Iron Maiden

RE-REVIEW: Iron Maiden – The X Factor (1995 2 CD Japanese import)

IRON MAIDEN – The X Factor (1995 EMI Japan 2 CD limited edition)

For this revisit, we will take a deep dive on the Japanese version of Iron Maiden’s controversial 1995 album The X Factor.  As the first new studio album in three years, anticipation ran high.  There was also a minor problem that needed sorting out.  Longtime vocalist Bruce Dickinson quit to go solo after more than a decade in Iron Maiden, leaving the remaining band with an air raid siren-sized hole to fill.  The band had already been rocked by the 1990 departure of guitarist Adrian Smith, whose songwriting and melodic solo construction was missed.  That’s not a knock on the guy who replaced him, Janick Gers.  Gers was a different kind of player, and the elements that Smith used to bring to the band were gone.  Fans had to endure an even more serious change when Wolfsbane vocalist Blaze Bayley was chosen to replace Bruce.

Virtually unknown in North America, Blaze Bayley was a powerhouse baritone who wasn’t known for hitting the highs of Bruce Dickinson.  However, Maiden seemed to like change and the 1990s were a darker time.  In that context, Bayley was a better fit.  Bruce’s style of singing was on its way out, while Bayley could have fronted a grunge band had he chosen to go that way.  At the same time, Steve Harris was dealing with losses in his life, and Bayley’s voice suited the more pensive tone of the new music.  In another major change, producer Martin Birch stepped down leaving Steve Harris and co-producer Nigel Green to their own devices, for better or for worse.  You’ll notice the mix is quite bass-heavy….

The X Factor was released in October of 1995 to a lot of indifference.  Even the new cover art by Hugh Syme turned off some fans.  It was the longest Maiden album so far by a long shot at over 70 minutes.  In Japan, the CD came with a bonus disc of three original B-sides, boosting the length to over 82 minutes.  Maiden rarely recorded original material for B-sides (“Total Eclipse” notwithstanding), but this time they had 14 tracks to choose from in total.  A bumper crop of creativity.

“Sign of the Cross” has to be one of Maiden’s most impactful openers, though it takes a minute to get going.  If you thought you bought a CD of Gregorian chants (very big in 1995; even Van Halen used ’em), then that’s forgivable.  Maiden jumped on the chant bandwagon for the 11 minute epic opener, a very unique track in the catalogue.  A bass intro begins the song proper, and if there’s one flaw on The X Factor, it’s too many bass intros (see above comment about “left to their own devices”).  The clean guitars backing the bass are a nice touch, and there is no question that The X Factor is a brilliant sounding album.  The vocals finally kick in almost three minutes into the song, kicking the song into a slow determined march.  The evocative imagery recalls dark corners of Catholic history while the music goes through multiple thrilling sections, from speedy manic solos (Janick proving his worth to a song like that) to more complex rhythms.  The song eventually resolves as it began, in quiet contemplation accompanied by bass.  “Sign of the Cross” was considered good enough to keep in the set even after Dickinson returned to Iron Maiden at the end of the 90s.

Wisely picking up the pace for the next track, the single “Lord of the Flies” kicks it into higher gear.  The speedy riff rocker barrels along steadily, with a slamming chorus.  Co-written by Gers, you can hear his influence.  Blaze sinks his teeth into the meaty verses and the chorus delivers the kind of hooks that we’re used to from Iron Maiden.  Once again, Bruce sang this song when he returned.  In this case, Dickinson was able to elevate the tune by using his air raid siren to boost the chorus.  That’s not a knock on Blaze, who owns the tune with grit and bite.

“Man on the Edge” is an interesting song not because it was the poorly chosen first single.  It’s interesting because just six years earlier, the song could never have been written.  As a co-write between Gers and Bayley, it’s entirely composed by the newest members.  Based on the excellent film Falling Down, the song depicts the character of “D-Fens” gradually losing it over the course of a day.  It’s just not up to the quality of the prior two songs, but Bruce still performed it on the 1999 tour.  Be forewarned:  excluding the bonus disc, this is pretty much the last time Iron Maiden pick up the pace on The X Factor.

