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For ten years, from 1978 to 1988, Iron Maiden were without a doubt the greatest band to emerge from the shadows of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal scene. Combining a crushing bass gallop courtesy of Steve Harris with a virtuostic double-axe attack from Dave Murray and Adrian Smith and, not least of all, employing the skills of two of the greatest vocalists ever to grace heavy metal in Paul Di'Anno and Bruce Dickinson, Maiden were (and still are) a force to be reckoned with. Only one other band in the scene, the now-defunct Angel Witch, could ever have hoped to compete with them, but by the time of this release Maiden had clearly established themselves as the masters of melodic metal with no fewer than five classic releases to their name.
This album, Somewhere In Time, is probably pound for pound the most underrated effort in their entire discography, with many commentators regarding it as nothing more than the bridge between the epic-and-straightforward stylings of 1984's Powerslave and the prog-tinged power metal of Somewhere In Time. And that's an unfortunate fate to befall this gem, because, as I see it, Somewhere In Time is the absolute apex of Maiden's creativity, representing the culmination of the entire history of metal hitherto this release.
In a very real sense, the album is precisely what the title and lead-off track implies: caught somewhere in time. For the first (and second to last) time in Maiden's career, synthesizers, those staples of mid-eighties metal, come to the fore in their sound; but unlike the follow-up Seventh Son, are really brought to the fore here. For many this dates the album firmly in the eighties; for me, however, it provides an insight into a style which would go on to influence bands such as Gamma Ray, Helloween, and the entirety of European melodic power metal.
The aforementioned "Caught Somewhere In Time" opens the record with a majestic synth-guitar riff, providing the listener with a clue as to what innovations the Irons have made in their sound. Unlike Priest's Turbo, however, which utilized synthesizers to attain a more commercial sound, those used here do nothing but make the traditional Maiden style even more sweeping and epic than ever before. Maiden quickly proves that it does not need to use synthesizers to make its music grandiose, though, as we are plunged into a trademark gallop fast enough to qualify in some respects as thrashy. Featuring soaring vocals from Dickinson and an exceptional trade-off guitar solo that smokes just about everything else in metal.
Smith-composed "Wasted Years" continues the standard of excellence set by the opening track and raises it for the rest of the album. With this track Maiden have achieved the remarkable distinction of proving themselves able to write material both commercially successful and metallically acceptable, using the synthesizers to their full effect to create an atmosphere without which would be impossible. This is what Queensrÿche attempted with Empire, though without nearly the success displayed here.
"Sea of Madness" is equally compelling, opening with one of the harshest riffs penned by the band to date, demonstrating that the band had not gone 'flower-metal' with this record as has been alleged by some other reviewers. This song contains an epic vocal line on the part of Dickinson and a wonderful synth-solo with backing female vocals before which the listener cannot but help feel a little melancholy.
"Heaven Can Wait" is a Maiden concert staple, and, to be honest, I can't really see why. Though by no means bad, and certainly not filler, I feel that this is the weakest track here and the only one with a genuinely upbeat atmosphere (not to mention a little too close to "The Angel and the Gambler" from the trepid Virtual XI for comfort). It rocks, but it's not going to qualify for a 'Best Of' compilation anytime soon.
Fortunately we return with the imperious "The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner", which begins a trilogy of material so strong that it remains unmatched to this very day in the Maiden catalogue. Bringing the temp down a notch from the preceding track, this wonderful tune opens with a clarion-clear synth-riff sure to depress even the haughtiest of spirits before opening fire with yet another Dickinson-led gallop that conveys so very well what it feels like to be a marathon runner (not that I'd know, of course :D). Of particular interest here is the passage that begins 2:25 into the song, which remains one of the most moving sequences in music of any genre that I've ever heard.
"Stranger In A Strange Land", the second single released from this album, is perhaps the most instantly recognizable track here, and for good reason: it totally rocks. Shifting gears from the melancholia of the last track to something which can only be described as 'danceable', this song demonstrates that one needn't rely on downtuned guitars and second-rate riffing to make a metal track that is genuinely groovy. Harris' mastery of the bassline is in full form here, offering something at once insidious and seductive. Dickinson steals the show however, imparting every last vocal line with the feeling of impending disaster conveyed by the excellent lyrics.
"Deja-Vu", the second-to-last song here, picks up the pace considerably, and is my favorite track here. Featuring an excellent display of prowess by the terribly underrated Nicko McBrain, this track is perhaps the second or third fastest in the band's lengthy discography. On the whole I'm reminded of the track "Born To Lose" on Black Sabbath's equally underrated masterpiece The Eternal Idol with this one, although "Deja-Vu" packs much more of a wallop in its bass-and-drum lines. Bruce sounds downright evil in this track, perhaps introducing the rasp he would unfortunately come to rely on in several subsequent albums.
The final track, "Alexander The Great", continues the Maiden tradition of closing on an epic established with "Hallowed Be Thy Name" on The Number of the Beast, and I hold to the opinion that this is just as good. Opening with a wonderfully militaristic drumbeat from McBrain and a soaring guitar harmony, this track displays the band in their prime, creating a powerful track which carries the rest of the album to the heights.
This album is lost in time, in a land of ice and snow, waiting for rediscovery by the metalhead with the patience to look at it. It's not as immediately hard-hitting a record as something like Piece Of Mind, but if you have an ear for melody and mood and the willingness to involve yourself in the process of listening to an album, you can't go wrong with this.