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A treasure trove of live and rare Maiden - 90%

Cosmic_Equilibrium, August 28th, 2014
Written based on this version: 2002, 6CD, EMI (Europe, first edition, numbered, blue velvet)

This is quite hard to find nowadays as it seems to be out of print, but if you ever manage to track a copy down, buy it pronto. This is a veritable feast of live material and studio B-sides from the greatest heavy metal band ever, so what's not to like?

There are three albums in this box set. BBC Sessions, which contains live recordings from the Radio 1 Rock Show in 1979, Reading Festival 1980, Reading Festival again two years later, and the 1988 Donington Monsters Of Rock headline set. Beast Over Hammersmith, a live recording from London's Hammersmith Odeon on the 1982 tour for Number Of The Beast, and Best Of The B Sides which collects the various odds and sods Maiden have put on the flipside of their singles over the years along with some unreleased material.

The main reason to get this box set is for Beast Over Hammersmith. This album deserves a standalone release, because it's just PHENOMENAL. Maiden have a well-deserved reputation as a great live band but even by their usual standard this show is off the scale. Bruce Dickinson had only relatively recently joined the band and he absolutely gives it his all - this is perhaps the greatest performance he's ever put on tape. He sounds manic, almost possessed and hits some absolutely unearthly screams during the higher parts of the songs. The rest of the band are no slouches either. The energy level is absolutely insane - I don't think I've heard many bands ever come close to this level of intensity in their live performances. With a setlist solely from the first three albums, you can't go wrong here and many of the performances on this album are THE definitive versions of these songs [the rendition of "Killers" is particularly good, as is a version of "Transylvania" which is extended in length with some seriously jaw-dropping guitar improvisation]. Only "Hallowed Be Thy Name" is not up to scratch here - it's better than the timid studio version but it's still not developed into the rip-roaring live monster it would become in later years. This is one of the best live documents ever released.

The other two albums pale in comparison to Hammersmith, but they're mostly good fun. BBC Sessions does what it says on the tin. The Di'Anno line-up performances are interesting although not essential, but for any Maiden fan they're enjoyable. The Reading 1982 set is another good performance but it's not quite up to the standard of Hammersmith.

However the Donington 1988 recording is a let down. Maiden's live performances went downhill in the 80s in intensity [until Janick revitalised them when he joined the band]. The 7th Son tour was by Maiden standards almost pedestrian in energy and performance levels, especially when compared to the manic intensity of Hammersmith, although as the Maiden England release showed the band could still put on a good live show despite the drop-off. But the Donington show isn't good. It's an inexcusable low point. The band don't sound like they're on it at all, and in some places they're clearly struggling to hold it together, especially Bruce. It sounds like the enormity of the occasion just got to them. By Maiden's standards of performance it's deeply lacking. Strangely, this box set therefore represents the peak and nadir of Maiden's live show in the 80s.

The B-Sides album is fun, although it doesn't contain that much in the way of outstanding moments. Of interest are some of the early Maiden tunes, such as "Burning Ambition" which was one of the first songs Harris wrote for the band. However a lot of the B-sides seem to be either novelty joke tracks like "The Sheriff Of Huddersfield", which are entertaining but don't have much replay value, or cover songs. Some of these covers sound OK, but Maiden's sound generally isn't that well suited to cover other bands' material, so a fair few of these songs aren't something you'll listen to that much. There's also one track called "Reach Out" from the mid-80s era which may or may not be a cover [I can't recall] but is flat out terrible regardless. The highlights here, perhaps unexpectedly, are from the Bayley era - The X Factor was one of the very few times Maiden recorded a surplus of material for an album, and two of the outtakes are presented here, "Justice Of The Peace" and "Judgement Day". While I'm not sure either song is up to the uniformly high standards of the material on The X Factor, they're both certainly good tunes ["Justice Of The Peace" has the makings of being a ferocious rocker, but the chorus isn't quite right]. It's a little odd that the other X Factor outtake "I Live My Way" isn't included here though.

So overall, an astoundingly good live album, a collection of BBC live and session recordings that range from very good to shoddy, and an assortment of odds and sods with a few gems buried in it. If it wasn't for the Hammersmith recording I'd hesitate to fully recommend this as a must-have, but Beast Over Hammersmith is officially available nowhere else, so if you see this on sale anywhere, buy it.