Sunday, August 15, 2010

Iron Maiden's "Dark Years" Part One- No Prayer for the Dying. Rating: 3.5/5

In 1990, Iron Maiden were at a crossroads. Longtime contributing songwriter and guitarist, Adrian Smith had quit the band over "musical differences". The band was doing studio sessions on what was to be "No Prayer for the Dying" and Adrian had had enough. He also had a solo project "A.S.A.P. which had released its debut album (may do a review on this as well, not sure). But either way, things weren't the same for Maiden. Steve Harris in particular had decided to go back to his roots, and Iron Maiden's as well, in doing a more "raw" back to basics album. Smith wasn't satisfied with this (especially after the phenomenal Seventh Son of a Seventh Son), so this factors in the story as well.

Smith was then replaced by former White Spirit and Bruce Dickinson (solo) guitarist Janick Gers, and his placement caused controversy (which strangely, continues to this day). 

But we can also look at the history of metal to find more answers to what was going on. In 1989/1990, metal had reached its zenith already (in the mid eighties), and Iron Maiden in particular had also reached their peak in many fan's eyes. Seventh Son is regarded as a classic today, but many longtime fans were aghast at the choice of keyboards for that and the previous album, Somewhere in Time, and Maiden's popularity had wanted a bit. Bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer had picked up where the NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) had left off, and had begun to take a hold of the underground scene, as far as influence goes. In the mainstream, "Hair Metal" had become king, with bands like Poison, Warrant, Motley Crue and Winger gaining prominence (I should note that I am a Crue fan).

Also, alternative music was making a splash, with heavier alternative bands like Janes Addiction, Sonic Youth and a young Nirvana beginning to make waves. The music scene at the time cannot be described without mentioning the influence of Rap as well- mainstream or otherwise.

The political climate at the time was also becoming more cynical, and in many people's minds the "excesses" of the eighties were starting to be looked down upon.

So where does Iron Maiden fit into all this?

Well, with Maiden's decision to go back to basics, they also stripped down some of the production on the subsequent album, to attain that "raw" sound that the early Maiden was such a representative of. Harris himself had begun to have a lot more say in the production himself, and along with Birch, used a new studio (Barnyard) located in native England rather than the other studios (Compass Point in the Bahamas for example) that Maiden had used previously. This in no doubt also had an influence on the album, and subsequent albums (especially after Martin Birch had retired from production altogether after Fear of the Dark).

So the burning question is- what is the album worth as far as fitting into the Iron Maiden lexicon? Is it worth buying (or ahem...yeah) for the casual fan?

I would say yes and no.

This is by far one of the more underrated Maiden offerings, and to some its a total travesty. To me it is not.

It starts out with the awesome Tailgunner, thematically the same as Aces High but very different musically. It careens with a triumphant, almost Motorhead-esque rhythm, and crescendos with very catchy choruses and musical breakdowns.

The album then continues on with "Holy Smoke" a song skewering televangelists. This is probably where the controversy starts with many people, as it is a more laid back, basic rock song with a lot in common with Bruce Dickinson's solo material at the time, though its not too much of an departure if you consider songs like Two Minutes to Midnight, etc.

The album then continues with the awesome title track, basically in essence a rewrite of the previous album's "Infinite Dreams" in some ways, but also an improvement in others. The lyrics are again about religion but of a faithful variety.

Then we go to the hilariously titled Public Enema Number One, and this is where the timeliness of the album starts to show. The trend among many bands going into the early nineties was to write more "socially or politically conscious lyrics" and while Maiden had avoided a lot of this before, this album is where it starts to show its face. The song is no masterpiece, but it is a decent mid paced rocker.

The song "Fates Warning" follows (and no its not a reference to the revered prog metal band), and this is a catchier song than the last. Lyrically it is a somewhat Christian take on good and evil (something which has always factored lyrically in Maiden's lyrics).

The next song I probably would consider the most underrated song (on the most underrated album obviously) of Maiden's career, The Assassin.

Its "creepy" vibe, odd timings and time changes, and cool interludes make it a precursor of what would come later in Maiden, more of a progressive metal and rock influence than previously (though its always been there to some extent).

