Part 32 of my series of Iron Maiden reviews!
IRON MAIDEN – Dance Of Death (2003)
Dance of Death (Iron Maiden’s 13th studio album and 2nd since the triumphant return of Bruce and Adrian) is yet another monster filled with dramatic metal. Yes, I do find it slightly inferior to the previous album, Brave New World, which was near-perfect for its time. However, Dance of Death should not be dismissed. There are Iron Maiden classics here to rival material from the glory days, plus deep album tracks worth listening to.
First I want to mention the album cover — for the second time, Iron Maiden have done what I consider to be a terrible cover! (I consider the original No Prayer cover to be almost as bad.) I’d never wear this on a T-shirt! This is awful, awful, awful! This is, by far, the worst album cover Maiden have ever used. If you look carefully there are mistakes all over the place, such as the baby’s foot going through the wolf! Fortunately, the inner booklet is much better. Like a ghostly version of the orgy scene in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the indifferent band are surround by masked, topless, phantom women.
Onto the music!
I found Bruce Dickinson’s voice on this album to be weaker than Brave New World. My personal feeling at the time (and this is just my opinion) was that the band rushed into recording too soon after touring. As such, Bruce’s voice sounds more worn out, similar to the way it did on No Prayer. The rest of the band is as strong as ever, and all six members write. Even Nicko McBrain, who gets his first-ever writing credit…”Mission From ‘Arry” notwithstanding!
The album starts with the first single, and unfortunately one of the weakest songs. It is the brief Smith/Harris rocker, “Wildest Dreams”. This ain’t a “Wicker Man” nor a “Tailgunner”. It’s lacklustre, and I have no idea why it was chosen as the first single.
The second single “Rainmaker” follows, a much better song. Bruce’s voice seems stronger here. The vocal and guitar melodies are excellent and memorable. Great chorus, great guitar lines, good choice for a single.
“No More Lies” is next, and the only weak thing about the song is that it follows the same formula as the Brave New World tunes — too much repetition in the chorus. There’s only so many times you want to hear, “No more lies, no more lies, no more lies, no more lies!” Alright! I get it already! Bizarrely, this was the third single (technically an EP) even though it’s over 7 minutes long.
Next is the first historical epic of the album, “Montségur”. One of the fastest and heaviest songs on the album, it is lyrically better than it is musically. Musically, it stumbles a bit, with the vocal melodies not fitting quite right and the lyrics sung too fast.
Finally the album really picks up steam with the centerpiece, “Dance of Death”. Beginning slow with some nice clean picked guitar and ‘Arry’s bass, Bruce sings of a strange night when he’d “had one drink, but no more.” This is a classic, a fantastic song lyrically similar to “Number of the Beast” but musically a beast of its own. Some critics likened it a bit too much to “Stonehenge” by Spinal Tap. Well, fair enough. It does share some similarities, especially when the dwarves start dancing! But admit it to me: You liked “Stonehenge”, didn’t you? I did!
“Gates of Tomorrow” and “New Frontier” (co-written by McBrain) are up next. Both are strong rockers, typical Maiden album fare. Perhaps nothing that needs to be performed live when your canon is as strong as Maiden’s, but nothing skip-worthy.
“Paschendale” is arguably the best song on the entire album. Another historical war epic, this one was written by Adrian Smth and Steve Harris. It is pure, classic Iron Maiden. Clocking in at 8:28, there is not one dull moment in the entire song. Often I find myself skipping back to hear it again. Lyrically it is very powerful, bringing to mind the muddy stinking conditions of the trenches in World War I. Musically this is among the very best songs Maiden have ever composed. This was also released in an orchestral version but I’ll discuss that later on. (How did they do that eagle screaming sound? Is that a guitar?)
It’s hard to follow a song like that, but “Face In The Sand” is another great album track, memorable and heavy. Again, not really worthy of the live set, but certainly not a bad song by any stretch.
I have always been partial to the rare songs that Dave Murray writes, such as “Deja Vu” or “Still Life”. “Age of Innocence” has a powerful memorable chorus and is a personal favourite. If I had been in charge at EMI, this would have been a single instead of “No More Lies”. After hearing it once, you cannot get the chorus out of your head.
So we only get one chance, can we take it?
And we only get one life, can’t exchange it
Can we hold on to what we have? Don’t replace it
The age of innocence is fading…Like an old dream
The album ends with one of most unique Iron Maiden songs ever written. “Journeyman”, which sounds to me like a Dickinson baby, is a quiet acoustic number with orchestral backing. Don’t call it a ballad! This is a quiet epic, a new kind of Maiden sound that they were able to expand upon in later albums. The choruses are powerfully sung by Bruce. It’s certainly one of the most adventurous tunes Maiden have done, simply because it is so different from anything in their past.
And that’s the album. It is easy to see why Dance of Death does not sit will with some fans. Some of the early songs suffer from repetition again. Bruce’s voice is not as strong as the previous album (to my ears). You have to listen to it multiple times to get into some of the tracks. I can see some fans, whose tastes are more narrow and specific, not wanting to give Dance of Death another chance. That’s a shame because this is a good Iron Maiden album. Not among their top three, or even the top five, but Iron Maiden do not have very many weak albums.
I mentioned the orchestral version of “Paschendale”. There are three singles to be collected from this album:
1. “Wildest Dreams”: B-side was a very funny and rare jam session by Iron Maiden called (ha ha!) “Pass the Jam”. There are also other tunes on the different editions. The CD has an orchestral mix of “Blood Brothers” from Brave New World, while the DVD has a “rock mix” of both “The Nomad” and “Blood Brothers” from the same album. I do not have the DVD single, and Christmas is coming if you feel generous! The orchestral version has, unsurprisingly, more orchestration. The rock mixes are very similar to the album versions, perhaps the rhythm guitars are louder in the mix.
2. “Rainmaker” contained a dramatic orchestral version of “Dance of Death” and a second jam session called “More Tea Vicar”. This is another jokey tune featuring Bruce rapping! The Japanese single, which I recently acquired from eBay (so recently that it actually arrived TODAY) at an excellent price has two exclusive live tracks! It even had the obi strip intact.
The live tracks are 2002 live recordings of “The Wicker Man” and “Children of the Damned” at Brixton, but the vocals on “Wicker Man” aren’t mixed high enough. “Children of the Damned” is in the only live version available featuring the six-man lineup, and my God does it smoke! It really benefits from the three guitars, and Bruce nails that scream at the end. The domestic single lacks these two live tracks. Who wants my old copy of the domestic? Speak now or forever hold your peace.
3. No More Lies: Technically an EP, I’ll do a full review of this one next.