St. John Maidensson
by: St. John Satansson
You never forget your first true love.

My life in heavy metal all started with Iron Maiden. The chance discovery of this band took me on a musical journey into our shared world and history that has defined the path of my life. In the past sixteen years, I've listened to countless metal bands, spent loads of money on metal merch and metal records, composed metal music, started and played in my own metal band, gone to loads of metal gigs, visited metal festivals in multiple countries, met loads of interesting metal people, made some true metal friends and, of course, written about metal in the hallowed virtual pages of Chronicles of Chaos. It is weird, but I almost struggle to remember who I was before metal happened to me. One thing I am crystal clear about: without Iron Maiden, none of this would have happened.

Therefore, it seems appropriate that my last article for Chronicles of Chaos be an appraisal of the studio albums from the band that set me on my way. With a brand new, ambitious Iron Maiden record coinciding with our decision to lay Chronicles of Chaos in its grave, the time is right.

It is now or never for this dedicated Maidenite to make his definitive account of the music he loves the most. This will be my last and greatest chronicle of chaos.

Scream for me, CoC...

_Iron Maiden_ (1980)
Lineup: Paul Di'Anno, Dave Murray, Dennis Stratton, Steve Harris, Clive Burr.
Producer: Will Malone

That this album is iconic in heavy metal is undoubted. From the artwork that introduced Eddie to us and set the benchmark for classic metal covers for years to come, to the collection of songs that are mostly revered as 'classics'. Yet it is true that this album had a troubled birth and you can hear it foremostly in the production, which is credited to the allegedly disinterested Will Malone but has since been attributed to the studio engineer and the band themselves. The drums rattle, tinkle and thump, the guitars are chewy and dry, the bass is middle-muddy, loud and powerfully punches through everything and Paul Di'Anno just about has his head above it all. Yet, despite Steve Harris' oft expressed disappointment with the finished product, all this aural carnage really works. _Iron Maiden_ has a character and a vibe that is unique in all of the band's back catalogue. It feels organic and alive, a moment in time capturing the band as they truly once were with warts and all on display, perhaps more like a demo than a studio album.

Despite the weaknesses in the individual instrumental sounds, the whole result feels tactile, earthy, soulful; it rubs you up the right way and puts a grin on your face. A particularly enjoyable instance of this occurs in the midsection of "Running Free", when the whole band lug down for a staccato, swinging chug. There are also some charming signs of youth and naivety in places. The sudden shifts in feel in the song structures that feel bolted together, the squeaks and fluffs in the bass and guitar parts, the imbalance in the tones of the guitar soloists and some rather anachronistic Maiden lyrics; spending nights in L.A. jails, killing women and tributing whores are all interesting moments and that the opening assault of "Prowler" appears to be about a creeping pervert has always amused me.

The centerpiece of this album is "The Phantom of the Opera", a song that showcases Steve Harris' progressive ambition and vision for the band but also neatly sums up and represents the essence of Iron Maiden in 1980. There are no really bad songs here, but low points emerge in the inclusion of "Strange World", which feels more like a restful interlude than a song competing for space with the others, and also the awkward and mystifyingly popular "Sanctuary", added early into the track listing by virtue of reissue tinkering and not to the benefit of the overall record. Yet the razor-edged riff attack of instrumental "Transylvania", the idiosyncratic and infectious "Charlotte the Harlot" and the bombastic blast of the band's eponymous track are enough to drag the quality average through the roof. Incidentally, the reissue also updated the artwork, presenting an uglier, meaner, scarier and far less interesting Eddie than the cartoon-ish corpse that once leered from the front sleeve. If anything, such revisions evidence the band's misguided dissatisfaction with this malformed, rough-edged and unconventional triumph.

Unsung hero: The brooding menace and powerful shifting dynamics of "Remember Tomorrow" are an essential highpoint on an album full of rocking heavy metal favorites.

_Killers_ (1981)
Lineup: Paul Di'Anno, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, Steve Harris, Clive Burr.
Producer: Martin Birch

One year, one line-up change and one new producer later and _Killers_ appeared as the follow up to Iron Maiden's roistering debut. With Murray's childhood friend Adrian Smith joining the ranks to replace the departing, alleged 'square peg' Dennis Stratton, his effect on _Killers_ is rendered as perfunctory as his predecessor's was on _Iron Maiden_, due to the fact that _Killers_ is almost entirely comprised of old material that didn't make it onto the debut. With the most distinctive cuts creamed off for _Iron Maiden_, the resulting album is something of a trove of seminal curiosities, with compositions featuring some of Steve Harris' earliest writing making an appearance. The most impactful of the aforementioned three differences -– time, musician and producer –- is undeniably the latter. The album production sounds significantly and more conventionally improved upon the ramshackle, gung-ho cacophony of the debut. _Killers_ marks the beginning of Martin Birch's tenure at the helm of the Iron Maiden studio and the start of one of traditional metal's most fruitful relationships. Appropriately for such a lauded pairing of forces, _Killers_ feels beautifully balanced. The guitars, which had suffered the most on the debut, are now charged with greater presence, wetness and power. The drums have increased clarity and the bass has started to show some of the famous Steve Harris ring and snap. Most of all, and despite his later dismissal from the band and of this record as inferior to the previous one, Paul Di'Anno puts in a far more convincing performance, with greater command in the mix and a richness of tone and fire in his voice. He hits some memorable high notes that, perhaps, reveal a greater potential than was ever realised.

A defining feature of much of the material on _Killers_ is its possession of bluesy groove, and this lends it a distinctive character in a back catalogue dominated by fast paced, driving, angular material. The opening salvo of intro track "The Ides of March" and "Wrathchild" is just excellent and the mood is satisfactorily maintained by the ridiculously verbose "Murders in The Rue Morgue". "Another Life" keeps up the tempo and drive before the rot begins to set in with the instrumental "Genghis Khan", these days only notable for containing the lick that Papa Roach may have 'borrowed' for their malfeasant anthem, "Last Resort". The reworked lyrics of "Killers" itself add dynamism and mood to a track that was previously poorly represented by improvised dressing room nonsense prior to the recording of _Live at the Rainbow_, yet the band slow proceedings down again with the freshly penned but dirgey "Prodigal Son", although it does boast one of the album's better solos. The frenetic burst of "Purgatory" has a stand-out chorus and a good vibe but is rendered a little obtuse by the unremarkable snarling and spitting of the garrulous verse. "Twilight Zone" has more than a touch of appealing Judas Priest-esque rock and falsetto before the album ends with "Drifter", a fair rocking number with one of Steve's weirdest ever mid-sections. Overall, the album has much for us to enjoy and is one that I once was very dismissive of but have slowly come to appreciate more and more over time. Nonetheless, the feeling endures that, with the exception of "Wrathchild", there is nothing on _Killers_ quite as iconic as the brutal album artwork that adorns it -- and endures ubiquitously on patch jackets and T-shirts to this day.

Unsung hero: There is a moment during the midsection of "Innocent Exile" where the band hit such a groove that they evoke Led Zeppelin; this is the moment that stands out whenever I consider _Killers_ and is representative of the vibe of the record as a whole.

_The Number of the Beast_ (1982)
Lineup: Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, Steve Harris, Clive Burr.
Producer: Martin Birch

When reviewing albums revered by fans, exhausted by the media and regarded as the utmost classic records of heavy metal by critics, it can be hard to find good perspective and context. Yet with _Number of the Beast_, no better context could be provided than by listening through the preceeding albums beforehand. The jump that Iron Maiden made with their third album is staggering in every way. The production has once more improved, with an extra sharp edge on everything you can hear: the guitars bite more, the powerful bass has started to click and the drums are nuanced, organic and clear in the mix. The new, fresh material demonstrates maturity in song writing with a greater scope and a more fluid sense of structure. These songs crackle with life and dynamism and just leap from the speakers to engage you. Here, it is Adrian Smith who shines out bright, becoming, for the first time, the stylistic compositional foil to Steve Harris that gives the necessary variation and depth for making great Iron Maiden records. He is well represented with contributions on "The Prisoner" and "22 Acacia Avenue". Lyrics have moved further into the realms of grand storytelling, eschewing the grime of the East London streets while not yet entirely abandoning the content. Still, the greatest impression is made by legendary vocalist Bruce Dickinson making his debut. As a singer he eclipses his predecessor in every way, save for the aesthetic merits of a very contrasting character and style, but even well-versed old Maiden fans should really pay attention to Dickinson's performance on this album. There is an almost uncontrolled, youthful attack in his voice that was never quite captured again on any subsequent record. It is the encapsulated sound of pure, raw talent swinging for the fences and it is a truly exhilarating listen. The whole band just sound on fire, with energetic and vibrant performances that bring the songs to the next level. The solos on this record also ascend to new heights of lyrical brilliance.

As far as the material on offer, there is a smorgasbord of greatness to enjoy. The sinister charge of "Number of the Beast", the anthemic stomp of "Run to the Hills" and the epic masterwork that is "Hallowed Be Thy Name" -- not only Iron Maiden's greatest song but surely a competitor for the title of 'greatest heavy metal song ever' -- have long been celebrated and embraced by the metal community as essential works. Yet, because of the status these songs have, it is easy to overlook the fact that they are well supported by some competitive and equally praiseworthy tracks. "The Prisoner" is a stirring, uplifting declaration of defiance that plays with major moods and varying measures of riffage. "Children of the Damned" offers atmosphere and grandeur whereas "22 Acacia Avenue" is a labyrinthine assembly of rocking riffs that blossoms into a beautiful slow-paced solo section. Like the debut, there are no poor songs on the record, but there are a couple that don't quite come up to the standard of the rest. "Gangland" is perhaps the weakest number, a fairly solid tub thumper that boasts a memorable but shallow chorus; the band's later wish to have swapped it out with somewhat better b-side "Total Eclipse" is understandable.

