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Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Big Story: Iron Maiden - Choices Of The Beast (By Paul)

Iron Maiden – The Choices Of The Beast
With the Maiden juggernaut about to hit South Wales for the first time in six years and reports of their live shows thrilling audiences around the UK and Europe, I thought it might be a bit of a fun to add to the anticipation and plough through the Maiden catalogue and pull out my favourite track from each one.

Iron Maiden – Running Free

The raw, punk edged debut which saw Maiden crash on the UK and World metal scene in 1980 contained several tracks that would remain staples for years and includes the anthemic Iron Maiden, the perpetual set closer for the band. However, I’ve plumped for the mighty Running Free. A song that encapsulated the wild spirit of a band blasting into orbit. The gritty riff, the drumming of Clive Burr alongside the galloping trademark bass of Steve Harris, the duel guitar work of Dave Murray and Dennis Stratton and of course, the voice of Paul Di’Anno. Featured on several compilations in the early 1980s, Running Free demonstrated the clear potential of the band.

Killers - Killers

The first Iron Maiden that I bought, or in fact was bought for me by my dear father who returned from the record store in Pontypridd where he worked with a couple of vinyl’s for me every other week. Amongst the precious early releases that Dad brought home were Motorhead’s Ace Of Spades and Love Gun by Kiss, but it was Killers caught the eye immediately with the sinister cover of Eddie having killed in the East End under the burning street lamp. The album, produced by Martin Birch, marked the arrival of Adrian Smith from Urchin and was a much more polished affair but retained the gritty punk attitude of the debut release. There are many great tracks on Killers but for me the title track stands out. The razor-sharp guitar riffs, electric solo work and the sheer pace of the track were just incredible at the time, capturing all the atmosphere and menace that was intended. Di’Anno’s performance is incredible, haunting and malevolent. It remains my all-time favourite Iron Maiden song.

The Number Of The Beast – Gangland

You may be surprised why Gangland is my choice on an album filled with killer Maiden tracks. The departure of Di’Anno had shocked many in the metal world at the time but the choice of Bruce Bruce (as he was known) from Samson was felt to be a good move. Now, I had a few discs by Samson, including the great Head On and Shock Tactics, which was the last to feature Dickinson so I was familiar with him. However, it was something of a shock when during my usual Friday night ritual of listening to the Friday Night Rock Show with the legendary Tommy Vance Gangland arrived out of nowhere. I can still recall the thundering drum intro, similar to Motorhead’s Overkill, the slicing guitars and the driving bass before Bruce opened the air raid siren for the first time in Maiden. It was a jaw dropping moment and I can still remember sitting there at 12 years of age going “fucking hell, that is something else”.

Piece Of Mind – Where Eagles Dare

May 15th 1983. Front row of the balcony, St David’s Hall, Cardiff. The lights dimmed and out of the PA came the main theme to the 1968 movie of Alastair MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare, starring Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt. Minutes later Iron Maiden burst into view and the place went crazy. Having been forced to miss their Cardiff date on The Number Of The Beast tour due to the collapse of Sophia Gardens Hall roof, this was the first chance the hordes of Maiden fans had to see the hottest property in UK metal since their 1980 appearance at the Top Rank Club. Where Eagles Dare not only opens Piece Of Mind but is just a stonking tune, all six minutes 14 seconds of it and it set the bar for an album that I would say is better than Beast.

Powerslave – Powerslave

1984 and album number five, the Egyptian themed Powerslave and no sign of the band slowing down. Indeed, the tempo continued to increase with the double opening of Aces High and Two Minutes To Midnight, both absolute blistering tracks. However, it was the ambitious closing duo of Powerslave and the Coleridge inspired Rime Of The Ancient Mariner that caught the attention, mainly due to the length and complexity of each track. Mariner clocks in at over 16 minutes, and seeing that live on the World Slavery Tour, complete with moving mast lighting rig was something special. However, once again the title track takes my vote, mainly because it is such a rampant blast of heavy metal combined with the progressive elements that have now become traditional components of the Maiden sound. Once again, the duelling Smith and Murray provided the unique guitar style copied by many whilst Bruce was by now in full flow. Meanwhile the drumming of Nicko McBrain, now firmly ensconced in the engine room is massively underrated but incredibly skilful and Steve Harris was winning bassist of the year awards for fun.

