction and fantasy in their lyrics, it should come as no surprise that the conceptual sequence of tracks here are also drawn from a worthy source, The Tales of Alvin Maker by controversial writer Orson Scott Card (there was a recent debacle within liberal/PC circles over Card's indirect involvement in the video game Shadow Complex...I wonder if, by extension, those same people would suddenly put a boycott up on Maiden album due to Card's active and open opposition to homosexuality.) But I also like to think of the album in a sequential sense. We've already explored The Number of the Beast, 666, (and also a science fiction novel), so why not venture out to visit its nearest mystical neighbor?
There are several other distinctions important to this record. For one, I would consider it the most 'eighties' of their efforts, if only for the increased presence of synthesizers ala Adrian Smith and Steve Harris. It's not as if the concept was completely alien to metal or hard rock bands of the 80s, but here on Seventh Son of a Seventh Son it manifests itself like so many other commercial sounds of 80s rock...bands like Asia, Rush and Foreigner all came to mind as I was listening through the album, though to be fair, the rest of the package is entirely loyal to Maiden's previous (and in my opinion, career crowning) efforts Powerslave and Somewhere in Time. In fact, songs like "Heaven Can Wait" and "Wasted Years" are a good jumping off point for this newer material, because I can't think of a single song on this album that doesn't capitalize on some grand melody.
The increased use of synths creates an interesting dynamic here, for while Harris' bass is as plunky (perhaps too plunky) as ever, the guitars and keys are forced to complement one another within the highly melodic atmosphere. For this reason, I'd consider it one of the 'least heavy' of Maiden's efforts, but that's not really a major issue, since the music generally delivers the goods. Of course, coming after a masterpiece like Somewhere in Time, there is bound to be some disappointment. Here it's just that I felt a few of the songs were lacking, with some less than spectacular, phoned in lead work. But Dickinson compensates with a full force performance, both manic and melodic. Believe it or not though, this is the first album where I can remember feeling that Maiden were becoming 'old'. Not in a bad way, mind ye, but when you had bands like Helloween or Fates Warning taking this newly defined 'power metal' to new speeds and energetic heights unheard of by the originators (Maiden, Priest, Accept, and Dio-era Sabbath), it was growing increasingly hard to think of Maiden on the precipice where they once sat proudly. But with this aging has come acceptance.
"Moonchild" is the first track, and the first in the 'conceptual' sequence of the album (along with "Infinite Dreams", "Infinite Dreams", the title track, "The Prophecy" and "The Clairvoyant"). the track opens with a brief and somber vocal passage, before opening into the full synthesizer spread that half made me feel like I was about to enter a new Boston album. But the verse quickly alters that perception, through its driving bass, and a powerful, graceful and haunting chorus that succeeds not only for the vocal melody, but the guitars that gleam below. "Infinite Dreams" threw me for a loop, with a long sequence of clean, flowing guitars that are played in a pseudo-funk phrasing not unlike some of the more balladic Red Hot Chili Peppers tracks of the early 90s (course, Maiden did it first). However, it does erupt into some slower paced, proggish metal with synthesizers scintillating above the steady chords. "Can I Play With Madness?" made for an obvious first single, due to the unforgettable NWOBHM thunder submerged beneath the verse, and Dickinson's chorus which sails among the eagles. Considering the subject matter here, the song is strangely uplifting... "The Evil That Men Do" was the other obvious single, a little more serious perhaps, but with another of those unforgettable chorus hooks that has never eluded me to this day.
Iron Maiden is of course no stranger to the 'epic' length track, but "Seventh Son...", for all its charm, is unfortunately no "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" or "Alexander the Great". There are a lot of great little jamming hooks dispersed throughout the track, and the actual verse and bad ass chorus elements reminded me of the power of a "Powerslave", but I didn't care for the leads here, and perhaps 2-3 minutes could have been clipped off to positive effect. Not bad, just not entirely consistent to these ears. "The Prophecy" has a beautiful, tranquil intro which erupts into an excellent dual melody which reminds me a little of some of the riffing on Running Wild's Port Royal, a personal favorite from the same year. This is another of the album's better tracks, and I adored the vocals. "The Clairvoyant" has a nice subtle grace to the verse, where the synth and guitars both shine, but outside of this it's not a favorite. "Only the Good Die Young" has a nice "Trooper"-like foundation of pumping bass triplets adorned in harmonic gloss, again it's not one of their best tracks but it works.
Perhaps one might serve up Seventh Son of a Seventh Son as Maiden's most 'progressive' work (at least until the mediocre Dance of Death), and would be difficult to disagree, because there is certainly that atmosphere being painted across its vaulted, melodic spires. This album concludes what I consider to be the Golden Age of Maiden (1982-1988), though I don't really think of it on the same level as any of the previous four records. It's very well written, and several of its tracks have deservedly found their way into the fans' hearts and the band's set list, but it was the first Maiden album that wouldn't make my short list for the years' end. Granted, 1988 was an astounding year for evolution across numerous metal genres, with more breakthroughs than a science fair, but its kind of sombering to find the Irons absent from where they once reigned.
Highlights: Moonchild, Can I Play With Madness?, The Evil That Men Do, The Prophecy