That’s not to say the rest of the songs are junk.  “Fortunes of War” (another bass intro) begins soft and ballady, although it does get moving towards the end.  In the 1990s, Steve Harris really leaned into repeating sections of his songs, and “Fortunes of War” is certainly one of those.  It’s also one of many tunes on the album based on, or including, war imagery.  There’s a neat guitar part stuffed between bass sections, but too many bass sections!  It’s not that interesting an instrument, Steve.  Janick Gers and Dave Murray lay down a pair of nice solos, and drummer Nicko McBrain plays it fairly straight.  Not a lot of elaborate drum rolls on this album.  Nicko lays back with the songs.

The last song on side one was “Look For the Truth”, a dark contemplative song about personal struggles.  The bass intro this time is at least accompanied by guitar.  “Look For the Truth” begins slowly but then slams into heavy.  Blaze really has this one firmly in his grasp, as he spits out the words.  “It’s my final stand, I make a fist out of each hand.  To the shadows of the past, take a breath and I scream attack.”  This is the first of four co-writes between Harris, Gers and Bayley.  (Gers has seven credits on the first disc, Bayley has five, and Harris ten.)  The main hook here is a simple “Woah oh oh,” which works fine and dandy, and did so in concert.

“The Aftermath” is another slow war song…but with no bass intro!  It’s a little unorthodox as it goes almost three minutes before we hit the first chorus.  It really takes a while to get to the point where they speed it up, but it finally does with a cry of “I’m just a soldier!” and another wicked Janick Gers solo.  Then it resumes its plodding pace to the close.  Not an album highlight, but a song that was performed live on The X Fac-tour.

A little peppier is “Judgement of Heaven”, another soul-searching number with lines like “I’ve been depressed so long, it’s hard to remember being happy,” and “I felt like suicide, a dozen times or more.”  That’s countered with the line, “But that’s the easy way, that’s the selfish way, the hardest part is to get on with your life.”  Then the music cranks into gear and you feel empowered by the music and Blaze’s gravelly delivery.  You got this — you can do whatever you need to.  You can survive.  That’s the message and it sounds great coming from Iron Maiden.  The uplifting chorus “All of my life, I have believed judgement of Heaven is waiting for me,” is a little Christian sounding for this band, but it does the job.  And Davey Murray then flies in with a wicked signature solo, and then Gers joins in for some harmonies.  Blaze even tries for a high note at the end!

The album dips a bit in quality at this point.  “Blood on the World’s Hands” is not of the finest moments on The X Factor.  It boasts the worst bass intro yet, and it goes on for-bloody-ever.  At some points it sounds as bad I do, just randomly hitting notes in random order.  Mercifully the song really begins at 1:15 but the damage has been done.  It’s a decent song from that point on…but see above about Steve being left to his own devices as co-producer with Nigel Green.  A different producer would have axed that intro.  Cool Murray/Gers solo though, and Nicko gets to play around with unorthodox drums patterns.

“The Edge of Darkness” feels as if we’re moving towards an ending.  A dramatic re-telling of Apocalypse Now with yet another bass intro, this is a good song.  How many war songs do you need?  Don’t worry, this is the last one.  Like most of the tunes (especially those with bass intros), it begins slowly before heavy-ing up partway.  When it gets galloping, it’s solid gold.  “I know Captain that you’ve done this work before, we’ve got a problem and you can help us I am sure.”  You know where it goes from there.  “Your mission, terminate with extreme prejudice.”  All he wanted was a mission and for his sins they gave him one.  Vocally, Blaze has his hands full here with rapid-fire lyrics and plenty of “Woah-oh” hooks.  The guitar solos are like old-school Maiden again, and the gallop recalls earlier days.  “And now I understand why the genius must die…”

The album goes dark with “2 A.M.”, the third of the contemplative songs of self-reflection.  On first listen it doesn’t stand out but it grows over time.  “Here I am again, on my own again…”  We’ve all felt that way.  This is a sparse, direct, morose tune but not without merit.  On past albums it probably would not have made the final cut, though the guitar sections are great.

