REVIEW: Iron Maiden – No Prayer For the Dying (1990, 1996 bonus disc)

Part 13 of my series of Iron Maiden reviews!

IRON MAIDEN – No Prayer For the Dying (1990, 1996 bonus disc)

Regrouping after a six-month break, Maiden returned to writing mode a changed Beast.

The Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album was artistically rewarding but the band were eager to return to their stripped down heavy metal roots and make a live-sounding album more like Killers or The Number of the Beast, without the production values and ten minute songs that were becoming the norm.

Both Adrian Smith and Bruce Dickinson were coming off solo albums (A.S.a.P.’s Silver and Gold featuring Zak Starkey (Oasis, The Who), and Bruce’s Tattooed Millionaire).  Bruce’s was successful commercially and critically, Adrian’s less so.   Still, it came as a complete shock to the fans when it was announced that Adrian Smith had left Iron Maiden.

Or, perhaps, been nudged out.  Steve Harris was worried that Adrian was becoming unhappy, and it was especially obvious during the writing sessions for the next album.  While Steve, Dave and Bruce were contributing heavy songs, the usually prolific Adrian had nothing but a song called “Hooks In You” that he had written with Bruce.  He was clearly unhappy that Maiden were not progressing down the road pointed to by Seventh Son, and were going heavier.  Steve took him aside.

When asked how into it he was, the answer came “about 80%”.  Steve has always had a simple policy for membership in his band — you had to be into it 110%, or it wouldn’t work.  The fans wouldn’t buy it, and Steve couldn’t look them in the eye knowing somebody on stage wasn’t completely into it.  Adrian was out.

The band already knew Janick Gers, and he and Bruce had developed a successful writing partnership on his Tattooed Millionaire solo disc.  Janick was nevertheless shocked when Bruce phoned him up and asked him to learn some Iron Maiden numbers.  Janick initially said no, because he assumed Bruce was talking about his solo project, and they had already agreed to do no Maiden numbers.  When Bruce explained it wasn’t for the solo band, it was for Maiden, Janick was horrified.

Janick Gers was really the only guy I can think of that was right for Maiden, also being from the era of the NWOBHM bands (White Spirit).  He’d also been in Gillan (the incredible Magic album) and worked with Fish.  The songs for the album were already written, all Janick had to do was head over to Steve’s farm, where they were recording the album, and learn the songs.

But that’s all just background, just context.  That’s all important, especially to this album, but what is also important is the bottom line.  And the bottom line is that this is the first time Maiden turned in something that was almost universally received as a disappointment.

While some fans were clamoring for a return to basic heavy metal songs, short and bangin’ and to the point, others preferred the epic scale of Seventh Son.  And it was clear that you can’t just replace Adrian Smith.  The songs on the new album, titled No Prayer For the Dying, seemed less finished and not quite up to standard.  Not to mention Janick and Dave hadn’t had time to properly gel together, and never quite sync up on this album the way Dave did with Adrian.

The opening song “Tailgunner” is good enough though, not quite an “Aces High” but certainly adequate.  Being tailgunner might have been the worst job on the Lancaster bomber, since it didn’t have a belly gunner! (Neither did Enola Gay, tailgunner was certainly the worst job on a B-29)!  But Steve and Bruce failed to really nail it lyrically, with lines such as “nail that Fokker, kill that son, gunna blow your guts out with my gun” not living up to past Maiden historic glories.

Steve and Bruce also wrote “Holy Smoke”, the first single.  This reckless fast number showcased a manic Janick Gers solo, demonstrating how different he was from Adrian.  Where Adrian used to compose solos with beginnings, middles and endings, Janick just went for it!  Dave was also somewhere between the two approaches.  Now, without Adrian’s melodic touch, the band were moving sharply to a more live and spontaneous guitar style.

“Holy Smoke” is about TV preachers, and while they always make a good target in heavy metal songs (I prefer Ozzy’s “Miracle Man”) this one also fails to excite.  As a song it doesn’t have much in terms of melody.  On No Prayer, Bruce is shouting as often as he’s singing, and with the songs’ new emphasis on raw power, there’s less memorable melody to go around.  Janick’s manic gonzo solo does fit the vibe of the song!

