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I’m quite a big Maiden fan, so whenever there’s a new band/project that features any of the Maiden members, I would definitely look forward to checking them out. Unfortunately, the recent Adrian Smith’s Primal Rock Rebellion was quite a disappointment, though Bruce Dickinson‘s solo albums turned out pretty well and the short-lived WhoCares was pretty impressive as well (though that shouldn’t be surprising considering the all-star lineup).
And here we have Steve Harris‘ side band with their first album, British Lion.But British Lion isn’t exactly a brand new project as the original band started back in 1992, with Steve Harris only joining in the creative process much later after the demise of the original British Lion. So with Steve Harris helming the band that he once mentored, my personal expectations for the album are rather high, with his history of producing classic albums with Maiden.
Unfortunately, the album falls rather short of expectations. Expect no Maiden here as Steve Harris‘ British Lion is more mainstream, hard rock with melodic, catchy hooks and grooves. Album opener This Is My God starts off with a rather groovy riff, but this is about as heavy as the track is gonna get. Unlike the complex music that Maiden has released throughout most of its history, the music on British Lion is mostly straightforward rock, with little surprises hidden on the album and probably the most “complex” part of the album beign Steve Harris’ trademark style of playing of the bass like another lead instrument, minus the aggressive galloping that he usually has.
To be honest, while there isn’t anything that stands out in particular over here, there is nothing really offensive as well in the songwriting and the music. The musicians are all pretty good on their instruments (what else could one expect from a band that was once mentored by Steve Harris?), with guitarists David and Grahame using various effects on their guitars to give them some unique flavour, like towards the ending of This Is My God. The main gripe I had with British Lion was the vocals of Richard Taylor, and without discrediting his vocal abilities, I found his style rather unsuitable for the band’s music, lacking the much needed aggression on the harder parts of the album like on Karma Killer, and his light, singing style definitely did not click well with me though admittedly on the more mellow parts of the album his vocal style certainly suits the music like a glove.
I guess it isn’t that surprising that the music on British Lion takes a different direction from Maiden, with this album being a rather mainstream oriented hard rock album that would capture those looking for some easy listening music.
Every artist has that one work that never got a chance to get off the ground and that they’d do just about anything to bring into the light fully developed. After all, that is why Guns ‘N Roses eventually finished Chinese Democracy after spending over a decade as the rock world’s biggest punch line: It is just sickening to see a dream fester and die in spite of your efforts to bring it into fruition. But what happens when an idea has been in limbo for so long that it is unable to ever fully be realized?
Enter British Lion, the debut solo album by Iron Maiden mastermind Steve Harris and one with a rather odd backstory. Largely consisting of material that was intended for a band of the same name that he wrote for and mentored in the early 90s, Harris has finally taken the material out of Development Hell and brought some of the original players along for the ride. The results are controversial to say the least.
Even if Harris has been the main writer for Iron Maiden for over three decades, it is still naïve to assume that the sound is anything like his main band. Sure there are some melodic metal tinges on songs such as “Us Against The World” and “These Are The Hands,” but it would be a stretch to call this metal in any sense of the word. I hate to label this with such a lame tag, but it may be better to just call this a rock album. The overall sound is one of unclassifiable genericness but there are influences from post-grunge, alternative, and classic 70s rock to be found throughout.
And with being such an oddly put together album, it isn’t too surprising to say that the band is somewhat disjointed. As expected, the bass playing dominates the mix and compete with the guitars as both drive the songwriting. On the other end, the drums aren’t particularly flashy and the lead singer sounds like an odd cross between Bruce Dickinson and Don Dokken. I don’t think the vocals are quite as awful as some have pointed out, but there is no denying that they do suffer from a distinct lack of power.
But while the sound is rather generic and the performances are mixed, the songwriting is what ultimately saves this album from the scrap heap. There aren’t exactly any classic or mind blowing moments on here but this is one of those weird albums where the second half is better than the first, a welcome observation considering how the first three songs always remind me of the times Dream Theater tried to go modern rock. (Anyone else remember “You Not Me?”)
Predictably, the tracks that hint at metal influence are the best on here with “Us Against The World” and “These Are The Hands” offering melodic guitars and hopeful choruses. “The Chosen Ones,” “A World Without Heaven,” and “Eyes Of The Young” also stand out as memorable highlights though the vocals’ lack of charisma does make one wonder what they could’ve sounded like if the Air Raid Siren had gotten the chance to make them his own. “Judas” is also pretty solid but that melody segment comes in too abruptly for it to be a true standout.