The final track on disc one is “The Unbeliever”, another unorthodox tune, centered on a bassline, but at least without a bass intro!  A Gers/Harris composition of self-reflection, that has a very different rhythm and layering of instruments.  “All my life, I’ve run astray, allowed my faith to drift away.”  Interesting that there are so many songs on this album about losing faith:  “Sign of the Cross”, “Judgement of Heaven”, and “The Unbeliever”.  The three dominant themes on this album (often overlapping) are war, losing faith, and personal struggles.  Quite different from the Iron Maiden that wrote songs about mythology, killers in alleyways, and dying with your boots on.  If there was ever a time to turn inwards and reflect, it was the 1990s.  Later albums would find a stronger balance of lyrical themes, but there is no question that the music of The X Factor suits the lyrics perfectly and vice-versa.

“The Unbeliever” ends with just an audio snip of studio chatter.  “That’s the one!” somebody says after a good take.

Over to disc two, exclusive to Japan:  all three tracks were available on B-sides to “Man on the Edge”, but one was exclusive to vinyl.  All three are fast songs that would have dramatically altered the complexion of the album had they been included in the regular tracklist.

The only Dave Murray co-write (with Harris) is the speedy “Justice of the Peace”.  This tune is about the decline of modern society.  “It must be the cynic in me, but I don’t really like things now.  The violence, the attitude, aggression that you see every day.  Sick society looks the other way.”  It has a similar vibe to “Man on the Edge” though not as manically paced.  Murray lays down a classic Beast-era sounding solo to top it off.  It’s over and out in just 3:34, the shortest song of them all.

“I Live My Way” is special because this is its only release on CD.  The only other way to get it is on vinyl.  Most Iron Maiden fans simply do not own a copy. As another speedy tune written by Harris/Gers/Bayley, it’s probably the least remarkable but certainly a special rarity.  You can count this as another one about self-reflection, though more headstrong and confident.

“Judgement Day”, the second song written by Blaze and Janick without involvement from Steve, is a fast blazer continuing the critique on modern society.  When the bonus tracks are considered, commentary on humanity could be considered the fourth dominant theme.  “There are no marks upon a man, that can say he’s good or bad.”  The lens is focused this time on the evil people living among us.  Musically it is most similar to a previous Maiden single called “Be Quick or Be Dead”.

The X Factor is a long album to start with, but the bonus disc here adds incredible value not only for the collector, but also for the listening experience.  The album needed more pep, less slow songs and fewer bass intros.  You could make a pretty incredible vintage-sounding X Factor “greatest hits” CD by including some of these B-sides, and capping the run time off at 45 minutes.

Japanese releases often got bonuses but this one has more than just extra music.  The old style “fat” CD case conceals additional booklets, some not included in the international releases; four in total.  They include:

  • Japanese lyric sheet for the album.
  • Japanese lyric sheet for the bonus disc.
  • Regular CD booklet, same as the international release.
  • Bonus 22 page full colour booklet exclusive to this release.

This bonus booklet is a real treat, featuring tons of album and single art, with band photos.  It includes a discography and list of Japanese tours, including the setlists.  It’s great even if you can’t read the notes in Japanese; all the titles are in English.

The X Factor is a deeply personal album that Steve Harris is very proud of and considers one of his best.  Fans have been split on this, with most considering it inferior to almost all the prior albums.  That’s not fair.  It’s very different, less aggressive, darker and slower.  It was an experimental evolution made possible by lineup changes and the shifting sands of the musical tastes of the 1990s.  There are deeper songs and the material fit the downbeat mood of the time.  Many of the songs were more energetic live.  Overall, not one of Maiden’s top five, and not a commercial success, but it can be a rewarding if overly long listen.  The inclusion of the B-sides on the Japanese set dramatically improves the experience.

