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By 1986, Iron Maiden had enjoyed four years of great success and respect in the metal community. They had created three original albums in that four-year span, largely to the genius of Adrian Smith and the iron (no pun intended) vocal chords of Bruce Dickinson. Paul Di'Anno's Maiden had its charm, but this was the Big Leagues. Yet, Maiden's originality was starting to wear thin. Not content to keep cranking out paint-by-numbers metal CD's, they took the perfect course of action: a concept album, specifically about time travel. Results are wildly successful.
First thing I should mention is production. It's every bit as slick as it was on Powerslave, and that is even more vital on an album with a notably more "technical" style. This adds hugely to the experience.
At the time, many metal bands employed synths to try and sound "modern". This could either succeed greatly or fall hilariously flat (Judas Priest, anyone?). Fortunately, Somewhere in Time's synths are hardly noticeable, save for the opening to Caught Somewhere in Time, my favorite track on the album. The synthesizers are well-done here and contribute greatly to an already-great song. The synths do add to the atmosphere in places, like the chorus to Heaven Can Wait, but ultimately do not try to steal the spotlight. And that is a good thing for sure.
Guitar work is stellar through and through. Riffs are almost as good as Powerslave, better than Number of the Beast....which is to say, somewhere on par with Piece of Mind. The guitars actually sound a little bit formulaic, but when the formula works so well, there's no need for radical change. Solos are fantastic. This album contains some of the best solos in Maiden's career (Wasted Years, Sea of Madness, Stranger in a Strange Land) the solos aren't as blazing as on past albums, but in a way you can feel the passion in them, and that is incredible.
Songwriting is very good. While some songs are mildly campy (Heaven Can Wait) and some have flat-out ridiculous bits (Deja Vu) there is much poignancy to be found. The album's hit single, Wasted Years, is amazingly inspirational, a reflection on the futility of living a bitter life. Caught Somewhere in Time has a mystical feel, and is truly memorable. Writing is grade-A, but still not the zenith of Maiden's career.
The songs here are mostly gallopers, in the vein of The Trooper or Run to the Hills, but galloping songs are what Maiden does best. Steve Harris's bass is great as always, and Nicko actually does fantastically in sections on the drums. The only song that does not fit this description is Alexander the Great, a pretty fantastic Maiden epic which chronicles the titular ancient Greek hero.
Unlike most concept albums, any song from Somewhere in Time could be taken out and used as a single, and no aspect of the song or it's juxtaposition lost. This is normally a good thing, though sometimes a bit disappointing. Nothing here is filler, but not quite every song is top-notch, most notably Heaven Can Wait and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. But underrated gems like Deja Vu, singalongs like Wasted Years and cool, alien-sounding epics like Stranger in a Strange Land far outnumber the weaker material. A must-have for all Maiden fans.