Why Iron Maiden are the greatest heavy metal band: Part 2

iron maiden

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.

Iron Maiden have been called pop metal by hard-nosed metal fans. Of course this usage is debatable considering the often-fragmented nature of the heavy metal community. But pop is not a pejorative in this case. It is hard to deny that Iron Maiden write accessible songs that follow predictable chord progressions. Their oeuvre is based around crafting melodies in the time-honored traditions of the folk music of beer halls and campfires; a music of the masses that serves to bring people together, embedding between them something that is not dictated by the vagaries of  fleeting time and trends. Sometimes it is possible to be just a little too jaded to realize that shared experiences are really what make culture grow and thrive. Iron Maiden have provided steady mortar for an exchange of ideas on various subjects, and across three generations. They may be a gateway band to many but they are nobody’s doormat.

It is right to believe
In the need to be free
It’s a time when you die
And without asking why
Can’t you see what they do
They are grinding us down
They are taking our land
That belongs to the clans

– The Clansman

Iron Maiden did one more album with Blaze Bayley. Virtual XI is near-forgotten in the band’s exhausting catalog and while it doesn’t display the grim qualities of its immediate predecessor, it in no way embarrasses a rich legacy. While not on par with the work that was being done by bands like Virgin Steele or Riot in the same time period, these bands nonetheless helped keep real, song-oriented heavy metal consciousness alive in an age of Pantera and Limp Bizkit. Virtual XI would end Bayley’s yeoman service with the band but he is as much an indelible part of the band’s history as his other two, more celebrated counterparts.

The return of Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith to the fold transformed the band from veterans treading water (at least in the public eye) to a level of global renown that exceeded perhaps even their 80s heyday. From the very first notes of ‘Wicker Man’ you knew that this was a band rejuvenated and eager to make a point. Brave New World ushered in a new style of writing for Iron Maiden; while individual components remained much the same, they were wrapped together in a far more consistently epic and melancholic format. Acknowledging the debt from semi-progressive bands like Uriah Heep and Wishbone Ash, this was a far more liberated Maiden, still in touch with their knack for writing a catchy hook but with no quarter given to commercial song formats. What has been called “long-winded and rambling” by some has in fact been a refreshing rebuttal of radio-friendly norms by a mainstream heavy metal band. Where previously a song or two at most would be reserved for epic treatment, Iron Maiden‘s work since their “reunion” has regularly featured ambitious arrangements for vast portions of albums.

Dance Of Death acts as a segue, testing the new territory the band had started harvesting on Brave New World, and it does so appreciably too. But what has truly cemented Iron Maiden’s place in heavy metal annals is their work on their most recent two albums. A Matter Of Life And Death and The Final Frontier are two of the longest and most emotionally resonant albums of the band’s career. Deep into extra-time, Iron Maiden have tapped into some hitherto mythical wellspring of inspiration, creating entire albums of atmospheric richness, detail, and thematic unity. The former is a mature meditation on war, heroic and tragic in equal part, and standing alongside The X-Factor as the darkest album the band has ever done. The Final Frontier, on the other hand, is of a more personal nature, delicate almost in the way it unfurls over its length. Seamless in progression, these two albums are bright examples of writing progressive music, not through technical showmanship but through time-revered principles of story-telling and concern for melody. Not content to simply be a touring, dinosaur act like Metallica, Iron Maiden are writing relevant, fulfilling music in an entirely different paradigm from their classic era.

Above is one of the most rousing renditions of the classic ‘Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’ performed five years ago in New Jersey. The band is at their theatrical best, transitioning through the epic song’s multiple parts with ease and more importantly, still having fun doing it twenty five years after writing it. But wait till the 9:35 minute mark when one of the great breaks in metal is in full stride. There is a kid in the front row and he has the look of the most awe-inspired delight on his face as the pyros go off and the band cavort around on stage in typically unbridled pixie-like litheness. His dreams and wishes have come to consummation in that instant, finally seeing his heroes in the flesh, soaking in Samuel Coleridge’s magical world come to life. He may not realize it then but these moments grow few and far between as time goes by but for those brief seconds he, and indeed all of us, share in that childlike wonder.

And that’s when it really hits you: we’ve grown so used to Iron Maiden being a musical constant in our lives that we sometimes take them for granted. But Iron Maiden aren’t a young band anymore, with members edging towards their sixties. What they’re doing right now is a valedictory lap for the fans who’ve seen them through times great, good, and bad. Once they go, they are gone forever and so goes a chapter of heavy metal into the history books. Bands the like of Iron Maiden will never be seen again, unique product of a unique environment as they are. They have been immaculate custodians of heavy metal for almost forty years and have rarely if ever given legitimate cause for grievance. They deserve a tip of the hat and a cool drink for a job well done as they return back into the shade.

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