Perhaps most bizarrely for such a cornerstone heavy metal album, _Number of the Beast_ suffers from a slightly dodgy opener. "Invaders" is a rather crazy, aggressive and fun blast of heavy metal, but the chorus finds Dickinson shrieking boneheaded lyrics about raping and pillaging via vocal gymnastics at the top end of his register while the rest of the band perform a trite unison ascending / descending call and answer run; arguably this moment captures in a nutshell all that people find easy to ridicule in heavy metal. Yet this is not nearly enough to hamper this record and it remains one of Iron Maiden's crowning achievements.

It is easy as an invested metal fan and armchair critic to get dismissive of such a popular album as _Number of the Beast_ as overrated, overplayed and inferior to other choices from the back catalogue, but I would advise all metal fans to go back and look again: _Number of the Beast_ is Iron Maiden and heavy metal itself at a pinnacle of joyous, life-affirming brilliance.

Unsung hero: With its atmosphere, beautiful melodic motifs and contrasting tempos, "Children of the Damned" provides the album with a broadened scope, some of its best sing-along moments and demonstrates the vocal prowess of Bruce Dickinson in stark relief to the more subtle instrumental canvas.

_Piece of Mind_ (1983)
Lineup: Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain.
Producer: Martin Birch

By 1983, it could be surmised that one album and touring cycle every year was beginning to take its toll a little. As such, the newest casualty of the consistently changing lineup of Iron Maiden was long time drummer Clive Burr, dismissed for compromising his live performances by result of extra curricular tour activities. Enter Michael Henry "Nicko" McBrain, a talented and individual drummer with a subtle but notably different and more intricate feel to the solid but infectious swing of Burr. Known these days for his gregarious personality and sense of humour, one cannot help but wonder if he had an impact on the attitude of the band that imprinted upon this record, or whether it was the joys of success and boozy studio days in the Bahamas at Compass Point that took the toll; it is noticeable that there is a certain wacky-ness to _Piece of Mind_. From the punning title, to the falsified Biblical quotes about brains, to the backwards message of Nicko talking bollocks, to the gang shouts in "Die With Your Boots On", to the song about dinosaurs, there was definitely something in the water during the creative process for this one.

On one hand, _Piece of Mind_ boasts some more absolutely killer artwork and some very strong songs, including the most iconic song of their whole body of work, the galloping charge of the "The Trooper" standing tall at the album's zenith. Yet it is a patchy affair, pulling off what I have come to call 'the Pantera method' of sticking all your strongest songs in the first half of the album and herding the donkeys towards the back. Therefore, _Piece of Mind_ is a game of two halves and loses its way a little towards the end, proceedings being somewhat blighted by the slightly dodgy, histrionic chorus of "Still Life", the shallow, prehistoric-themed "Quest for Fire", the hilariously extended rhyming lyrics of "Sun and Steel" and the spectacular lyrical nose dives of the turgid Arabian-sounding "To Tame a Land". Yet the album carries itself through by satisfying the listener entirely by the middle of the record. Opener "Where Eagles Dare" is a dramatic call to arms and showcases the strength of Dickinson's range and the dextrous touch of the new drummer. "Flight of Icarus" is a marvellous, anthemic track, particularly relishing its own mid-paced groove with some truly majestic vocal harmonies and closing with some insanely high falsetto screaming from Bruce. "Die With Your Boots On" trips over its own feet in concept and lyrics at times but is fairly carried through by some strong riffs and guitar work. Of course, it is "The Trooper" that provides the centrepiece and its enduring popularity among Maiden fans is testament to its quality. The dramatic riffs and haunting lyrics of "Still Life" graduate it to being a worthy listen.

Perhaps the more notable impression left by this record is that, rather like Slayer's _South of Heaven_, it features a warmer, softer production than its two predecessors, with the sharp drums and guitars ripping along nicely but in danger of being swamped by Steve's muddiest ever bass tone. Still, the leads shine through with brilliance and Bruce has no issue riding gloriously over all of it. It sounds as if they had a lot of fun making this record, and despite the presence of some duffers, it is clear that the rich vein of creativity they were tapping into yielded some excellent results.

Unsung hero: Although it has resurfaced in recent live sets, I have always felt that "Revelations" has never quite been held in the regard it deserves. A very individual track that showcases a range of dynamics, cryptic but enthralling lyrics and some of Iron Maiden's most beautiful, emotive motifs. An excellent first Maiden composition from Bruce Dickinson.

_Powerslave_ (1984)
Lineup: Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain.
Producer: Martin Birch

It is here that we find the first real threads of true consistency in Iron Maiden's back catalogue. Recorded by the same line-up (a first) and produced at the same studio as its predecessor, _Powerslave_ has a similar balance of exceptional peaks and troughs, although the troughs are not as deep as those on _Piece of Mind_ and have been arranged differently this time. The production is back on song as well, with the guitars being the sharpest yet, the drums snappy and cutting and the bass being prominent but not overbearing. Bruce sounds as excellent and as engaging as is now expected. This is another example of Birch's production where the balance can be celebrated; indeed, _Powerslave_ could credibly be called Iron Maiden's best sounding record of the '80s through to 2000.

The opening salvo of "Aces High" and "2 Minutes to Midnight" takes your breath away, the former providing its own introduction before taking us on a high octane blast through the best album opener in the Maiden back catalogue. "2 Minutes to Midnight" is equally anthemic, but with a contrasting groove and a more progressive structure. It was, at this point, the greatest achievement of the Smith/Dickinson writing partnership. One realisation comes quickly: the band have upped the instrumental and compositional technicality in the songs. There are multiple layers of motif, figure and harmony in the guitar parts, with adventurous bass lines weaving in and out of it all. This is an exemplary Iron Maiden record to showcase Steve's innovative bass playing and his work here is a true highlight of this record.

Whatever is going on in _Powerslave_, it always feels as if things are constantly moving and there is a lot happening; a notion well represented by another piece of excellent, now grand scale cover art. All this is even evident in the album's nadir, the instrumental "Losfer Words", which sounds rather like an amalgamation of various left over riffs and development section ideas. The next two songs, "Flash of the Blade" and "The Duellists", both show similar characteristics: soaringly high vocal lines, tonnes of widdling lead guitar and long midsections. Both are worthy numbers, although perhaps suffer from being so similar in tone, style, lyrical themes and, notably, by being placed together on the record; perhaps this best marks the time of Dickinson's famous achievements in sword fighting. "Back in the Village" is the next closest this album comes to a poor song, during which an excellent verse and some interesting guitar work is let down by a chorus that just doesn't quite work or satisfy melodically and a truly daft ending figure.

Before we can lose too much faith in _Powerslave_, the monumentally strong title track brings things back to the level we started at. Atmospheric, masterfully worked lyrics, harmonic minor figures that grip rather than cringe, a huge chorus and a beautiful development section, this may be the best song on this record. Finally, the closing "Rime of The Ancient Mariner" brings things to a jaw-dropping conclusion. An epic work of varying mood sections and strong melodic figures, the true triumph of this song is its use of dynamics. The build up into the solo section routinely raises hairs on forearms. Perhaps the length of this song can be seen as indicative of one of the problems that affects _Powerslave_ in general; almost everything here carries a sense of excess and one wonders if some of these songs could have been improved if they were stripped down a bit. Yet, as we have seen before, flaws often contribute to character and, as such, _Powerslave_ is the sound of Iron Maiden unfalteringly embracing scope and complexity to general good effect.

Unsung hero: There isn't much to choose from between "Flash of the Blade" and "The Duellists", but while the former has a tighter melodic structure, it is "The Duellists" that showcases a more impressive vocal line, a more progressive midsection and, arguably, the defining characteristics of the album as a whole.

_Somewhere in Time_ (1986)
Lineup: Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain.
Producer: Martin Birch

The tour that followed the release of _Powerslave_ has long been regarded as the zenith of Iron Maiden's classic era. It might be a fair assumption to make that Iron Maiden were always going to struggle to go one further than expectations demanded. Instead of doing so, they chose to confound those expectations by making a more technologically experimental album. _Somewhere in Time_ is still very much an Iron Maiden record, but not as we know it, and the decision to incorporate guitar synthesizers was one that gained as much as it lost. The production is immediately odd and provides the most defining character to this record. _Somewhere in Time_ reeks of the 1980s, with everything awash in warm, gloriously glossy chorusing and reverb. Even Judas Priest might have raised an eyebrow. It's almost beautiful in a strange way. Unfortunately, this has also neutered the rhythm guitar, which has lost any sense of aggression or bite. The bass chunks away as intrusively and nearly as powerful as usual, albeit leaning a little more toward treble frequencies. The drums seem untouched but don't quite punch through as effectively as they have before. It is clear that the emphasis here is on the melodic rather than the metal. Regardless, it is apparent that Adrian Smith has had a great time and takes center stage on this record, having submitted three complete compositions and stealing the album's high points with "Wasted Years" and "Stranger In A Strange Land". By contrast, Dickinson has no writing credits; accounts of his post tour disillusionment and creative differences with the band tell of the swift rejection of a clutch of Led Zeppelin-influenced folk material. Indeed, be it tiredness from the previous two years, production flaws or a faltering commitment, Dickinson sounds a little strained and unfocused in places. He's still excellent but a different, more hollow tone has started to creep into the vocal and the occasional wobbly note has slipped through.

