(Iron) Maiden Voyage: Forging the Legend (Chapter 2 of 7)

To this day, Iron Maiden’s 1982 opus “The Number of the Beast” is considered one of all-time metal classics, and it is not difficult to see why. The album’s seamless mixture of raw, punk-infused NWOBHM energy with more complex, ambitious songwriting that owed equally to Led Zeppelin, Queen, and even Yes and Genesis produced a blueprint for the band’s ultimate sound, as well as unleashing several successful singles that still get obnoxious amounts of airplay in 2013. Out of the album’s eight songs, no less than three (“Run to the Hills”, progressive epic “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, and the title track with its then-provocative name and lyrics) are still an integral part of Iron Maiden’s live show.

While the guitar work of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith became one of Iron Maiden’s trademark features, it was the arrival of Bruce Dickinson on vocals that defined Iron Maiden as most of us known it. Often imitated but never equaled, Dickinson’s operatic howl finally gave the songs the dramatic tension they needed, morphing them from raw byproducts of NWOBHM into mini-narratives, reaching operatic climax on tracks like “Children of the Damned” and aforementioned “Hallowed Be Thy Name”.

Looking back at “The Number of the Beast” in 2013, the album is far from perfect, and contains its fair share of lesser tracks – after all, not many people would actively scream for “Gangland” or “Invaders”, while Adrian Smith-penned “22 Acadia Avenue” feels like a throwback to the earlier, less developed form of the genre. That said, it was also the first Iron Maiden album on which everything came together – performances, songwriting, energy and drama that made the band a success in the 1980s and beyond. For that reason alone, it is a bona fide classic in the metal community, and many still consider it their finest hour despite the subsequent albums correcting its shortcomings.

I must admit – it was pure dumb fun to scream the chorus of the title track when I was sixteen and wanted to shock parents and non-metal friends. While Iron Maiden were never the most extreme band, there is a certain attraction to yelling out comprehensive lyrics that invoke everyone’s favorite fallen angel, not because of any inherent belief, but rather out of desire to challenge the status quo. For a still-awkward teen, it was the means of forging one’s identity as distinct from the others’ expectations, creating a self-image as a member of heavy metal subculture with all its idiosyncrasies. It was a declaration to the world that I have arrived, and this was the sound and the imagery that spoke to me, a superficial sign of identity as a metal fan.

As an adolescent, I remember separating the world by musical genre, just like others may separate it by literary interests, preference of Star Trek versus Star Wars, or any other criteria. Music was a form of identity, a form of knowing friend from foe, a way to meet others with similar persuasions. As a recent immigrant at the time, it was the latter function of the music that proved decisive in my life afterwards, as the Russian-speaking community in this area has never been very interested in metal, prompting me to seek friendships outside of it, to acquire greater degree of fluency in English, and to eventually have most of my social circle comprised of non-Russian speaking individuals.

Discovering Iron Maiden in the 1990s gave me the luxury of picking and choosing the order in which I listened to their albums for the first time. As such, I recall buying copies of “The Number of the Beast”, “Piece of Mind”, and “Powerslave” at roughly the same time, and my memories of three records are thus intertwined. And yet, the albums have sufficiently distinct moods and structures to still stand apart from one another, and to appeal to different aspects of growing up and discovering oneself.

Where “The Number of the Beast” was the soundtrack to rebellion and forming an independent identity, “Piece of Mind” was the sound of development and growth. The songs were more mature, the playing was tighter, and the lyrical themes reached for science fiction, history, fantasy and mythology. While the opener “Where Eagles Dare” was a relatively straightforward narrative based on a movie about the second World War, “Flight of Icarus” was no mere retelling of the myth, instead becoming a tale of ambition and pride. The titular Trooper of the Crimean War is not a mindless automaton killing for glory or excitement, but a man swept in a desperate charge of the Light Brigade, lamenting his own demise in the chaos of combat.

Bruce Dickinson’s involvement with the writing process produced several tracks with darker, more pensive feel, such as “Revelations”, or often overlooked “Sun and Steel”, while the lyrical themes began to involve darker side of mysticism and prophecy on “Die With Your Boots On”, “Still Life”, and epic “To Tame a Land”, the latter of which was inspired by Frank Herbert’s science fiction triumph “Dune”. Simultaneously, the arrival of Nicko McBrain on drums was the final piece of the classic-era lineup, serving as a solid background for Steve Harris’ always adventurous bass lines.

