It’s the Free Bird of metal, only tighter, more controlled, less indulgent, not a note wasted, still building, all building, to that final vocal line. The final prayer of a dying man.
Hmm, let’s see. I’m going to guess twelfth birthday, here. Maybe thirteenth, but twelfth feels more likely. Appetite, The Headless Children et al. have sunk their vampire fangs deep into me, and I now shun the sunlight fields of chart pop. No, what my darkened, corrupted soul craves is raw rock and metal, preferably still dripping blood.
Yeah, I was kind of a dick at twelve.
Give my dad credit, he knew he didn’t know. In fact, he probably knew I didn’t know either. So the card simply said ‘IOU one cassette of your choice. Dad.’.
In the event, it was Grandma that accompanied me on the trip to the high street. That fits. My birthday is in the summer, and summer holidays at dads, Grandma often came up to babysit my sister and I while Dad worked. It really worked out well for all concerned - Grandma got extended time with her grandkids, Dad got to keep working a bit, and my sister and I didn’t end up killing each other.
So it was Grandma who took me down to the shop. Grandma who stood with infinite patience as I browsed the racks and racks of cassettes, stupefied by the sheer volume of choice. I think it’s possible that, until this moment, I simply hadn’t realised just how much music was out there in the world. The universe of screaming guitars those racks represented, all bearing that hallmark of guaranteed quality - they were in the ‘Metal’ section.
Oh, to be twelve again.
And, I mean, it must have taken me an hour, easily. They were all racked spine up, so I’d have to pull them out, inspect the covers, put them back. I also wasted a significant amount of time looking at albums I already had C-90 taped copies of, feeling in some obscure way that I should buy one of them, to pay back the copying. But there were a few, and I couldn’t decide which one, and anyway, this was a chance to find something actually new, something mine, not some knock off copy from one of my mates cooler older sibling’s collection. Mine.
So slowly but surely, I replaced Appetite, Lies, FNM Live at Brixton Academy, WASP Live In The Raw. I looked instead for something new - something I’d heard of maybe, but not heard myself. I let a combination of artwork, T-Shirts and patches viewed in the wild, logos scribbled on textbooks, and background word of mouth be my guide.
And eventually, I found it.
I think, even then, I knew it wasn’t actually a new album. It was one of the ‘Fame’ cassette re-issues, so was priced at £4.99 rather than the usual £7.99 or £8.99 for a new release. Nevertheless, it was new to me, and it fit the criteria - amazing cover art, killer band logo, and that background radiation of quality. Grandma payed the man, I took it home - I can still remember the feel of the handles of the tiny, red Our Price bag looped over my wrist, so positioned to avoid any chance of me dropping my precious cargo before I got it back to Dad’s house. As soon as we did get back, I pounded up the stairs, slipped the cassette into the twin deck player (the phrase ‘ghetto blaster’ not having quite made North Devon by 1990) and hit play.
The album won me over by the end of the intro to track one. That staccato drum roll/bass line, then into that racing single note riff, three guitars in sync, dropping into the thrashing verse chords… oh yeah, this is the good stuff. Insane vocal, too. It occurs to me now that I probably had no conception as to how hard this kind of singing is to perform, raised as I had been on a diet of Blackie and Axl, my own voice not yet broken - it probably seemed standard, to me.
It’s fair to say I didn’t fully get to grips with the lyrics - riffing off the title, I remember drawing huge stick figure war zones featuring flying saucers and tripods shredding stick figure humanity, which clearly wasn’t quite right. But I got the feel.
The next track had an intro that probably reminded me of Skid Row’s ‘Quicksand Jesus’ - what can I say? Chronology wasn’t my strong point. Nonetheless, it’s powerful stuff - slower, with some ballad-like trappings, the clean guitars in the verses, the deliberate vocal, but in some important way, I could tell it wasn’t a ballad, even before the second chorus dropped into rolling toms and a sinister lyric that brought to mind WASP’s ‘Thunderhead’ - only, you know, actually disturbing as opposed to unintentionally funny. The guitar solo similarly schools Chris Holmes on playing fast and tight. It’s magnificent, as is the decision not to turn back to the verse or chorus, but instead end on that rolling riff.
Track three’s spoken word introduction went right over my head in terms of context (though I loved quoting it, for some reason), but the pounding drum beat and slow opening riff that descended into what was already becoming a familiar, comforting gallop was masterful, and pulled me right in. And I mean, lyrically, nothing’s going to speak more clearly to an increasingly disaffected almost-teenager than an anthem of defiance, singing about such ill-defined but handsome-sounding notions as freedom and living life how I want to. Glorious.
Things get dirty on the next track, both musically and lyrically. The guitars grind and slice, and the vocal sneers it’s story out. And, I mean, thinking intelligently about prostitution at the age of twelve is probably going to be functionally impossible. Nevertheless, there was something sinister about the music, and the second half of the song, that got to me - that seeded the notion that any ill-defined notions of glamour I might have inadvertently attached to that profession (lord knows where from, but that’s the culture for you, I guess) might not be telling the whole story. And, again, I’m an ‘Appetite…’ kid. ‘Turn around bitch, I got a use for you’ was damn near the funniest thing I’d ever heard in my life. And then here was this song, and sure, the lyric is all saying ‘do what you want’ (at least at first), but it’s increasingly clear this isn’t a glimpse into some kind of ‘Paradise City’, if you will, but an altogether darker, more unpleasant, painful place. Thirty seven year old me could pull it apart gleefully, of course; there’s still a fundamental lack of agency for the female ‘protagonist’, the singer’s fantasy about rescuing the whore and taking her home had been done better nearly a decade earlier by Springsteen in ‘Candy’s Room’, and even as an alleged cautionary tale, it’s shot through with casual misogyny. But you know what? As a piece of storytelling, it did twelve year old me a power of good, in terms of exposing a glimpse of what the reality behind the fantasy might actually look like, feel like. That’s not nothing, and to this day, it’s a song that sits in the gut, uncomfortably, long after the final notes have faded.
