Disaster Amnesiac has not paid much attention to Iron Maiden since, oh, 1983 or so. Up to that point, I had listened to them, my Catholic sensibilities permanently disturbed by the overtly apocalyptic tones of Number of the Beast. They were one of the required bands for aspiring young rockers to name check. For me, though, the onset of puberty necessitated a switch in listening habits, my choices running to the more Punk Rock side of the spectrum. The insanity of on-rushing teenage-dom was much better served by the more feral sounds of groups like Black Flag or the Ramones. All that said, I recently borrowed Maiden's 2010 offering, The Final Frontier, from the venerable Oakland Public Library. Unlike thirty years ago, their sounds seem much more fitting to my current state, in this current time.
Unlike original Maiden vocalist Paul D'iAnno, who featured a gritty, street punk/any punter style, Bruce Dickinson's operatically wailing approach goes way beyond the abilities of mere mortals. Bruce goes for it, hitting high notes that place him with the likes of Freddie Mercury or Ian Gillan.For the post-Punk generation, this style is generally mocked or, even worse, aped with irony, but, hell, let's hear you try it! I mean, he can do it, and his band mates allow for it,so why not? His aging seems to have not effected his wide-ranging abilities, and, although his higher notes sometimes give a slight air of campy-ness, Disaster Amnesiac would venture to guess that the skidillions of Maiden fans stuffing themselves into stadiums world wide would agree with Bruce's band mates. His vocal flights would probably fall flat within a dingy club in Des Moines or Birmingham, but, upon the grand scale in which Iron Maiden operates, it seems entirely fitting. In 2012, I also find a lot to like within his lyrics. Lyrics these days seem to generally fall into the categories of "meaningful" or decadent. Both styles generally suck. The cool thing about Dickinson's writing is its fantasy-based, dystopian slant. He paints pictures of weary, broken types, toiling at the edges of societies. As opposed to similar stories written by more realist, earth-bound lyricists, Bruce's settings are usually more Sci-Fi, but, still, his characters are imbued with and challenged by the real, human, crushed character of cold reality. At age 41, with not much to show for it in my society except for the ability "to say yes with the eyes closed" (thank you, Jack Brewer), this blogger finds a lot to like Dickinson's writing style.
It goes without saying that Heavy Metal's main point of focus is the six string electric guitar. Iron Maiden have had three guitar players for several years now. As with Bruce Dickinson's style, it's a "go big or go home" type of proposition. The triple fronted guitar attack which the band uses allows for a lot twin leads, while one designated six-stringer keeps up the chord chugging so vital to Metal tunes' movement. Disaster Amnesiac also hears a lot of the earlier Metal influences, e.g. Wishbone Ash, UFO, Deep Purple. That's not to say that Iron Maiden's guitar sound is not its own. With its higher-pitched arpeggios, and said twin-lead riffing, the band's sound is remarkably singular. The fact is, one can hear their historical antecedents, filtered through the original NWBHM lense and finished with Maiden's high strung, tightly wound, now-refined Metal attack. There are occasional nods to other established forms (bluesy slide guitar, "Grunge"), but for the most part, the band's guitarists stay within the Maiden template. It's one from which they are given a lot to work with.
Powerful drumming is just as essential to Metal as is the characteristic guitar sound, and long-time Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain puts in a characteristically stellar performance on The Final Frontier. His style within the band is a kind of melding of the more physically powerful aspects of Jazz Fusion drumming with the blatantly over the top pummeling necessary in Metal. A band with the kind of ambitious song writing such as Maiden needs a precise, meticulous player on the skins, and McBrain has always embodied those adjectives. I can remember marveling, along with another drummer pal in middle school, at how much chops were on display from the Iron Maiden drum seat after McBrain's addition to the band. Thirty-odd years on, Nicko stills amazes the listener with both his virtuosity and his ability to kick some seriously simple, but fat, beats. His skills are not diminished.
McBrain's rhythm section partner, bassist Steve Harris, has always been the heart of Iron Maiden. His charging, loping, lead bass style (under a Lemmy Kilmister influence?), along with the drums, has been the nerve center of the signature Iron Maiden sound. Not content sit sit back and groove in a traditional electric bass style, Harris has always been front and center within the tunes, charging along and laying waste to mere complacency in playing. Needless to say, The Final Frontier features Harris heavily, Maiden being so much his band in so many ways. This lead bass playing is also so very much in the pocket with the drums, so out front, and so damn good. As with all of the other members of the group, Harris shows powerful restraint when the tunes call for it, but this development is definitely paired with his metallic propensity to kick out the jams.
Since Dickinson's debut with the band on The Number of the Beast, Iron Maiden's tunes have been unapologetic in their epic scope, and those contained within The Final Frontier continue that trend. As always, the tunes generally commence with a foreboding feel, prefacing characters in some strife, anguish, or turmoil, before ramping up into stomping action, narrations of battles physical or mental or both, before concluding, usually with tragic ends for their subjects and triumphal statements from their players. This being Heavy Metal, what else would you expect? Happy endings? Not likely. Maiden keep it Metal that way. A middle-aged, balding (sideline) Metal fan of the appellation Disaster Amnesiac has listened, and, possibly much more so than he did those distant years ago, has felt it. Perhaps Metal is better suited for old farts like me, if for nothing more than to provide a little realistic perspective. Cold, hard realities sound so damn good in Maiden's nimble fingered hands.