Sunday, 16 September 2018

Dance Of Death - Iron Maiden

Provenance: Along with a few others I could mention, Iron Maiden belongs in that category of bands that any self-respecting metalhead should like. All my friends at school that I played rock and metal with were avid Maiden fans, and I even wound up performing an entire set of Irons covers at a school band bash.

However, I have a confession; if my compatriots in denim 'n' leather hadn't guessed it at the time, I will openly state for the record that I don't love Iron Maiden.

I don't revere Iron Maiden.

I just kinda-sorta-sometimes like Iron Maiden. And that's fine, right?

Anyway, this album dropped when I was working weekends at a well-known high-street purveyor of trinkets and tchotchkes, including compact discs. For many a moon I, along with my still-friend Emily, would be first in the store to sort out all that day's magazines and newspapers. I often used this hour or so before opening to crank the CD player and submit the long-suffering (as I said, still my friend!) Emily to the depredations of whatever metal album I could rustle up. One of them was Dance of Death.

Review: Just look at that shitty album art. It's horrific. It's the kind of thing created by a callow thirteen year-old to accompany their darksided Harry Potter slash-fic. It's like if Eyes Wide Shut were made entirely on MS Paint. It's Hieronymus Bosch filtered through the aesthetics of ReBoot. After glancing at it for two seconds I punched myself in the face; not, as per Tristan Tzara's injunction, as an artistic gesture, but as an anaesthetic for my poor, abused cerebral cortex.

Don't misunderstand me, heavy metal is the natural realm for eye-breakingly bad album art but much of that was due to having no money and getting their stoner D&D-playing mate to draw "a badass space monster" or whatever. But Maiden weren't broke then, and certainly aren't broke now. It makes my hair stand on hand when I consider the size of the organisation and management infrastructure surrounding Iron Maiden and thus the number of individuals who looked at the draft artwork and thought "yes, that's just the ticket." I think it's best I we talk about the music now!

Ah yes, the music! It's...fine? Pretty good in places? It sounds like some Iron Maiden, for the most part. Bruce Dickinson's slightly hammy wail is present and correct, and Nicko McBrain's drumming is muscular and creative; the swirling concussive vortex he conjures up on 'Montsegur' is absolutely monstrous. Here and there, the things I like about Iron Maiden are present, correct and at the forefront. Opener 'Wildest Dreams' blasts out of the traps, and it shares with 'Rainmaker' the kind of tasty fretwork curlicue that has elevated so many Maiden tracks.

But I have some misgivings - and I'm not exaggerating when I say you can cut and paste the following verbiage from this paragraph into any review of Iron Maiden from the Dickinson era onwards. Firstly, for their huge and largely-earned success, which rests upon consistently excellent live performances and a firkin-full of top-tier tracks, the ratio of filler-to-banger is pretty high. There are lesser bands without the same stature who operate(d) in the same genre such as Saxon and Diamond Head who couldn't sustain the quality but did put out individual albums that are better, front to back, than anything Maiden have managed. The second is a petty hill to die upon, but I dislike the fact that I run the risk of learning something from listening to a Maiden album. It's nerd metal. I am sure that one can pass GCSE History purely by listening to every post-Brave New World release in order.

Now, to hone in on a specific issue with Dance of Death; just like a Swinetunes review, it's far too long and often takes its sweet time getting where it's going. Almost 70 minutes, seriously? With a title track that clocks in at 8 mins 36 seconds so it can include room for passages that sound a bit like a beefier version of Spinal Tap's 'Stonehenge'? And just in case that wasn't enough, skip forward a few tracks and you've got one called 'Paschendale' (sic) only nine seconds shy? Come on. I've always felt that Maiden's 'epics' are a by and large ponderous and enervating affairs, a sensibility evidently not shared by bassist / songwriter / multimillionaire Steve Harris. I'm definitely right, though.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the mellow and ruminative 'Journeyman', which closes out this album, which was also rather wonderful when I caught the Dance of Death Tour at Earl's Court with my brother. To produce such a song is, I would submit, a truer test of the band's ability to flex their creative muscles than an interminable war gallop that contains the lines 'Battlefield nothing but a bloody tomb / Be reunited with my dead friends soon." But what the fuck do I actually know? Dance of Death is a good album, give it a listen, but maybe schedule in a comfort break if you do so.

PS - The album artwork for Dance of Death is a true aberration. Through the years Iron Maiden have decked their releases out in some truly iconic and very metal designs, even if the music itself sucked substantial ass.

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