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Well, the time has come, everybody. The new Iron Maiden album is almost here. I haven’t heard it yet, but I’m going to pick it up tomorrow morning (and it might well be that time by the time this review is accepted), and while I wait, I figure I’ll go back and review one of my very first Maiden albums ever, The Number of the Beast. Yes, I remember being a wee 15 year old kid and going into Best Buy and looking at this album like it was a golden nugget. I didn’t know much about heavy metal then, except that Iron Maiden was a cool band, with cool cover art and rebellious, rousing lyrics and energetic guitars oozing out of every pore. I mean…just look at the cover art. 25 years later and it’s still an icon of rock music at large. How can you beat that lovably dead miscreant Eddie pulling the Devil himself around on puppet strings? Eddie is better than the Devil, so Iron Maiden is better than the Devil. That’s just awesome. You parents think the Devil is what you need to worry about? Hell naw, it’s Maiden.
And the music, kicking off with the high-energy gallop “Invaders,” showed what Maiden was all about. Previously they had been a down n’ dirty punk influenced act with that hunk of armpit hair, Paul Dianno, on vocals, but this one showed the arrival of our great Air Raid Siren himself, Bruce Dickinson, who handles these songs with an expert feel and a comfortable segue between the aggressive snarls of the verses and the maniacal, melodious howls of the chorus. Could Dianno have managed this much versatility, this much power for a song this dynamic? Well, it’s a good song either way, and better than people will tell you. I’ve always had a soft spot for it.
But they really kick up the game with the following “Children of the Damned,” a much more calculated and sinister track…listen to the way it switches from that dark, swirling stomp to the fiery, hell-crazed conclusion. It’s a great build up, and one of metal’s real classic ballads. This is pretty much the first true example of why Iron Maiden worked in the 80s; it’s just such a charismatic tune. Maiden were not only a great band because they had a hell of an instrumental base, electrically fueled with storming riffs, rollicking bass and energetic, skin pounding drums, fronted by a singer who could really sell their songs, but also because of their charisma and style. The songwriting was endowed with poppish hooks here and there, but only as a ruse to reveal the absolutely astronomical metallic prowess hidden beneath. On “Children of the Damned,” we get a band exploring a new style with balls, conviction and a melodic sensibility that would only improve over the years.
Why was Maiden so great? Above all it was the attitude, the unmistakable style that made them a household name. You could recognize a Maiden song in three seconds flat. Like “The Prisoner,” with its jettisoning leads and monstrous beats from the drums. And just listen to Bruce’s wailing of every vocal line as if it’s going to be the last he ever sings…pure classic stuff! He sells these songs like a Thespian of sorts, becoming completely enveloped in them. The title track is another perfect example of this. That foreboding guitar flare that starts us off, the corking, boiling riffs and melodies…it’s all there, with Bruce rasping and bellowing and really becoming the man on the run from the devil in the woods that the lyrics spin the tale of. It is this kind of theatrical posing that metal was built on from the start – bigger, flashier, more grandiose. Subtlety? What’s that? That’s not the aim here!
“22 Acacia Avenue” and “Gangland” hearken back to the band’s past as a streetwise bunch of young punks, and the former works pretty well, with heavy, hook-fisted riffs and a domineering vocal performance making it into a stylish, aggressive take on the whole Charlotte the Harlot ‘saga,’ but the latter is pretty dire. It’s not a horrible song or anything, but it’s just kind of unimpressive, and doesn’t really inspire me to run down the street with a torch of white flames like some of the other songs on here do. It’s a very pedestrian track, with an average and very rockish riff, a somewhat rushed vocal motif and a chorus that isn’t so much powerful as…well, slightly annoying. The vitriolic verses are pretty good though.
“Total Eclipse” is another one I just don’t like as much, as while it is undoubtedly experimental and different…it’s too different for this album. It sounds like something you would have heard about five years earlier on a Uriah Heep album or something; not a Maiden album in 1982. The riff is pretty simple, and the whole structure of the song, with the more somber mood and the slower, laid back tempo, just sounds completely alien with the rest of the album’s blazing dual leads and frenetic rhythms. And I like Uriah Heep and other 70s rock bands, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that “Total Eclipse” is not a particularly inspiring or well done song for that type. Again, it’s not horrible or anything, just not that great like the better songs on here.
Enough has already been said about “Run to the Hills,” which is an all time classic with its ultra-catchy drum intro, the syncopated verses and the explosive, streamlined and layered chorus, which is criminally infectious – really; the band received lawsuits for how catchy this song is. If you don’t believe me look it up! You might not find anything, but at least you did something more interesting than reading reviews on this website all day long. “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” too, has been talked about to death, and I don’t have much to add. With its spine tingling build up, those first whispered lyrics and the explosive, careening metal storm that follows, Maiden created a classic for the ages. The vocals from Bruce belt out some of metal’s best and most iconic lyrics, and the riffs escalate into a platitude of classic metal glory that is still a monument to hear. It’s just great, and anyone who denies it is a fool.
The Number of the Beast is a historical landmark, as it is where Iron Maiden first started on the path that would lead them to worldwide stardom, but it is a fucking great album all the way, too. It’s simple, it’s poppier than the previous albums, but it’s a well written, tight collection of songs from a band bursting with youthful fire. Maiden on here showed the first signs of their expertise at crafting memorable, hook-laden and commercially successful work, and it’s a testament to exactly how good writers they were that these songs are still so universally memorable and loved. This isn’t Maiden’s best ever, but it’s an easy classic and well worth listening to, as it packs some kick ass songs. Go check it out, and if it's your first time, like it was when I first heard this, the experience will never be replicated again. Savor this one.