Overall, Steve Harris’s first solo release is quite the mixed bag though not the vulgar display of failure that some have suspected. The sound and performances will be enough to turn some off the effort but those who stick around may find some potential in the writing involved. It is a warning to those artists that have a project that needs to be revived and a pit stop for anxious Iron Maiden fans. So when’s Bruce going to get another solo album out there? It’s been seven years already!
“Us Against The World”
“The Chosen Ones”
“A World Without Heaven”
“Eyes Of The Young”
“These Are The Hands”
A well established icon lending his name to an unknown project is a real gamble, not so much for the sake of the icon, but for that of the project. While it can prove to be invaluable in getting the word out in a way that old fashioned leg work can't, it also brings in a level of expectation that can prove to be insurmountable. Add to the equation that the icon in question is none other than Steve Harris, famed NWOBHM pioneer and founder of a metal institution in that of Iron Maiden, and it's impossible to understate the level of expectation that is sure to follow. This project, ironic enough, has been about 20 years in the making, and when accounting for the time period that the idea was first floated and discounting the amount of hype that surely follows a band carrying this name, the result isn't all that bad.
A number of people have likened the sound present on this album to a quirky mixture of alternative metal and some traditional hard rock influences, but the actual picture is more along the lines of an almost pure 1970s rock homage with a modern production. On a few occasions it seems as though the band is veering into progressive territory, which kind of fits since the singer has one of those subdued, squeaky clean tenor voices that normally gets employed by bands paying homage to Dream Theater, but the formula never wanders off into the typical mishmash of time signature changes and outlandish rhythmic twists. The closest they get to that sort of sound is on the opener "This Is My God", which goes through some syncopated motions and has a sort of jam band feel to it, but ultimately this song doesn't veer too far away from a traditional pop/rock song structure and the lead guitar parts, though loaded up with wah-pedal noise, are pretty safe and standard.
In a manner of speaking, "British Lion" is all but the antithesis of an Iron Maiden album, in that the name of their game seems to be easily digestible, catchy tunes rather than impressive, long-winded compositions. "Lost Worlds" and "Eyes Of The Young" are pretty much light rockers that are fit for mainstream radio, and seem to take a fair amount of influence from some of the later 70s arena rock bands. "The Chosen Ones" sees that band actually forgetting that they are an original band and sneaks in some heavily familiar musical paraphrases from a number of famous songs by Boston ("Don't Look Back" and "Long Time" in particular). Pretty much the only thing on here that could be categorized as outright metallic is "A World Without Heaven" which has a fair amount of Krokus and Ozzy Osbourne influences to it; all but literally casting off all the 70s influences in favor of an all out hair band approach.
While this is definitely a fun album the first time through, after a few follow up listens, it starts to wear thin and shows some pretty sizable flaws. Despite the novel concept of revisiting a rather exciting period in hard rock history and giving it a modern twist, most of these songs tend to drift off into forgettable territory, largely due to there not being a lot behind the performances. The guitar work is less an inspired fit of nostalgia than just a series of derivative quotes that, while competently done, don't really go much of anywhere. Steve Harris' bass work basically dwarfs the rest of the arrangement, more so because it's high in the mix than being overtly impressive, but he does manage to sneak in a few signature tricks to give the overall sound a little punch. The only other thing on here that really manages to push its way through and be distinctive is the vocal work, and it proves to be a one-trick pony spread over an act that goes on for just a bit too long.
Any negative reaction that this album receives because of the expectations attached to Steve Harris' name are pretty well justified, since on its own, "British Lion" is intended for a very different audience than the one it has been attracting, one that is smaller and generally of a less fervent nature than the Iron Maiden rank and file. But taken in itself, this album gets the job done for what it is trying to do and will probably appeal to some 70s hard rock enthusiasts who also ate up retro-rock bands like Jet, Coheed And Cambria, and a few others a few years back. Just don't listen to this expecting a metal album, let alone something along the lines of what Bruce Dickinson does under his own name.
Even though Iron Maiden didn’t release any new material apart of the live release “En Vivo!” in the beginning of the year and the quite average Deep Purple cover “Space Truckin’” for a compilation, this year can still overall be considered as a success for the band thanks to a successful “Maiden England” tour through North America. In the beginning of the year, guitarist Adrian Smith also joined forces with Mikee Goodman of SikTh for their alternative metal project named Primal Rock Rebellion that came as a fresh surprise. Now it’s the turn of Iron Maiden's bass player and band leader Steve Harris who joins forces with four British musicians and several session musicians for a record entitled “British Lion”.
