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An absolute masterwork of proto-power metal - 93%

MetalSupremacy, January 17th, 2010

I don't get it. As in, I don't get the way things work with regards to Iron Maiden and the relationship between them, their albums, and their fans. The first album is often considered a classic, but usually only by fans who started with that album or who were around when it first came out. Other than that it's underrated. The same applies to Killers - and I'm not really talking about the mainstream media here, this is almost all to do with the fans. Also quite underrated. Then we get Number Of The Beast, which I would very comfortably call overrated, but good nonetheless. Then - well, then we get the four albums where Maiden were at about their most epic, and apparently each one was a stepping stone in the right direction, but while Piece of Mind is considered a strong album, it's often regarded as inferior to Powerslave, which along with the album after this one is among the most overrated albums in metal history. Hell, Powerslave isn't even metal most of the time(that, however, is another review).

My point is that, to be blunt, a lot of the opinions of most Maiden fans seem to have a rather distasteful tendency to cater towards the albums that casual fans and the mainstream media love the most, rather than the albums that are genuinely the best or the most metal. And indeed, I would say that Number Of The Beast, Powerslave and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son are all either mostly or partly too mainstream and commercial. In some places they actually embody the metal spirit, but in others they shit on it. And albums such as this one and Piece Of Mind are, although not actually ignored, definitely underrated.

And when listening to an album such as this, it's hard to see why. Piece Of Mind was great, being infinitely more consistent than NOTB and far more metal than Powerslave could ever be. But it wasn't a masterpiece. This album, on the other hand, is not only a total masterpiece, but actually has some songs that reach such a level of utter sublimity as to be near musical perfection - and here, Maiden does all of this without selling out or becoming overly accessible, as they did on the records directly before and after this one. I submit that Somewhere In Time is not only brilliant but also one of the greatest albums ever recorded in the entire history of heavy metal. 98% of everything is done right here, with only one or two moments(not entire songs)that are just occasionally, slightly weak in comparison to the awesomeness that surrounds them.

So why do fans often pass up this album in favour of Powerslave and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son? I'm not certain of this, but the likely truth is depressing and disgusting beyond all belief. Quite simply, it's that the mainstream loves those albums, as do the casual fans, and it's not hard to see why - despite having occasional moments of brilliance, they lean towards pop-metal so frequently as to barely constitute real heavy metal at all, let alone heavy fucking metal. The notion that hardcore fans would so often feel the same way as pop listeners, mainstream music magazines and casual fans is fucking disgraceful, but considering how loved that piece of shit known as Powerslave is I don't really doubt it anymore. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who loves real music and real metal should ignore the opinions of pop fags and all of their ilk, and anyone remotely similar to them entirely and judge on a proper basis what is better music. And I have, and after listening to all three albums more than enough times to judge, I can comfortably say that Somewhere In Time is more metal, less pop friendly and more interesting, progressive and complex than either its predecessor or successor, the former by an enormous way and the latter by still a fairly long one.

Not only that, but amazingly, it actually manages to be equally as melodic and in its own way fairly accessible while still being extremely progressive and epic to the highest degrees. This is Iron Maiden at their finest, as here they take all of the epic elements that they were developing in their previous two albums(admittedly, Powerslave did have one amazing song, that being its 13 and a half minute closer)and expand upon them using synths to make everything even more grandiose and magnificent than ever before. While I almost always err on the side of Priest during debates as to which band is better, and while I would take Screaming For Vengeance and Defenders Of The Faith over NOTB or Powerslave any day, this album is the one case where Iron Maiden actually stayed truer to the spirit of metal than Judas Priest. Turbo, the Priest album that came out the same year as Somewhere In Time, made heavy use of synths, but they did so in order to be more accessible and commercial in a very pop-metal way. Somewhere In Time, on the other hand, uses synths to expand their sound and increase the level of progressiveness and complexity further, and even when the music is made more melodic by the synths, it's never made overly accessible.(It's probably for this reason that Iron Maiden is regarded as being more uncompromising and true to metal as Priest overall, which actually isn't true for the most part but in this case certainly was, I have to admit)As such, Turbo was a glam metal album far too radio-friendly to be real heavy metal, while Somewhere In Time is proto-power metal at its finest and less radio-friendly than a lot of Maiden's other 80's albums.