The title track is third, a number that tries to be an epic in under 5 minutes.  It does indeed have all of the trademark qualities of a Maiden epic except the length:  Multiple parts, multiple tempos, soul-searching Steve lyrics, and ample anthemic guitar melody.  Yet the song fails to nail it home like, say, “Hallowed Be Thy Name” did.

Better is the badly titled “Public Enema Number One”.  This Dickinson/Murray rocker is riffy, straightforward with some decent melodic bits.  But again Bruce is hoarsely shouting the verses, and the song careens from section to section that don’t feel like they quite all fit together probably.  Like other songs on No Prayer, the song sounds slightly unfinished.

And better again is “Fates Warning”, this time written by Steve and Dave.  The opening soft guitar part is a nice change of pace, and a great example of Dave Murray’s tremendous feel.  Perhaps in a past life he was a bluesman.  Nicko then kicks the song into gear while Steve’s lyrics question the seemingly random nature of life and death.  In the middle, is an old-school dual Maiden guitar lead, before Dave nails another perfect one of his own.

Side two begins with the stuttery “The Assassin”.  Written solo by Steve, it is rhythmically complex as it is propelled forward.  It has a fairly decent chorus but it doesn’t quite resolve itself nicely.  Some of the guitar and bass melodies are reminiscent of “To Tame A Land” from Piece of Mind.

This is followed by the superior “Run Silent Run Deep”  Submarine warfare is a good topic for a Maiden song, and the song chugs forward like those big diesel engines.  This is one of the better songs on No Prayer.  Steve and Bruce wrote it together, and Nicko’s precise drum fills accent the song perfectly.

Next is the worst song on the album:  Bruce and Adrian’s “Hooks In You”.  Lyrically this is one of the worst things ever on a Maiden album. Judging by the opening line, “Got the keys to view at number 22,” it sounds like Charlotte is back to her old tricks.  Unfortunately, the band subjected people to this song live.  I’ll admit it’s got a great little riff, but Bruce’s shout-growl vocals, lack of melody, and lack of any lyrical intelligence just sinks this one.

And then the baffling #1 single, “Bring Your Daughter…to the Slaughter”.  This Bruce song is actually an outtake from his solo project.  He recorded and released the original version with Janick Gers on the soundtrack to A Nightmare on Elm Street 5.  I seem to remember that soundtrack being panned as “the worst soundtrack of all time” at one point.  Steve heard the song, went nuts, and said, “Don’t put it on your solo album:  I want to save this one for Maiden.”

Somehow, Steve was right, as it went straight to #1 in the UK, the first and only time this has happened to Iron Maiden.  I don’t get it.  I don’t get what people like about this song.

“Mother Russia” ends the album on a sour note.  Lyrically simple, musically pretty good, “Mother Russia” is certainly not up to the standards of past Maiden album closers.  Although it tries to be an epic along the lines of “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” (featuring a similar keyboard section in the middle), it’s just not as great as past epics.  At five and a half minutes, “Mother Russia” is the longest song on No Prayer.  It is made up of excellent components; I like the melody and the solos big time, but it’s just…not comparable in quality.

Nicko McBrain said on MuchMusic that No Prayer was “the best Iron Maiden yet.”  Steve said that the album’s biggest problem is that it didn’t sound live enough without an audience track.  I disagree with both.  I think the album has an abnormally high quantity of unfinished songs and filler.

Even the cover art was substandard.  To go with the live, stripped down sound, Riggs too stripped his artwork of the symbolism and fantasy.  Instead, Eddie goes for the throat of a groundskeeper as he emerges (once again) from the grave.  All hints to continuity are gone, as Eddie’s lost his lobotomy scar, cybernetic implants, and that bolt that kept his skull on!  He even has his hair back.  I guess somebody wasn’t happy with the artwork, because it was heavily tweaked for the 1998 remaster, repainting much of it and removing the groundskeeper.

The B-sides to the first single, “Holy Smoke” were the excellent “All In Your Mind” (a cover from somebody called Stray) and Golden Earring’s “Kill Me Ce Soir”.  Both songs are pretty damn good.  I prefer both to some of the album tracks!

