Ginger Nuts of Horror
By the time Iron Maiden’s ninth studio album Fear of the Dark rolled around in 1992, the band who ruled the 80’s as kings of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) were in something of a slump, at least with regards to the reception of fans and media to the album’s predecessor 1990’s No Prayer for the Dying. The heady days of the 80’s, where seminal albums like Powerslave, The Number of the Beast and Piece of Mind epitomised the sound of Iron Maiden, were gone, and the 90’s might have brought chart success and record numbers of sales, but they also brought turmoil and fan dissatisfaction.
No Prayer for the Dying is widely regarded as one of Iron Maiden’s worst albums, littered with lacklustre songs and mundane attempts to pare back the sound and recapture the earlier glories. Unfortunately for Fear of the Dark (which was the band’s last album with vocalist Bruce Dickinson until his return seven years later) it only fared marginally better in terms of reception. Lumped in alongside No Prayer for the Dying as the worst albums of the first Dickinson era, Fear of the Dark has been roundly criticized by many, for myriad reasons.
Too much experimentation, no continuity, a couple of good songs and a pile of rubbish ones. And for all those who applaud the band for trying to create something different, it’s the songs that most sound like their classic 80’s tracks that most dig, while the opinions of those experimental numbers range from apathetic to outright hatred.
In any case, that’s all a matter of opinion.
So with that said, let’s delve into my thoughts on Fear of the Dark and essentially what my thoughts on it are.
I grew up in a household where music was celebrated, constantly playing and always surrounding us, and as a result I learned an appreciation of all genres from a very early age (much the same as I did with reading and different genres). In parallels with my obsession for all things horror related, I gravitated towards heavy music early and grew up with genres as they were birthed and developed. I followed heavy metal through thrash, hair/glam, death and black, anything and everything that happened to fall out of the metal family tree, so naturally Iron Maiden were on my radar in the 80’s. By the 90’s the whole concept of black metal was emerging as a focal point for my interest, but that wasn’t to say all those bands I was digging in the decades prior were pushed to the wayside.
Consequently, I was keeping up to date with Maiden albums, though in 92 when Fear surfaced I was more ensconced in Danzig with How the Gods Kill, Body Count, Alice in Chains Dirt, Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power, and Darkthrone’s finest hour A Blaze in the Northern Sky, among many others, so poor old Fear was a bit of an afterthought, something I didn’t get around to until sometime later on. It does however, have the distinction of being one of the few Maiden albums I owned, and still have, on cassette in its original glory, rather than a recorded job from a friends copy.
Many of the earlier Maidens, along with multiple other albums in my collection were good old recorded jobs. I had (and still do have) a pile of original cassettes, but I also have just as many taped versions. Shit, when you’re in your early teens, trying to buy every single album that took your fancy was just inconceivable. I sure as hell wasn’t that fucking rich, not when there were a pile of great metal albums coming out every year. It was a case of saving your pennies or scoring recorded copies off your mates, and when you wanted to hear that album ASAP, guess which option most went with?
Anyway, by the time I did get around to checking out Fear of the Dark, I wasn’t immediately bowled over with paroxysms of excitement, or blown away at all. I was less discerning in terms of heavy music back in the day, but I knew what I liked, and stacking this up against some of the 80’s Maiden efforts meant it came up a little short in some regards. It would be fair to say it was an album where I absolutely loved some songs, and had others that didn’t strike any chord in me whatsoever. And since I had a host of albums from other bands where I loved every single track, or at least the vast majority of them, and didn’t need to fast forward to get to the ones I wanted to hear, suffice to say Fear of the Dark didn’t exactly get worn out.
However, in the many years between then and now, good old Fear and at least every other Maiden album which preceded it, have had ample spins and while I’ve cultivated a fair appreciation for it, it’s probably always going to be one of those albums that gets overlooked in favour of something else.
So what is it about Fear of the Dark? Where did it go wrong? Where did it go right?
It’s one of Maiden’s biggest selling albums, it contains an instantly recognisable massive hit that even a fair-weather metal fan or an utter novice on the street could probably name if pressed, in the title track, the cover art is wickedly creepy and there’s plenty of diversity on-board. So how does it come to be that more often than not, it is considered one of the lesser efforts from the band?
