Part 11 of my series of Iron Maiden reviews!
Seven deadly sins…
Seven ways to win…
Seven holy paths to Hell and your trip begins…
IRON MAIDEN – Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988, 1996 bonus CD)
Maiden finally did it. After years of denying that their albums had been concept albums, Maiden went ahead and wrote a concept album! The circumstances were coincidental. The album was to be their seventh. Steve Harris had already written his album epic, the title track “Seventh Son of Seventh Son”. Meanwhile, Bruce had written down lyrics such as “Seven deadly sins, seven ways to win…” Seizing this serendipitous moment, Maiden plunged forward with the tale of a boy born with healing powers and the ability to see the future…everyone’s but his own.
A boy born as the seventh son to a seventh son, in some folklore, was prophesied to have such powers. But the inability to foresee his own fate was a cruel joke by none other than Lucifer himself. In the story, the sides of good and evil battle for the soon-to-be-man’s soul, hoping to bend his powers to their will.
If Bruce was a basket case on the prior album, Somewhere In Time, he had bounced back by Seventh Son. With no less than four writing credits out of eight songs, Bruce must have been satisfied that Maiden were incorporating acoustics, and keyboards. It was all in the name of texture and light & shade. Bruce had hoped that one day Maiden would make their Physical Graffiti and perhaps this is it.
I recall when it came out that there was some backlash: Some Maiden fans did not take too kindly to the obtuse lyrics, acoustic guitars, and softer more progressive direction. When you listen to both albums back to back, on a whole I think Seventh Son is heavier than Somewhere In Time, by a hair. Yet compared to Powerslave or Killers, clearly this was new and different. Some didn’t like that, while others took the time to get to know and love Seventh Son. I can recall being perplexed by the lyrics, struggling to figure them out, and wondering if the symbols written on the lyric sheet were clues.
At the same time that Maiden were exploring new directions, so was cover artist Derek Riggs. No longer wishing to draw Eddies with axes in people’s heads, he came up with something very different that suited Maiden’s more mystical musical direction. Here’s another one I wish I had on vinyl! Clearly no longer on our plane of reality, but still with his cybernetic implants, Eddie seems to be giving birth to a new generation of Eddies! On the back, the Arctic ice forms seem to represent past Eddies. Altogether, seven of them…
The acoustics and keyboards are evident right from the get go as they form a major part of “Moonchild”, written by Bruce and Adrian. It’s a strong opener, quickly getting up to speed, with lyrical angels and demons swooping upon you as Bruce spits out the words. I recall Bruce saying in a Canadian interview that he enjoyed playing multiple characters on the album, and when singing as the Devil, he drank “a couple cups of tea.”
Steve’s “Infinite Dreams” begins slow, in line with past Maiden ballads, the sound of precious Fenders caressing your ears as our protagonist emerges from a nightmare. Soon the tempos change (more than once!) and Bruce lets loose a scream from hell. (As kids, this is the first time we noticed Bruce losing some of the smoothness and range of his high voice.)
The first single, “Can I Play With Madness” is third. It too was controversial in a way: The music video didn’t have Iron Maiden in it! Aside from some Powerslave footage playing on a TV in a catacomb, the video starred Monty Python’s Graham Chapman and a certain Mr. Eddie. The mystical video did little to enlighten us kids on the meaning of the lyrics! Musically, it’s another anthemic Maiden hard rock single, but perhaps the most commercial one yet.
The second single, “The Evil That Men Do” closed side one. Like the previous song it was written by the triumvirate of Steve, Bruce and Adrian. It boasts a powerful singalong chorus and some great guitar melodies. Lyrically, our protagonist has now “slept in the dust with his daughter,” and I think you can guess who’s daughter he’s referring to. This song represents one of the very few times Maiden sing about love, albeit in this case it’s a sub-plot of a concept album.
Side two opened with Steve’s 10 minute epic, “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” which essentially sums up the plot so far. It’s not as dynamic as some past epics as “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, nor as riffy. It is still quite an excellent epic, slow and meandering but of course with ample changes and parts to keep your attention. Like “Rime” it has a slow spoken word section in the middle.