“Bring Your Daughter” had two of its own B-sides:  “Communication Breakdown” and “I’m A Mover”.  Maiden tackle Led Zeppelin and Free less successfully than they did they other two B-sides.  “I’m A Mover” ain’t bad as it allows Maiden to get into a groove they normally wouldn’t, and Bruce seems to have fun with the vocal.

3.5/5 stars

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17 comments

  1. —For those of you keeping score (because I know you all are), I took Mike’s advice and played Seventh Son again. It’s a cool record, but I cannot get into the vocals on most tracks. It’s like he was trying to do his operatic thing while someone was shaking him by the shoulders. Ugh.—

    So, now we get to No Prayer For The Dying. I’ll write this up before I read Mike’s take on it.

    Tailgunner is a great riff, and I like the gutteral, raw vocals here. It’s like he took up smoking and drinking straight bourbon between records, or something. The growl goes well with the guitar assault. A strong album opener, and my fears of a repeat of Seventh’s howls aren’t immediately realized. Holy Smoke is a fun guitar riff. Fun?!?! Yeah! Same vocals too. Could it be? Has he left the warble at home? And this is interesting to note: for Maiden, this is two mid-tempo tracks in a row. I’m talking AC/DC-like tempos instead of their typical 100 mph blasts. And to that end, these two tracks would sound GREAT in a bar. The title track is a sort of compromise. He strains it a bit there, but the growl is still predominant. And bits of this are pretty slow, for these guys! Is that an actual string section or faked? AH! 2:16, here they go at the usual speed! Woo! Cool slinky riff on that one.

    Public Enema Number One Gives us the tempo right from the gates, and another killer riff. Dickinson’s OK ’til he gets to the chorus, then no thanks. Still, a strong enough track that fits with the rest. Fates Warning fits the Maiden template we’ve come to expect, but it’s not one of the stronger songs here. It’s one of those ones that, for another contemporary band it would have been a hit single, but for Maiden it’s just good. The Assassin isn’t as menacing as it tries to be. “Better watch out?” Haha, sure. You know who I could hear singing this song? Dio. He’d have given it the proper mix of gravity and hilarity.

    Run Silent Run Deep is a great tune, another chugging stomper, but the vocals kill it. Sorry, I just can’t take that wobble seriously. I know I couldn’t do it myself, but I don’t think I’d want to. Especially that ending. Ugh. If he’d tone that down, this could have been a hits-disc track. Hooks In You is one of the most straight-on rawk tunes they’ve done, in chord changes in structure. There’s a raft of 80s metal bands that could have done this song. And man, by the end of this one, he sounds rough. Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter is one I’ve heard before. That bit around 3:20 just cracks me up. WTF. The rest is just like this album: great rock song with a singer that’s trying too hard. And finally, Mother Russia, well… I could take it or leave it. I know what they were going for, here. Playing on the sounds of Russian traditional songs, and trying to be atmospheric about it. And all deference, that guitar solo work is incredible. But as an album closer? No, not really. Maybe a b-side. I’m willing to bet there was a better song that ended up as a b-side, and swapping them would have made a huge difference.

    In all, a cool Maiden record, but if I had to compare it to some of the others I’d say it’s only mediocre. I like that they’re all different. Reflections of the times and their interests, of course. This one lays back a bit, doesn’t do everything at breakneck speed. Fine by me.

    * And I promise I won’t bitch about the vocals from here on out. Maybe I’ll contain it to one line, or something, for future reviews (because Mike tells me it doesn’t improve). It’s just that, for this one on the heels of Seventh, I wanted to see if things improved. They sort-of did, here.

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  2. A hugely enjoyable review of a massively average album! I really liked all the context you put in here. I totally agree with take on the relative merits of all the tracks. To me it sounds like the band were tired out and not giving it their all. They seemed to have run out of ideas too, doing duff retreads of previous songs like Tailgunner (Aces High) and Assassin which always seemed like a crap Killers rewrite… and on that note: Aaron mentioned the naff line “Better Watch Out”… I always pictured that being sang by Muppets!

    The first side does get steadily better towards the end. The final 3 tracks on that are probably the album’s peak. But overall, I was massively disappointed with this when it came out. They did an anniversary tour in the UK where they played the smaller clubs that they toured round in the early days. They ended up playing in my hometown… and I didn’t even go! I just felt like they were done. Kind of regret that now although I did see Dave and Janick coming out of a Hotel!

