Ginger Nuts of Horror
Exciting, enthusiastic, this is a band revitalised. I can’t wait to see what they did next.
SUMMER OF MAIDEN, MAIDEN VOYAGE 2 : POWERSLAVE
I’m going to confess a few things right now: Iron Maiden are not my favourite band of all time.
That’s not to say I’m not a fan. There are a lot – a LOT – of genuinely great metal bands out there, but to further outrage and dismay you all, I’m more of a hair metal fan myself. I love the singles put out by bands like Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Metallica, Megadeth etc, but my bands were more your Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Guns’n’Roses, Extreme, Poison types – lustrous locks, power ballads, mainstream anthems, and lots of references to an American childhood I never had, though the kid who got me into Bon Jovi in 1987 actually came from New Jersey, so I’d say that’s legit. These are the bands whose albums I bought; these are the bands I can sing along to, knowing all the words.
This is why I’m perfect for reviewing an Iron Maiden album for the very first time – because I have only ever been aware of them through the singles they released. You are getting a brand new opinion from yours truly, fresh out of the box. I’m sure pretty much anyone with any interest in metal has heard The Number of the Beast, Run To The Hills, Bring Your Daughter and so on when they charted back in the day, but albums? I’d heard none. So it’s surprising to learn that POWERSLAVE is considered to be one of the top three best Iron Maiden albums ever again, given how heavy I thought Iron Maiden were, because this album is NOT as heavy metal as I thought it would be. In fact, in certain places, it’s downright tuneful – RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER, for example, is the kind of prog rock I never imagine Maiden would have done, but it turns out it’s one of the best songs on the album. There are no clunkers on it, it’s an album you would happily play every song off, but I expected it to be… heavier, or something.
I am surprised, also, by how similar many of the songs are on the album. There’s no denying the precision, the artistry and the sheer hard work that has gone into the music – but Maiden are very fond of using similar riffs over and over again. Some bands like to do things differently – arguably, the three Extreme songs “More Than Words”, “Play With Me” and “When I First Met You” are very, very different – the product of a band who wanted to push boundaries musically, both in terms of what they played and in terms of what they thought their audience would be receptive to. It feels, to me, as if Iron Maiden knew at the time of making POWERSLAVE that they knew exactly what their audience wanted, gave it to them, and only deviated very slightly from this very successful formula to give themselves a little more room to be creative. That’s no bad thing, and it’s certainly not a criticism, but I think the reason that an Iron Maiden song is so recognisable is because many of the songs sound very similar.
Without further ado, here’s my review, track by track of POWERSLAVE. My final thoughts follow the reviews below.
ACES HIGH – Straight down to business, that immediately recognisable Maiden sound throws us straight into the song – percussive staccato guns blazing into that rapid-fire guitar, while Bruce’s banshee roar cuts a swathe through the soundscape. A great example of sound and lyrics working perfectly together, the music of ACES HIGH would clue you into the song’s themes before you even glance at the words. Strong, descriptive lyrics underscored by that relentless tempo put you right in the dogfight the song describes, and it’s heady stuff – especially the terse punctuations of “Rolling! Turning! Diving!”. I don’t actually remember this as a single, so this is a nice surprise – POWERSLAVE has opened with a great big bang. This is very good stuff.
TWO MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT – Well constructed, and the most obvious candidate for a single due to its quintessential Maiden sound (Iron Maiden have always been a band whose music is immediately recognisable, even before Bruce’s distinctive vocals kick in), TWO MINUTES is a more polished song than I remember it being. Another song following one of the band’s favourite themes – the futility of war – TWO MINUTES takes its time to hook you, the vocals more prominent to give the lyrics the weight they deserve, and then soars with that urgent chorus. When the solo appears, it is the undisputed highlight of the track – intentionally so, as the fretwork is dialled down during the verses to highlight the lyrics, so this is the guitarist’s time to shine – and he does, before the second half comes in with some pretty confrontational lyrics – “The napalm screams of human flames of a prime time Belsen feast… we oil the jaws of the war machine and feed it with our babies” – and leaves us in no doubt what the band think of the political machinations that lead to war. Can’t argue with this tune – some solid political discourse, classic Bruce howling, and a typically intricate solo. Classic Maiden.
LOSFER WORDS (BIG ‘ORRA) – I can only imagine the glee fans felt on hearing this at a Maiden gig. Absolutely perfect for the moshpit, this is a track that lays down a rhythm that you can headbang along to, before putting in the rises and falls, making this instrumental one of the more predictable but no less enjoyable tracks on the album. You’d expect it to be heavier, but on a decent set of speakers, this would blow your head off, while ensuring your lead guitarist doesn’t get too bored – this is a track to show off what your band can REALLY do. It also kind of sounds like it should have been the theme tune to an 80s Saturday morning cartoon - something like BATTLE OF THE PLANETS, that wonderful Japanese cartoon – it has an unpretentious fun sound to it. You can visualise three guitarists rocking Quo-style to this track. Great fun.