Side two. Ah, remember side twos? You kids today don’t know you’re born. I remember when this was all just buildings. And there’s a pretty solid tradition that side two doesn’t stack up to side one. It may not be universal, but it’s not far off.
No-one told these guys.
The spoken word intro is pure class, of course, and we’re back to another chugging riff/whispered vocal combination. And it’s brilliant - all Hammer horror imagery and gleeful menace, and then the snare rat-a-tat-tats, and we’re off! The gallop is back, loud and proud, melding with near operatic melodies and satanic lyrics. And this may sound odd, but there’s a joyful innocence to it all, somehow - a 12 year olds conception of being controversial. Really, it’s just an exhilarating ride through a carnival ghost house, and exactly as scary as that sounds - ie, not at all. Great fun though.
And then something very strange happens.
The kick drum high hat tom hit starts, and suddenly I am six years old. I’m six, and three older children and their mother are living with us at The Farm. The youngest of the older children is thirteen. And he has tapes, and on the tapes are music. Including this song. It’s hypnotising. I’m too young to understand what’s happening, musically, but the high notes and chords and drums combine to make… something. Something that tugs on something in me, in my gut. Something that speaks to some part of me not yet awakened, not yet aware. That sleeping thing inside cannot answer, but it does, briefly, stir in it’s slumber, and I experience that stirring as a flutter in my belly.
Other memories shake loose. The children leave, but I am left a copy of that song that hypnotized me so powerfully. I can recall only the intro, not the song, but the intro is the world to me. It howls like the martians in War Of The Worlds, but there’s something else going on, too, something… starker. More powerful.
The tape degrades, and one day, playing it, that eerie sound distorts, crumbles, then grinds. The cassette player mangles the tape irreparably. I am distraught.
For about ten whole minutes.
Then I forget.
I’m hearing it again, here, now, in May 2016. As I hear it, my memory telescopes - I listen to it in crisp, digital quality, and my mind remembers hearing it on cassette at twelve, the edges a little worn, the sound a little warmer, remembering being five and the sound being souply, foggy, but that intro with the power to transfix, and it reaches back through the decades and holds me again, a child again, suspended at 37, at 12, at 5, in awe all over again at the coincidence, at the vault in the mind that music can open, at the rabbit hole of memory, the fucking pit trap, just waiting for the right collection of sounds to hit your eardrum and send you sprawling over and down.
The bubble holds until the verse riff proper begins, the gallop replacing that ethereal wailing, the brutality of the lyric dragging me back into the pounding present. Clearly, I cannot be objective about this song. Fine. I still maintain it’s fucking awesome. The vocal in particular is insane. There are very few singers in the world that could pull this one off.
The next song is I suppose the nearest the album has to a weak track - though in context, that basically means ‘not quite as good as four other amazing songs and three that could fairly be described as genre defining’, so, you know, praising with faint damnation, basically. The rhythm in the verse riffs is maybe a touch overdone, but the middle eight is magnificent, and the solo is a masterclass of form and control. When they hit a groove, it’s still awe inspiring listening.
It could end there, and it’d be one of the greatest metal albums ever.
It doesn’t end there.
Instead, we have the tolling of the bell, the delicate walkdown riff, the low vocal. It’s funereal, majestic, the link back to Sabbath crystal clear, even as the evolution is also manifest. And when the beat picks up, over that insanely held, rising vocal note, into the structured lead riff, well, pick your cliche - it’s a rocket starting to rise, a dragon lifting off, the beginning of an eclipse.
And in an album that contains nothing but well structured songs, they outdo themselves on this final track. The whole song is one slow build, from opening walk to mid paced nod, guitar parts becoming more urgent, more intricate, dropping back into a high note repeat before a rolling flurry, and at last, at the 4:40 mark, the gallop finally explodes, accompanied by a twin guitar riff that is nothing short of epic. They let the riff play on, all guitars hitting the rhythm, the rolls at the end of the patterns, then back to the lead lick. It’s the Free Bird of metal, only tighter, more controlled, less indulgent, not a note wasted, still building, all building, to that final vocal line. The final prayer of a dying man.
I am twelve years old, and I’ve just learned that ‘The Number Of The Beast’ is best metal album in the world.
I am thirty seven years old, and it’s still right up there.
Up the irons.
Coming to Gingernuts of Horror in June - Summer Of Maiden. To celebrate Iron Maiden’s 2016 headline appearance at Download, and the 30th anniversary of their Somewhere In Time album, sixteen of the world’s hottest horror writers will each be sharing with us their memories of the Iron Maiden album catalogue. This series debuts June 8th, when Adam Nevill will share his thoughts on the self titled first album, and ending 28th September, when Craig T. McNeely will be talking Book Of Souls. There will also be articles from people unfamiliar with the Maiden catalogue, giving their honest reactions to classic albums, and an exclusive interview with former Maiden frontman Blaze Bailey.
Seventeen weeks. Seventeen albums. Twenty five writers.
Get ready for the Summer Of Maiden.