_Somewhere In Time_ is a fairly strong, mixed bag of a record that offers up some fantastic songs and some pleasing but flawed works. "Wasted Years" is one of the band's greatest songs of all and carries an individual set of guitar figures, a profoundly moving lyrical sentiment and some excellent vocal and solo work. "Stranger in a Strange Land" offers a great, broody riff over a slow bass canter and the synth elements are used most effectively for creating atmosphere. The vocal line here is one of strong story telling with anthemic motifs that climax in the chorus, like they should. The midsection's lead and bass figure with following solo is sensitively intricate and stirring. The rest of the album strives for similar greatness but finds ways to fall short. "Caught Somewhere in Time" is a melodically strong and rousing charge but a little too long for an effective opener. "Sea of Madness" has a strong pre-chorus and chorus and another gorgeous quiet section, but the main riff of the song is rendered incomprehensible by the production. With '80s vibes shining through strongest, "Heaven Can Wait" is a fan favourite raised high by its potential for live crowd interaction, but the studio version is lacking a little, particularly in the chorus, which feels like it needs a little tweaking in the tonality of the repetitive vocal figure. "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" (good lord) is often maligned for its clumsy title and shoe-horned-in chorus lyric, but the song does feature some beautiful dynamics and melodic guitar high points, while some weaker parts of the song, such as the jarring verse, unfortunately bring it down. The grand epic of the album, "Alexander the Great" is a similar state of affairs; big in scope but overly heavy on the lyrics, which feel like a Wikipedia article warped into a melody. Some evocative figures are presented but the interesting tonal change in the middle isn't quite as engaging as it could be. It's a fairly good 'long' Maiden song, but one regrettably dragged down by a few key flaws. The other criticism one could make of the whole record is that there is a slight over-repetition of motifs; a later malaise in some '90s-'00s Maiden tracks.

Despite the above criticisms, _Somewhere in Time_ is a rewarding listen. It stands out of the Maiden catalogue by virtue of its flawed production, which is as appealing as it is frustrating as the band explore some new ground to mixed effect. Overall, there aren't quite as many top-notch songs as on previous Maiden albums but there is plenty to enjoy with many brilliant moments on offer.

Unsung hero: After a perfunctory lead intro, "Deja-Vu" rapidly becomes the fiercest and most frenetic thing on this record. It is an excellent and driving piece of Iron Maiden, awash with captivating lead motifs and gripping, sing-along, soaring vocals. Never played live and almost universally ignored, "Deja-Vu" is the true lost gem of Maiden's back catalogue.

_Seventh Son of a Seventh Son_(1988)
Lineup: Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain.
Producer: Martin Birch

With its high concept, eclectic artwork and sprawling title, _Seventh Son of a Seventh Son_ is the next, more refined and more confident step down the path that the band over-eagerly explored on _Somewhere in Time_. This time, keyboards have replaced the guitar synthesizers and the results are sonically improved, if less idiosyncratic. The guitar tone is richer, with more weightiness but still lacking some of its former bite. It is strangely ethereal in tone at times. This is mostly apparent when you hear them chug along and find texture where you expect heaviness. It matches the thin, eerie keyboard washes well. Dickinson sounds reinvigorated with theatricality, clearly feeling the themes and lyrics of the record that surround a loosely employed concept of clairvoyance and mysticism. With the bass, the Steve rumble and click is on full show on this record, bullying the rhythm guitars if not entirely shoving them in a corner. Clear snappy drums do their job well, though still lacking a little of their former might; the snare is particularly papery. The lead guitar parts have significant prominence.

What is most notable is that the quality of the song writing on _Seventh Son_, perhaps inspired by the team efforts necessitated by maintaining a consistent theme, has jumped up a level in quality since the previous album. In fact, _Seventh Son_ is the band's most consistently excellent collection of material since _Number of the Beast_ and this could be attributed to the fact that Harris, Dickinson and Smith have paired and tripled off in their compositional efforts on this record.

"Moonchild" provides its own intro, a touch long as an opener but effectively setting the tone and taking us on an exhilarating, dark flight of fancy, with Dickinson wailing like a banshee. "Infinite Dreams" follows, a slow-to-mid paced work of spiritual doubts, a banquet of exquisite guitar work that climbs to majestic heights in the chorus before it unleashes a furious midsection, announced with a blazing Dickinson scream. "Can I Play With Madness?", a track dominated by iconic innovative harmonies in its anthemic vocal line, is quirkily major in tone and succint enough to maintain the album's pace. "The Evil That Men Do" is simply awesome. One of the band's finest tracks, fast paced, emotive in vocal and lyrical guitar figures, with one of Adrian Smith's finest guitar solos. Truly, this is one of the most melodically strong Iron Maiden songs.

The title track nearly dethrones "Rime" as the archetypal epic Iron Maiden song, perhaps only losing out in terms of melodic incisiveness. The overall structure is similar, with a driving conventional first half segueing into an atmospheric interlude. This time, Harris has the discipline not to let it all go full circle and the guitarists trade solos and melodic figures to bring the whole piece to its close. There is a lot of 'whoa-hoa' lines from Bruce, although the different figures are a touch too tonally similar, and a little wobbly in places.

"The Prophecy" is perhaps the only misstep on the record, starting well enough with a delicate clean and lead motif, before progressively diving down some less satisfying melodic corridors, built around a distantly panned theatrical call and answer figure. It has a progressive but somewhat awkward vibe, and here Dave Murray perhaps steps most clearly into his role as the contributer of 'off the wall' song ideas. "The Clairvoyant", with its arresting bass intro, celebratory lead guitar themes, diverse moods and stridently immediate vocal line, pleasingly picks up the momentum again.

With its grand vision, high quality of melodic writing and consistency of excellent songs, _Seventh Son of a Seventh Son_ is one of Iron Maiden's finest albums. It also marks the last work of the 'classic' lineup of the band and brings the highly respectable output of the band in the 1980s to a spectacular close.

Unsung hero: Squirreled away at the end of a very rewarding record, "Only the Good Die Young" is a galloping, melodically strong, urgent Maiden anthem that competes with the band's best work.

_No Prayer for the Dying (1990)
Lineup: Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Janick Gers, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain.
Producer: Martin Birch

A binge on too much sweetness can give you a taste for the opposite, regardless of your natural inclinations. Such is the case with _No Prayer for the Dying_. Disillusioned with the grandeur and scope of the previous two records, it saw Maiden attempt to go back to their roots and make a stripped down, rockin', 'street-level' metal record. Eschewing the glamour of exotic studio locations, the band ensconced themselves in Steve Harris' converted barn, hired in a mobile studio and proceeded to quickly throw out all the synths, the progressive structures, the grand lyrical concepts and... Adrian Smith. Uninspired by the sudden reactionary change in what he felt was the right direction, the uninspired Adrian's disillusionment is evidenced in a joint credit on one poor song and his absence from this record and the band; once his attitude and dissatisfaction was noticed, it was enough to have him asked to leave. Smith's replacement, Janick Gers, contributes a shreddier, messier and more unpredictable edge to the soloing but no songs, so the rest of the band have to step up to carry the weight. One wonders if the artistic change was worth the shedding of such an integral creative part of the band's lineup. Certainly the resultant album was not. _No Prayer for the Dying_ marks the first time in Iron Maiden's recorded history that the band could be accused of dropping the ball. Detractingly, the production feels very hollow. Drums rattle and tap a little bit lifelessly and there's not much bottom end on anything. The guitars have more edge than on _Seventh Son_ but they have lost their guts again. The band seems to be making a few strange noises, too. Steve seems to have developed a fondness for rapidly plucked octave jumps on the bass that wibble away like a startled turkey. The solos are less lyrical and more chaotic... enter Janick Gers. Bruce has notably exchanged his vibrato for a more savage, screeching rasp to put across the different attitude.

Like on _Piece of Mind_, one could say that the band had their tongue in their cheek in places on this record. Perhaps they were having too much of a good time. The knowingly daft video for "Holy Smoke" is indicative of this, but such irreverence has infiltrated the music too. Puns and innuendos and wordplay suffuse much of the lyrics. Besides their own past, one wonders at whether or not the band had anything really profound inspiring them here.

"Tailgunner" is a worthy enough, bass-led rocker which sounds enjoyable to play but feels a bit inconsequential and lightweight. "Holy Smoke" is quite catchy and fun, with simple chord-led riffs and immediate leads, but it is a worryingly trite composition. "No Prayer for the Dying" changes the pace, offering melancholic and reflective moods. Yet it is not enough to really lift the album, the heavier midsection not as memorable as the more balladic elements. "Public Enema Number One" is a case of some good moments eclipsed by a shockingly lumpen title. There is a delightfully furious verse, where Dickinson sounds quite demented, but a disappointing chorus where the vocal harmonies seem ineffectual. No surprise to find that its off-kilter tone comes from Dave. "The Assassin" hits a significant low point in quality, with its turgid chorus and childish gang shout lyrics undoing the acceptable work of the verses. Thankfully, "Running Silent, Running Deep" is a good track, restoring things momentarily with a mid-paced gallop, frenetic tails and shifting chord changes. It has a fairly strong chorus and the band sound fiery. The aforementioned part-contribution from Adrian is "Hooks in You". Although it rocks along solidly enough in a playful major mood, it is ultimately sabotaged by banal lyrics about bondage and a half-atonal vocal line. "Bring Your Daughter... To the Slaughter", a Dickinson solo composition borrowed by Steve for the band, sticks out on the album and in Maiden's back catalogue like a sore thumb. It is almost a piece of heavy rock rather than heavy metal, and with its horror flick lyrics, perhaps one could say it is the greatest shock rock song that Alice Cooper never wrote. Undeniably a great track, it is nonetheless a little odd to hear Iron Maiden playing such a composition, which perhaps most resembles the band we know in the section prior to the last chorus. Proceedings wrap up in "Mother Russia". With its unintentionally hilarious, Slavic motifs, a paltry vocal line and a collection of jarring, disjointed riff sections, the more effective, atmospheric moments cannot lift this song out of the doldrums.

_No Prayer for the Dying_ is no complete disaster but undeniably a significant step down in quality and relevance, particularly when measured against the records that came before. There are some worthy songs but rarely do you feel that you are listening to essential Iron Maiden. If the band were trying to recreate their past, _No Prayer for the Dying_ is a fair warning against such acts of regression.

Unsung hero: Mired amongst some awkwardly hewn offerings at the album's mid point, "Fates Warning" is very nearly excellent. With emotive lead work, a strong chorus and an excellent melodic figure in the midsection, Dave Murray really nails it here.