Somewhere In Time – Wasted Years

By 1986 Maiden were the band to see and tickets to catch them on the Somewhere In Time tour were like gold. On October 6th 1986 St David’s Hall once again played host to the Irons and this time it was the theme to Blade Runner that opened proceedings. The cyborg Eddie which adorned the cover of Time was one of Derek Riggs’ best creations and the album maintained the high level of previous releases. The album contained one of Maiden’s anthems, the Adrian Smith penned Wasted Years. It has everything; squealing guitars, driving bass, Smith delivering harmonies on the chorus and sing-a-long parts for all. It’s also the only track on the album not to feature synthesizers. It is just an essential Maiden and no wonder it features in the set to this day. If you fancy hearing it acoustically, check out Daniel Cavanagh’s version on his covers album Memory And Meaning.

Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son – The Clairvoyant

Album number seven arrived in 1988 and yet again it was difficult to be disappointed. Moonchild, Infinite Dreams, The Evil That Men Do, the title track and Can I Play With Madness, with its video filmed at the majestic Tintern Abbey in the Wye Valley, are all goodies that most bands would be proud of. The arrival of the synths that Steve Harris had begun to experiment with didn’t go down so well with the purists but most of the fan based lapped it up. I’ve chosen one of the less well known tracks on the album, the rampaging The Clairvoyant which did feature in their set at their first appearance in Newport Centre in 1988. It’s another strong track with the synths underpinning the melody which surges through the song. Double guitars remain at the forefront and Dickinson still hits those ridiculously high notes.

No Prayer For The Dying – Tailgunner

For the first time in several years the Maiden waggon began to wobble. Adrian Smith left the band after expressing his discontent with the direction the band were heading, to be replaced by Janick Gers, who I’d enjoyed very much in his time with Gillan as well as Tattooed Millionaire, which Gers co-wrote with Dickinson. There was a sparser collection of notable tracks on the album, but Tailgunner continued the Maiden tradition of a pacey opening track with the usual formula hitting all the right spots. Their live show in Newport remained a fantastic spectacle and the exposure of Bring Your Daughter … To The Slaughter ensured that Maiden remained in the field of vision.

Fear Of The Dark - Afraid To Shoot Strangers

With grunge and Indie taking hold Maiden released their final album with Bruce until his return seven years later. Fear Of The Dark is a curious album, with some superb tracks, such as the anthemic title track which remains almost untouchable on the tour set list and the powerful Be Quick Or Be Dead which opens the album. Fear Is The Key with its almost middle Eastern stomp and Gillan-like performance from Dickinson was a statement about the fear created by AIDs whilst one of my favourites is the penultimate track, the observation of football hooliganism in Weekend Warrior. The style of writing being influenced more by Gers, who co-wrote five of the 12 tracks. I’ve picked Afraid To Shoot Strangers mainly because it is a bit different to many of the other tracks on the album with a calmer, melodic element before it picks up. It’s written by Steve Harris and has the political theme from the first Gulf War. Obviously, most would plump for the title track but its overplayed and I detest it when the crowd sing it live (although I’ll no doubt be humming along this time around despite all that!).

The X Factor – Blood On The World’s Hands

Despite the panning that this release received from much of the metal media and a substantial number of the Maiden fan base, I find it to be one of the most consistent and reliable Maiden albums. Blaze Bayley’s voice is suited to the tracks and whilst it was clear when Bruce re-joined that they could transfer with ease to the returning frontman, the calmer, more paced and yet dark subject matter continues to please on every listen. Blood On The World’s Hands is a six minute track that contains all the traditional hallmarks of a Steve Harris composition. Alongside Sign Of The Cross, Lord Of The Flies, Man On The Edge and Fortunes Of War, Blood On The World’s Hands proved that there was much life left in the band.

Virtual XI – Futureal

Whilst The X Factor contained a lot of good stuff I found Virtual XI a more difficult release to deal with. Fewer memorable songs, less pace and more padding and Bayley’s vocal limitations were becoming apparent. He just isn’t as strong a singer as Bruce. Aside from The Clansman and The Angel And The Gambler, the strongest track on the album was Futureal, a three-minute belter that opens the album in style. It’s still a favourite of mine, hence my choice here.