    At the time I felt this had too strong a whiff of Tattooed Millionaire. Bruce’s gruffer vocals, the AC/DC-like rockers and the crap double-entendres! Apparently Bruce came up with Tailgunner after seeing a porn movie with the title…

    Bring Your Daughter… did that go Number 1 in the US and Canada too? I remember it going to the top-spot here but only because they released it the week after Christmas, knowing that all the Maiden fans would buy it on a week where nothing new was being released. Which was kind of sneaky but I thought it made them look a bit desperate.

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    1. Thank you HMO. In this case, I think the context is more interesting than the album itself.

      What did you think of Tattooed Millionaire? Just as a spoiler, that’s the next review in the series. I feel it’s too important in the overall history of Maiden to ignore.

      I may also do Balls to Picasso (undecided thus far) but it too is worth a mention in this series.

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      1. I liked it. It’s not brilliant by any means but there’s some great stuff on it. Quite Gillan in places… Really like Janick’s playing on it… always thought he works better as a lone guitarist than with others. I totally love the Dive Dive Live video, although Bruce seemed to hate it. A lot of the songs are much better on that. Have you heard British Lion yet? I’ve not, but I’m not hearing great things.

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        1. No, British Lion is on my Christmas list. I saw the video; it can wait. Can’t wait for you guys to see the Tattooed Millionaire review then. It’s done and in the can, 2 disc edition with all the bonus tracks.

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        2. Kind of! But not as insidious and Maiden had the good taste, at least, to wait until AFTER Christmas whereas SyCo has managed to ruin the whole concept of the Christmas No. 1! At least until Rage Against the Machine beat him… that was great fun. The first time in years that I actually listened to Xmas charts being announced!

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        3. It’s interesting because here singles don’t matter nearly as much. I’m sure they still matter a bit for pop artists but you can’t walk into a store and buy a single anymore, you have to order it from Europe or Japan.

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    2. Oh: And no, it did not go #1 here. I wasn’t even aware of it being released as a single because no music video was made for it that I ever saw. If there was a video, it didn’t get played here. I got a cool 7″ later on, one side was etched with Christmas messages from the band.

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      1. Cool. In the UK, then, their fan-base was still die-hard enough to unquestioningly purchase everything they released on the first day so they were guaranteed to go to the number 1 spot that week (when no-one else was buying music). But it was a pretty transparent, contrived way to get a hit and it backfired I think. They weren’t meant to be a band that chased hits and it resulted in them being well-known for a song that wasn’t anywhere near one of their best.

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    1. Yes sir! I had never seen 95% of the content on that DVD set before and it was really affordable here.

      I didn’t buy all the two disc editions because in some cases I collected all the singles and Japanese imports! I’d like to do Bruce’s solo career in detail I think.

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      1. I was so excited when that DVD set came out here. I had the Dive Dive Live on video and really loved it so I was keen to get a DVD version. I’ve never been much good at picking up singles and stuff like that so I got all the 2CDs. The one i wanted the most was Balls to Picasso because I had heard and loved a lot of those songs on the B-Sides like the No Way Out songs and Breeding House. Amazing stuff. I loved that whole period, saw a lot of great solo Bruce gigs in small intimate venues!

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  3. Clank Clank clank…….that’s the sound of No Prayer…..Tailgunner,Holy Smoke and Public Enema NUmber 1 are my favs,the rest is mediocre at best,but I came to that conclusion after a long time later but I dunno I remember the talk at the time yeah we’re stripping back the production and focusing on the band..fair enuff….cuz it’s the songs right??? Not the production but hey where are the songs ?????
    I think burnout was sitting in….
    Side note…..I missed this tour when it hit Winnipeg back in Jan 91 and for that matter every tour until this past summer so it was awhile ….but I had heard only about 3,000 had only showed up to see Maiden/Anthrax in the Peg ,couldn’t believe it but u could see the drop in attendance from 12,000 in 84 to 3,000 in 91……I still should have went though…..
    I give it a 2/5…..
    Great reviews on this one while sipping my coffee…..
    Kudos to ……Iscandasophie,HMO And MIke for the read…..

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