Endurance is noble and consistency is laudable but real greatness is fleeting. Everyone acknowledges the mystique associated with bands that burst onto the scene with unspeakable talent only to implode for various reasons, to disappear forever, or worse, to stay on as pale shadows of their former selves. Nothing but nothing, however, compares to that rare phenomenon when an indisputably great band well past its universally recognized heyday finds a second wind, sucking in with gusto as it discovers that it does in fact still have the wherewithal to commit to that one last thrust. The magic peeling off such a band is infectious, and reaffirming, if you’ve ever made an emotional investment in them; it is the self-assured confidence that comes only with years and decades of non-compromise, knowing full well that their music and music alone commands the listener’s attention, having earned their respect and adoration a long time ago. It is the comfort of reaching the home stretch, not unscathed but with integrity and poise in tact, and more importantly, with no redundancy snapping at the heels. Bands like Iron Maiden and Rush, in the twilight of their long careers, still have something selfless to offer to the world of music, having the weight of experience and ineffable craft on their side, that no young upstart can compare with; no shenanigans, no drama, just a final joyous clarion call before they recede into the sunset.
People who say that Iron Maiden have stagnated have simply not been listening to what the band’s been upto since the turn of the century, and especially on the last two albums. It is the same casual dismissal that plagues most bands with extensive back catalogs; be it Motorhead or Manilla Road, it is far too easy to say “it is <insert band name>, you know what it sounds like!”. Great bands, however, find a way to diversify from album to album in ever so subtle ways, working within easily identifiable templates yet tentatively exploring the edges as time passes. The general consensus with respect to Iron Maiden seems to be that their glory run, unrivaled by any band before or since, ended in the 80s, and what has transpired thereafter has only occasionally shown glimpses of their past greatness. But Iron Maiden have fought stasis, and closer meditation on their work post-Fear Of The Dark may reveal a depth of ambition and emotional detail that is every bit the equal of their pinnacle years.
Iron Maiden are of course one of the most important bands, both artistically and commercially, in the heavy metal canon. Frontrunners of the NWOBHM, the street-smart style of their early albums offset the relatively stately rhythms of old masters like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, ushering in an era of more aggressive playing that eventually culminated in the extreme metal underground. The 80s saw the band adopt a more theatrical and epic stance of arrangement, to go with the fondness for themes from literature and history that they exhibited from the outset. If ever a parent were to introduce their child to a more inquisitive way of life through heavy metal, Iron Maiden‘s work in this time period would be without peer; these songs aren’t just from the golden age of metal, they ARE metal itself, demonstrating everything this music encapsulates. To grow up with them, and then to revisit them at a later stage in life, is to risk subjecting oneself to the most exquisitely painful nostalgia. Because, you see, Iron Maiden are the very essence of innocence, once lost and never found, recaptured for a singular instant in the mind.
But Iron Maiden were not a dark band in the traditional sense of the word. Their classic albums boast of extremely memorable arena anthems and moody epics, and the sheer number of these would be enough to consider them among the greatest handful of bands. Rarely, however, did the band lose themselves in true-blue melancholy, relying more on bouncy, slightly happy-sounding melodies to register in the listener’s consciousness. The fans didn’t care, riding on the crest of the band’s seemingly neverending creative spurt, but this “seriousness” was a card that the band simply did not call on often enough; a sticking point that has prevented a few from enjoying this great band as uninhibitedly as they could’ve otherwise.
Yes, Iron Maiden were not a dark band. Until The X-Factor. Often derided for Blaze Bayley’s voice and the band’s listless performance, this album is in fact the band’s second most atmospheric effort, filled with sprawling songs and sparse instrumentation. The latter is a classic example of a band intelligently reining itself in to adapt to a lesser singer; where once the entry of Ronnie James Dio gave Tony Iommi the unbridled freedom to do things he patently could not with the limited Ozzy, and ironically enough, much the same in the case of Bruce Dickinson and Steve Harris, here whole pieces appear to have been written around Bayley’s limitations. Everything seems to be tuned a good deal lower than usual in accordance with Bayley’s baritone, songs are roomier and suffused with an almost obsessive attention to dark mood. Contrary to popular opinion, Bayley’s everyman voice is the shining light of the album, trading Dickinson’s virtuoso skills for a down-and-out and callused, but also honest performance. These songs were written for Blaze Bayley, and as good as Dickinson is, he can never do justice to a song like ‘Lord Of The Flies’ or ‘Fortunes Of War.
[To be continued..]