Brave New World – The Wicker Man

The return of Bruce in 1999 was welcomed across the metal world. Anticipation was high for the first release which also included Adrian Smith’s return and the band’s expansion to a six-piece with a three-pronged guitar attack. Brave New World proved a real return to form with a much-needed increase in tempo, a more bombastic approach and a return to the older classic era. Regardless of what much of the media felt, this was a superb album with Blood Brothers becoming a staple in the live set. The title track is impressively powerful but it’s the Smith/Harris/Dickinson composition The Wicker Man with its killer opening riff which gets my vote. After eight years, the upturn in energy was evident for all to see. A great track.

Dance Of Death – Paschendale

Three years later and album number 13 Dance Of Death delivered just short of 70 minutes of Maiden metal. There was only one track I could select on here, despite my fondness for Rainmaker, and that is the epic eight minute Paschendale. Majestic, mighty and quite astonishingly good, Paschendale is superbly crafted with light and dark, soft and heavy sections and guitar interplay par excellence. Dickinson’s performance is exceptional, his story telling delivery chilling. The pure riff half way through screamed essence of Maiden. Another classic crafted by Harris and Smith, there isn’t a better track in the entire Maiden catalogue.

A Matter Of Life And Death – The Reincarnation Of Benjamin Breeg

Maiden created some controversy with this album by taking it on the road and playing it in full. The hardcore fans loved it but many of the lightweights moaned like bitches when the band limited the number of classics to three. It was a brave move but I think it worked. A strong album with some great songs including These Colours Don’t Run and Different World, The Reincarnation Of Benjamin Breeg is a thumping good tune, a killer opening which then smoulders before igniting into a classic Maiden paced gallop which builds to a crescendo. The irony of the internet furore about the identity of Breeg was brought home when it was revealed that the character was fictional.

The Final Frontier – Isle Of Avalon

I love this album. The ethereal feel of being lost in space oozes through the tracks and songs such as El Dorado, Coming Home and The Man Who Would Be King are memorable. There was much speculation about the title and whether it would be the swansong but the band soon put that to bed. Isle Of Avalon is my favourite song on the album. A nine-minute piece which has some magical hooks, melody and scintillating playing. Dickinson’s performance is brilliant whilst the bass runs of Steve Harris are incredible. The track ebbs and flows, climbing and diving at speed. It’s great. Only four tracks featured in their live show at the Motorpoint on 1st August 2011, the last time the band played in Cardiff or Wales.

The Book Of Souls – The Book Of Souls

The final piece in this jigsaw and what a way to end. The double album which stormed to No.1 in 2015 and swept up the awards for best album in the rock and metal worlds. A highly ambitious release, with several of the tracks real heavy weights on an album that is over 92 minutes duration. When I reviewed this behemoth for the Musipedia in September 2015 I stated that it was ‘a quite breath taking piece of work and one that demands repeated listens to really grasp its full scope and breadth’. I haven’t changed my mind. It is still as epic 18 months later. The title track for me demonstrates that far from being a bloated dinosaur, Maiden can still rock out with the best and their whole approach is to give one big finger to the establishment. My review said ‘Title track The Book of Souls is one of two Gers/Harris penned tracks on the album and it is another beast of a track. Using keyboards to underpin the Maiden sound has been a standard approach since the late 1980s and the Seventh Son album and once again it works most impressively. Weighing in at over 10 minutes and telling the history of the Mayan people, The Book of Souls, like all Maiden epics builds and builds, a solid pace to start with Dickinson’s vocals soaring the heights, before, at over halfway into the track things kick off with McBrain leading the charge with his battering ram of drumming, closely followed by the traditional guitar work and Harris’ bass powering away. It is once again classic Maiden and top quality heavy metal. Interestingly, unlike several of Maiden’s previous lengthy pieces, Dickinson remains involved throughout, adding verses as the track races to its conclusion’.

Come 24th May, the Motorpoint will be filled to the brim with fans, some who will be there for the first time, some like me will have been there since the early days and will be well into double figures and some will no doubt be in the hundreds. It will be an astonishing show and one of the highlights of the metal calendar. When Iron Maiden are in town, it’s always worth the effort. Thanks for reading and enjoy the show.

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