3.75/5 stars

 

 

GUEST REVIEW: An Evening With Bruce Dickinson, 03/30/22, Kitchener, Centre In the Square by Dr. Kathryn Ladano

BRUCE DICKINSON – An Evening With Bruce Dickinson, 03/30/22, Kitchener, Centre In the Square 

By Dr. Kathryn Ladano

 

On the evening of Wednesday March 30th, I headed over to the Centre in the Square with my good friend Dave to check out “An Evening with Bruce Dickinson”. Dave bought two tickets to the show as soon as they went on sale months ago and asked if I’d like to come. While I’m admittedly not an Iron Maiden expert, I did grow up listening to the band via my brother (Mike LeBrain) and was aware of all of their albums and singles throughout the 80’s. I spent a lot of time watching Iron Maiden videos on Much Music and I recall when I was in grade 3 or 4 being asked what my favourite song was and answering “Aces High”. No one had any clue what I was talking about. I have a lot of nostalgia for that time and when I was a kid I knew all of the members of Iron Maiden by name and instrument, and of course I was very much in awe of Bruce Dickinson. So when I had the opportunity to learn more about him and hear some of his stories, I was keen to take advantage of that.

When Dave and I arrived at the theatre, we were in row X on the orchestra level – the last row on the floor. The audience size wasn’t as big as I was expecting and shortly after we arrived an usher came by and asked us if we’d like to move up to row L – we said yes! I don’t think the theatre was even half full, but I liked that – especially in COVID times when about 75% of the audience was unmasked and I’m admittedly wary of getting sick. It also obviously gave us a much better view. The show started exactly at 7:30 PM. I had the impression through the whole show that Bruce Dickinson had meticulously timed everything. The show didn’t even start a minute late. The intermission was exactly at 9:05 PM. The length of the intermission was exactly 25 minutes – that sort of thing.

The show was in two sets. The first set was Bruce telling stories from throughout his life and the second set was strictly for audience questions. From start to finish, the show was a full 3 hours in length. It all started with Bruce coming on stage with the backdrop of a (very) old picture of him alongside a picture of his great uncle Frank. He started the evening by telling us about his uncle Frank, a WWII pilot and a huge influence on his life and interests. He also proceeded to tell us that in the image of him, he’d put blue crayon on his upper lip to make him look older. Right from the start you could tell that Bruce was extremely energetic and was going to give us everything he had. He was frequently bouncing around the stage – this wasn’t the kind of show where he sat on a stool and just talked the whole time (there was a stool there for him, and he never used it). He also came out with a beer – I suspect it was a “Trooper” beer – and enjoyed sipping that throughout his show.

While I was expecting him to speak primarily about Iron Maiden, he actually didn’t do a whole lot of this. He started out talking about his early days and how his parents sent him to “public school” – which we learned is essentially the equivalent of “private school” in North America. It was here that he started to get into music – originally wanting to be a drummer. His first band’s singer didn’t exactly work (a choir singer with an operatic approach), so Bruce switched over to vocals after a short time. I found his discussions about singing and the use of his voice to be the most interesting. Apparently when he started with Iron Maiden he was strongly encouraged to push his voice farther – to extend his range and use his falsetto voice and to really establish his own unique vocal timbre. He claimed that he really didn’t like the sound of his voice at first when he did this but gradually adapted to it. As a musician and teacher myself, I’m constantly trying to encourage my students to push outside of their comfort zone in this way, so I found his experience with this quite interesting. One other thing about his voice that was interesting to hear is that his voice, like everyone’s, has changed with age. He describes his as being deeper and rougher now, and he actually likes the sound of his voice better now than he did when he was younger. He feels the vocal changes that have come with age have allowed him to do things with his voice now that he couldn’t do before. This was really refreshing to hear because so many other singers have essentially lost their singing voices with age. Bruce Dickinson’s is just getting better.