FLASH OF THE BLADES – Our Bruce does love to fence, so this is another of those themes that Maiden come to often, and this track uses tempo and Bruce’s distinctive wail to conjure up images of a desperate fencing duel, the flash of the blades as the advantage passes back and forth between our ferocious opponents. It’s testament to Maiden’s skill at this point that you could tell that this track is describing a fencing duel without a single lyric. It starts with an epic opening riff, building dramatically to an urgent rhythm, delicate fretwork for the cut and thrust of the duel, and a solo that heightens all that went before. One particular note during a chorus is absolutely shattering. Bruce is certainly one vocalist in a class all of his own.
THE DUELLISTS – Another typically Maiden track, building up from a driving, relentless rhythm to the nimble stylings of the lead guitarist, this time accompanied by a very chantable chorus – I imagine this was also a moshpit favourite at their gigs. The instrumental solo is wonderful, and is echoed these days by bands like DRAGONFORCE, who recognise the value of a decent bit of fretwork that sounds as if it were ripped from a C64 game in the late 80s, or an Amiga demo from the early 90s. Like the previous FLASH OF THE BLADES, this does an excellent job of musically describing the action of a duel – you could definitely arrange a badass stage fight to this. (Takes theatre director’s hat off, remembers to be a music critic again).
BACK IN THE VILLAGE – This took me several listens to realise that it is actually all about The Prisoner, the classic cult Patrick McGoohan series! Very slow of me, especially with dead giveaway lyrics such as “throwing dice now, rolling loaded, I see sixes all the way” and “I don’t have a number, I’M A NAME!” in there. Still, this puts a whole new spin on that series, because there’s no way Number Six would have kept up with this – a manic, screaming run-for-your-life track that throws us into the dilemma Number Six had – and no matter how hard and fast he ran, he’d always end up back in the Village again. As you’d expect, Bruce’s vocals give this song the rage, confusion and desperation you’d feel if this happened to you, and the frantic music underpinning this story make this easily the fastest song on the album. I can only imagine the glorious chaos in the moshpit when this came on back in the day.
POWERSLAVE – Title tracks need to have a grandeur that lifts them above the others, as usually they are the overarching theme of the album. Musically, this absolutely fits in with this, with an eerie opening soundscape that gives way to a suitably epic, slower build up to the story of Osiris and his eventual downfall and resurrection. I would have loved to see the stage show to THIS – gigantic Pharaonic Eddie glowering at the hapless mortals in the arena, a massive Pyramid interior backdrop setting the stage, with sarcophagi popping open anywhere and mummies shambling everywhere as the band roar and shriek their way through this stadium-sized anthem. It’s wonderfully atmospheric, with ominous riffs doing battle with mounting percussive incantations, all presided over by Bruce’s apocalyptic vocals giving life to this chamber of horrors. There’s a fun lyric that links Osiris’ death and rebirth to that of Christ, hinted at as Osiris’ descendant – “”When I was living this lie, fear was my game. People would worship and fall, drop to their knees. So bring me the blood and red wine for the one to succeed me, for he is a man and a God – and He will die too.” A slow start to the solo is almost introspective, before hurtling you headlong into a recognisably Maiden solo – epic, loud, intricate, glorious. Definitely the most anthemic song on the album.
RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER – More of that classic staccato tempo that defines this album, RIME is definitely the best song lyrically – there are some lines in here that border on poetic, and not just those two verses taken wholesale from Coleridge’s classic poem, either. Wisely, the band give Bruce’s vocals centre stage in this song, but manage to weave a strange, spooky ambience for this tale of ancient curses and undead seafarers. The bombast suddenly halts, giving way to a sombre piece of music redolent of John Carpenter’s theme from THE FOG; menacing whispering recounts the curse falling on the men who encounter the albatross. A simple, sinister melody plays over this nightmarish interlude, then an upbeat plucked riff brings Bruce back in to build us up to an epic finish, and the loudest rendition of the word “rain” I have ever heard. And with that, a second massive solo kicks in, and you can only imagine the madness going on in the moshpit by the time THIS hits – a magnificent piece of guitar work that gives this king-sized story the heft and gravitas it deserves (and reminds this particular reviewer of Heart’s BARRACUDA). This chilling story comes to a close after recounting the terrible tale of the Mariner’s curse, and ends on a note leaving us in no doubt that this will happen again… Now THAT’s how you do a ghost story, Iron Maiden style.
So, in conclusion: I loved it. It’s an album that will definitely get played over and over, not least because the band are musically astonishing, with dual guitars reaping huge benefits in songs like BACK TO THE VILLAGE and the ferocity of ACES HIGH. POWERSLAVE drips with malevolence, and RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER is an atmospheric tale well told. There is no other vocalist in the history of heavy metal that sounds like Bruce Dickinson, and the band perfectly complement each other on this album, keeping that familiar Maiden sound fresh with some guitar harmonies and frankly insane percussion on the likes of ACES HIGH and BACK TO THE VILLAGE. Though I’m surprised at how alike many of the songs are, if you’re an Iron Maiden fan then this is no bad thing. Am I now a fan? You bet. Do I want to hear the rest of their albums? Definitely. It’ll be interesting to see what ground they’ve covered throughout their career, and how they’ve matured, how they’ve changed, how their sound has encompassed their ambitions and their interests. This is the sound of a band at the top of their game, wondering where to go and what to do next. Exciting, enthusiastic, this is a band revitalised. I can’t wait to see what they did next.