To this day, “Flight of Icarus” is one of my favorite Iron Maiden tracks, to the point of inspiring a scene in the first novel I managed to finish. The titular character’s declaration to “fly as high as the Sun” resonated with my then-teenage self as the unattainable yet worthy goal, something to strive for no matter the adversity. And while my teenage mind put a pessimistic span on it (after all, Icarus’ story did not have a happy ending), something of that ambition remained, enough to still be meaningful almost two decades later.

As “Revelations” foreshadowed interest in the esoteric (to be developed on latter-era Iron Maiden records), it held a special sort of appeal. Many youths wonder about their place in the world, and it is even more poignant in our age, where some form of apocalypse is always around the corner – 1999, 2012, nuclear holocaust, zombie plague, alien invasion… We as a culture have developed an unhealthy fascination with the end to our way of life, and when our art evokes it, it pulls at the heart strings and fascinates, amuses, and even entertains. To a bookish teenager with a long-standing addiction to science fiction and fantasy (an addiction that, if I may add, is something I actively feed to this day!), the song’s literary references and darker theme were, if you excuse the bad pun, a revelation.

“The Trooper”, though far from my favorite Iron Maiden song, holds a very special place in my heart. My first introduction to Iron Maiden was through a broadcast of “Live After Death” live album on Ukrainian television at some point in 1994 or 1995. Up until that point, my musical interests tended to remain on the rock side of things – Queen, Guns’n’Roses, Nirvana, and whatever was making waves in Europe at the time. “The Trooper” changed it all, courtesy of twin guitar harmonies played by Dave Murray and Adrian Smith that, at the time, seemed out of this world. Even after I have learned to play that song (and actually performed it live in a very early incarnation of Midgard), hearing those melodies played by Murray and Smith still gives me chills. Ultimately, those few seconds of one song started me on a path to metal, a truly life-changing event the magnitude of which I did not realize until much, much later.

It is then fitting that “Powerslave”, with its expansive songwriting and further development on “Piece of Mind” themes, was the album responsible for “Live After Death” tour, and, ultimately, for my fascination with Iron Maiden. Taking the basic formula of “Piece of Mind” and distilling it into even more epic, more diverse form, the album is rightly considered one of the finest heavy metal releases of all time, and many fans point to it as being the pinnacle of Iron Maiden’s sound. From World War II and contemporary fears of nuclear showdown to Egyptian mythology and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Powerslave” easily transitions between mythological and socially relevant, between rhyme and reason, between catchy singles like “Aces High” and “2 Minutes to Midnight”, martial “Flash of the Blade” and desperate “Back in the Village” (a sequel of sorts to “The Number of the Beast”’s freedom anthem “The Prisoner” and the TV series it was based on) and epic title track and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” with their forays into supernatural and religious themes.

In my opinion, “Powerslave” is the sum of everything Iron Maiden did until that point, and perhaps the best summary of NWOBHM taken to its logical conclusion. Merging youthful energy and exuberance with accomplished musicianship and intelligent lyrical approach, the band created something special that resonates almost three decades later. As a teenager, I was mightily impressed by Iron Maiden’s ability to take the genre of music usually characterized by excess (and, at the time, usually associated with the glamorous offspring of Sunset Strip) and turn it into something more, something intelligent that piqued curiosity and prompted the listeners to seek out the inspiration behind the songs. Each song had a story behind it, and each story pointed to something more than a run-of-the-mill exercise in melodic riffs and soaring vocals. Even now, as a thirty-something year old, I can listen to “Powerslave” along with its predecessors, and still get the same fresh, innovative feel from the music.

Now that the band was at the peak of its creative prowess, with the worldwide fame to match, the only question remaining was how it could possibly top “Powerslave”. Would it go for a radical redesign of its sound, or would it attempt to recapture the magic at a risk of producing a pale imitation? As it turned out, Iron Maiden did something different – in fact, their next step was sufficiently distinct to warrant a separate chapter in this narrative.

Up next: Into the Future (“Somewhere in Time” and “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son”). Stay tuned!

Critics and Negative Reviews

It is the unspoken truth of any creative endeavor – if you release it to the public, someone out there will not like it. Sometimes, it may take form of academically written, grammatically correct, exhaustive analysis of everything that went wrong in the reviewer’s opinion. Sometimes, it may take form of a foul-mouthed Internet simian failing to string together two word sentences without constantly invoking obscenities and CAPS LOCK KEY (because it has a magic power of validating even the most asinine of opinions). Most often, criticism will be somewhere in between, and it is the author’s (or the artist’s, if that happens to be the case) job to sift through it, and to distinguish between valid critique and barrage of proverbial feces from the monkey cage.

