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So here we are, we've arrived at one of the albums that is considered to define heavy metal itself. Not thrash metal, not speed metal, not power metal, not death metal, and not black metal - just pure classic heavy metal. Does it? In a lot of ways, yes. But it also has some significant problems, two songs which I really dislike, and only three songs I consider to be absolutely perfect. It should be a masterwork but consistency is the name of the game here, and Number Of The Beast, for all of the praise constantly heaved upon it, is not consistent.
Something that is always lost upon most metal fans is the phenomenon of how Maiden sold out. Yes, sold out. It was with this album. Now before all of you suckers reading this decides I'm either a looney or an idiot, just think for a moment. Iron Maiden is considered to be a band that pretty much never sold out throughout their entire career. Now take Judas Priest, who were accused of selling out many times, first with Killing Machine and British Steel(even though the latter is now a metal classic anyway), then even worse with Point Of Entry, before redeeming themselves with Screaming For Vengeance and Defenders Of The Faith and then promptly selling out again, this time to the glam crowd, with Turbo. Most fans don't believe they regained their power again until Painkiller(Ram It Down, a highly underrated album in my view, is often considered to be little more than a slightly better successor to Turbo, which is total bullshit), and then that they lost it again with Jugulator. True? In some ways. Maiden, however, were never accused of truly selling out, as even No Prayer For The Dying and Fear Of The Dark are far less obviously commercial than the most commercial Priest records and their later stuff again lacks such criticisms. Meanwhile, their first seven albums are often considered to be virtually untouchable, and none of them even remotely a sell out no matter how much money they made.
The problem is that this is total nonsense. In its own way, The Number Of The Beast is a sellout. Not a bad one, in a lot of ways actually a good one, as becoming more popular obviously raised Maiden's already high spirits even more and led them to produce many more records, all of which were far more similar to this one than to the debut and Killers. It's a far less obvious sellout than British Steel as even the songs that yes, are designed for radio-play are not very clearly singles in this sense. But just look at the differences between this album and the first two. The debut was(at the time)fearlessly experimental and progressive, combining rock, punk, and metal together in a way no one had really ever done before and doing so with brilliant musicianship, excellent songwriting, and a very good singer who fit the style they were playing perfectly. Killers was less progressive but extremely good nonetheless, with again a high punk influence on all of the songs, great musicianship throughout, and more killer(pardon the pun)songwriting. Neither record was ever trying to be commercial - Maiden had a vision and they pursued it in exactly the way they wanted, they just happened to become popular anyway because they kicked ass.
Now take this record. Despite its reputation to the contrary it's far less daring than the debut or even Killers. The riffs throughout are often far simpler, the songs themselves are for the most part actually less complex and progressive while at the same time often sounding more pretentious due to the singing(more on that soon), and the essential atmosphere, grit, and real, down to earth urban feel of the first two albums is gone, replaced by an overly slick production and a far more clean and civilised sounding singer. Granted, this has its strong points as well, since gritty raw production doesn't really suit the epic style they would subsequently go for, and nor would have Paul Di'Anno's vocals. Bruce does bring a certain power to the album, and he is genuinely a very good singer, the best examples of this being the songs Children Of The Damned and Hallowed By Thy Name(which, not coincidentally, are also the best songs on the record), as well as the overrated but still fairly good title track and most of Invaders. However, Maiden also lost something here. While this is still a NWOBHM album at its core, it also more than hints at the really epic sound they would begin playing on their very next album, a sound soon became nothing like NWOBHM at all, and more like proto-power metal. Of course this again has its strong points as well as its weak ones(one of the strongest being just how much this led to the development of power metal), but part of Maiden's original character was in Paul Di'Anno. When he left, something left with him - the part of Maiden that was how they used to be, their lack of pretentiousness but their desire to create something new and exciting, which they did brilliantly. And then Bruce came along, and Maiden started getting pretentious, lost all of their grit right after this album(the last traces of it can be found in the song 22 Acacia Avenue, one of the last urban themed songs they'd ever write), and yes, they did become more commercial. They just did so in such a subtle way that hardly anyone noticed.