Next up is my favorite song, and another underrated tune "Run Silent Run Deep". It has many standard Maiden hallmarks, but done as excellent as before.

Now this is where (in my opinion) the album wanes quite a bit.

"Hooks in You" was the last song Smith wrote or cowrote for Maiden (before his return about a decade later) and its not his finest hour. Though it is a continuation of the "Charlotte the Harlot" saga from the first album (which included songs like "22 Acacia Avenue"), it is a filler more basic rock track. Comparisons can be made to the song "Armed and Ready" from the first Michael Schenker Group album, as it (basically) swiped the main riff from this. Dickinson at this point as well, seems out of steam, but nothing really prepares the listener for the next track, the abysmal "Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter". This song was originally written by Bruce Dickinson for the Nightmare on Elm Street 5 soundtrack, and it is essentially a Bruce Dickinson song done by Iron Maiden. What possessed Steve Harris to ask Dickinson to use the song dumbfounds me, it is a cliched "heavy metal" stereotype complete with big dumb AC/DC sounding riffs. Ok its not THAT bad, but definitely not "Maiden-like" at all, and with really inane lyrics to boot. Luckily, the album is saved by the next track, the awesome sweeping "Mother Russia" which topically is about the end of the cold war (and the uncertainty that Russia would face). It is almost similar in feel to the last two albums previous epics, Alexander the Great and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, but adds a cool "Slavic" sounding melody to the mix. Another awesome underrated track, and left in the dustbin of history (reference/pun unintended) unfortunately.

So overall, what do I think of this album?

Well the production has its pluses and minuses. Its obvious what Harris was going for, and Martin Birch went on board with him to make it more "raw". The mix is good, you can hear all the instruments well, but it also has a bit of a "blandness" to it when compared to previous albums productions (like Powerslave for example). Janick Gers at this point hadn't made his way in Maiden as a major songwriter, and the irony with the "hatred" for him is that he would go on to write some of Maiden's better songs in the decade ahead (but I will obviously deal with this in future blogs). His solos were a bit "loose" and "wild" sounding compared to Smith, and that's part of where the animosity comes from. Also, he would do very bad interpretations of Smith's solos live, which added to the animosity towards him. But as far as this album goes, nothing really stands out as being really terrible that comes from either Gers or Murray as far as solos go (of course if you don't count the actual absence of the spectacular Smith solos).

Dickinson's performance on the album is almost better than Somewhere in Time's, (not as many out of breath notes), but he is seeming to go for a more "raspy" feel at times. It should be noted that Dickinson's vocals had declined considerably since the mid eighties in some ways, but would actually IMPROVE through the Nineties.

Nicko (drums) seems to do a stellar job, and there's no complaints as far as that goes, as well as Harris.

Most of the songs are good-great, and that's the reason for the moderately high rating; I still enjoy the album, and love its "looser" feel compared to the previous two (which I love as well).

I do hate some of the more "hard rock" influences that pop up in Hooks in You and Bring Your Daughter..primiarly because Maiden seems weak when attempting that sort of thing. However, I do like Holy Smoke's approach to this, its a light hearted, fun and catchy song, and makes no attempts to be something its not (which those other two almost seem to be doing).

One of the more interesting things to happen around this time is with Maiden's image and artwork. To reflect the more "raw" approach, they went to leather jackets, tshirts and jeans when it came to the band pics. As far as the album cover (a very simple image of Eddie rising from the grave, grabbing a "graverobber's" throat (though the graverobber image was later taken out)), to me its the worst one Maiden has had, and I still cringe when I grab the cd case! 

So did Maiden decline?

I would say it depends on who you ask.

I remember when first listening to this album, being a young fanboy, I was astounded to even have a new Iron Maiden album in my hands. And it still is Iron Maiden.

But is it good for someone just getting into Maiden? Probably not. Get some of the classics first, get used to them, then pick this up. You may be surprised at what you might find, and having "hidden treasures" in music is always a good thing. 

Maiden were definitely on the decline during this time, but it doesn't really seem to reflect too much in the songs themselves. Especially with the progressive influence becoming more prominent in Harris's work, and this would lay the foundation for albums to come.

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