_Fear of the Dark_ (1992)
Lineup: Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Janick Gers, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain.
Producer: Steve Harris and Martin Birch

Fixing a few issues with the previous effort, _Fear of The Dark_ grabs you from the word go, ripping out of the speakers with the blast of "Be Quick or Be Dead", a song more convincing and intense than anything on _No Prayer for the Dying_. In fact, it might be one of Maiden's most brutal, intense songs of all. Bruce Dickinson sounds perfectly possessed, walking the line between singing and screaming closer than ever before, in a continuation of the aggressive style he developed on _No Prayer_.

This album also boasts one of the ballsiest productions in a while, with the band discovering some of their long lost bottom end at last. The drums power through more heavily than usual, with a particularly beefy snare drum. The bass is as expected, ringing, clicking and shunking away with authority, while occupying a more disciplined position in the mix. The twin guitars have gained some more weight but still lack a little of the necessary edge to really tear at you. The album is well balanced but rather overtly glossy, with a polished sheen removing some of the snarl from the metalworks on offer; perhaps this return to a modicum of quality was a reaction against the previous record's forced spartan approach.

Janick makes much more impact now he's been given the time to settle and involve himself, with some excellent solos adding a sense of intensity and making valuable contributions to songs like "Be Quick or Be Dead" and "Wasting Love". Interestingly, there are loads of songs here (for a Maiden record of this time) and a wide variety of moods and tones on offer. Yet, like its predecessor, it is another inconsistent and mixed bag. Oddly, there are a clutch of songs here that find Iron Maiden exploring fairly simple hard rock territory with swinging grooves and disjointed monolithic riffs, all to a questionable effect in total.

"From Here to Eternity" is a poor second track, with some hackneyed rock and roll vibes killing the aggressive mood before it is buoyed up by a large chorus shout-along. The creakily titled "Afraid to Shoot Strangers" is a delicate affair with some iconic lead motifs and a strangely subdued vocal delivery. The mid section feels bolted in but necessarily breaks the monotony of slow swing. An enjoyable and yet strangely unfulfilling track.

"Fear Is the Key" gives us some slow-to-mid-paced grooving riffs and damning malevolence which is frustratingly let down by some cloying Arabian vibes and a bizarrely ranty midsection. "Childhood's End" isn't much to write home about either. A perfunctory chorus follows traditional chord patterns and some archetypal but simplistic lead breaks; it is mostly memorable for its semi-effective, hyperactive drum figure.

Then comes "Wasting Love", a rare ballad from Maiden and a rather unique track for them; unsurprisingly this is another Dickinson solo offcut. With a huge chorus, sensitive clean guitar and some moving lyrics, it delivers, even if it is the closest to a love song the band has ever come!

"The Fugitive" injects a good dose of heavy metal, putting some lead back in _Fear of the Dark_'s pencil. An underrated track with strong vocals and immediate lyrics over a heavy chug and some darker passages. Arguably, the song is only let down by its obvious contemporary connection to the Harrison Ford movie of the same name.

"Chains of Misery" is a swinging groover, continuing the band's flirtation with straight-up rock stylings. A pretty decent song with a good midsection of lyrical soloing, yet almost derailed by the cheesy, titular gang shout hook. Things hit a new low with "The Apparition", which is one of Maiden's poorest ever songs, damagingly arriving just past the record's mid point. A quirky but unengaging, simplistic riff progression seems to go nowhere, while a disjointed and irritatingly conversational vocal line frames a worthy enough midsection that doesn't really fit with the rest of the song. There appears to be no chorus.

"Weekend Warrior" shifts the tone and style again. A rather disarming and laid back, groovy rocker with strong lead work in the midsection, this song features another snarled vocal line with a bluesy chorus figure that sings the same lyrics in different ways to mixed effect.

Things resolve with the title track, which is the album's high point and Iron Maiden's greatest song of the '90s. Certainly, its classic status has been assured by its regular fixture as a penultimate song in any Maiden set since. A genuinely compelling, spine-tingling clean figure soon gives way to a ferocious barrage of riffs and a massively engaging chorus, before the midsection gallops at a mid pace into an exchange of excellent solos and melodic figures. Here, the band sound very much like themselves, restored to full strength if just for a moment. Curiously, the final lyrics carry some retrospective irony, as Dickinson would soon be walking alone, away from the band and heavy metal itself for a few years in the wilderness.

_Fear of the Dark_ is a definite step up from _No Prayer_ but is still a little lacking compared to the strength of their '80s records. There are some decent songs and good moments hidden among the confusing mess, but the jumble is almost too tiresome in parts to bother sifting through.

Unsung hero: Like "Déjà Vu" on _Somewhere in Time_, _Fear of the Dark_ carries its own lost gem. "Judas Be My Guide" elevates proceedings considerably, despite being hidden towards the back end of the album, and boasts an excellent chorus and pre-chorus figure and some memorable lead licks. This is also a rare Murray-Dickinson compositional combo.

_The X Factor_ (1995)
Lineup: Blaze Bayley, Dave Murray, Janick Gers, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain.
Producer: Steve Harris and Nigel Green

Three years and an acrimonious change of frontman later, and Iron Maiden have entered territory where the reactionary metal audience are given cause to start screaming: "It's not Iron Maiden!" With only two original members left, the band have entered what could today be termed 'Sepultura territory'. That this album is much maligned is well known, but let us begin by clearing up a long-standing injustice. Having copped a huge amount of flak for his struggling Iron Maiden tenure, it has often been overlooked that Blaze Bayley is a very good singer. However, the question remains as to whether he was suitable for a job that required a different skill set. Why Steve Harris was adamantly fixed on Blaze Bayley for his new vocalist when the ballsy Brummie possesses a rich baritone range compared to Dickinson's strident tenor heights is a bit of a mystery. As it would turn out, the debut album of this Iron Maiden line-up does not convince. There are moments on _The X Factor_ where Bayley's voice really works, but there are also moments where it doesn't; most crucially, there are moments where the band didn't allow it to.

One key area of concern on this record is the production. The mix is clear enough but the rhythm guitars and drums sound flat and lifeless, with the former occasionally bullied by keyboard strings. The bass dominates the mix, switching between electric and electric-acoustic tones. While much of the music on the album is bass led, it adds a certain skeletal feel to the band. The vocals are loud and a little stark; perhaps a little studio trickery could have supported them better in the overall canvas. The key fault in the production, however, is actually quality control. The takes feel inexplicably rushed and shoddy in places and the absence of retired producer Martin Birch is keenly felt throughout. The two biggest casualties are the patchy clutch of guitar solos and, most of all, Blaze Bayley himself. There are many places on this record where he is just clearly out of tune and it does him no favours that these takes were allowed on the finished product. On top of this, there is a strong sense that a more clinical editorial approach was needed to song structures, track ordering and song inclusion.

The album's high point is, without question, "Man on the Edge". Despite a few dodgy lyrics, it is an excellent and exciting piece of Iron Maiden and the only song on the album where everything lines up as it should. Blaze is perfectly in the vocal pocket, the hooks are top notch, the guitars and bass rip away frenetically. This song is perhaps the greatest indication of the heights of quality that could have been reached if the band had handled their new situation better.

Works like "Lord of the Flies" and "Fortunes of War" are merciless in their vocal expectations and it is painfully obvious that Blaze has had to cope by singing vocal figures down the octave, to unconvincing effect. Here, the fault can be leveled at the band for neither configuring to a different key nor writing something that better suited their new recruit; much is explained by the fact that the recording of _The X Factor_ got underway very shortly after selecting their new singer.

Gregorian monks and quiet minor bass and guitar figures establish the album as an understated and immediately moody affair, as "Sign of the Cross" sets the album's reticent tone. This album version is not nearly pacey enough to fully engage the listener. A strong chorus vocal is enough to momentarily assure that proceedings are going ahead as we'd all hoped, that is, when Blaze actually hits the long note! The midsection is overly drawn out, without vocals for a very long time and, at this pace, needs a sharper editor's knife taken to it. This could have all been elevated by playing it significantly faster, and it actually has since been given a much needed kick up the arse live. "Lord of the Flies" energises things well enough, featuring some great riff work and good lyrics, but the much of the melody never reaches the heights it should, due to the remedial low pitching of the vocal line.

"Fortunes of War" can be held up as the song that best characterises the tone, style and the flaws on this record. War-themed lyrics, an overly long structure padding itself out with repetitions, a maudlin slow tempo, a range of overly simplistic ideas, disjointed transitions and understated, under-pitched, underwhelming vocal lines that stray in and out of tune. The lowest moment comes when Blaze unconvincingly 'whoa-hoas' along to the repetitive midsection lick. This dirge is immediately followed by a song that begins with exactly the same mood and tone. "Look for the Truth" offers us more quiet, clean guitar and bass intro, more depressing lyrics, more slow tempo, and is only bouyed up by a few high moments in Blaze's committed delivery - even if he is miring himself in repetitive 'whoa-hoas'. "The Aftermath" weighs in next with, unbelievably, another quiet intro and slow tempo, more war lyrics, more dodgily pitched vocal lines that follow the riffs and nothing else of any real consequence. It's not as if the sorrowful figures and atmosphere aren't affecting, but there's too much going on that is too similar. These three tracks really do form a triumvirate of misery at the heart of this record and it's a struggle to persevere through them.

A welcome relief is offered by the major tonality of "Judgement of Heaven", although the lyrics keep up the depressive theme, expressing a desire for suicide repressed by a resignation to carrying on with the crutch and consequence of faith. Despite a low-key verse delivery, the song actually boasts a few stirring melodic guitar motifs and a decent, uplifting chorus, which Blaze then destroys with unintentionally hilarious vocal ejaculations. "Edge of Darkness" is another stronger moment, even though it follows the flawed formula of many songs on this record. The ideas are a bit stronger and the hooks are sharper. When the whole thing kicks into gear for the second section, it even gets exciting, with Blaze spitting out a rapid high-end vocal.

