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Bottom heavy - 67%

failsafeman, December 27th, 2008

Iron Maiden's roster was fairly unstable in the early days, with each of the first four albums featuring a slightly different lineup; what's generally considered the classic incarnation would not be heard until Piece of Mind. It goes without saying the most significant of those changes was the frontman switch that took place between Killers and The Number of the Beast; it not only drastically altered Iron Maiden's sound on an aesthetic level, but altered their general character as well. Where before Maiden with Di'Anno at the helm favored gritty, violent songs about, well, gritty violence (often of a sexual nature and set in the modern day), the Bruce-led band favored songs about epic battles, historical conflicts, and of course general mythology, science fiction, and fantasy subjects. I wouldn't say that Iron Maiden "invented" those themes in metal per se, but they definitely played a major role in pioneering and popularizing them. While that may sound like a positive change, it also came with a drawback; to illustrate, an anecdote. I once saw an interview with Bruce, in which he explained the reasoning behind his stage antics; small gestures would be missed by those in the back row of a huge stadium, so in order to get what he wants across he has to exaggerate his motions to larger-than-life proportions. Just think about that for a moment. I doubt he was trying to be deep, but Bruce's simple and sensible explanation also seems to describe his music with Iron Maiden quite well: everything is large and exaggerated, written in CAPITAL LETTERS so even those in the back row know what's going on. Of course, the back row in this metaphorical sense unfortunately refers to the mentally rather than financially challenged. Dickinsonian Maiden seems to have lost much of its former subtlety, and everything is LARGE and out in the open, for better or for worse. Because of that, sometimes the Bruce-era material sounds too over-the-top, as if you're watching a high-budget action movie where the excessive gore, explosions, and/or general violence lack supporting substance, such that all the drama totally loses impact and becomes cartoonish (think "summer blockbuster"). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the title track, which is fun but almost unbearably cheesy and vapid to boot (but more on that later). Still, that over-the-top aspect Bruce brought also allowed Maiden to do amazing songs like "Hallowed Be Thy Name", which I can't imagine them even attempting with Di'Anno (of course, Bruce can't pull off Di'Anno-era songs, either). In short: Bruce is amazing on successfully emotionally intense songs, but often painfully too much for those that fall short or require subtlety or grit. Most (good) NWOBHM bands sound like they could beat you up, Di'Anno Maiden more than any; Bruce sounds like he's been in the library all day. Angel Witch sound instead like they were on the receiving end of some beatings, but that's a story for another time.

Everything can't be laid at Bruce's feet, though; he's the most obvious change in the band, but he isn't the primary songwriter. Harris seems to have gotten a bit lazy on this album, going for a more upbeat, simpler, and what I can only call "poppier" approach on many of the songs he's credited with (the notable exception being, of course, the monumental album closer). The only song he doesn't have at least partial writing credit for here is fucking terrible, though, so what the hell; damned if you do, damned if you don't. On to the songs!

"Invaders" opens the album on a promising note, with the epic tone it quickly sets simultaneously setting the Bruce-era apart from the Di'Anno-era, in which this exultant epic energy would've seemed totally out of place. Instead of stalking women through claustrophobic London alleyways and chopping them up to statisfy lust undeniably perverse, we're chasing women through burning villages and raping them to satisfy lust...except it was socially acceptable then, so you and Bruce feel just fine about it afterward. But wait, what the fuck is this? That silly chorus comes in like a wrecking ball of cotton candy and turns the delicious atmosphere to shit! Yes, it's another of those "what the fuck were they thinking" moments, like the shitty main riffs in "Sanctuary" or "Running Free", except this is a whole chorus and "Invaders" is actually quite nice besides that. My guess is Maiden were trying to do another of those quick mood shifts they seemed to like a lot early in their career, as heard on "Charlotte the Harlot" and "Remember Tomorrow", but while those songs worked fairly well despite the abruptness, "Invaders" fails utterly. The serious and tense tone with the defenders preparing for the viking invasion is replaced by farce as, apparently, the longships unload hordes of invading Smurfs, who proceed to merrily frolic the village to the ground ("Papa Smurf always says: 'rape, then pillage, then burn the place to the ground,' and Papa Smurf is always right."). I can see what Maiden were trying to do here; it's the same thing they do in "Run to the Hills", where first we get the perspective and mood of the Indians and then that of the American soldiers, so one would expect hordes of Vikings to have an upbeat and bloodthirsty theme like the soldiers; instead it's like you're watching a good action movie on TV when the channel randomly switches to loud cartoons for a few seconds, making you jump, but the channel switches itself back again before you can figure out what the hell happened. Now, imagine that three times every three minutes, and I'm sure you'd just turn off the TV in disgust, no matter how good the movie you were watching was. What makes it worse though is that unlike "Sanctuary", the rest of "Invaders" is fucking good! Epic feel, cool lyrics putting you in the battlefield ("Axes grind and maces clash as wounded fighters fall to the ground/Severed limbs and fatal woundings bloody corpses lie all around"), honestly I'm far more irritated than if they had just written a song bad all the way through (which they did, but more on that later). It's as if Harris made us a shit sandwich, but used some really good bread to fool us into taking a nice big bite, wasting the bread in the process, of course. I mean for fuck's sake, the chorus "riff" isn't really even a riff, it's a fucking major scale; up five notes, down five notes. It's as if "inspiration" struck during highschool band warm-ups, or something.