In addition to all of these elements, this album also has another incredible strength in that it has two songs so sublime that if they were the only good songs on the album, it would still get a good rating. Those songs would be the opener and the closer, which is another stroke of brilliance since the album not only sucks you in fantastically, but also ends masterfully. If this was all that was good about the album it would still kick a huge ton of ass. But it isn't, as there are another six songs here, and amazingly none of them are genuinely weak! One thing I've often criticised Maiden for is their inconsistency, both from album to album and from song to song. Along with Piece Of Mind, the debut and Killers, this album mostly breaks that mold, because although not all of the songs are equally good, none of them are bad. They just have the occasional weak moment, and nothing so terrible as to ruin anything. Of course Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son is also extremely consistent, but that album was too light and commercial. Somewhere In Time is not.

There are yet more reasons why this album is such as a masterpiece. Moving past the things I've already discussed, let's go on to heaviness. This album has tons of it. Great, big, heaving tons, actually, to the point where combined with the almost extreme levels of speed in places it leans very close to thrash and speed metal. It also knows when to slow down though as to not become monotonous, and that's another thing that goes towards making it in some ways full-on power metal, and even more incredibly does so in a way that is startlingly ahead of its time. It uses slow, crushing riffs in some places(Stranger In A Strange Land, parts of Sea Of Madness and Alexander The Great), mid paced chugging ones in others(Wasted Years, the rest of Alexander The Great), and even ridiculously fast and aggressive ones(The title track, lots of Sea Of Madness, Heaven Can Wait, lots of The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner and Deja Vu). And it does all this with a monstrous guitar tone, one heavier and thicker than anything they previously had. It really helps to make an album true heavy metal if it actually sounds heavy as fuck. This album does, and this also helps in the faster sections and is perhaps another reason why this album is less appealing to casual fans than Powerslave or Seventh Son - the sheer fucking heaviness of it is too much for weaklings. And so it should be - they don't even want to hear heavy fucking metal, they want to hear nice hard rock and just feel very relaxed about it. Fuck that. Those posers have no place in metal yet they have corrupted the minds of otherwise good people into thinking this album is weaker than its predecessor and successor, when the absolute opposite is the real truth. The real answer is simple: don't listen to casual fans or pop magazines because they know shit all about real heavy metal. This is metal for genuine metalheads - hardcore, heavy as fuck, metal as fuck and extremely progressive, complicated and amazingly epic while still retaining a strong sense of melody without selling out.

Somewhere In Time hits you over the head with heavy riff after heavy riff, and when it does go into the melodic harmonised riffs, it does so appropriately and tastefully instead of in order to make the album more accessible to non-metalheads. And the way the synths and guitars are all combined together with incredible songwriting and stunning progressiveness makes this in a lot of ways more than just proto-power metal, but actually real power metal that was doing stuff the rest of the actual power metal scene wouldn't do for nearly ten years. They all focused on speed more than anything else - case in point being Helloween, whose debut came out just one year before this album. It was speed metal, very different from the power metal that would come later. The Keeper Of The Seven Keys albums were certainly power metal, but still focused mainly on speed and in a lot of ways actually sounded very much like Iron Maiden. But Maiden were first - with this album they may very well have laid the seeds for everything that followed - all of the complex, progressive and epic elements of the genre that would not be refined until the 90's. Blind Guardian's Imaginations From The Other Side is a good example of all of the best elements of power metal coming together as one. This is a prototypical example of effectively the same thing, only nine years earlier.

And that's another amazing thing about this album - while there are some incredible moments here and there, for the most part there doesn't appear to be any absolute genius in every song. It's just the way everything comes together as a whole - the guitars, vocals, synths, drums, and bass - and of course the band's songwriting skills, which were at their absolute peak here, especially Steve Harris - that is so brilliant. As such one might imagine that this album is better listened to as a whole than just in separate songs. It works great that way but unlike its follow up, this ain't no concept album and songs such as Caught Somewhere In Time and Alexander The Great are fantastic where listened to alone or as part of the whole.