I place the songs on this album into three categories. One is the excellent category. Only three songs from the album fit into that one. Two is the very good category. Three songs also fit into that one. Three is the decent category, which only one song fits into. Then there's the mediocre category, which two songs fit into.
The album begins with Invaders, a song which fits into the "very good" category, and seems to be a strong start to say the least. The improved production does have one really good strong point: it highlights the guitars and makes them sound far heavier than they did before. Once it gets fast this song becomes skullcrushing heavy metal that at times borderlines on proto-thrash. So far so good. Then Bruce's singing comes in, and...well, it works, but it's so different in style and sound from his predecessor that you can tell this is a changed Maiden. It's far more over the top, which Paul never sounded like, and this is a shame as it means the song becomes quite cheesy in a lot of ways, and Bruce doesn't have the singing chops to make an over the top performance not sound cheesy all of the time. Even so it's still going ok...and then the chorus. By the gods, the chorus. Why? Why that awful happy tone when he screams "INVAADERS! PILLAGING! INVAADERS! LOOTING!" ? Why that dreadful five notes up five notes down major scale instead of an actual riff? When I first listened to this on a sampler ages ago it put me off the album so much that I took several more months to buy it. Things like this damn chorus actually made it harder for me to get into Maiden. A lot of other reviewers have commented on it too, and yes, it really is that bad. It virtually ruins the song, and the only reason it doesn't is because it lasts for just a few seconds. It prevents the song from ever becoming great and leaves it as just good. There were no unbearably shitty moments like this in either the debut or Killers. The solo is fairly short and not very memorable but ok, and other than that there isn't much to say. A fairly simple song really. If not for the chorus it would be in the excellent category. Speaking of the chorus, it's another example of how Maiden subtly sold out: they introduced poppy moments which could appeal to anyone and everyone, but didn't write actual love songs, so they weren't perceived as sellouts. It's something a lot of people don't notice when they should, and it's for that reason that I stopped caring what the majority of either other metalheads or Maiden fans say and decided to just judge their albums on an individual basis.
However, we then have Children Of The Damned, a song which fits right into the "Excellent" category, and for a damn good reason: it kicks ass. From the deceptively gentle clean intro and verses, right to the mighty chorus and powerful heavy fucking metal riff behind it, and then after this repeats around the stupendous middle section which is just...well, sublime. The section from 2:20 to 3:01 is extremely well done, but then the part from 3:02 to 3:42 is absolutely brilliant, beautiful, and just plain outstanding, from the lovely but haunting melodies of the very heartfelt solo to the powerful crushing riffs underneath. It's moments like this that solidify this album as a good one despite its flaws, because this song is so fucking fantastic that the mediocre parts of the album don't matter while you're rocking out to Children Of The Damned.
My one and only criticism of this song is the lyrics themselves, which, despite working well, are not the often fairly serious and thought-provoking subject matter Maiden dealt with on their first two albums, but what basically amounts to fantasy nonsense. Yes, the film Children Of The Damned was an old school classic, but it was still kinda silly nevertheless. It's this kind of thing that led to Maiden overusing fantasy and mythology along with not particularly clever or interesting history lessons on albums like Piece Of Mind and Powerslave, and often being hideously cheesy in the process. However, I'll give it a pass here as this song is just too damn good for me to care about how serious or realistic the lyrics are.
We now reach The Prisoner, a song which fits into the "decent" category. It's not a bad song, but it really isn't all that good either. The intro from the TV Series is exceedingly cheesy and far too long, and the song just takes too damn long to get going by which point I've lost most of my interest. I was never a big fan of The Prisoner and Maiden manage to make it all seem even cornier than it really was, in fact probably a lot more so as the original series wasn't really that cheesy as far as I've heard. All I know is that I don't particularly enjoy this song. The "heroic" part where Bruce sings about escaping isn't inspiring to me either, because in order to really feel something here, you have to have felt for the real prisoner in the series, and I never did. The whole thing just wasn't my cup of tea, and so I can't really connect with the song as it's dealing with the same character. Again, not a bad song, but not a particularly good one either.