Luckily, "Children of the Damned" is quite a bit more interesting. It starts as basically a ballad, with the slow pace complimenting the ominous tone, and Bruce's emotional performance is good; the only downside to the song is the overlong chorus, which feels even longer when preceded by the shorter, superior verses. But once the song picks up after the second chorus, we never hear it again, so at least there's that. Some laughably claim this tempo shift "ruins" the atmosphere built up in the slow section. Rather than ruining it, the acceleration serves to heighten the tension and mood, without shattering it like on "Invaders"; the faster section is the best part of the song, hands-down. The tedious chorus doesn't make a return and the song is fairly short, so overall I'd call it pretty good aside from the pacing problems. It's definitely better than the previous track, but not nearly as good as "Remember Tomorrow" thanks to the tiresome chorus, though otherwise the songs are similar. I really wish Iron Maiden had tried more songs like this, they're better at slow, moody songs than people usually give them credit for (most tend to harp on the fast upbeat pieces or long epics), and with a little revision this one could've been a lot better.

"The Prisoner" starts out slow, with an intro from the old TV show (a good series, I might add), followed by...an instrumental intro. Two intros for the price of one! Yeah, they should've dumped one or the other, and Clive's drum beat is rather obnoxious to be the focus of the second intro, but anyway once the song finally gets going after more than a minute (and it's not even the album opener!), it's pretty exciting. Sure it's upbeat, and an easy target for accusations of being poppy, but like "Run to the Hills" and unlike "Invaders" or the title track, this one is actually justifiably and believably upbeat in its portrayal of the exultant emotional release of #6 who is finally free of his captors. SPIT IN YOUR EYE, I WILL DEFY! Freedom and escape from oppression (whether at the deliberate hands of a conspiracy, or just society and/or religion's restrictions in general) have always been major themes in metal, and "The Prisoner" does a good job of bottling that for our enjoyment. Sure, it's a tad overlong and repetitive, but if you ignore the double-intro (easy to do) and get swept up in the mood of the song it's good; the chorus especially is fantastic, and the driving riffs during the verses really hit home. Another song where Bruce's "over-the-top" nature isn't out of place.

Now, "22 Acacia Avenue" is a sequel to "Charlotte the Harlot", and predictably Di'Anno probably would've fit the song better; it was likely even written for him, as the vocal melodies are pretty restrained in range and difficulty for the most part, with no multi-tracking at all. Bruce does a good job, don't get me wrong, but he just lacks the grit that would've made a dirty, desperate song about a whore much better. The song is fairly long, second-longest after "Hallowed Be Thy Name", and it justifies its length well with an interesting structure. In the first minute-thirty it shifts between a slow, tense section and a "release" section that's more upbeat twice before going into a totally different section for a while...honestly it's pretty progressive, and unlike most of the songs on the album, it's the instruments that hold interest rather than the vocal lines, which definitely play a more supporting role. If any song on this album could be considered a grower, I'd say it's this one; repeated listens definitely rewarded me with a greater appreciation for it. I'd even say it's stronger than "Charlotte the Harlot", and definitely the sleeper hit of the album.

The title track is one many people like to cite as a Maiden classic, but I suspect it's more because it's essentially pop with metal aesthetics; before you scoff and decide I'm full of pretentious crap, pause for a moment of dispassionate reflection. The song is upbeat and happy, very simple both structurally and technically, and in fact the only remarkable thing about it at all is, of course, the charismatic singer. The "Satanic" theme is utterly incidental; Bruce could easily be singing about joyriding at 666 MPH or fucking 666 women in a row (you decide which is more impressive) rather than running from the devil in a dream, judging by the mood. I don't know about you, but a terrifying nightmare doesn't put me in the mood to dance around, and honestly the most flattering conclusion I can reach is that the lyrics were written separately and only put to the music out of convenience or coincidence. Still, ludicrous claims of quality and dubious theme/mood harmony aside, it's a fun little song. I find it strange that something as obviously poppy and radio friendly is so revered in a community that supposedly abhors such qualities, but there are many examples of similar sheep dressed in the wolf's clothing of a metal sound that have also attained popularity among metalheads, so I suppose it should come as no surprise. Always be wary of musical opinion in aggregate; I'd take the say-so of one guy I know I can trust over a million faceless fans any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