“The Prophecy”, written by Dave Murray and Steve Harris, continues the story. The seventh son has foretold a disaster and the village is doomed. The townspeople do not believe him. Yet disaster does strike while “Lucifer smiles, looks on and waits,” and the town blames him for bringing a curse! Musically this is not the best song on the album, and it comes close to filler territory. Yet the end of it is an intricate medley of sad acoustic guitars, weaving an ancient-sounding melody. It is moments like this that are a great example of Maiden and acoustic guitars working together appropriately. The third single, “The Clairvoyant” begins with some of Steve’s patented rinky-dinky bass melodies before the dual guitars crash in. This melodic winner, written alone by Steve, is one of the best. Not only are the verses soaring, but it is taken to a whole higher level when Bruce digs into the choruses. Nicko’s drum fills are exactly perfect (as they always are) punctuating the right moments with thunderclaps and rain. It ends with a bright note though: “As soon as you’re born, you’re dying…to be reborn again!”
Does that happier fate befall our protagonist? Spitting out disgust at the society that rejected him, he indicts them for their crimes. “So I think I’ll leave you, with your bishops and your guilt. So until the next time…have a good sin.” Yet he finds that to be reborn again might not be a good thing after all, Bruce throwing in a hinting snicker at the end…The name of the song is “Only the Good Die Young”, and it is a great Maiden closer. One of the best. And you just have to love that ending!
Yes, Seventh Son is indeed a triumph. I think the reaction to it at the time was more indicative of the times. People feared for Maiden losing their edge, as Priest seemed to do (Turbo), while newer heavier bands citing Maiden as an influence gained some traction. If Maiden had gone even softer after Seventh Son, then I think that a portion (a minority) of fans would have given up on them. Maiden seemed to be aware of this, though…
I find Martin Birch’s production to be a tad muddy…just by a hair though. I’d like it a little brighter personally. Minor nitpick.
For the first time, fans had four singles to collect! “Infinite Dreams” was thrown out there as a single at the end, right around the time of release for the new live video, Maiden England!
Singles breakdown is below. For whatever reason, although the other nine songs are included, the 1996 2 CD reissue of the album excluded “Heaven Can Wait”. Too bad. There was room on the disc.
“Can I Play With Madness” included the comedy song “Black Bart Blues”. Please allow Bruce to introduce you to Black Bart, a suit of armor that rode on the back of their tour bus! On the heavier side, Maiden throw in an authentic cover of “Massacre” by Thin Lizzy. As I kid I was amazed it was cover, because it seems custom made for Maiden once you hear this version!
“The Evil That Men Do” (besides having the best cover art, that folded out into a Monsters of Rock poster) had two great B-sides: Re-recordings of old Maiden classics, with Bruce singing! In fact neither Bruce, nor Adrian, nor Nicko were in the band when “Prowler” and “Charlotte The Harlot” were originally done. The new versions, dubbed “Prowler ’88” and “Charlotte The Harlot” ’88 are captured nice and raw, much like the originals but with better production values. Bruce really nails it on “Prowler ’88”
“The Clairvoyant” was released a a live single surprisingly, in gatefold sleeve no less. It contained live versions of “The Prisoner” (finally, since it wasn’t on Live After Death!) and the aforementioned “Heaven Can Wait”, complete with “whoah-oh-oh” singalong.
“Infinite Dreams”, which coincided with the new live video, was also live. It was backed by awesome live versions of “Killers” and “Still Life”, two more songs that weren’t on Live After Death. A CD version of this video didn’t come out until 1994 so for a while this was the only place you could get them.
The Seventh Tour of a Seventh Tour portended some changes. The stage productions had gotten so large that the band were afraid of being lost in it all. Bruce complained on Canadian TV that he’d sweat buckets on stage only to have a fan approach him and ask him something about the “fucking crystal ball”. But deeper problems were afoot. Bruce seemed creatively revitalized, but Adrian was clearly unhappy on stage. The band knew it. But in the meantime, Steve Harris had a live video to edit, and Bruce had plenty of time off for solo activities…
1996 2 CD reissue: 4/5 stars – knocking off a point for excluding “Heaven Can Wait” live.