Yet service is quickly resumed with the almost touchingly pathetic "2AM". Miserable lyrics and a plaintiff, somewhat catchy vocal line are surrounded by clean figures and simplistic riffs, although the lead hooks are effective at conveying poignancy. Closing track "The Unbeliever" is almost schizophrenic in its blend of strength and weakness. While boasting one of the album's most intense choruses and some classic Iron Maiden melodics and decent solos in the midsection, the verse is malformed and, somehow, a riff comprised of plucking a rhythm on the open strings in ascending and descending order was allowed on the record; when you realise how to play it, it beggars belief to hear.

The pain at the heart of this record, namely Steve Harris' personal pain, may be its chief muse but it is not its defining character. The overall feeling created is that Iron Maiden have somehow become diminished. From the spartan compositional instrumentation to the notched back vocals, to the dearth of creative strength, the band sound uninspired, undisciplined and lacking in the fire and fight we know and love in Iron Maiden. Yet Steve Harris has been quoted as saying that he feels _The X Factor_ is one of the top three Iron Maiden albums. With this context, _The X Factor_ provides an intriguing listen as a study in how the poisoned thorns of a flawed perspective can strangle what paltry flowers grow in an enervated soil.

Unsung hero: "Blood on the Worlds Hands" works far better than many things on this record, beginning with a moody, disarmingly acoustic bass solo before settling into a heavy, punishing series of riffs that provide the album's darkest moments and Blaze's most convincingly ferocious delivery. Nicko is actually doing something interesting on this song too, the riffs are more pleasingly developed and the song feels more fluidly composed than most of its peers.

_Virtual XI_ (1998)
Lineup: Blaze Bayley, Dave Murray, Janick Gers, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain.
Producer: Steve Harris and Nigel Green

The follow up to _The X Factor_ differentiates itself from its predecessor from the word go by establishing a far more upbeat mood. "Futureal" arrests the listener immediately with its frantic lead guitar hook, rapid paced vocal and heavy, bass-led riffage. It is also refreshingly short, with some effective solos and a strong chorus. All this signals to the listener that Iron Maiden are feeling more like their old selves again. The production has filled out and most closely resembles the balanced, glossy sheen of _Fear of the Dark_, although it does exhibit more low-fi and less bolshy guitar distortion, which occasionally adds some interesting textures. There is more connection and solidity in the rhythm section than on _The X Factor_, the unsettlingly intrusive acoustic bass sounds have disappeared and the leads have more character. The use of simple synth strings is prevalent in fleshing out the songs with moody atmosphere when required. Even Blaze blends into the whole sound with more comfort. Unfortunately, the producers have once again left their editors knives at home, and as such, _Virtual XI_ suffers from a flagrant use of excessive repetition of vocal motifs. This is most criminally destructive in "The Angel and The Gambler" where, if the little hammond organ touches aren't as bad as they might seem, the whole piece is utterly devastated by the repetition of the four phrase, "Don't you think I'm your saviour..." vocal figure 22 times! The single cut would have been a much-improved inclusion on the album. Later on, the somewhat haunting attack of "Don't Look to the Eyes of a Stranger" is also blighted by the same problem.

Thankfully, there are plenty of enjoyable moments. "Lightning Strikes Twice" is an atmospheric, powerful and catchy composition from Dave and Steve, even if the chorus gets, again, repetitious. "The Clansman" is perhaps the most famous track from this album, earning its live spot with some strong melodic figures, sensitively employed Celtic themes and accessible vocal hooks. That it is a bit too long and recycles itself a bit too much has not stopped this song being a favourite of many Maiden fans. "When Two Worlds Collide" brings us that familar gallop and juxtaposes evocative atmosphere and hooky melody lines with semi-preposterous lyrics that squish the suggestion of a metaphor into irrelevance. "The Educated Fool" raises the bar again with the catchy immediacy of its brooding motifs, the low-end urgency of the vocal coming across as sensitive rather than limited for once. The lyrics, though shoehorned in, are fairly profound and stirring. It's just a shame that the simple but effective chorus figure is beaten to death, although Dave and Janick's solos are some of the best on this record. The aforementioned "Don't Look to the Eyes of a Stranger" has a few engaging moments but is unfortunately destroyed through twenty phrasal repetitions of the title lyric refrain.

When it comes down to it, _Virtual XI_ is quite an enjoyable Iron Maiden record, if you can look past the flaws of a couple of songs. It is certainly more enjoyable than its dark, exhaustive predecessor. Yet herein lies the paradox: although _The X Factor_ is a less rewarding listen, it still manages to hold itself together as an experience with the full weight of historical significance. With its place as the sophomore record of Iron Maiden's least beloved line up, its paltry eight tracks (that have not featured in the band's sets for fourteen years now) and even the awkward, whimsical nod to the 1998 World Cup that besmirches a very cool piece of cover art, it is unfortunately hard to regard _Virtual XI_ as a record of any real consequence.

Unsung hero: Pushed back to the end of a record that some dismissive fans may have abandoned halfway through lies, arguably, the greatest anthem of the Blaze era. Tributing the unwavering support of the South American fan base, "Como Estais Amigos" is the most melodically engaging and emotive song on _Virtual XI_, with a balladic build up to a life affirming, explosive chug, a moving sing along chorus and rousing guitar motifs and solos in the midsection. It's a fine send off to Iron Maiden's darkest days.

_Brave New World_ (2000)
Lineup: Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, Janick Gers, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain.
Producer: Kevin Shirley

To say the weight of expectation was heavy on Iron Maiden's heads in 2000 would not do justice to the true context of the situation the band found themselves in. With the return of figurehead vocalist Bruce Dickinson and essential foil songwriter Adrian Smith, the anticipation among the fanbase was indeed great, but in truth, the millenium found heavy metal itself in a strange place, with the pinnacle of nu metal's stylings and fashions dominating the face of metal culture. As such, it is interesting to remember that _Brave New World_ was the start of a new journey for Iron Maiden. The onus was on this newly restored old-guard titan to prove itself again to a new, more alien youth. In retrospect, the album title is very apt. Ripping out of the speakers with a nod to Judas Priest's "Running Wild" as a statement of intent, the opening figures of "The Wicker Man" obliterate almost everything written in the '90s with startling and enrapturing immediacy. Kevin Shirley establishes his place in the new legacy very early on. _Brave New World_ is the best-sounding Iron Maiden record since _Powerslave_: clinical, glossy and shining with aural light. The guitars have a restored bite and, crucially, some long missing weight to their now triumvirate riff attack. The bass is snappier and chunkier than ever but does not get to rule the roost. The drums pound away with increased might, particularly notable for the clear, meaty smack of the bass drums. Bruce Dickinson stands proud atop the pile with a rich and majestic vocal delivery that has thankfully discarded the theatrical rasp of the early '90s and replaced it with a depth of mature texture and improved technical control.

With infectious riffs and a mammoth chorus figure, "The Wicker Man" starts _Brave New World_ in the best possible fashion; a veritable clarion call to arms. "The Ghost of the Navigator" then shifts the playing field by stepping away from the option to slam in another crowd-pleasing anthem by traversing more progressive waters. It is a triumphant blend of different moods, from the enchanting opening clean figure to the rapacious verse riff, to the murky pre-chorus, through to a double chorus that dovetails the motifs into a gorgeous structure. Double-kick style bass drums drive the midsection through to the eventual conclusion. An audacious and very individual song. The title track follows, providing us another anthem that is more beautiful and more restrained than "The Wicker Man". The riff patterns are simple but elevated with layered guitar melodics and an effective variation of drumbeats. The old curse of repetition dogs the chorus vocal, but the figure is strong enough to carry itself through. The solo section is one of the most accomplished passages of lyrical lead work that exists in the entire Iron Maiden repertoire. It is also hard to think of any Iron Maiden song that delivers such a mournfully exquisite introduction. "Blood Brothers" changes the pace again, a slow burning, bass driven, Celtic-mood-charged sing-along ballad that climaxes with one of Janick's finest solos. "The Mercenary" presents Iron Maiden at their most aggressive, being riff driven and more intimidating than uplifting. It is a little repetitive and formulaic in places but a worthy song regardless, carried by dark, lyrical guitar parts and violent lyrics. The solos are blistering.

The first epic song follows, "Dream of Mirrors" lugging into life with a disarming intro lyric that follows a tutti refrain and never repeats again. It might seem a little odd and overblown, before a moody bass and clean figure weaves its eerie web. The song boasts two chorus lines, the first understated and beautiful, the second grandiose and infectious, despite its quizzical lyrics; one feels that the opportunity for a vocal harmony could have raised the bar in the melodic tail. The atmosphere of this song does a lot to keep us engaged, haunting lyrics painting a picture of nocturnal madness before a ferocious gallop tears through a powerful midsection. "The Fallen Angel" follows. Slightly dispensable due to its place in the album and coming after so much of such quality, it remains a strong song: ominous sounding, riff driven, heavy and bouncy and hook laden.

The second epic now continues the Middle-Eastern vibes that were heard in the first, as "The Nomad" takes us on a very obvious and familiar musical journey through the harmonic minor. It's a bit of a mess made up of strong parts, all chunky riffs and desert-fuelled licks, and could be recognised as the low point on the record, although by no means is it a poor song. There are, again, two choruses, one clinging to the eastern themes through wavering vocal gymnastics, the other more glorious and powerful. The mid section is atmospheric, delicate, gradual in dynamics and overdrawn; when it becomes trance-inducing, it perhaps works as intended. "Out of the Silent Planet" surprises us with another anthem coming late in the record's progress, boasting a range of moods and some of the strongest vocal and guitar lines on offer, feeding the lifespan of its hooks with varying dynamic riffs and drum beats.

