An idea that came to me as I explored old favourites uncovered in the course of my voyage of musical discovery it forced me to reflect on those projects that showed musicians of talent that truly excelled themselves when given hold of the reigns; projects that they aren’t known for, that wasn’t expected of them, and somehow ended up stronger as a result of that. You can learn a surprising amount about an artist and their influences by listening to the members hammer it out in other work. For example…
The Band: Iron Maiden
They’re one of the longest running and most successful Trad Metal bands on the planet and it’d be unfair to not give them their dues. Whether we’re talking about their classic 80s material or their recent revival with “A Matter of Life and Death” (of course pretending most of their 90s material never happened), their almost never-changing line-up and trifecta of guitars has long since sent them straight to the top of the list of metal music icons. Songs about war and its history dominate their discography, and yet it was in the middle of their period of lowest quality output that one of them went in a brave new direction…
The Surprise: Bruce Dickinson – The Chemical Wedding
Say what you will of the rest of the band, it is surely the iconic vocal lines of Bruce Dickinson that truly makes you realise you’re listening to a Maiden album, and it’s here that he truly puts his abilities to the test. A concept album surrounding the fictional resurrection of Aleister Crowley and his subsequent search for a new Scarlet Bride with whom he can renew his occultist pursuit of world domination, it is undoubtedly the most lyrically intelligent album of his career, happily dabbling in theology, alchemy, philosophy, and the occult with a casual ease that betrays just how smoothly it all seems to flow. Lines like “What bitter vampire made you this / Gave you life with its deathly kiss / Ground your limbs to bloody stew / Made a new machine of you” (Machine Men) describing the modern war machine with an oddly sinister awe (with perhaps a touch of inspiration from Chaplin’s famous speech from “The Great Dictator”), impressed at those who have created soulless killing machines to do their bidding. Or how “Walls of Jericho” describes the alchemist’s failure and his continued anger and frustration as he strives for success; how the “trumpets sound but walls remain” taking reference from the Old Testament of the bible, and how in the same track Atlas [the figure in the famous Greek statue holding up the world on his shoulders] laughs and “Rolls the Earth into the inferno”.
I could continue to quote his incredible lyrical prowess, but it’s far from the only aspect that goes into creating this sinister, almost Lovecraftian old-age horror music piece. Teaming up once again with band-mate Adrian Smith on guitars, it’s still bears much resemblance to the band they’re better known for, but the dynamic has dramatically shifted. No longer is it the guitars that are powering the album forward but the phenomenal vocal work takes centre stage giving the whole album a theatrical and grandiose feel. It’s atmospheric in the same way classical opera is capable of and throughout Dickinson will snarl and shout angrily, roar powerfully, rasp cruelly, and croon morosely and serenely; he explores the gamut of emotions he is capable of, something which his work with Iron Maiden has never really permitted him to do.
The best moments often come not from those points where they resemble Maiden but those moments where it doesn’t. You won’t find an album full of high-tempo riffs and dominant solo harmonies but the sheer sense of atmosphere that is created in its stead reaches heights few come close to matching; the ethereal sinister warbling that opens “Chemical Wedding”, the insane prophesying in “Jerusalem”, or the ministerial delivery of “Gates of Urizen” and its subsequent transformation into a furious snarl remain a joy to behold years on. The man has long been considered by popular media as one of the most talented frontmen in the genre, but it’s in this album that he truly earns that title.