(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!

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