Quite simply, because many of those points I mentioned earlier about various gripes folks might have had with the album are fundamentally true. Which, to me, doesn’t make it a bad album at all. If one had no experience with Maiden whatsoever and this album was their very first encounter, well shit, it might blow your mind. For the rest of us though, being versed in the largely sublime platters that graced ears in the 80s, it comes across as a somewhat uneven incursion into fields of experimentation that didn’t quite translate to timeless tunes. Again, not an abysmal album, just a patchy one where the highs are soaring and the lows are…well, pretty fucking low.
The album opens in blistering form with Be Quick or Be Dead galloping out the gates, driven along by speedy riffery that harks back to the Powerslave days, though Bruce’s vocals are a little more reined in and raspier than the power metal ear-splitting screams of old, albeit not completely. Solos abound, the rhythm is infectious and the percussion thunders along, keeping this beast up-tempo all the way through and at this point one might be forgiven for thinking fuck yeah, Maiden are back at the top of their game.
Then directly on the opener’s heels comes From Here to Eternity. Eschewing the pace in favour of a hard rock vibe and guitar sound that could have been lifted from the likes of AC/DC, this one sounds like it belongs on an entirely different album. It’s bolstered by a plethora of soloing, and some intriguing riff structures, and there’s no doubt it has the ability to burrow right inside your brain and take up residence there, but it’s an unexpected turn after the heavy burst of the first track and depending on how you feel about bands experimenting or tinkering with a sound you’d thought they’d nailed to a fine art years ago, maybe not necessarily for the better. Personally, I’ve always dug it, but archetypal Maiden, it is not.
Afraid To Shoot Strangers is a little more representative of the old school Maiden sound, at least in terms of glorious soloing, typical Dickinson howls, thundering rhythms and melodies, but it’s a lengthy slow-burner, taking a long time to get kickstarted. Some will probably appreciative the mournful, warbling intro carrying on for in excess of two minutes before the track finally comes alive, but I was always of the notion that Maiden main songwriter Steve Harris should have halved that intro duration and the song wouldn’t have been worse off at all. I could be wrong, but oddly enough I believe this is one of the very few songs from this whole album that ended up being something of a recurring number on the bands live set lists. Naturally enough the title track is a crowd pleaser so it’s probably played at just about every show, but you’d be hard pressed to find many more Fear of the Dark songs creeping into the Iron Maiden live performances.
From here though, those initial thoughts that the Irons might be storming back into top gear, are abandoned. Bar the melodious and somewhat regal guitars of Childhood’s End, the next lot of songs comprising the album are examples of the often-complained about dabbling with experimentation Maiden elected to indulge in.
Considering the prior album was a case of playing it so safe it came off like an Iron Maiden paint by numbers creation, some points definitely must be awarded for some courageous decisions which resulted in half these tracks being included, but it came with the risk of alienating fans.
For me, it’s a case of too many of these ensuing tracks being unremarkable or simply not quite as strong as some of those around them, or indeed, many which populated the earlier albums of the 80’s hey-days. All the requisite elements are there; the twin guitar attack (Janick Gers and Dave Murray here as opposed to the duo of Murray and Adrian Smith, responsible for those albums widely viewed as Maiden’s best), the long, winding six string aerobics, the trademark Bruce vocals, the solid rhythm section of Nicko McBrain and Steve Harris, but even with all these components securely in place, the songs aren’t. It almost sounds as if the band were being too influenced by the sorts of music going on around them at the time, or trying to shift with the times rather than stick to the templates which held them in good stead for the first decade of their recording career. At which point, they should have said, fuck this, we’re Iron Maiden, we’re the influencers, we don’t need to buy into what’s going on around us musically.
Nonetheless, some of my favourite bands (Satyricon and Darkthrone being a couple which spring to mind) have also come under fire for altering their original sound, shifting into new areas and evolving as it were, so much as I applauded them for wanting to attempt something new I do likewise with the tinkering and experimentations Maiden tried on with Fear of the Dark, even if all the ideas didn’t succeed. Which is potentially one of the things which hamstrings the whole album. There are a plethora of ideas here, almost to the point where there are too many, and on top of that, the whole platter lacks a consistent flow. Those tracks between Childhood’s End and the absolutely epic closer (and title track) are all more like a bunch of straightforward hard rock numbers, with some dalliances with different sounds that skewed them away from anything that sounded like exemplary Iron Maiden.