That _Brave New World_ is a triumph is certain, but it is more. It is the sound of a band rediscovering their inspiration and the true strength of the sum of their parts. It is also the sound of a band going beyond what is expected of them, pushing their musical boundaries past delivering a collection of easily digestible anthemic songs. What is remarkable about _Brave New World_ is that, from out of the ashes of the '90s, Iron Maiden erupted back into life to re-establish dominance amongst a world that had almost moved on from their sound and the idea of them as relevant. They achieved their goal by creating this, one of the best Iron Maiden records, holding its own alongside _Number of the Beast_ and _Seventh Son of a Seventh Son_. The magnificent cover artwork reflects both context and eventuality perfectly.

Unsung hero: Closing out a lengthy album of riches lies a unique and breathtaking Maiden track. "The Thin Line Between Love and Hate" offers us a different Maiden experience, with a vibe unlike anything else in their arsenal, pounding riffs underscoring quirky harmony vocals before it all climaxes with a truly spine-tingling lyrical guitar and vocal trade off that may just be the single most beautiful piece of music that Iron Maiden have ever written. As the gripping groove of the bass-driven riff cycles us round to hear this figure once again, that Bruce Dickinson is a true vocal god is firmly re-established. Just listen to the man. A truly marvellous song.

_Dance of Death_ (2003)
Lineup: Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, Janick Gers, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain.
Producer: Kevin Shirley

After reinvigorating themselves with _Brave New World_ and all but exorcising the ghosts of a troubled decade, it is bizarre to find Iron Maiden dropping a bollock three years later. Thankfully, the clanger is not a musical one but an artistic one. The cover art for _Dance of Death_ is a singularly woeful entry in a history of exceptional pieces. The story goes that members of the band decided to use a digital draft of the intended artwork before the piece was even finished; the artist is reported to have disowned it since. As such, the digitised masquerade on the front features graphics that are poor even by the computer game standards of the day. Interestingly, this blunder has engendered a lot of hatred for this record among the fan base; I regularly see this album near the bottom of people's rankings. This is a revealing result re: the importance of good presentation, as the music on this record is of an overall strong standard. A few peaks and troughs aside, _Dance of Death_ is a very enjoyable and immersive listen that grows in strength with familiarity.

One key difference between _Dance of Death_ and its predecessor is the decision the band took to record the bulk of the instrumental tracks in live takes. This adds a less clinical but more organic tone to proceedings; ironically, _Dance of Death_ feels well and truly alive. The guitars have a little more warmth and just a little less clinical precision, but it works. The drums are more raucously punchy than normal, toms thundering through the mix with ease. The bass anchors it all, audible but balanced, sharp edges more blunted and a bit richer for it. Dickinson's vocal still shines through as expected, along with some very prominent lead tones. Another triumph from Kevin Shirley, if you like your metal to have that element of human error.

The music on _Dance of Death_ is a collection of varying moods and styles, unencumbered by concept, theme or principle inspiration. You never quite know what you are getting next, beside it all being recognisably Maiden. "Wildest Dreams" kicks off the album on a rocking major note, an uplifting paeon to self-reinvention that oozes confidence and comfortableness. It's not quite up there with "The Wicker Man", its chorus perhaps a bit simplistic and less effective than the former album opener, but "Wildest Dreams" does its job, inviting us in on a celebratory note. The high point is the closing figure of the midsection, an excellent melodic build. The pace continues with "Rainmaker", hitting us right between the eyes with an immediately satisfying lead figure before taking us on a more mystical and emotive ride than the opening track. The chorus uses more minor chord inflections to great effect, before a great solo and lead motif elevate the song to the ranks of greatness. "No More Lies" follows, instantly shifting the mood down into familiar, engrossingly moody Harris doldrums. One feels that this is the kind of song Steve would have loved to write and include on either of the Blaze-era albums; even _Virtual XI_'s synth strings are back in force. The chorus is lyrically and melodically repetitive, almost self destructively so, but the song carries itself through with its hook laden intro, verse and pre-chorus and simple but effective riff progressions. "Montsegur" picks up the reins again, building itself around the heaviest and perhaps messiest riff that Maiden have ever committed to tape. The lyrics are historically detailed, complex and fit to melodies that are urgent, dramatic and almost ridiculous; the chorus figure is quite tough to stomach with its disarming, waltzy hook. Rewarding perseverance, the midsection to this song is stunning, featuring one of Maiden's most invigorating lead harmony figures.

Bands of Iron Maiden's ilk are often a target for jokes recycled from Spinal Tap, being from the era targeted by that film. However, on the title track, Janick Gers does his best to present us with a sister song to Tap's ill-fated "Stonehenge". Highly narrative and rather folky, swinging through different time signatures, there are a lot of good melodic vocal and guitar moments and a strong build of atmosphere through the clean section but by the time the second section of the song begins, one wonders if tongue wasn't firmly in cheek. A powerful progression of riffs and three really excellent solos bring saving merit to a song that you could otherwise bury under a pile of raised eyebrows.

Following this, "Gates of Tomorrow" opens with a raw, abrasive guitar riff and bass trade-off before strong melodic guitars and vocals take over. The strident pre-chorus and instantly memorable chorus are definite moments of prowess in a fairly worthy song. Similarly, "New Frontier" keeps things solid and satisfying, rocking along at a canter without being truly excellent. There's a clear nod to "Number of the Beast" in the bass-led verse riff, and the melodic figures (particularly the chorus hook) are sharp enough to make you wonder why Nicko McBrain doesn't write a little more. "New Frontier" is his sole compositional offering to the Iron Maiden canon.

The variation in styles continues into the final part of the album, although the general mood has become more reflective and sombre. "Face in The Sand" offers us a dark, apocalyptic slow burner that builds inexorably around an out-of-character double bass pedal drive and a subtly pervasive, swinging melodic groove. "Age Of Innocence" is despairing, disapproving and disjointed as Dave and Steve rail against societal injustices. After a gloomy intro a brutal verse riff is married to an infectious chorus. "Journeyman" closes proceedings in surprising acoustic fashion, a highly catchy, sensitive and stirring ballad to self-belief and perseverance, obliquely paying tribute to the life and struggles of artists.

Amongst the splattered spiderweb of tangents taken by _Dance of Death_, the pervading impression is one of consistent quality. It's less cohesive than _Brave New World_, often delightful, sometimes baffling, but undeniably an enjoyable listen throughout. I'd say, "Do not judge a book by its cover", but here's a more apt imperative to sum up what _Dance of Death_ offers: brusquely discount and elbow aside the malformed figures that clog your view and you'll surely find old Eddie, standing commandingly upon an appropriately multi pointed star, beckoning you in to enjoy this lurid but vibrant masquerade.

Unsung hero: In the second half of this album resides one of Iron Maiden's most staggering and accomplished musical achievements. Harnessing emotive subject matter and doing it justice with appropriately poignant melodic figures and lyrics, the eight and half minute "Paschendale" is the real centerpiece of _Dance of Death_. Chaotic, off kilter riffs cascade down, conveying majesty and brutality as Iron Maiden realise an epic with a truly succinct progressive structure and all without losing an ounce of the grip they have on the listener. A wealth of beautiful melodics and powerful riffs, "Paschendale" is the crowning compositional pinnacle of the entire 'Reunion Era' and it is surely one of the best of all Iron Maiden songs. Essential heavy metal listening.

_A Matter of Life and Death_ (2006)
Lineup: Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, Janick Gers, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain.
Producer: Kevin Shirley

When _A Matter of Life and Death_ hit the shelves in 2006, the UK metal press completely lost their heads over it, almost universal praise and celebration spewing forth from worshipful cover features, gushing reviews and highly reverent interviews. If the UK metal press could be accused of hysterically elevating this record to the dizzy heights of 'best Iron Maiden album ever', then so, too, did the band themselves. The tour in support of _A Matter of Life and Death_ saw Iron Maiden undertake to play the entire album, in track order, live. This was significantly less well received by the rabidly loyal Maiden fanbase. Ever earnest to define themselves as a current and relevant band rather than a nostalgic cabaret act (a goal that they had already arguably achieved by this point), it appeared that, just for a moment, Iron Maiden had hubristically misjudged their audience; the image of Bruce tearing up a banner that read "Play Classics" made some Internet waves and, having attended this tour myself, the euphoria that erupted when the band finally launched into "Fear of the Dark" defined that particular gig for me. Tellingly, the second leg of that tour saw the band back-track a little and revert to the ratio of old to new found on previous album tours.

Worst of all, personally, was the feeling that, try as I might, I couldn't join in with the victory parade. Something sits a little uneasily on _A Matter of Life and Death_. It might be the second use of the word "death" over the span of two album titles, or the almost universally lengthy collection of songs, or the prevalence of heavier than usual riffs, or even the understated Eddie on the front cover. Certainly, something feels different. An old friend of mine once described the album as, "Like seeing your dad in a pair of new shoes."

Less speculatively and more seriously, one could look at the production for the cause of the niggle. The album is presented to us unmastered and raw, to offer us the chance to listen to it exactly as it sounded to the band in the studio, bare bones and all. As such, a layer of depth feels subtly missing and the overall sound of the record is, if not exactly cold, then stark and brazen. The mix is not without merits. The bass has some of its ringing tones back and the guitars bite and chomp with a low-fi attack. The leads cut incisively but have lost some of their glossiness. The drums are bare but powerful in the low-mids, clearly thumping through and tying it all together, although perhaps leaving room for more bassy gravitas that just isn't there this time. Dickinson himself sounds a little more worn by proceedings. There is a subtle but noticeable strain in his voice that was not there on _Brave New World_. That said, his performance remains exceptional and highly effective.

Musically, the scope of _A Matter of Life and Death_ is very grand and most of the songs on this record push well past the six-minute mark. Unlike its predecessor, there is a noticeable theme running through this album, represented well by the cover art, and much of the musical levity that suffused _Dance of Death_ is gone. The lyrics deal predominantly with the horrors of war and the mysteries of religion and there is a prevalence of brooding atmosphere and gloomy moods. In essence, one can postulate that _A Matter of Life and Death_ finally realises the vision of spirit that possessed Steve Harris to make _The X Factor_ and, as such, it can be seen as that record's more musically superior cousin.