Then comes along 22 Acacia Avenue...which is absolutely brilliant, perfect from start to finish, with great riffs, two awesome solos, and an interesting performance by Bruce. It easily fits into the "excellent" category. I don't know why this song is so underrated, and it's even more absurd that it often gets ignored while the likes of "Run To The Hills" receive infinite praise from everyone. For me it's the opposite, as this is one of my favourite songs on the whole album, while "Run To The Hills" never appealed to me at all.(more on that later) Anyway, aside from the great riffs and solos throughout, there isn't much to say actually, although Bruce's singing here is interesting, because he's obviously trying to go for the very gritty urban style that Paul always had, which is to be expected as this song is about the same character last featured in "Charlotte The Harlot", a great song from the debut album. Does he succeed? Sort of, as he certainly sounds quite different than he did on, say, Invaders. But he just hasn't got the dirty, raw kind of voice that really suits this style, often still sounding too clean, and the way he screams "meet a lady that I knoooooooww" is terrible, as is the way he mirrors this the next time it goes around slightly differently with "you might even get it freeeeeeeee"...ugh. Those kind of vocal acrobatics are what always put me off Bruce a little. Sure he's a good singer, but very few vocalists can make those acrobatics actually work, and Bruce ain't one of them. Rob Halford is, and interestingly, so is Hansi Kürsch of Blind Guardian, a very influential power metal band that were likely influenced themselves by Iron Maiden. But Bruce just isn't, and while he can occasionally pull it off(the way he sings the chorus on the song Caught Somewhere In Time from Somewhere In Time, for instance), he often can't. This is the only weak point to an otherwise great song though, and the breakdown in the middle with the heavy crushing riffs and the excellent solo is really awesome. The song also ends well. All in all, one of the best songs this album has to offer.
Now we come to the infamous title track, a song I would place in the "very good" category. Most would consider it to be more worthy of being called excellent, but I disagree. Sure it's a classic song, and one of the best known of all metal songs. It's also remarkably straightforward, not very complex, not even very epic, and most of all, aside from the intro, not very dark. Lyrically it is but musically? The riffs are all very happy and upbeat and don't really paint a picture of the lyrics. When Iron Maiden previously wrote songs about very dark subjects(whatever "Remember Tomorrow" was about, Purgatory, Killers, etc)for the most part at least they actually sounded dark. Here they don't, which just goes to show that Number Of The Beast could very easily be called a sellout after all, as it wrote more obviously catchy and upbeat songs and certainly did make more money. One could argue that making more money was simply a side effect of better songwriting, but that's being pedantic, trying to make excuses for ideas that are very obviously commercial. Whether they're commercial in a good way or a bad way is up to the listener to decide. Personally, while I'd take the title track over a song like The Prisoner, and would place it on a roughly equal footing with Invaders, I don't like it as much as Children Of The Damned, 22 Acacia Avenue, or one of the later songs. (As a side note: this song was the one that caused everyone to call Maiden "satanists" - actually, not everyone, just the Christian side of the media, and it wasn't so much an assumption as an accusation. Either way it's fucking pathetic. Maiden weren't satanists, and even if they were, so what? The whole thing is dumb and shows just how much power idiotic religious fundies still have over our society. What's even dumber is that in the US, critics refused to acknowledge Maiden SIMPLY because they believed they were satanists. So the religious views of a band affect whether they're worthy of listening to? Those music critics should have been taken out and shot. If anyone wanted proof that the music media in America is still controlled by Christian fundamentalists, that's it right there. Utterly stupid.)