I can see this debacle from both ends, as a musician and author, and as a reviewer. In all honesty, it is rare musician or author who does not get dismayed by bad reviews, but they can also be a good reality check. If I were to spend months of my life writing or making music, I am almost certainly going to have a strong opinion about its quality and merits. It is not hard for an author to miss things that he might have rationalized or consciously chose to overlook. And as such, it is the reviewer’s job to catch those things – this is why the rest of us read the reviews, right?

As a reviewer, I am also held to certain standards. More often than not, the music I am reviewing (and, eventually, the literature) represents someone’s hard work and dedication. Moreover, a reviewer rarely purchases what he or she reviews – in my experience, most records I have reviewed were provided to me free of charge by the artists or their record labels, essentially as a marketing expense. If someone is willing to give me their work for free in return for critique, I will spend time and effort to respect that person’s work, and to give them constructive criticism if any is warranted. It does not mean that I will give only positive reviews, but it does mean that even in my negative reviews, I will point out to where improvements can be made, and not be dismissive of the effort that went into creating the work under review. As a musician and a writer, I hope to receive the same treatment.

So, if a negative review states precisely what is wrong, what could be better, and what is right, then it has accomplished its goal. I may or may not agree with the points it makes, but I will give them serious consideration instead of acting like a delicate flower with hurt feelings. Let’s face it – hurt feelings alone do not contribute to artistic or literary development. A thick skin, and willingness to learn from criticism does. Therefore, an honest critic who holds nothing back is worth his weight in precious metal of your choice.

Even when the review is not ideal in this respect, there is something to learn from it, as there will be kernels of constructive criticism even in less flattering reviews. Sometimes it takes thicker skin to dig for it – and while considering oneself an infallible creative genius is good for self-esteem, it is not very conducive to successful creative endeavors.

And then, there are the people who completely miss the point.

Over my musical career, I have received several reviews that blasted my albums because they were not “extreme” enough. In my humble opinion, it is an equivalent of criticizing steak for not being made of chicken. That said, there is a valuable lesson to it: sometimes, the reviews are just sent to wrong people who are not the target audience for the work in question. Further, it stresses out the importance of doing your research before submitting materials for review, and only targeting the publications that actually cover the genre, and can provide useful feedback.

Finally, there are the troglodytes, hailing from troll-infested basements and studio apartments worldwide. You know the kind – them of perpetual CAPS LOCK, incomprehensible scribbling, and vocabularies limited to insults and obscenities. These are the critters who alternate between misspelled not-so-witty one-liners and verbal equivalent of diarrhea, the definite proof that a million monkeys given infinite time will never reproduce the works of Shakespeare. These are the freeloaders who actively solicit the artist or the author to send them materials for review, even when they are very clearly not the target audience, and when they have no intention of providing anything resembling constructive critique, or even any critique at all.

The absolute worst case scenario for any author or musician is when one of these critters manages to acquire your works, posing as a legitimate reviewer, only to post something very poorly written and incomprehensible (and sometimes, to boot, in a language the author/musician does not understand). For all intents and purposes, it is a waste of perfectly legitimate promotional materials that could have been put to better use somewhere else, and money thrown away on postage (if the troglodyte asks for a physical copy). It is these “reviewers” who are most frustrating, because while almost all other negative reviews have a point, the troglodytes go out of their way to break every rule of reasonable discourse.

But wait! Even these bottom-dwellers have a purpose. They serve to illustrate how important honest critics are, and how much any creative individual should appreciate true constructive criticism. So ultimately, a negative review is usually going to be pretty valuable; a review that misses the point might be telling; a review by a troglodyte is a reminder to appreciate your friendly (or not-so-friendly) critics who will tell you what is wrong.

Hail Critics!

Review of Vermiform – “Of Chaos and the Void”

“Of Chaos and the Void”
Masters of Metal Productions, 2012
Rating: 8.5 / 10

One could be forgiven for thinking that Vermiform’s sophomore record, “Of Chaos and the Void”, is the work of a completely different band from the one that released “Everlasting Horror” three years prior. Where the debut album reveled in a distinctly American type of old-school death metal pioneered by bands like Obituary, the follow-up is an entirely different beast despite maintaining the core of the band’s lineup. The second coming of Vermiform is an entirely different take on dark, aggressive music that borrows heartily from black and melodic death metal without compromising atmosphere and intensity.