In fact, there was a band composed of some of the musicians who now play with Steve Harris that had a band under this name and who asked Steve Harris to help them with production twenty years ago. Steve Harris initially agreed but Iron Maiden lived quite a difficult time with the departure of singer Bruce Dickinson and the search for a new front man who would later be found with Blaze Bayley and Steve Harris also had some personal issues with a tough divorce that didn’t give him the occasion to help the young band. Their members also went through some hard times and eventually split up. Several years later, a few members of the split-up British Lion band created a new band and this time, Steve Harris was able to join some of their writing sessions. This is what later became the so-called solo album by Steve Harris. This album should though rather be considered as a band project where the name of the famous bassist only helps to increase sales figures.
Honestly said, nobody would even notice this record if the name of Steve Harris wasn’t written on the cover. The band performs something like an alternative rock release with a few heavy metal influences that simply lacks of energy and innovation.
The bass guitar sound is dominant but sometimes too much and the licks and riffs are not as dynamical or original as they happen to be in Iron Maiden.
Steve Harris’ performance on here is rather disappointing but he is still better than the two guitar players who mostly play unspectacular and monotonous riffs and faceless solos.
But it’s even getting worse if you’re listening to the drum sound. One regular band member and two session musicians performed the drums that lack of dynamism and sound worse than drum computers. Too many cooks spoil the broth, especially when all of those cooks seem to lack of emotional and technical skills. The drumming on the last Running Wild record was definitely better as this quite one that is close to the bad sound of the last Manowar release. I’m though not surprised by the bad quality as the record was mixed by the overrated Kevin Shirley and produced by Steve Harris himself who has never had any talent for this kind of job in the past.
But the story’s not yet over. The vocals also fail to impress and sound horribly thin, especially in the harder tracks such as “Us Against The World” or “A World Without Heaven”. They work though better in the more alternative rock tracks of the album such as in the hypnotizing opener “This Is My God” or the warm-hearted “Eyes Of The Young” that has a somewhat charming influence of the eighties’ commercial rock scene and even a surprisingly good production sound apart of the drumming.
Let’s add to the positive side that the band overall improves its skills in the second part of the record starting with the dynamical album highlight “The Chosen Ones” in the middle of the release that gives this album a little boost.
I will try to give you a little advice right now. Just take this record as the debut release of a young alternative rock or metal band. Forget the name of Steve Harris and his connection to the heavy metal legends of Iron Maiden as we’re definitely talking about two completely different worlds. Try to ignore the highly flawed mixing and production, too. You will then realize that there are in fact a couple of quite catchy songs on the album. It’s still nothing outstanding but the record appears definitely better as it did at first sight.
In the end, I don’t know who might truly adore this kind of record as it varies too much between alternative rock tracks, retro rock numbers and a few more heavy metal driven songs to entirely please to a fan of any of those genres. It’s not a bad release but it lacks of direction, innovation and especially an acceptable production. As many fans, I would probably only buy this at a low price as a collector’s item as I also own a certain number of solo records from Blaze Bayley, Paul Di'Anno, Bruce Dickinson or the latest Primal Rock Rebellion release. On the other side, it’s definitely the weakest offering from any Iron Maiden member outside of the band and fails to impress so that one should invest the cash in a different newcomer band that really needs some support.
It is common for a band-oriented musician's solo work to set up everything around them for their performance to be the focal point of the album. Maybe Steve Harris noticed that most of the recent talk about Kyuss has been their bassist(s) and assumed that a guy who could pull of the intro to "100º" for ten minutes and a vocalist that doesn't really fit the band would be a good supporting cast to make everyone talk about the bassist. More likely, he wanted to try out all of the hard rock styles of the last two decades without tainting the name of Iron Maiden.
The album seems to transition through three sections - stuck on the wah padel worse than a Kirk Hammett solo while the vocalist sounds like John Garcia, arpeggio-heavy hard rock with vocals that sound like a non-dynamic Russell Allen, and the radio rock songs that earn the term in a negative way. The last track is a ballad that makes you wait over four minutes for it to get to the heavy part, then the album ends without it getting heavy. I can see why Harris would want to try out these styles, and I'm thankful that he knew that this was side-project material.
What about the bass playing? Mike Portnoy once said that he thinks a good drummer is one who is in a good band, not a drummer who is the showiest. The same thing can be said of the bassist here. His style is perfect for Iron Maiden, but even if it's similar on this album, it just sucks because the music around it is not good. The style of the music doesn't frame the bass playing well either - a power trio format playing something like Manilla Road's "Metal" would be a great way to show that a solid bassist could drive the music, but he does that enough in his main band. This is the album where he can explore what music is like without the familiar comforts of killer riffs and dual guitar leads, a great vocalist, or even Blaze Bayley.
If any of these songs came on the radio, I'd probably change the station.