Ginger Nuts of Horror
Appropriately enough, given the title, I cannot actually recall how old I was when I first heard this album. I’d already picked up and devoured Number Of The Beast, of course. And there’s little doubt that it’ll have been the cover art that prompted me to pick this one up next - I mean, same great Eddie monster goodness, but now with added sci-fi trappings? There’s even a TARDIS lurking in the background of one of the shots, fer crying out loud. What’s not to love?
So yeah, absent any more useful information, of course this was going to be my next pick.
I had it on cassette. The cover art just folded out and out and out, an amazing painted pane of work. Georgeous. And unlike the Fame reprint of ‘...Beast’, this bad boy even had the lyrics on the inside - gold dust for a pre-voice broke kid who loved to dream of singing for a rock band. I listened to it a lot, and my memory is, I loved it.
I also haven’t listened to it in 15 years, easy.
Let’s see how it sounds, shall we?
The title track. Synths! Is this the first Maiden synth album? Feels like it might be. Ahh, but that duel guitar lead riff is pure Maiden, the trot of the bass present and correct, and then we’re off to a gallop into the verse riff intro. It’s amazing to me just how distinctive the Maiden sound is, certainly from this period - the Bruce wail, the Harris gallop, those precise twin lead guitars, and holding it all together that monstrous, precise drumming - both big AND, occasionally, clever. Long tune too, at 7:25 - you can really hear the proggy stylings starting to creep in, though the two plus minute guitar solo in the middle of the track is Very Metal. Still, the Maiden of ‘...Beast’ probably wouldn’t have come back for the final verse - bridge - verse - chorus pattern. It’s not bad, per se - good Lord, they can still play - but it is different. Love the closing, too.
So weird, going back after this long. I’d say I have no memory, but that’s not true. I have no recall. Until I hear it. Then it all comes flooding back. Like the lead intro to Wasted Years, a gorgeous piece of guitar playing that leads into the verse riff. A slower pace here, more of a nodder than a neck breaker. I’ll try not to read too much into the fact that the lyrics to both this and the last song are about time travel, loss of time, time passing… 15 years. I’ll simply note in passing that God is a lousy novelist, with far too much heavy handed symbolism. I wouldn’t get away with coincidences like this in my work.
I can’t deny though, it’s getting to me, this one. Sing along chorus notwithstanding, something in the combination of the song and the memories is bringing up some actual emotion. That’s really impressive. And in a sentence that I suspect will become a macro before I’m done tonight, the guitar playing is amazing.
Talking of, the intro to Sea Of Madness will riff your face off. It’s the kind of riff that Mustaine always reaches for but can’t quite deliver - spiralling, busy, but laser beam precise. Unfortunately, it loses pace into the bridge, and the chorus… yeah, that’s not working for me quite so well. I mean, it’s an impressive vocal, but the melody and pacing just don’t do it for me, especially after the promise of that verse. Ah well. It’s an odd choice for such accomplished set of songwriters, but I guess you gotta keep trying stuff. The drop down after the solo is much better, even as it’s approaching peak 80’s in terms of the production, and the out back into the verse riff is awesome. Or maybe I’m just glad to have that looping rundown playing again.
More synths! Ah, but then the guitar kicks in, and we’re firmly in ‘legitimate classic’ territory with ‘Heaven Can Wait’. It’s an absolute stomper of a verse riff, and the chorus just soars. It’s fucking exuberant, that’s all, with a machine gun vocal delivery you yearn to join in, and a chorus that practically demands it. It’s another 7+ minute track, too, and after the solo, the drop into the middle 8 (16? 28?) has that quintessential Maiden nod, before the lyric becomes a vocal line that you can hear in your mind echoing around a stadium full of metalheads. There’s a hubris to writing something like that, I think, but it’s a good hubris, one earned by experience and rooted in a love of the live show. And the second solo makes you realise just how mediocre so much metal is, by showing you how it should be done. Glorious. If you don’t air guitar that outro, I don’t wanna know you, man.