Bruce spent a good chunk of time talking about the early days before Iron Maiden. He had pictures and stories from one of these bands, “Samson”. He told humorous stories of going to a gun shop in the UK and seeing a plastic Canada Goose statue which he had to purchase. He then proceeded to tape it to the roof of their car as they toured north to Scotland, and as he explained it, with pot smoke streaming out of the windows. No one ever stopped them! During this time he explained that he was already friends with the guys in Iron Maiden. When they needed a new singer they asked him and the rest is history. He told some funny stories about how at the start, he loved being in the centre of the stage, but Iron Maiden’s bassist, Steve Harris, also liked taking that spot at certain times during the show – so there were some battles in the early years for the prime spot on stage (apparently their original singer would set himself up off to the side and not right in the centre of the stage, so this wasn’t a problem for the band previously).

We heard about Bruce Dickinson’s battle with cancer – which he won. Apparently he never lost any hair on his head, but he lost all of his beard hair – and almost all at the same time. We heard stories of him being at a restaurant and his plate filling up with beard hair. We also heard stories about when he met the Queen and Prince Phillip. They both asked him “and what do you do?”. The Queen seemed to have no idea who he was or what heavy metal music was. Bruce spent a good deal of time talking about flying planes and we learned that he was not the first member of Iron Maiden to learn to fly – that was actually Nicko McBrain.

I also really enjoyed his talk about beer. Apparently Bruce Dickinson is the biggest beer fan in Iron Maiden. The band was asked by a winery if they would like to create an Iron Maiden wine and the band said no, because well, that seems like an odd fit. It was this, however, that gave Bruce the idea to create an Iron Maiden beer instead. If you can believe it, every single brewery that he approached with the idea turned it down except for Robinson’s brewery. Bruce was primarily involved in the process of creating the legendary “Trooper” beer, which they had for sale at the show. We learned a lot about the process of creating that beer and also that there are Trooper breweries in several different countries – and each country has its own unique Trooper flavour that isn’t available anywhere else. I’m hoping that a Canadian Trooper brewery crops up at some point.

When the intermission arrived, the video for Iron Maiden’s song, “Writing on the Wall” was shown. At this point I had to temporarily leave the theatre because as someone with post-concussion syndrome, my head started to feel like it was going to explode as soon as the music started. For anyone else though, I’m sure the experience of this song being played through the Centre in the Square sound system, along with the video on the huge screen would have been something pretty special.

There are far too many stories to try to summarize in one review, but I found the evening to be really enjoyable. Bruce Dickinson is a great showman – he displays such passion for his life and career and I feel that we more than got our money’s worth. Kitchener was the final stop on this tour. He did inform us that he was travelling to LA at 8 AM the following day to start working on a new solo album and this summer Iron Maiden will start their “Legacy of the Beast Tour”. Unfortunately there are no stops in Kitchener.  Overall, a great show!

 

“Lord of the Flies” by Iron Maiden on the Sunday Song Spotlight

Having recently acquired a Japanese import double CD copy of the controversial X Factor album by Iron Maiden, I have been revisiting what is usually considered the strongest of the two Blaze Bayley albums.  In some quarters, the Blaze years aren’t even considered “real” Maiden, while in others, the man with the sideburns gains more appreciation over the years.  The X Factor is a good Iron Maiden album, but certainly a departure and sometimes hard to recognize as the once-stampeding band.

“Lord of the Flies” was the second single, and for good reason.  So many songs on The X Factor were slow or dour, but “Lord of the Flies” at least had tempo going for it.  Maiden made an interesting choice in Bayley, choosing someone with a far deeper voice than Bruce Dickinson.  The 90s were a sour time for bands of Maiden’s generation and you can feel the personal pain of chief songwriter Steve Harris, who allowed his feelings to come out a bit more than usual.

However you slice it, “Lord of the Flies” should be considered a worthy song.  Listen to Nicko given’er on the drums and learn to appreciate Blaze’s signature delivery.  It’s a different kind of Iron Maiden, but now that Bruce has been solidly in front of the band for the last 23 years, can we give some of the better Blaze tunes some love?  I think we can.

