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Following the amazing and still easily accessible "Somewhere in Time", the British quintet that helped usher in the greatest decade for music, known as Iron Maiden, entered the studio to deliver yet another stellar release. We have it all on here: amazing guitar solos, dramatic vocals, atmospheric keyboard lines, complex bass lines, bombastic drum beats, and some of the greatest songs ever put forth by member of the NWOBHM. This is the album that more recent acts such as Avantasia, Iron Savior, Gamma Ray, and Dragonforce look to when trying to create something that transcends the basic formula that defines metal.
Like many individual tracks off of previous albums, Maiden has crafted a concept album based off of a famous work of literature. I myself am not familiar with the novel myself, but the storyline depicted in the lyrics is easy to follow, and mostly deals with a character who possesses unique powers due to the nature of his birth. Historically there are certain places in Europe where people believed that a seventh son of a seventh son would be born a vampire, and that could well have been the inspiration for the original story. The character tries to utilize his gifts for the good of the world, despite the inner conflicts depicted in several songs, but ultimately comes into conflict with the people he's trying to save.
Musically this album is fairly far removed from anything Maiden has ever done before and would later do in subsequent releases. It contains the dense atmosphere the dominates all of the newer albums both with Blaze Bayley and with Bruce back in the fold, as well as the hard edged sound that is found on the earlier releases with Bruce leading the charge. It also contains some rather interesting studio effects, such as the dialogue-like interplay between vocal tracks on "The Prophecy", and the echoing sound of the guitars in the quiet section of the title track.
Adrian Smith and Dave Murray both shine consistently throughout this album as songwriters and players. Murray's rather inspired compositional collaboration with Steve Harris, "The Prophecy", is loaded with catchy yet highly varied themes and contrasting sections. The syllabic and charming acoustic outro to the song is highly reminiscent of the one found on Black Sabbath's classic song "Heaven and Hell". "The Evil that Men Do" is easily the most accessible and well known Maiden track on this album, and highlights Adrian Smith's unrelenting ability to pump out classic tracks that standout amongst other, equally gripping songs. As far as lead work goes, "Moonchild" and "Infinite Dreams" are loaded with excellent solos, but the true magnum opus in this department is the title track. It is interesting to note that the song structure of "Hanger 18" by MegaDeth is highly similar to this song, both in terms of guitar solo sections and overall feel.
Steve Harris has the lion's share of compositional duties on this album, as has always been the case, but on this album his talents are a bit more focused as he is writing songs for a single concept. "Moonchild", "Infinite Dreams", the title track, "The Clairvoyant" and "Only the Good Die Young" all contain a common spirit that links them together, yet individually they stand quite well. As far as bass duties go, his work on "Infinite Dreams" and "The Clairvoyant" are noteworthy, though his best technical display is the brief bass solo in the middle section of "Only the Good Die Young".
Bruce Dickinson's voice is amazing on here, although at times it is a tiny bit overdone, particularly on certain parts of "Moonchild" and "Infinite Dreams". But his overall performance is highly dynamic, ranging from straight-forward operatic singing, to a spoken narrative on the title track. If I had to pick a stand out vocal performance on here, it would be a toss up between "The Clairyovant" and the title track.
There is only one actual flaw on this album, and it is to be found on the one song that I have yet to mention, "Can I Play with Madness". Although it is a decent song that could be described as a shorter version of "Heaven Can Wait", the chorus is a tiny bit weak and redundant. The guitar solo and musical interludes at the song's center, in addition to some decent guitar and drum work, almost make up for this but it is still something that can not escape notice.
In conclusion, this album came about in the late 80s, at the end of Maidens high point in it's history. Sadly it would be the last album for more than 10 years without Adrian Smith, and his influence gave the band a good deal of it's strength. The sub-par "No Prayer for the Dying" underscores the impact that his playing and songwriting had on the band, and most of the better songs that have since been recorded with the fully reformed Maiden in recent years have his name on them. It comes highly recommended to fans of Power Metal, Progressive Metal, and Traditional 80s Metal. But in my personal opinion, no one who claims to be a follower of metal, in any of it's sub-genres, should make excuses for not owning it.