"Different World" kicks things off, an excellent, riff driven album opener with a profound lyrical message about personal disillusionment and appreciating the little things in life. It rocks along feverishly and provides the album with the sole instance of the casually-expected, radio-sized Maiden anthem. The vocal hooks are instantly rewarding and the lyrical solo is very good. Inspired by the regrettable "Sharon Osbourne's box of eggs" incident, "These Colours Don't Run" is strong in the verse and chorus but beats itself to death in a repetitive midsection. "Brighter Than a Thousand Suns" addresses The Manhattan Project and is suitably doom-laden and dark, building itself around a notably crushing syncopated riff and vocal figure. Perhaps the only thing that stops this epic track ascending to the utmost heights is that its chorus is too dark in tonality to truly get behind, although it is effective.

"The Pilgrim" offers us some unexpected Arabian-sounding motifs, harmonic minor used in its traditional sense. Possessing some strong parts, it is a strangely unsatisfying listen, with a cloyingly irresolute post-chorus figure and an overly busy verse line. "Out of the Shadows" varies proceedings by introducing a slow-paced ballad that possesses effective melodies, delicate guitar licks and rare notes of positivity, but a rather paltry midsection and some over-repetition dooms the enterprise to go nowhere in particular. The overall effect is to slow the pace of the album down where it doesn't need it.

The preposterously titled "Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg" ("Who?" As it turns out, despite an online campaign, nobody), begins with dramatic guitar melody and a darkling clean section, with effective use of harmonics. Then a monolithic, slightly lumpen riff kicks in, driving the song into headbanging territory. The chorus is immediate but could have been so much stronger with the layering of a high vocal harmony.

"For the Greater Good of God" is another black and moody Harris epic that strives for greatness but is crippled by the over use of its own musical parts and lyrics. The pounding triplet drumbeat would be effective if it hadn't appeared prominently in two other preceeding songs on the record. The individual pieces are quite strong, the second chorus is arresting but the whole is, unfortunately, hard to stomach. The song's developmental midsection provides the highest moments, along with the impact of some of the verse lyrics.

"Lord of Light" is less repetitive and more dynamic but suffers from its positioning on the record; at this point, another long slow-burner offers nothing new. The quiet introduction is eerie, but by this point, more of the same. The verse riff is delightfully frenetic, with Bruce busting a gut to drive home the vocals and duelling with a charging lead figure. The midsection is pleasingly progressive, featuring new vocal ideas amongst the instrumental play-offs and some awesome guitar histrionics from Adrian Smith. A bit of a shame that the chorus is a touch unsatisfying.

Finishing this lengthy journey through the dark heart of humanity is the mournfully sardonic "The Legacy", most noticeable for its twisted nursery rhyme opening section and dirgey acoustic exploration. A fairly worthy, mid-paced verse and chorus eventually arrive before the second half of the song charges off into a plethora of riffs that pay more than a nod to "Black Sabbath". Curiously, the raw elements of this record do not help this final section and the band sound a bit sloppy on occasion. An interesting and offbeat end to a confounding album.

I spent a long time agonising over what I was missing with _A Matter of Life and Death_ but really should not have. Its flaws are simple to behold in some respects. It is a record that retreads its own ground too many times and can be exhaustingly meandering. There are too many moments where the band dim the lights and glower, too few where they grab you by the heart strings and tug. _A Matter of Life and Death_ is an impressive album in its ambition and it is by no means a bad record, but it is a less enjoyable experience than its two predecessors. That Iron Maiden set out to accomplish what they wanted to do is undeniable. That the band's creative fire burned strong is sure. That _A Matter of Life and Death_ should have been received so rapturously by the critics is significantly questionable.

Unsung hero: "The Longest Day" is the song on this record where the band sound most as we expect them to. The grumbling opening figure is as evocative as intended and the melodies of the pre-chorus and chorus are poignant and stirring. The exchange of darkness and light in the warring figures of the midsection offer us some of the most thrilling writing on _A Matter of Life and Death_.

_The Final Frontier_ (2010)
Lineup: Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, Janick Gers, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain.
Producer: Kevin Shirley

The title of this album saw Iron Maiden gleefully trolling their entire fanbase. Anchored around a long standing Steve Harris assertion that he wanted to make fifteen albums, _The Final Frontier_ kicked the online speculation of the fans into overdrive. As it turns out, it was merely an appropriate nod to the loose sci-fi themes running through parts of the record, namely the title track itself.

Perhaps the second biggest immediate impact _The Final Frontier_ had on its audience was the cover artwork. Rarely has Eddie looked so utterly monstrous as he was when incarnated in the form of an alien beast ripping out the brains of long dead astronauts. Bursting with vivid colour, this artwork was a real return to form after the disaster of _Dance of Death_ and the doom-laden military imagery that adorned _A Matter of Life and Death_.

The third possible wind up from the band is the lack of division between the two parts of the title track. "Satellite 15... The Final Frontier" is the conjoining of two very different pieces of music. The first, "Satellite 15", is rather like an intro tape full of strange sounds and unexpected instrumental tones. A whirling, soft, fuzzy bass underpins a montage of guitar histrionics while echoing drums thunder away in the background, as Dickinson eventually appears, wailing the plaintive cries of an astronaut lost in space. There's four and a half minutes of this build up until the band we know actually crash into "The Final Frontier", a simple, riff-orientated, old school, rockin' metal anthem with a killer solo and catchy chorus. That the band didn't divide them for casual listening has been the cause of much chargrin amongst fans; personally, I feel that the contrasting build up enriches one's appreciation of the effective but rather straightforward number that follows it.

Production-wise, Maiden have found their warmth and depth again. The sound and vibe are quite similar to that found on _Dance of Death_, but a little sharper. The guitars are both rough and rich and married quite tightly to the luxuriant, deep bass tones. The drums are as punchy as they have been under Shirley's watch, bass drum and snare smacking through, toms reined in a little more this time. Leads penetrate well without being too overpowering and Bruce delivers another confident, enthralling and dramatic performance. The slight strain in his higher range is still present in places, but growing older has not stopped Dickinson from stepping up to the plate. The vocal lines on songs like "The Talisman" are so ballsy they could be called heroic.

Following the opening track, the sneering, sardonic "El Dorado" gallops away, taking liberal shots at the contemporary banking crisis through some effective allegorical lyrics. The riff is huge, the chorus unexpectedly shifting key up to wild heights, but perhaps it is the crash start and end that encapsulate much of the feel behind _The Final Frontier_. The live takes have a subtle, almost jam-like quality at times. It feels as if Maiden are comfortable in their own skin, joyfully weaving these creations, improvising and tearing off figures and just playing their hearts out. The subtle solos behind the verse in "Starblind" are another instance of this sense of freedom.

"Mother of Mercy" provides the darkest mood on the record, with a restrained beginning stepping up a few notches through a gripping bridge figure and a nihilistic and bleak chorus. It's perhaps a bit wordy at times, but it carries an effective ranty quality that sets up the bleak chorus figure. "Coming Home" continues the mid paced feeling, crashing in with a rather awkward descending/ascending riff before an autobiographical ballad about returning from tour in your own plane takes over. Concept aside, the lyrics are effectively heartfelt and powerful. The chorus and pre-chorus are particularly melodically strong. Despite a decent solo trade off, the second half retreads the same ground a little too much. "The Alchemist" steps up the pace but notches down the quality a little, a rather standard lead intro and garrulous verses making little impression until the song builds to a great lead-layered chorus figure. A very Janick-esque solo stamps its own eccentric authority over this song. "Isle of Avalon" is Maiden at their most folk-infused and this epic does justice to its quintessentially British Isles-based subject matter. It makes a bit too much use of some of its motifs and the lyrics are so full of mysteries they are quite obtuse, but there are enough atmosphere, grandeur and infectious melodies here to ensure success. The midsection is groovy and adventurous and laden with leads. "Starblind" begins with a vibe-setting quiet section before a dramatic riff and vocal progression sound out over a slightly uneasy drum beat. Strangely, the chorus suffers from one of Bruce Dickinson's only 'Blaze Bayley' moments; the modulation anticipates tonal heights that are nigh-on unsingable and the sudden shift to low range loses a bit of the intensity. The midsection, again, delivers the progressive goods to round out this loose but impressive, fretboard blazing composition.

The middle of the album is dominated by epics, and the final three songs are no different. It can get exhausting, although none of these songs are poor efforts, the whole just needing some time spent to appreciate it. "The Talisman" begins with an ethereal, low key acoustic progression that just about loses your attention before the band smash in with an excellent riff that evokes "The Ghost of the Navigator". Dickinson sounds like he's giving himself a brain hemorrhage as he wrestles with the most relentless and punishing vocal line on the record. He is tested but emerges victorious. The vibe remains consistent and the song perhaps suffers from arranging figures that are too similar in tone and style before a huge chorus and churning midsection arrive. "The Man Who Would Be King" is an introspective piece, with some thought-provoking empathetic lyrics. The beginning is effectively atmospheric and sensitive, with clean melodics and a wash of synth, before a more grandiose lead figure takes over. The song rocks through its verses and builds to a morose and urgent chorus. Through a proggy and uplifting midsection, it is the final acoustic figure that provides the most satisfactory moments of resolution.

On the whole, _The Final Frontier_ is a fine Iron Maiden record offering a great selection of strong tracks, many of which just fall short of true excellence. Where it stands amongst the reunion-era albums depends on one's taste and mood. It is more compositionally accomplished than _Dance of Death_, on the whole, but maybe a little less accessible and immediately gratifying too. Certainly, _The Final Frontier_ improves with time invested, capturing a creative time where Iron Maiden married their grand musical ambitions to their anthemic sensibilities.

Unsung hero: Deservedly featuring in the live set for the album's tour, the final track on the album, "Where the Wild Wind Blows", is classic Iron Maiden. Anchored around a folky-feeling hook, the lyrics are greatly engrossing and the melody is instantly rewarding. The second half of the song is packed with quality lead work. A modern Steve Harris masterwork.