"Run to the Hills" is also considered by some a classic, while others abhor it, probably due in part to it being one of the best-known and most-played Maiden songs of all time. And it's easy to see why; it's catchy, upbeat, and emphasizes the classic NWOBHM gallop to great effect, capturing the feel of soldiers chasing down the redskins on horseback very well. It also displays the first of what I like to call Maiden's BFCs, or Big Fucking Choruses (as heard on later songs such as "Two Minutes to Midnight" and "Aces High", among others). I'm not much of a radio listener, so the song hasn't really been ruined for me, but I can see how hearing it all the time could. It's a fun little song, and has enough depth to stand above the title track and "Gayland" at least, despite its similar almost total lack of real guitar riffs. Instead we basically just have galloping and some chord progressions under the chorus, and some bass antics (redolent of an overlarge ego, but it's not too obnoxious). Like on "Invaders", the mood and perspective switch, starting out slow and melancholy with the Indians' lament and then bursting into galloping speed with the soldiers running them down. I have to applaud Iron Maiden for not taking the bleeding heart route and dispensing heavy-handed moral judgment like some bands (Satan's "Broken Treaties" comes to mind), and that "white man's guilt" bullshit gets old quick. Iron Maiden make destroying Native American culture sound like fun (which it probably was). It's not the most artistically significant song Maiden have ever written, but it doesn't outstay its welcome and has at least enough substance to have some lasting merit beyond mindless entertainment. When it comes on, I don't skip it; that pretty much sums it up.

"Gangland" on the other hand is so painful, they should have called it "Gangbang". For something supposedly about dangerous gang members slaughtering one another, it sounds about as dangerous as a booster shot. The gangs I imagine while listening to the song aren't Goodfellas or even Warriors; more like West Side Story. "Funland" would be another appropriate title for the song. The riffs are terrible, the melodies are repetitive as is the chorus, the slow section is one of the worst, most boring pieces of shit the band has ever written. The noodly bridge however is passable; Bruce's shriek of "yeah, c'mon!" before the guitar solo is downright cool...then it goes back to shit with the reprieve of the verse and final repetition of the chorus. The drums are really annoying too, and the thought of Clive Burr (who co-wrote the song with Smith) getting replaced with Nicko McBrain after this album gives me warm fuzzy feelings. His fills always seemed the equivalent of radio jingles to me, from the intro to "Another Life" to the beat that begins "Prisoner". I think if doctors were to do some serious research on this song, they would find that Clive's MS was the direct result of co-writing "Gangland". Maybe karma isn't such a silly idea after all. The song is under four minutes long, but it feels like an agonizing marathon of monotony. Think of the longest, most grueling run you've ever had in your life, whether towards a train, away from the police, or perhaps at a track meet at school; now, imagine running that again, but this time while waist-deep in liquid mozzarella. You fail to reach whatever goal you're running towards in time, and in fact find out you were going the wrong way all along. That is "Gangland".

Maybe I'm writing from Planet X or something, but does it seem like too much coincidence that "Total Eclipse", the only song on here I've seen get unjustly panned with any regularity, is also the only one not drenched in gallons of nostalgia? Now, I can't speak for everyone who's ever heard the album and written something about it, but it seems reasonable to assume that a good percentage of metal fans got acquainted with this album through the original edition which excludes this track. Unencumbered by that intoxicating nostalgia, the bonus track gave Iron Maiden fans the rare opportunity to objectively evaluate a track from the sessions that brought them this highly-regarded album. Is it significant that without that nostalgia to guide them, a good many fans blunder right into the wrong conclusion? I can imagine an aging metalhead listening to The Number of the Beast in his living room, graying hair flailing as he headbangs furiously along with "Gangland". For a few minutes, it has transported him back to the days of his beer-soaked youth, when regular jobs were for losers and metal was a full-time lifestyle, rather than something relegated to evenings and weekends (preferably when no one is around). All of a sudden, "Total Eclipse" comes on; the headbanging ceases, and a frown creases the fan's face. "What's this crap? Where's "Hallowed Be Thy Name?" He listens for a few more seconds, then hits the skip button in frustration and, recognizing "Hallowed Be Thy Name" with relief, resumes headbanging as before. Though many people have started getting into metal long after "Total Eclipse" became a staple bonus track on The Number of the Beast, that attitude towards it has been handed down to the younger generations (I bite the hand that feeds, of course). Now, that's not to say everyone who doesn't like the song is stupid, and stuck there in the middle of familiar friends, it's normal for a stranger to be left out. "Total Eclipse" is a slow, steady number with an emphasis on ominous atmosphere; it reminds me of "Children of the Sea", except the giant is wearing steamrollers like roller skates rather than boots for stomping. Compared to a radio jingle like "Invaders", it's fucking Chopin, as it's both less catchy and more mood-driven, a kind of song that requires a bit of attention to appreciate. I'm not claiming all Maiden fans are idiots or anything, but I do know that for an album that is so well-known and one that almost every metalhead has some nostalgic feelings for (yes, including me), "Total Eclipse" provides a chance to see a band we know so well anew; luckily, the song holds up quite well, even better than many of the supposed classics on the album. I like it.

