The “DESERT ISLAND PICKS” segment was one we left behind for a few months, in favor of new releases and relevant news in the rock world. However, if and when there’s time we want to bring you an article of that kind, which is a fun thing to do if you’re a fan of the band in question, and an interesting read if you want to know more about them.
Iron Maiden needs no introduction, but that was not the case when I first heard them. I was ten years old in 1984, and rock bands were starting to be featured prominently in the news in Brazil. This was in preparation for the first Rock in Rio edition, which would happen in 1985 and completely change the musical landscape in the country. Many of us were introduced to the bands in the cast for the first time, and to use a cliche, they blew our minds. Imagine if you’re presenting beer to an alien for the first time, and that would come close to how we felt experiencing those bands. For those of you wondering, the cast of the first Rock in Rio consisted of Maiden, Queen, Yes, Whitesnake, Ozzy, AC/DC and Scorpions, just to name a few.
Of course I was too young to catch them live then, but out of all the bands in the first cast, Maiden attracted me more than others. Powerslave was the first ever metal album I got, and I still listen to it these days. Since then I’ve seen them many times and was a first day buyer of all their albums. So check out the list of five Maiden albums I’d take on a desert island with me, and let us know if you agree with it.
Powerslave (1984) The consummate classic, and the one that opened the doors into the world arena for the band. Granted, they had done shows outside of the UK since the Killers album, but this one took Maiden into the stratosphere. “Aces High” remains one of the best album and concert openers for the band, so much so that they brought it back on many tours, including the most recent one, Legacy of the Beast. The main riff of “Two Minutes to Midnight” might seem a bit too similar to Dio’s “Stand Up and Shout”, but if the chorus on that song doesn’t get your heart pumping, hand me your metal badge immediately, because you’re not worthy of one.
The last two songs – the title track and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” – while also heavy, are metal for the thinking man, and the theatrics are so intense that both warranted some of the band’s best moments on stage. Both set the template for the proggier side of Maiden, which would come out in future releases. Some say that the songs in the middle are filler, but I disagree. The frantic pace of “Back in the Village”, the amazing solos on “The Duellists” and Steve Harris’ thumping bass on “Losfer Words” are all ingrained in my head, and all in all this is Maiden at the top of their game. The cover art is one of Derek Riggs’ best works, full of little details amidst the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the menacing Eddie as a sphinx and pharaoh is probably my favorite. The tour to promote Powerslave was one of the longest ones in the history of metal, and admittedly drove the band onto the edge, with its pinnacle being the aforementioned Rock in Rio, where they played before a crowd of 250,000 fans. This is Maiden’s biggest crowd to date, and one which is unlikely to be beaten. The World Slavery Tour also yielded the live offering Live After Death, which to me is the best live album of all time.
The Number of the Beast (1982)Another game changer for the band, and the first outing with Bruce Dickinson on vocals. Rarely has Maiden had so much grit and drive as they did on this release. Arguably their best effort, there’s no holding back here. From the fast paced “Invaders” up to the last note on “Hallowed be thy Name”, everything falls into place on the album. This was Maiden’s first album to reach number one in the UK, and with Bruce at the helm, the band went into uncharted territory, and finally Steve Harris’ vision has the proper outlet. The title track, Hallowed be thy Name” and “Run to the Hills” have become set-list staples since this release, with the last two being omitted only on rare occasions.
The Number of the Beast represented Clive Burr’s swansong with the band, and he went out with a bang. His distinctive style reached its peak here, and he even co-wrote two songs: “Gangland” and “Total Eclipse“, which was left out of the original release but included in further versions. And sorry Nicko, but Clive’s hi-hat work on “Run to the Hills” was never matched. The lesser known tracks here are also incredibly solid, with “Prisoner” and “Children of the Damned” being criminally underrated. And it’s also worth noticing how the band started to include self references in their lyrics, with “22 Acacia Avenue” being a sort of “sequel” to “Charlotte the Harlot”. The third part of Charlotte’s saga would be addressed a decade later in “From Here to Eternity”, from Fear of the Dark.
On a side note, this was the album that first gathered the hate of religious groups towards the band. The explicit cover, with Eddie commanding the devil, who in turn commanded humanity, was subject of protest, and the lyrics of the title track and “Children of the Damned” added fuel to the fire. But rather than hurt their reputation, it actually helped them forge the image of going against the norm and rebelling. The tour supporting the album marked their first headline shows in North America, and their Australian debut. I’d be hard pressed to find a Maiden album with the same kind of punch.
Killers (1981)Sophomore albums are always a risky bet for any band, but in Maiden’s case it really didn’t matter. With a more varied collection of songs than the first album, and a huge step in the production, Killers is the best album with Paul Dianno. It also marks the first studio album with Adrian Smith on guitars, and I think that’s where the main difference between the first two album lies. Although most songs were written by Steve Harris, Adrian’s influence can be heard everywhere, taking a band which initially had an almost punk-like approach into a whole new realm in terms of melody. His harmonies with Dave grew on to become one of the staples of metal history, and to my ears remain unrivaled. Sadly, the only song off Killers which is played live these days is “Wrathchild”, but there are plenty of good quality bootlegs from that era that show how strong the material was.