Unboxing Four Japanese Imports – live!

Sometimes the easiest way to make a video is to do it live. Last night I unboxed four new arrivals from Japan!

There’s one seller in Japan who has dozens of items on my wishlist. They’ve helped me add many long-sought items to my library over the years. This time, I added to my Scorpions and ZZ Top collections, while taking a chance on a serious Iron Maiden rarity that was priced inexplicably cheap.

Wanna see how it turned out? Watch the short video below.

#964.5: The Lists – 2021 Year in Review – Part Two

Here We Go Again:  End of Year Lists 2021

2021:  the year of the hamster wheel.  It sure felt like we were spinning our tires all year!  Sometimes inching a little forward in the mud, only to slide right back.  What a year.  But we did get some great music out of it.

Here at LeBrain HQ, if you go strictly by the numbers, there were two bands that dominated the year, both oldies acts from the 1980s:  Coney Hatch and Iron Maiden!  They (or members thereof) appear numerous times in the lists you’re about to read.  Not so “oldies” after all eh?  Five appearances for Iron Maiden, and a whopping seven for Coney and its members!

Even I was surprised by the lists this year!  All my favourite things, and the stats of 2021, are curated below.


Top 11 Albums of 2021

11. PolychuckShadows Exposed EP
10. Suicide StarIsolation
9. Max the AxeOktoberfest Cheer EP
8. Mammoth WVHMammoth WVH
7. Danko JonesPower Trio
6. AcceptToo Mean to Die
5. Smith/KotzenSmith/Kotzen
4. Iron MaidenSenjutsu
3. Lee AaronRadio On
2. Coney HatchLive at the El Mocambo
1. StyxCrash of the Crown

Top Five Box Sets of 2021

5. KissDestroyer
4. WhitsnakeRestless Heart
3. Def LeppardCD Collection Vol 3
2. TriumphAllied Forces
1. MetallicaMetallica 

My Favourite Movies of 2021

5. Black Widow
4. Eternals
3. Free Guy
2. The Suicide Squad
1. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

(placeholder) Spider-Man: No Way Home – you have to assume it’ll be my new #1 when I see it!


Top 11 Interviews / Unboxings of 2021 (by YouTube views)

11. Robert Lawson interview
10. Sean Kelly interview
9. Suicide Star interview
8. Coney Hatch live LP unboxing
7. Andy Curran round three
6. Andy Curran part one
5. Paul Laine interview
4. Mike Fraser interview
3. Martin Popoff interview
2. Andy Curran + Mike Fraser interview
1. Iron Maiden Super7 figure blind box unboxing

Top Five List Shows / Deep Dives 2021 (by YouTube Views)

5. Top Concept Albums
4. 5150 Deep Dive with Tee Bone
3. Desert Island Discs
2. Top Maiden Art
1. Top Five King’s X with Martin Popoff

Top Reviews of 2021 by Hits

5. GUNS N’ ROSES“ABSUЯD”
4. STYXCrash of the Crown
3. PAUL STANLEY’S SOUL STATION – Now and Then
2. IRON MAIDEN – Senjutsu 
1.  – Off the Soundboard – Tokyo 2001


What’s in store for 2022?

  • The Book of Boba Fett
  • Jethro Tull – The Zealot Gene
  • Marillion – An Hour Before Its Dark
  • Guns N’ Roses – Hard Skool EP
  • new Sven Gali
  • Scorpions – Rock Believer
  • new Coney Hatch live with two new studio cuts
  • new Journey?
  • new Def Leppard?
  • Bryan Adams – So Happy it Hurts
  • Liam Gallgher – C’Mon You Know
  • Thor: Love and Thunder
  • Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
  • Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
  • Disney+: Ms. Marvel, Moon Knight, She-Hulk, What…If? season 2, Secret Invasion, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special
  • The Mandalorian season 3
  • New albums from Ghost, Rammstein, Ozzy Osbourne, King Diamond, Weezer and more

 


TONIGHT.