Next up is a song beloved by virtually every Maiden fan...except for me. Run To The Hills is probably the most overrated song they ever wrote. It's slightly interesting lyrically but not enough to make up for its obviously commercial slant and not very good riffs. I find little worth listening to in this song and like a lot of others on here it's annoyingly happy sounding. Judas Priest's "Savage", while not one of my favourite songs by them either, dealt with the subject far better. The only thing really worth exploring is how Maiden didn't make it a song entirely about the cruelty of the persecution of American Indians, but also about the glory the settlers felt as they rode them down and "drove them to the hills". While I'm pleased Maiden decided to show the perspective of both sides rather than just one, I still don't like this song. I just find its construction annoying. In particular, it takes nearly 50 seconds to get to a riff one can properly headbang to. Maybe one can headbang to the first riffs, but I'm not sure. Isn't it a bizarre coincidence that the two most popular songs on this album, this one and the title track, both take a while to get going? It's just ironic that for two songs that are supposed to define heavy metal, they don't even start with heavy riffs one can bang their head to. "Run To The Hills" is a song I place in the "mediocre" category.
This wasn't the worst, though...that's just coming up. "Gangland" has to be one of the most painfully awful and pointless Maiden songs ever written. It's even worse than the overrated shit on Powerslave(and that's saying something, since everyone else loves that album)and the dreadful songs on No Prayer For The Dying and some of Fear Of The Dark. It isn't overrated, but it still sucks nonetheless. The intro is boring and the main riffs are neither interesting nor very memorable. It's another attempt to go back to the grittiness of the first two albums, but unlike "22 Acacia Avenue", which was a great song, this song is crap. It's neither gritty, raw, or menacing, it's just stupid. Definitely falls into the "mediocre" category, and I have nothing else to say about it. It's that forgettable as well as shitty.
But then...where the fuck did this come from? Suddenly "Total Eclipse" begins, and we have a winner again! This is a disgracefully underrated song that deserves a lot more credit for at least trying to be atmospheric. From the powerful, genuinely heavy intro to the mighty riffs throughout combined with a respectable performance by Bruce and some very dark lyrics about a rather apocalyptic scenario, plus genuine musical darkness for the first time since "Children Of The Damned", this is a song easily worthy of the "very good" category. I don't know why this wasn't included on the original album because it kicks ass.
One good thing about Maiden is that with the exception of Killers, you can be sure of hearing a very memorable song at the end of every one of their albums. And this is absolutely true of the magnificent "Hallowed Be Thy Name", a song that has justly gone down in history as a masterwork of heavy fucking metal. This really is strong, very much because of its amazing atmosphere, which is quite seriously dark, with nary a happy sounding riff or solo in sight, but also because of three other things: Bruce Dickinson's performance, which is truly great and really portrays the emotion of the character's feelings he is describing in a way that's so genuine you almost forget about the idiotic way he sung on some of the earlier songs, the lyrics, which are definitely of the thought-provoking type, and the brilliant riffs and solos throughout the entire song. For once the clean intro isn't annoying or tedious but works brilliantly at creating a dark feeling. Then when the heavy guitars kick in at around the 1.00 mark, things become truly fantastic. I have no problems whatsoever with this song - it's one of the defining songs of all heavy metal and is NOT overrated - it does deserve every single bit of praise it gets. A true masterpiece.
So what does that even out as, then? Three awesome songs, three very good ones, one average one and two poor ones. Overall a highish score(which is what I gave it), but not perfect.
Despite all of my earlier criticisms, The Number Of The Beast is still an essential album, even if only for the three utterly brilliant songs, because they are so sublime that they transcend all of the album's various faults and weaknesses. It's more than that though - it's a piece of metal history, and deserves to be owned for that reason alone. While I wouldn't place it on the same level as its predecessors in terms of consistency, or as high on the scale of being inventive as Piece Of Mind or Somewhere In Time, or as high quality throughout as Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, it's still a good album to say the least and from my perspective infinitely better than the ridiculously overrated Powerslave. A quality album that, despite it flaws, should be in every metalhead's collection nonetheless.