Before I get onto the songs, I must mention one other thing. The only possible negative aspect of the album, and in many ways it's equally a positive one - a double edged sword, if you will - is its sometimes overly dark nature. One reason Powerslave irritated the shit out of me was its overt lightness and happiness. Somewhere In Time is completely different - it shows, in most of the songs here at least the "dark side" of power metal, or what would become power metal. In some cases it really kicks arse, such as Sea Of Madness. In others, such as some parts of The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner and Deja Vu, the melodies become too sad and depressing and so the album no longer makes you feel good and powerful but brings you down. This is a shame, and it's one of just a couple of slight problems I have with an otherwise brilliant album. Thankfully for the most part it's just content to be reasonably dark while being incredibly epic and properly progressive in a good way, as opposed to the fake pseudo-prog crap on its predecessor.

The album opens with a song so perfect that it's hard to believe the man who wrote it is the same guy who wrote the pop-metal hit "Aces High". That song is "Caught Somewhere In TIme", one of the album's apexes and a good example of how a band with brilliant skills and strong determination can truly do virtually anything if they put their minds to it. It begins with a brilliant harmonised riff, of the melodic kind that I've often complained about in the past, but I won't here because it works so well. The synths are combined with it to create an awesome sound. Then the drumbeats start, and I'm already half headbanging at this point even though there's nothing heavy yet, it's just like that. This continues up until near the 1 minute mark and then the heavy riffs come crashing in underneath a higher-pitched one. Real fucking heaviness, not pansy half heaviness with a flaky guitar tone. Shortly after this Bruce's singing comes in, I am impressed. Is this really the same guy who did the stupid cheesy singing on Aces High and Two Minutes To Midnight, or whose vocal acrobatics on The Duellists sounded like a kangaroo on helium about to explode? I kid myself...yeah, of course that's ol' Bruce. The difference is that he no longer sounds cheesy as fuck and really annoying but is actually singing awesomely. There's a slightly gritty undertone to his voice which he also uses on other parts of this album, on Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, and more majorly on No Prayer For The Dying and Fear Of The Dark, although the latter two are an entirely different kettle of fish that I won't bother discussing here. It just works wonderfully, and this time, so does his more "operatic" kind of singing. How? I don't know, but whatever the reason he just manages to pull it all off without being cheesy even when he goes really high. The chorus is especially awesome, and yeah, it's catchy, but not in that horrible poppy way like some of Maiden's past hits are. It's just memorable and cool and it works really well. It's really bizarre how it works so much better than when he did the highs on the previous album...maybe it's because the music is far stronger. The solo section is also incredible, and this brings us to another brilliant aspect of this song - it's not only really heavy, powerful, and melodic without being gay or weak, but also extremely progressive and epic without sounding like Maiden attempting to be a pretentious art-rock band. Here they are properly progressive, and most importantly, are so in a metal way as opposed to a rock or hard rock one. This song is Maiden's longest opener yet, topping 7 minutes - yet once it gets heavy, it stays heavy and uses the solo to add melody as opposed to overusing harmonised guitar riffs. Finally it ends in a pure heavy metal way with all of the guitars and drums crashing in that winding down manner that's so representative of the genre. What a song. I still cannot understand how Aces High and similar songs are more popular than this one even among hardcore Maiden fans. It's just following the fucking herd, doing what the casual fans and masses do - not very metal at all. But in any case this is a near perfect song that shows what a great songwriter Steve Harris in particular is, although the whole band is obviously very talented.