And we’re on to Side 2, in old money, and it’s ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’. The intro takes it’s time, over 50 seconds, adding layers, building, then the verse explodes. It’s an odd beast, this one - incredibly precise riffing, the vocal melody stapled to it, and it’s well played but almost too busy. The chorus is another flyer though - maybe not as anthemic as ‘Heaven Can Wait’, but a sing along all the same, especially with that belting snare backbeat. There’s a huge confidence too in the lengthy post chorus instrumental (and do the synths creep back in? I rather think they do) and following a bridge vocal, the chords switch to the major, and for 20 seconds, it’s like Slash came in for a guest guitar solo. It’s past the 4 minute mark before the second verse starts - before the song repeats, in other words - and I’m pretty sure that’s both indulgent and kind of awesome. They don’t play this one too much live (not sure they ever did, in point of fact) and I can sort of see why, given the strength of the back catalogue, but I gotta say, it’s pretty bloody good, actually, questionable lyric aside (and really, if that puts you off, maybe this isn’t the band you’re looking for in any case).
‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ opens with a sub Motley Crue type riff and guitar sound, and the synth bleed over the verses that follow, vocal sung over an empty bass line… yeah, this isn’t doing it for me, at all. What the fuck was wrong with the 80’s, man? Why in the fuck would you want to sound like a metal T’pau, anyway? Especially if you could sound like Maiden instead? Seriously, this belongs on The Lost Boys soundtrack - it’s that bad. Yikes. At least it’s less than 6 minutes long.
Okay, the fact that the next song is called Deja-Vu means I just fired God as author of my life. I remember liking this, and 30 seconds in, I remember why - this is a superb riff, tight, taut, brilliantly played. The effect on the verse vocal is a touch inadvisable, but the low/hi vocal line is a fantastic performance, and the whole thing just feels so fucking Maiden, which is a relief after the odd Iron Jovi thing that just happened. I’ve also identified a new pattern here, with lengthy instrumentals following the verse, as in ‘The Loneliness…’, and as then, it works for me just due to the sheer skill of the playing and the ferocity of the riff. I am so, so glad I did this. Deja-Vu won’t make any greatest hits albums or live setlists, but it’s a belter of an Iron Maiden tune - absolutely classic.
And so to Alexander The Great - and a confession. This was the song that ultimately drove me away from Maiden. At a certain point in my musical development, probably around the time I discovered The Sex Pistols, I started craving… angst. Rage. Swearing. Maiden are many things, but they’re about as far away from punk as you can get (Killers expected). And at some point, a song whose lyric is essentially a potted history of one of history’s more skillful butchers, complete with the dates of his chief battles, felt a bit…. Well, it felt a bit like school, to be honest. And the last thing you wanted to be to me, back then, was school.
I’m trying to listen past that right now, and it’s a bit of a struggle. I mean, it’s well played, for sure, and the vocal performance is as good as you’d expect. But.. yeah, those lyrics are a struggle. And somewhere around the 4:45 mark, it all starts to get a little - whisper it - Spinal Tap (albeit exceptionally well played Tap. But still).
And there’s the pace issue, for me. One of Maiden’s big gift to metal was pace. I adore Sabbath, especially early Sabbath, and that slow, doom laden thing is majestic, but - but - the pace that Maiden brought to the table opened up metal vistas that are still being roamed to this day. That’s an achievement that marks them out as legends, irrespective of any of their other (many and considerable) achievements. But this is ponderous. Simply not pacy enough for Maiden. You can hear what they were trying for… but for me, it doesn't land at all.
Better days were certainly ahead for Maiden. Seventh Son is rightly regarded as a classic, and there’s at least two other late career albums that also vie for that title. For my money, Somewhere In Time doesn’t deserve than mantle - but at the same time, maybe making the synth transition was always going to be a rocky process, as would be negotiating the transition from straight up Metal to their more proggy later period sensibilities. You can hear flashes of what they were, and signs of where they are going, and in the odd track - Deja Vu, Heaven Can Wait - there are real Maiden gems that stand on their own terms.
Lost Somewhere In Time? Yeah, I’d say so. But sometimes, they come back.