After twenty-odd years very few of those six tracks have grown on me at all, regardless of repeated listens. Sure, The Fugitive and Chains of Misery have some infectious brainworms in their compositions, but overall not enough else going on to warrant sustained attention. And the less said about Weekend Warrior, the better.
Finally though, right at the end of this uneven rollercoaster ride of an album, the Irons unleash the most potent weapon of the opus. Quite simply, the title track is fucking awesome. One of the best compositions the band has ever written (Harris is definitely rocks and diamonds, having penned many of the greatest, as well as some of the worst, tracks in the discography), a perennial crowd favourite and a song that is instantly recognisable by all and sundry. You don’t even have to be a Maiden fan, familiar with them or know fuck-all about music to know Fear of the Dark. The track is a monster. Laden with power in all departments, it throws out a clean, evocative line of melody then drops down into mournful, yet menacing quiescence while vocals emerge with a measured and suitably malevolent delivery, then everything kicks into overdrive. Classic Dickinson vocals are married to galloping guitar gymnastics and just about everything one loves about Iron Maiden is exemplified right here in this closer. Between this, the opener and those other songs which border on top-notch, one just about lets them off the hook for the rest of the tracks not quite up to the superlative level we’d all come to except between 1980 and 1988.
Given the majority of those albums had an average of eight songs comprising them and Fear ended up with twelve, I can’t help but think, had Maiden stuck to that notion and dropped four off (I can easily rattle off four contenders) then Fear of the Dark might be considered among the upper echelons of the band’s efforts.
At the end of the day, what do I really think of Fear of the Dark? What’s my bottom line on an album that has polarised opinion in Iron Maiden fans?
Well, it’s a great album. But it’s not a classic album. It isn’t quite on the same plane as those which came before it (aside from No Prayer for the Dying-it’s vastly superior to that), though it had the potential to be and certainly contains some songs among the finest ever penned by the group. Lyrically it has forays into some more mature concepts and notions than any of the 80s albums ever delved into (albeit, with these various social observations and messages mostly consigned to some of the lesser songs of the piece) and musically when all the members are firing, some of the work is untouchable. It’s an opus of two extremes, sandwiching the more generic, unremarkable tracks in the middle between killer cuts and it’s those bookend handful of numbers one walks away remembering fondly.
I certainly have grand nostalgic memories of cranking those particular songs on cassette back in the day, but that is tempered by having to fast forward those less than stellar compositions. And if there had been more of the former and less of the latter, Fear of the Dark could have been a bona fide classic. As it is, it languishes somewhere on the edge of brilliance, destined to always be something of an afterthought when it comes to folk conjuring up lists of Iron Maiden’s greatest album achievements.
Jim Goforth is a horror author currently based in Holbrook, Australia. Happily married with two kids and a cat, he has been writing tales of horror since the early nineties.
After years of detouring into working with the worldwide extreme metal community and writing reviews for hundreds of bands across the globe with Black Belle Music he returned to his biggest writing love with first book Plebs published by J. Ellington Ashton Press. Along with Plebs, he is the author of a collection of short stories/novellas With Tooth and Claw, extreme metal undead opus Undead Fleshcrave: The Zombie Trigger, co-author of collaborative novel Feral Hearts and editor for the Rejected For Content anthology series (taking over the reins after volume one Splattergore. He also has stories in both Splattergore and Volume 2: Aberrant Menagerie).
He has also appeared in Tales From the Lake Vol. 2, Axes of Evil, Terror Train, Autumn Burning: Dreadtime Stories For the Wicked Soul, Floppy Shoes Apocalypse, Teeming Terrors, Ghosts: An Anthology of Horror From the Beyond, Suburban Secrets: A Neighborhood of Nightmares, Doorway To Death: An Anthology From the Other Side, Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers, MvF: Death Personified, and edited volumes 2 and 3 of RFC (Aberrant Menagerie and Vicious Vengeance). Coming next from Jim will be appearances in Drowning in Gore, Full Moon Slaughter, Trashed, another collab novel Lycanthroship, a host of undisclosed projects, as well as follow-up books to Plebs and Rejected For Content 4: Highway To Hell (editor).
He is currently working on two new novels with plans to wrap them up before beginning further instalments of both the Plebs saga and The Zombie Trigger.