Remember I said earlier that if the first and last tracks on the album were the only good ones the album would still be great? Thankfully that isn't the case as "Wasted Years" follows the opener, and while not on the same level by any means it's an excellent song nonetheless. This is certainly more catchy and commercial than most of the other songs on here. But unlike prior Maiden "hits", it's not unbearably shitty and is in fact really good. The intro is a little weird, definitely making good use of the synth in a very "spacey" way, and by that I am referring to sounding futuristic, not high. It works though, and then the heavy riffs kick in just before the half minute mark. The brilliant production really accentuates the bottom end of the guitars, resulting in one headbanging quite enjoyably as opposed to trying to headbang to a riff that doesn't even sound heavy because of shitty guitar production. It's a fairly simple song, not too progressive and certainly nothing like the brilliance of the opening song, but that's the thing - this album is not pretentious. It doesn't try to be constantly prog and epic when it doesn't need those aspects in its sound. This song works well as what it is, and again, the production and the guitars' monstrous tone and huge bottom end prevents it from being anything but true heavy fucking metal. It's a shame that this song is more popular than Caught Somewhere In Time though, and really does show that a lot of Maiden fans are more hard rockers and pop listeners than genuine metalheads.

Instead of being comfortable to settle down into something easier, Maiden ups the ente yet again with the almost brutal "Sea Of Madness". One of the heaviest songs on here(not that anything on the album isn't heavy and metal as fuck, but this song is especially so), it opens with a skullcrushing riff that shows, in this case at least, how Iron Maiden simply used synth to make their sound more epic while actually going in an even heavier direction than they had before, while Priest sadly resorted to pop-metal the same year. Anyway, after this skullcrushing continues, Bruce's vocals kick in, and again they work very well. The pre-chorus and chorus are both extremely powerful, both in heaviness and in the way Bruce sings, and the synths here are both majestic and epic. It's a somewhat dark and even melancholic song in a lot of ways but this is no detriment, in fact quite the opposite. A little later we get a clean break, but do I then become incredibly angry at this non-metal moment? No, because in this case it isn't non-metal and sounds nothing like the clean breaks on their other albums. Instead, it makes the song even darker and allows the solo to work even better than it would have otherwise. Then the heaviness returns about a minute later, and remains until the end of the song.

Another thing worth mentioning here is the absolute lack of any blues influence on this album at all. Sure, if one looked hard enough they could probably find a riff using some part of the blues scale somewhere, but for the most part there is nothing like this. NOTB was the last Maiden album with any significant NWOBHM elements, and after that, Maiden became less and less bluesy with each album. Piece Of Mind didn't have much in the way of a NWOBHM sound but there were a few riffs here and there. Powerslave had even less of such as a sound(one part of that album which I actually kind of like), and had three songs that very strongly influenced early power metal. Somewhere In Time, though, was a far bigger step away from this sound into something closer to speed and thrash metal with a really strong melodic sense and a great deal of heaviness with virtually no bluesy sounds or NWOBHM elements at all - thus it is proto-power metal.

Following the brilliance of Sea Of Madness, one might assume that this album can't possibly stay equally as strong as its beginning, and they would be right, as "Heaven Can Wait" isn't quite as fantastic as any of the preceding tracks. But it's far from bad, and is in fact very good. For a start, it's got truckloads of heaviness and aggression, with the speed now reaching thrash like levels and the riffs crushing - and indeed, a lot of the song is great heavy fucking metal. The two main problems the song has are this: the intro is overlong and slightly annoying, and the chorus is irritatingly happy and, unlike virtually anything else on the album actually does sound quite cheesy. No, make that very cheesy. But it's still quite acceptable. Why? Because aside from the chorus(the intro ain't that bad), everything else about this song is actually pretty fucking awesome. First off, as I said the riffs are crushing and this is pretty much speed or thrash. There are a mixture of aggressive riffs and slower chugging ones, even a chugging breakdown somewhere - I give up, this is pretty much a cross between thrash and power with some good ol' plain heavy thrown in for good measure. In addition, like the title track it's over 7 minutes long and very progressive - there are two solos, one somewhere around the two minute mark and another a couple of minutes later. In between them is a slower crushing section with some great vocals from Bruce and good use of synth and lead. Then the song goes back to its original pattern and finally ends. If one can look past the chorus, this song actually kicks ass.

