Empire of the Clouds

REVIEW: Iron Maiden – “Empire of the Clouds” (2016 Record Store Day picture disc single)

IRON MAIDEN -“Empire of the Clouds” (2016 Parlophone Record Store Day picture disc single)

The story of acquiring this single and RSD 2016 can be read right here, so without getting into the details again this is what you need to know:

  1. This was a Record Store Day exclusive (April 16 2016).
  2. There were only 5500 copies made.
  3. Everybody wanted one.

The picture disc and packaging are gorgeous.  The record is a depiction of the Eddie destroying the R-101 airship, but fear not, this is not how history actually unfolded!  This picture disc is ensconced in a die card cover with reprintings of the Daily Mirror newspaper article from the day following the disaster.  It’s a lovely keepsake for sure, but it also has an exclusive interview on the B-side.

Not that the A side is unimportant.  From my original review for The Book of Souls, I had much praise for “Empire of the Clouds”:

“Written solely by Bruce and coming in at almost 20 minutes, it is unprecedented in the Maiden canon.  Never before have the credits ‘Bruce Dickinson – vocals, piano’ been written inside one of their albums.  For the first time ever, the piano is a part of Iron Maiden’s makeup.  Maiden have used orchestras before, and the strings return as well.  ‘Empire of the Clouds’ is a peak accomplishment, something that they (and Bruce) can proudly proclaim, ‘we did that’.  The piano is a natural fit, in the way it is used to make an epic song even more dramatic.  Aviation has been one of Bruce’s favourite lyrical subjects for a long time, but ‘Empire of the Clouds’ might be his first song about airships.  You can trust him to instil it with all the drama and heaviness that you expect from Iron Maiden.”

Nicko McBrain and Bruce Dickinson discuss the making of the song, almost an album in itself, on the B-side “Maiden Voyage”.  The R101 was a massive airship (“the Titanic fits inside”) that was rushed into service and caught flame in 1930.  Bruce wrote the song on piano, which he had learned to play over the last three years.  He then researched the history of the airship and worked on the words.  The way he describes the incident on this interview track, it was a perfect storm of everything going wrong.  In its context, the airship was an expression of the ambition of the British Empire to stretch to all corners of the Earth and above as well.  Bruce says the crash was the end of this era.

Part of the story involves a storm, so Bruce came up with a piano part to depict that.  Before long he had enough components from his piano writings to build the different parts of the song.   One of the bits was written when Jon Lord (from Deep Purple) was ill with cancer.  After his death, Bruce used this piece for the part when the airship initially sets off.  It’s interesting that this era of British ambition inspired the most ambitious track that the singer had ever attempted.  This includes a musical “S.O.S.” in Morse code, something I picked up on upon first listen.

Bruce has particular praise for drummer Nicko McBrain in the building and recording of this song.  Nicko was not only a help in a technical respect, but also as a cheerleader keeping the band driven, so much was he into it.

Bruce Dickinson is a remarkable individual in heavy metal.  You don’t see many metal stars as well educated in history as Bruce, or as capable at communicating it to his audience.  Indeed, as a presenter on the BBC, Bruce has brought history to many diverse audiences.  You would think Iron Maiden fans would be one of the more challenging groups to reach, but Maiden followers are hungry for this kind of content.  We can only respect the band that much more when we realize the true depth of their work.  This coming from a licensed airline pilot, published fiction author, cancer survivor and amature fencer who also happens to be in Iron Maiden.  Extraordinary!

I’m not sure if this disc was worth the buying frenzy it spawned or the online prices you are about to see, but I’m sure glad I got my copy.

5/5 stars

#478: Record Store Day (April 16 2016)

GETTING MORE TALE #478: Record Store Day (April 16 2016)

I thought Record Store Day was supposed to be a celebration of indi record stores.  That’s nice and all, but my first Record Store Day ever was at a chain:  Sunrise Records in a shopping mall.  I’m not sure what qualifies as “indi” but I do see a lot of similarities with Record Store Day and other much-hyped spending spree events, like Force Friday.  Overpriced items, not enough stock and waiting for stores to open seem to be the order of the day.  Having said that, I have never seen anything like Record Store Day 2016.  Nor did the staff at X-Disc-C in Kitchener, the store I chose to hit up this year.

I don’t always shop on Record Store Day, but when I do, it is for a good reason.  The first time I went was in 2011, for an AC/DC single featuring two then-exclusive live recordings.  That was a lot of fun, but imagine my chagrin a year later when these two songs were released on the Live at River Plate album.  It seems most RSD-exclusive items are either:

a) songs that get released on albums later on,
b) vinyl reissues of things you already have,
c) stuff that sits around for months or years after as shelfwarmers.