Killers is the only Maiden album to date to count with two instrumentals – the short and epic “The Ides of March”, which opened their shows on several tours, and “Genghis Khan”, with many tempo changes. Clive Burr shines throughout, with my dearest moment being the opening of the troubled youth anthem “Another Life”. On the usually overlooked “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, the band proved once again that could take on themes from literature and make it work, just like they did with “Phantom of the Opera” only a handful of months before. And they even found time to include an enigmatic ballad – if we can call it that – the rock waltz “Prodigal Son”. My personal highlight track off this release though is the heavy “Innocent Exile”, with Harris‘ bass being shown prominently throughout, and Paul Dianno’s raspy voice reaching its peak. Unfortunately for Paul, his behavior during that time would be too erratic, hurting his performances and causing so much distress in the Maiden camp that they decided to let him go at the end of the tour.
A Matter of Life and Death (2006)The albums after the reunion period have often been accused by part of the fan-base of favoring quantity over quality, and I would say that this is true to a certain extent. Looking at how bloated the albums have become since Bruce and Adrian returned, I often wonder where did Maiden lose their objectivity and the capacity to get their message across quickly.Look at The Number of the Beast for example: 8 tracks in less than 40 minutes, and one of the best metal albums of all time. In contrast, their albums since the reunion in 1999 have all increased in duration compared to the previous one, and some of the intros and passages seem to take forever. And it’s not as if there’s pressure from record companies or management for more songs to be included, or for them to be longer. The band likes it that way.
With that said, I still think there’s tremendous value in what they’ve done since 1999 – their ever-growing audiences across the globe are evidence of that. And to me, if there’s one record where they got it right with this lineup, it’s A Matter of Life and Death. I didn’t enjoy this one at first, but eventually grew to love it. The production was a massive step up from Dance of Death, which sounded quite muddy, and here all instruments are crystal clear, with the three guitars utilized to maximum potential, and a live vibe. It’s not a concept album, but they did take the approach of mixing war and religion on all tracks (or life and death if you will). Highlights tracks here include “Brighter Than a Thousand Suns”, which talks about the atomic bomb, and “The Longest Day”, which describes the D-Day landings at Normandy. “Out of the Shadows” sounds almost like another take on “Tears of the Dragon”, from Bruce’s solo career, and “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg” has distinctive elements of their classic period. I may be seeing (or hearing) things, but for me this marks a period where Adrian Smith finally felt comfortable again in his role of writer for this band. He may have contributed on Brave New World and Dance of Death, but this time his songs take much more prominence in the context of the album. Despite Steve Harris being accounted for more than the 50% of Iron Maiden’s compositions, Smith‘s penned tracks remain the most beloved in Maiden’s catalog for me, so I guess it makes sense that I would prefer this one off the most recent batch of albums. Also worth mentioning are “These Colours Don’t Run”, which has a great chorus, and “Different World”, which despite being a bit formulaic, is a reminder of how good they sound when they’re a bit more objective. Such was the confidence of the band in this album that to date it’s the only one they performed in its entirety live.
Somewhere in Time (1986)Closing off the list is Somewhere in Time, the second Iron Maiden album I got upon its release. In theory, the other albums from Maiden’s classic period could have taken this spot – Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and Piece of Mind are flawless for me too. But for some reason I think there’s a mystique about that album and that period in the band’s history.
Coming up from their biggest hit to date, the band was at a crossroads, and didn’t really know where to take their sound moving forward. Bruce went through a divorce, and the material he showed up with in the writing sessions was rather strange – he brought acoustic numbers, which were politely declined. Since he decided to take the backseat and not contribute this time, Adrian Smith stepped up and brought some of his best songs to date: “Wasted Years”, “Sea of Madness” and “Stranger in a Strange Land“. And perhaps a sign of how things worked for that album, “Déjà Vu” was the only track where two members collaborated – Dave Murray and Steve Harris. All others were written either by Steve or Adrian by themselves. But that’s not to say they’re bad songs – otherwise this album wouldn’t be on my list. I think this is one of their most diverse, with the only common thread being a dark mood and atmosphere. Adrian introduced synthesized guitars, and his solos here are nothing less than iconic. The tour to promote Somewhere in Time also had one of the craziest set-lists they ever came up with, but sadly it’s the single tour off of which no shows were professionally recorded. Some of the songs were only played on that tour, such as “Sea of Madness” and “Caught Somewhere in Time”, and “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” was played on only a handful of shows before it was dropped. Such a shame, because I feel they have tremendous live potential. “Déjà Vu” was also rumored to have been rehearsed for one of their recent tours, and I’d definitely enjoy seeing that one live. But if we’re talking about set-list omissions, the classic example if the album magnificent closer: “Alexander the Great”. Fans have been begging for its live debut pretty much since the album came out, and I think they’ll only play that one on an eventual farewell tour. On the contrary, “Heaven Can Wait” is the track i find myself returning to fewer times, and it was a staple of their shows for a long time. Maybe it’s the fact that not a single song in this record was played too much aside from the album’s tour, but this album is as enticing to me as it was when I first got it. Powerslave may be my Iron Maiden‘s preferred album cover, but the details on Somewhere in Time are a joy to look at. I lost count of how many afternoons I spent trying to catch all the references in the back cover.
That concludes my desert island list for the greatest heavy metal band of all time. What do you think? Should I have included The X Factor just to have a more comprehensive list of their career and give a nod to Blaze Bailey? Should Seventh Son of a Seventh Son have made the cut? Let me know your comments, and I’ll be glad to respond. Also, make sure you mention what other bands you would like to see featured on our “Desert Island Picks” section. We want to hear your thoughts!