At this point we come to "The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner", a song that is for the most part brilliant, and only has a couple of weak points. It starts out with a slightly depressing lead which repeats a few times, then a slow heavy riff starts underneath with slightly heavier drumbeats, which also repeats, and just before the 1 minute mark it gets almost brutally heavy as crushing semi-thrash riffs come in along with Bruce's vocals. This is not astounding stuff, but works great anyway, as does the chorus. Then we come to the one part of the song I have a problem with - a clean break made up of harmonised lead guitar riffs. It's not bad, and it's definitely far better than the shitty commercial harmonised riffs on a certain other Maiden album. But it's still somewhat unnecessary, or maybe it isn't...I'm not sure. All I do know is that a lot of this section uses very depressing melodies. I wouldn't normally mind this, and I certainly prefer it to overly happy harmonised riffs. Except for the fact that whenever I hear this section, I get this horrible mental image of used tires bouncing across a road under a desolate grey sky in some horrible, industrial, cheap city, and then an image of a fucking emo kid alone in a ridiculously desolate park also under a grey sky, listening to this song and being all depressive and cutting his wrists. Disgusting. Then I am reminded of a woman who I love, who may not reciprocate my affections, and I feel no better than one of those fucking emo faggots, and I get depressed and angry. That pretty much makes the song rather unpleasant to listen to.

The rest of this song is good, and even that section is good - it just makes me feel negative and for obvious reasons I don't like that. Unfortunately it means that a song I otherwise like is very hard to enjoy because it makes me feel down.

Following this, we come to what is in a lot of ways my least favourite song on this album, but which is still good nevertheless, as "Stranger In A Strange Land" starts. It begins with bass and a drumbeat before the heavy guitars come in. It's much slower than anything else on here, but still retains a proto-power metal feel due to the synths and some of the leads. Unfortunately it has a clean break which is slightly annoying, but because the solo playing during it is so good it's still superior to the clean breaks on this album's predecessor. Then the heaviness returns. It's a good song, just nothing exceptional. I must point out that the way the riff fades off under Bruce's vocals and then comes back is a little annoying too, but it's not that big of a deal.

Wow, is this album consistent or what? I've gone through six entire songs and not a single one of them has been bad by any means. And the quality doesn't let up there, as "Deja Vu" is one of the strongest songs on the album. Beginning with some synth playing under a slightly depressive lead, this fades out and then the drums kick in with, unfortunately, a harmonised lead riff that makes me feel very sad if I think about it too much. This, too, is related to the same problem with the same woman and is really quite silly, but true. If I don't and just try to enjoy it, though, I find it to be a great song. After this riff the song gets heavy - really fucking heavy. The drumbeats here are close to full on thrash beats, and the speed and heaviness of the guitars is pretty extreme by Maiden standards too. Bruce's vocals are again great here, proving that when he's more restrained, or given better material to work with, he sings great. When he's allowed to write half the songs on the album and be as cheesy as he likes is when things go wrong, as has happened unfortunately many times over Maiden's career. This song also has a great middle section which is kind of clean, but with really great guitaring, really epic and all of that. It's also a bit depressing in some ways, which is weird as most of the melodies Maiden use aren't, but this album seems to have plenty of them. Odd. The song ends on a good, heavy note. A great song regardless.