Last but certainly not least, we have "Hallowed Be Thy Name". Incensed fans who by now may have pegged me as pushing an iconoclastic agenda can put that to rest; when it comes to this song, I uphold the status quo. It's fucking amazing, easily one of the best Maiden have ever written. It hits fantastically upon many major metal themes simultaneously; death, freedom, and of course religion. I love the ambiguities it presents, proving that contrary to my initial condemnation Bruce-era Maiden aren't always obvious. Did the prisoner really commit the crime, or is he innocent? Does he really enter an afterlife, or is the dream of it just the last refuge of a man staring death and oblivion in the face? By extension, does the band believe in the former or the latter? Nothing is spelled out, all we have is that brief glimpse of a man's last moments, and the intense feelings that well up inside him: disbelief, terror, hope for an afterlife but at the same time a questioning of that hope ("Tears flow but why am I crying/After all I'm not afraid of dying/Don't I believe that there never is an end?"). The music reflects these feelings wonderfully, with the last half of the song being almost entirely instrumental, "narrating" in its way the execution, and actually, Burr's drumming is great on this track; I take back the mean stuff I said about him before. Sorry Clive! The scene the music sets is just as vivid without words. Perhaps more so. A perfect album closer; one of those songs you have to sit back and ponder after it's over, savoring the mood that lingers long after it closes. Would that it closed a perfect album.

Nostalgia is a funny thing; it's essentially just left-over good feelings and impressions from an earlier time in life, but old or not those feelings can still be strong enough to influence people in strange ways. In an almost religious experience, someone can recapture maudlin memories of a more innocent past through nostalgia, and the stronger that experience is, the stronger the reluctance to re-visit the cult object of that nostalgia with objective eyes, much like a religious person might mentally block themselves from logical evaluation of their belief, jealously guarding the subject of worship ("faith", they call it, and the same terms could be similarly applied to the attitude of the metal community towards certain classics). Haven't you ever heard someone casually dismiss an album (or movie, or book, or whatever) you've loved for years, and you get mad, not because they're necessarily wrong but because you can't muster a rational defense on the spot so you're secretly afraid they're right? The anger is blown all out of proportion as well, as if they'd insulted a close friend who recently died or something (to this day I still get pissed whenever people say bad things about Transformers: The Movie, wanna fight about it?). I think this is where those things people call "guilty pleasures" arise; to their modern standards the music is lacking, but the nostalgia still allows them to enjoy the music despite being more or less aware of that lack. Unfortunately, other people get equal but opposite perverted pleasure from slaughtering the sacred classic cows, often as messily as possible (I'm sure if you look hard enough you could turn up evidence of that, maybe even somewhere else on this very page). Whether at heart the crusaders of truth they claim themselves to be, or more akin to those nimrods who like to spoil the end of movies for a cheap laugh (SNAPEKILLSDUMBLEDORELOL), these individuals often blunder way off into exaggerated territory, as perhaps they're too wrapped up in gleeful mental images of frothing fanboys to worry about anything like doing an album justice. Both stances are immature, and counter-productive to approaching the album's true worth, despite whatever reactionary, exaggerated reviews might be written to "balance the scales" or some similar bullshit. Is truth some kind of paperclip you have to bend further than you want it to get it to retain the proper shape? Now, I'm hardly the first to give The Number of the Beast a moderate score, but I hope after reading this at least one or two of those people who feel anything less than 100% is slander or anything more than 0% is a travesty will think twice about writing such reactionary nonsense. A word to the wise: 99% of albums are going to fall between those scores. And this concludes the preachy portion of the review.

Iron Maiden are a band that writes great songs, not great albums; viewed as a whole, there's not nearly enough artistic depth to The Number of the Beast for it to be considered a masterpiece, despite the excellence of "Hallowed Be Thy Name". Entertainment is fine for what it is, but the album fails at even that on more than one significant occasion. Given Iron Maiden's previous and subsequent albums, not to mention the phenomenal closing track, this one leaves a lot to be desired. The final track is a must-hear, but even the best of the rest isn't worth more than an occasional listen. Even if you totally disagree with this review, I hope it least at encourages people to really scrutinize The Number of the Beast, and similar albums as well. Metal has too many sacred cows.