_The Book of Souls_ (2015)
Lineup: Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, Janick Gers, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain.
Producer: Kevin Shirley

Five years is, admirably, a long time to wait for a new Iron Maiden record. Yet, the delay to the release of _The Book of Souls_ is mostly due to a very productive schedule. Maiden followed up their trek in support of _The Final Frontier_ with a second worldwide jaunt, celebrating the 'Maiden England' era and giving the new generation a chance to experience the otherworldly spectacle of the _Seventh Son of a Seventh Son_ show in the live environment. The band hit Guillaume Tell Studios in Paris in the autumn of 2014, not too long after their triumphant last show of the tour at Knebworth. The details of these actions have since been rendered moot by the devastating news of Bruce Dickinson's cancer diagnosis and the subsequent, inspirational story of his recovery, which has delayed all touring plans until next year while he heals from the damage of chemo and radiation treatments.

Thankfully, the album Iron Maiden have delivered is sure to keep listeners engaged and studious for much of the time till the band can hit the road in full strength. In an information age where people's attention spans seem shorter than ever and the prevalent culture is to purchase (or steal) single MP3s rather than full records, there is something deleriously enjoyable about the band's decision to release _The Book of Souls_ as a double album; a real two fingered salute to the times we now live in. Amazingly, this format actually works. _The Book of Souls_ is a monumental slab of Iron Maiden, not only impossible to present on one disc, but also impossible to properly digest in one go; it's an hour and a half of heavy metal and the interval midway through is beneficial to the overall experience. When you consider that this record is pushing three times longer than the original cut of _Iron Maiden_, that puts what is being offered in some perspective. As a fan, I can honestly say that I am delighted with the decision. Due to the quality and arrangement of tracks, it almost feels like I've been given two new Iron Maiden albums at once to make up for the five year wait.

The decision to record many of the 'Reunion Era' albums in live takes and keep things raw and earthy has engendered a constant murmur of online grumbling about production values. Yet this time, nobody could doubt that Kevin Shirley has knocked it out of the park. Perhaps the return to Guillaume Tell Studios is a coincidence but _The Book of Souls_ is the best sounding Iron Maiden album since _Brave New World_, which was recorded there back in 2000. The biggest defining feature of the sound of this Iron Maiden record is the balance between guitar and bass. Arguably for the first time ever in the history of the band, the two instruments share an equal space in the soundscape, guitars blazing out plenty of rich tones and a beefily textured, classic distortion that rides on top of the bass as opposed to alongside it. The bass tone is instantly recognisable as Steve Harris, but it has been a little softened and disciplined, performing its famous role in a more conventional way; a mighty, grumbling beast, at last sated and come to tolerate the presence of its more flamboyant, lightweight cousins. Nicko's drums are as consistently clear and weighty as they ever have been under Shirley, satisfying despite the bass drum lacking a touch of presence, and the lead work shines on bright and dominant throughout the record. This time, Bruce Dickinson has received a little more care from the mix and his delivery, whilst still retaining the now familiar tonal strain in the highest points of his register, is more assured and mightier than on the previous record.

Here, particular regard must be paid to Dickinson. With two solely crafted compositions bookending the album and the story of his recovery from serious illness colouring the press coverage that supports it, it is fair to say that _The Book of Souls_ will always be most associated with Bruce, of all the members of Iron Maiden. This is deservedly so; Dickinson has put in a stupendously brave performance on this album. Most of the songs feature challenging vocal lines that set the bar very high indeed and Bruce delivers every single one with daring aplomb. That he recorded these takes and pushed himself to master these parts whilst consciously suffering from two tumours in his throat is more than heroic; it is simply Herculean. Dare I coin a childish phrase, it's truly... metal as fuck.

The quality of the songs offered within _The Book of Souls_ is profoundly strong. In particular, the first disc is consistently, arrestingly excellent. Beginning with a wash of ominous synths and a dramatic, bluesy introductory vocal figure, Dickinson's "If Eternity Should Fail" delivers the immediate knockout punch we want from every Iron Maiden opener. Crashing in with a muscular gallop under instantly gripping leads, the song possesses a melodic incisiveness that establishes the much desired but rarely attained feeling in the listener that something special really is taking place on this record. An excellent track, even if it was snaffled away from a planned Bruce solo record; hence the classically effective but quizzical inclusion of a certain Dr. Necropolis. "Speed of Light" is a riff based rocking Maiden single cut, brazenly bite size in comparison to much of the material that surrounds it, possessing a dynamic vocal melody, an instant chorus vocal and some catchy lead work.

"The Great Unknown" introduces a more ominous tone with its quieter intro before quickly crescendoing into a brooding verse. The vocals in this song are punishingly high but the chorus delivers a good payoff. Interestingly, this is one of a couple of songs where the band do not feel the need to recapitulate the many melodic motifs after the development section. A chewy and rough acoustic bass intro kickstarts "The Red and The Black", an epic orgy of Steve Harris' compositional idiosyncrasies. The 'whoa-hooa' chorus is ridiculously infectious and will immediately take hold of you on first listen. The song has no real need to be as long as it is but that doesn't matter, as Harris bombards the listener with classic, quality melodies; it's all so enjoyable and so very 'Maiden'.

"When The River Runs Deep" goes for the jugular from early on with its frenetic lick, to mixed effect as Bruce throws his voice through a challenging rising figure, but soon the song settles into a hi-octane, sleazy verse, dramatic bridge and a chorus with a catchy, almost poppy swing to it. The midsection is business as usual but business is good. Then the magnificent title track kicks in. An atmospheric start, harmonic minor riff tones, a gradual build of intensity, a huge chorus vocal and a climactic development section; this is an excellent Maiden track, even though the main riff from "Losfer Words" is reworked (and improved) to drive the midsection forwards.

"Death or Glory" is the next quick fire anthem and is sure to be the next single choice, should the band decide to release one. The true strength of this song is in its modulations, as the tonic note is dramatically shifted around to give the chorus hook more weight. Arguably, this would have been an even more effective choice for lead single than "Speed of Light". Then "Shadow of the Valley" lowers the tone for the first time on _Book of Souls_. It's a decent, enjoyable song overall, make no mistake, but the opening lick is too close to "Wasted Years" for one to not react dismissively and the chorus vocal, like "...Benjamin Breeg" two albums ago, would have been lifted by a vocal harmony.

"Tears of a Clown" follows, slowing down the pace and intensity of the album to a more understated, introspective step. This song is something of a semi-precious thing; a unique Maiden track. There's not too much going on for once, just a mid-paced chord progression under lower register lyrics that abandon mysticism and imagery for the very real and contemporary subject of the death of the comedian Robin Williams. In terms of tone and mood, it stands out on the record, albeit a little baldly for it's lack of advanced musical content, save for one cool, syncopated figure. "Man of Sorrows" continues the more relaxed vibe, all the fury and bombast of previous two thirds of _The Book of Souls_ slowly gearing down into a satisfied repose. Gently progressive and distinguished by the melodic stylings of its vocal lines and lead led mid-sections, it has that left-field atmosphere that is a semi-hallmark of Dave Murray compositions. It is pleasingly lyrical, even if its steady pace dulls one's engagement at times.

Finally, this truly epic album closes with an epic track all of its own. Much has been made out of "Empire of the Clouds" in the press and words like "masterpiece" have been thrown around by an enraptured collective that includes Steve Harris himself. It is easy to understand why, as there are many things that make this song remarkable. Firstly, it is the longest ever Iron Maiden song and secondly, it's also another pure Dickinson composition that features grand piano parts -- another first -- and backing from orchestral instruments, most notably brass fanfares. The piano sections are undeniably marvellous. Beautiful, poignant and immediate melodic figures weave around each other to create a highly engaging beginning section. The well written lyrics complement this perfectly, as we enter the realms of historical storytelling once more. The chosen subject is the the tragic final voyage of the R101 airship. I'll confess to being entranced on first listen, hairs standing up on forearms and experiencing all the tell tale reactions to pure musical magic. This makes it even more mystifying that the song almost falls apart completely in the mid section. After a morse code styled tutti riff, the musical journey becomes lost amidst a labyrinth of swirling, scale-based runs and variations, each motif repetitive and overly similar to its predecessor. Painfully, it's all a bit second rate compared to some of the quality that we've already experienced. Ironically, the gas has been let out of this blimp by the time a strident vocal returns to take hold of the controls and we enter a figure where piano and guitars bash away in unison, to unsatisfactory effect. By the time the airship has crashed, so, very nearly, has the song, but the final section returns us to the great promise and glory of the beginning. It's eerily appropriate that the anticipation of the doomed flight and the legacy of the disaster should be the most effectively represented parts of the story in this profound, flawed musical tribute. There is the ghost of something awesome hidden in the wreckage of this song but, sadly, I will confess that I'm just not convinced of its substance yet. With apologies and deep respect to Mr Dickinson, I still retain the motivation and intention spend some more time in the "Empire of the Clouds", experiencing and reappraising it. Rather like how modern society generally views airships, no?

Overall, in spite of the decline in intensity and some of the quality towards the end of the second disc, _The Book of Souls_ is still the best, most rewarding Iron Maiden album in fifteen years. Is it better than _Brave New World_? Possibly. I'm not sure yet, only time spent with this mammoth opus will tell. Still, that a band of Iron Maiden's pedigree are able to forthrightly create an album like this is a cause for celebration across the metal world. In an age where the glorious old guard of metal are poignantly, sometimes tragically, suffering the slings and arrows of time and mortality in public, Iron Maiden have released an exceptional album, bursting with quality, crackling with creativity, exploding with vibrancy and screaming in defiance of contemporary convention. Totemistic, life affirming and reliable as ever, Edward The Great still reigns supreme. Better yet, _The Book of Souls_ has given us all, even the band themselves, good cause to dream and to hope... here's to the next ten years!

(article submitted 12/8/2015)

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