However, the best is yet to come, as Iron Maiden now pull out all of the stops for the last song on the album. Hell, they've been pulling out all of the stops for the entire album really - that's why it kicks so much arse. Maiden really did everything right here, and the final song is just the icing on the cake, but what a delicious icing that is. We are talking about "Alexander The Great", an absolute masterpiece in numerous ways, with one or two slight faults that nevertheless do not stop it from ending this album gloriously to say the least. It opens with a quote from Philip Of Macedon and some wind effects, which creates an epic mood right from the start. Then the drumbeat and synths begin, or is it guitars? In this case I'm actually not sure, but this whole section is very light. This is one of the two minor problems I have with this otherwise amazing song - the intro is too long. The whole section repeats a couple of times, but does so very slowly, and then there is a guitar solo played over the drumbeat instead with one of the main melodies. It's great, but did the intro really need to be over a minute and a half long? Actually, maybe it did. That's the thing - I say that I would prefer it to be shorter, but if it was, would it still work as well? Probably not, because this is a song where all of the separate parts come together to form one great whole. They all need to be there, and if the intro was trimmed there wouldn't be the great build up before the heaviness kicks in at around 1:36 into the song. From that point onwards the song is no longer just good but truly awesome. The riffs are slightly middle-eastern sounding here but this is perfectly appropriate given the subject matter. Bruce's vocals are at their most theatrical on this song, and some could look upon the whole thing as somewhat cheesy considering the way it is done. But to be honest, I'm loving it so much that I couldn't care less. It's that brilliant. There's a great use of a harmonised guitar riff not too long after the first chorus which is actually awesome, and when it comes around for a third and fourth time combined with the synths in a higher pitch it becomes close to sublime. So epic and majestic, just like the song's subject matter. It just sounds so grandiose, even more so than anything else on the album so far. After another vocal section we reach the song's second weak point, and unfortunately this is something really annoying that could have been changed. It's a clean break lasting about 40 seconds that has no purpose whatsoever. It could easily have been heavy guitars instead of clean. I suppose they put it in there for an effect of contrast, and it doesn't seem to be done for commercial reasons so I don't hate it, but it's annoying. After this however the song is completely perfect. As the clean break ends heavy riffs come crashing back down with a strange effect and a really strong middle-eastern overtone. Truly epic. Then chugging riffs begin, and over them a brilliant solo commences. This whole section lasts about two minutes. This is how to do prog-metal, kids. Not overuse of clean breaks and harmonised riffs that go nowhere, but genuinely complex songs that also don't try too hard to appeal to the fucking mainstream. The little bass breaks in this section are a little odd, but only serve to make everything more progressive, which for this song is definitely a good thing. Finally, Bruce's vocals come back in, and after a little more of this the song ends with the heavy sort of middle eastern riffs that originally started about six minutes earlier. Wow, what a song!

I'm still baffled by the number of fans who claim that this album is a stepping stone between Powerslave and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son and weaker than both of them, because as far as I can see it's the absolute opposite. Powerslave was an inferior stepping stone to the truly majestic, epic, and progressive, genuinely proto-power metal songs on this masterful album. Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son was a good followup but too pretentious for its own good with being a concept album and all in addition to being too commercial and not very metal in many places. I don't know why more people don't see things this way...I guess the mainstream has corrupted their opinions.

I'll briefly touch on one other thing which I think is a big part of why this album kicks so much ass. Bruce's contribution, or more accurately the lack of it. On every other single Maiden album he's sung on save for NOTB, he's always contributed writing to at least one song. Here he is just Maiden's vocalist, albeit a very good one, and seems to be more restrained and mature in that regard too(I.E. no stupid vocal acrobatics like the shit he pulled on The Duelists, again a song from Powerslave. Grrrrr....). Almost every song here was written by Steve Harris, and a couple by Adrian Smith. The result? Iron Maiden's strongest album overall. From the guitars, to the vocals, to the bass, to the drums, to the synths, and the speed, power, progressiveness and aggression all together - everything here just works. I'd go as far as saying this is even stronger than the debut and Killers.

Sure it's a shame that ol' Bruce didn't write any of the songs, but on the other hand maybe it isn't. Most of the Maiden songs I hate the most were either co-written or entirely written by him. Bruce is great for the most part, but it's pretty weird how Maiden's best album, which ironically also has one or Bruce's best performances by a long way, is also the only album aside from NOTB which he did not contribute to in a songwriting sense at all.

If you want to know why this album is so awesome in a nutshell, just listen to Caught Somewhere In Time and then to Alexander The Great. Those two songs showcase everything great about this album, as well as everything Maiden does best. If you're not impressed, then you're a fucking poser.

All in all, it just comes down to, if not the fact that Bruce had no songwriting contributions, the simple nature of the way things happen - Maiden were in a good way at the time, and they really did pull out all of the stops here. And it really does work that well. If you want to hear real heavy metal with real metal riffs that are heavy and metal as fuck that also has brilliant use of melody in a way that is not overly commercial, fantastic and tasteful use of synths, brilliant speed and aggression combined with musical beauty and stunning progressiveness and epic songs of the greatest kind - all rounding out as a collection of brilliant, genuinely prog proto-power metal songs, then look no further than this album.