This year, my RSD holy grail list had only one item on it:  the 12″ picture disc single for Iron Maiden’s 20 minute epic “Empire of the Clouds”, from The Book of Souls.  Incidentally, that single was more expensive than the 2 CD album itself:  $33 with taxes.  What’s so special about it?  It has no exclusive music, but it does include a 21 minute interview with Bruce Dickinson about the R101 airship disaster that the song is based on.  That made it worth owning.   There were at least four stores in town carrying it.  Mill Pond Records in Cambridge were doing a big promotion on the radio with Darryl Law, offering big discounts and free CDs.  The had four copies of “Empire of the Clouds” in stock.  I wrote that store off the list first, gambling that it would be too busy.

I planned my strategy to acquire this very limited single (5500 copies).  Online prices later on will be far too high, at least for me unless I decide to sell my organs on the dark web.  Encore Records has long been the most reliable store in town, and they were carrying it (quantity unknown).  Failing that, just a few blocks away at X-Disc-C, there were three copies in stock.  The plan was for me to go to Encore while my wife Jen went to X-Disc-C.  We left the house at 8:15 for the 9:00 am opening.  That even left time for a coffee stop, at a way too busy Timmy’s on Weber St.  My only real concern at that point was parking downtown.  Kitchener is currently being ripped up to build a controversial light rail transit system.  The traffic tie-ups and difficult access points are only adding to the controversy.  Even so, and even with the Kitchener Farmer’s Market open since 6:00 am, parking was not a problem.  In fact there was plenty.

Encore Records was a couple blocks away, but I turned right back around as soon as I saw the line!  There were at least 40-50 people up there, waiting to get in.  I had never seen anything like that before, not on Record Store Day.  Not for records.  “Fuck this,” I said as I hiked back.  Re-joining Jen, we headed to X-Disc-C which was only a short jaunt away.  We knew they had three copies.  I had never been to this location before, tucked away on a side street near the market.  We knew we were getting near when we heard the sounds of Gordon Lightfoot serenading us on outdoor speakers.  This was followed by the new Wolfmother.  And we were first in line!  Iron Maiden would be mine!

I posted on Facebook, “First in line.  I am the line.”

About five minutes later another guy joined us, maybe a bit older than me.   We exchanged “good mornings” and chatted.

“I’m only here for one thing,” he hinted.

“Maiden?” I asked, and he nodded.  “Me too,” I said in response.  “He has three in there, so it looks like we’re good.”

“They’re already open over across the street,” he told me, referring to Encore.

“Really?  But did you see that crowd?  There were at least 40 people standing there.  Can that store even hold 40 people?”

I was surprised when he answered, “Yeah, I was second in line.  I’ve been waiting outside since 6:30 in the morning.”

Think about that for a moment.  That means there was somebody who got there even before 6:30!  People really wanted that Iron Maiden record.  Behind us, a small line began to form, young and old.

“I left to come here because I couldn’t see the Maiden when I walked into Encore.  Other people swooped in and they were gone before I could even see them.”  I expressed a little bit of surprise about the popularity of a record that only had an interview track on the B-side.  That doesn’t matter to everybody though.  “I’m not going to play it,” he said.  “I’m not even going to open it.  I’m going to frame it.”

A few more people joined us in line including one guy in an Iron Maiden T-shirt.  I don’t think he had a chance anymore.  There seemed to be two dominating artists that people in line were looking for:  David Bowie, and Iron Maiden.  Then the door opened.  I grabbed the first Iron Maiden, and the guy behind me got the second.  I did not see who got the third.

At X-Disc-C, they told me they had never seen a Record Store Day opening like this before.  They seemed unprepared as most of their items hadn’t even been priced yet.  I wonder if Encore Records also got slammed unprepared at opening.  They usually only have two guys working on busy days, and I think only three people even work there at all.  It’s great to see them so busy, but I wondered about the whole experience.

These stores probably don’t make much money on these Record Store Day exclusives, and these early birds were looking for specific items.  If they didn’t have it, they walked.  They didn’t stick around to browse, nor was there room to browse.  Two people walked out before I even paid for my Maiden!   The buying frenzy atmosphere isn’t the kind of record shopping experience most of us look for.  We like to take our time, check every nook and cranny, converse and enjoy it.  These limited Record Store Day items seem to create schools of sharks swooping in on very limited items, and when they’re gone the customer buys nothing and moves on.

I will open and play my Iron Maiden record, once.  I’ll record it, and only look at it henceforce.  It’s a gorgeous picture disc in a gatefold sleeve.  The cover replicates the Daily Mirror newspaper from October 6 1930, the day after the R101 burst into flames.  An awesome Eddie illustration from the picture disc is seen through the die-cut cover.  It truly is a beautiful collectible.

Record Store Day was fun, but I don’t think it does much to celebrate the indi record store.  It does bring out the hard core collectors, but the overall atmosphere feels too much like a bloody Black Friday sale than a true record shopping experience.

Come back tomorrow for a review of the “Empire of the Clouds” RSD exclusive single.

 

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