“Of Chaos and the Void” sounds like a result of some particularly misanthropic residents of Gothenburg, Sweden taking a long sabbatical in a Norwegian forest with nothing but their instruments and recording equipment. It dwells roughly in the same territory as latter-day Dissection, Naglfar, or maybe Dawn, if the latter took greater interest in melodic death metal. While for many bands stylistic changes represent trouble, this is definitely not the case of confused identity, as the album is cohesive and focused. The band has obviously approached the writing process with a very clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish, and managed to produce a grim yet entertaining record for all of our shriveled black hearts.

In this, the idea behind Vermiform’s second album is similar to what they did on “Everlasting Horror”: take a genre they are fans of, and serve up a reverent tribute to it, while embellishing it with occasional catchy choruses (“All That I Despise” or “Children of the Darkest Night”), memorable riffs (“A Black Ash Inheritance”), sinister interludes (intro track “Entering the Void” and “Dreams of the Abyss”), or even an atmospheric, lengthy closer (“The End of All”). The band employs a number of guest soloists, who contribute to varied lead guitar stylings and give each song a distinctive edge. Vocally, Bryan Edwards still employs a sickening, gut-wrenching growl, which conveys the album’s misanthropy very well, and which serves as yet another weapon in Vermiform’s arsenal.

The album mix is a bit unusual, as it brings the drums forward over guitars, and may occasionally detract from the overall impression, as it takes some time to get used to. At times, the mix feels as if it was intended for a rawer, less melodic form of music, but it also serves to prop up the black metal feel on “Of Chaos and the Void”, so it might be a matter of personal taste. Similarly, the programmed drums are an occasional distraction during blast beats, particularly on “All That I Despise”, but it is a minor complaint, since the songs are strong enough to overlook these issues.

Once again, Vermiform delivers the goods with “Of Chaos and the Void”. The record is full of good songs, impeccable playing, and the kind of grim atmosphere that Dissection was famous for creating. Another highly recommended offering from Masters of Metal Productions.

Vermiform – “Everlasting Horror” review

“Everlasting Horror”
Masters of Metal Productions, 2009
Rating: 8/10

This is the album I should not have enjoyed as much as I did. While I occasionally enjoy few songs by bands like Malevolent Creation or Obituary, old school Florida death metal has never been my favorite genre, so Vermiform’s debut album took me by surprise and refused to let go.

Sometimes, a genre might need a decade or two in order to mature (or, as might be the case with some of the intentionally uglier styles, to fester in the ground) before it can become fresh again. “Everlasting Horror” is a result of musicians with appreciation for the genre getting together to pay tribute to everything that was good about the genre, and as such, it succeeds. This is raw old school death metal as seen through the eyes of the fans, but regurgitated into the XXIst century in all its primitive, ugly glory.

From buzzsaw guitars to gurgling low-pitched vocals, Vermiform makes no excuse for what they are trying to do. There are more than a few (intentional) parallels between “Everlasting Horror” and early works by Obituary or Morbid Angel, more so the former than the latter. And while I must confess that Obituary tends to lose my attention after a few songs, Vermiform has enough sensitivity for smart, hook-laden (as much as this can apply to death metal of non-melodic variety) songwriting to keep things interesting.

The songs have a certain charm and enthusiastic energy about them, raising them beyond the level of mere imitations and making them into credible contributions to the genre. The lo-fi nature of production is an asset to the raw atmosphere of the album. Whether Vermiform remains within the genre confines or ventures away from the safe grounds into more melodic territory (“At the Mountains of Madness”, which utilizes some melodic riffs and even occasional clean vocal), the result is a very satisfying experience. It may not be the most innovative or unique offering in the realm of old-school death metal, but “Everlasting Horror” knows its limitations, and delivers on all accounts.

Happy 2013 / Things to Come (soon)

Happy 2013 to all of you! For those of you who follow this blog with any degree of regularity, there will be a number of new and exciting updates coming your way shortly. The Iron Maiden series will be concluded, and a number of music and even literary reviews will be posted. Furthermore, expect a few more things of note, including a webzine coming soon, and maybe, just maybe, some new literary endeavor or two. Sounds interesting? If so, watch this space!