Friday December 31, 9:00 PM E.S.T. on YouTubeFacebook and also Facebook!

#955: Music Enjoyed Alone

RECORD STORE TALES #955: Music Enjoyed Alone

I’ve always had a solitary side.  Music is a fascinating hobby because it unites introverts and extroverts alike.  Everyone has their own preferred environments to enjoy music.  Whether you like to go out and rock it at a show with your buds, or whether you like to listen to a record alone with the headphones on, music unites us.

There is a certain amount of joy in both ways of life.  Ultimately, most people experience music in a mixture of both settings.

Some of my happiest memories were spent with music, by myself, with nothing but my thoughts and feelings.  When I’d get a new album, typically the first thing I’d do was go up to my room, close the door, and rip off the cellophane.  Hit “play”!  I’d read the lyrics, the liner notes, and study the artwork.  Then, after a heavy dose of rocking, I’d emerge to tell anyone who’d listen how awesome the album was.  That would often be my sister (usually uninterested).  Or, if it was a special occasion like Christmas, and the album was a gift, I would go downstairs to tell my gift-giver how much I loved it.  That’s how many first listens went down in my house.

I liked to keep my brain occupied while listening to music.  If I wasn’t studying the lyrics or artwork, perhaps I was reading a book.  Or doing homework.  Or drawing.  Or going through my growing stack of Hit Parader magazines, looking for pictures and info.

I’d allow myself a few minutes of air guitar when a favourite song came on.  Just drop what I was doing, and hit those air-strings.  Give it my all; burn off some energy.  Or perhaps I’d pretend I was Bruce Dickinson, fronting Iron Maiden at Long Beach Arena.

I was generally left alone.  Sometimes my sister would have a comment about the music blasting from behind my closed door.  “There was one really good song,” she might say if I was playing Poison or Warrant.  If it were Priest or Maiden she’d complain, “All I could hear is screaming”.

In 1988 I got my first guitar.  Periodically I would attempt to pick along to songs, but that was a futile endeavour.  I may as well have been playing air guitar.  A few years later, my sister got a pair of drum sticks with her VHS copy of Wayne’s World.  I would steal them and attempt to drum along to albums.  Poorly.

The kind of experiences that I had with music in solitude in my room were rarely equalled in a group setting.  My best friend Bob and I would play music and discuss it, while drawing pictures or writing stories.  That was the kind of thing I enjoyed most.  “Listen to this cool part, I wonder how he does that,” one of us would say mid-song.  “What did he say there?” was one common remark.  “I have no idea,” was usually the answer.

Treasured memories.  But a lot of that time with Bob was actually enhanced by our separate listening times alone.  When we met up on weekends, we were ready to show each other something cool we had heard, or had drawn.  Perhaps I had some new theories about Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son concept that I had to share with him.  The times we spent alone in our bedrooms listening to albums prepared us for the times listening together.  We had specific things we liked and wanted to share.  It was always nice when one of us got the other into a band.  He got me into so many, the last of which was probably Extreme.

When the CD began supplanting the cassette in my life, I added another activity to my solo listening sessions.  I still liked to have a cassette copy for portability once I started buying CDs.  So I made cassette copies of all my CDs, so I could listen to them in the car or on a Walkman.  (I did not get a Discman for quite a few years, as I did not trust them to keep my discs unscratched.)  Many happy hours were spent making cassette covers for my CD dubs.  I got better and better at it over the years, but sometimes making the cover was as simple as sketching a logo and neatly writing all the song titles down.

While I have had some amazing times singing at the top of my lungs gathered with best friends and associated buddies, some of the best times were spent listening alone!

 

 

#950: A Letter To S

Hey S,

I felt like writing again, I hope you don’t mind.  My emails are not the esteemed A Life in Letters by Isaac Asimov, but it’s more about the process of the writing for me.

I’ve been listening to Van Halen in the car a lot.  Long story short:  I’ve been having issues with my music hard drive in the car, with it repeating tracks.  I discovered I could fix it by formatting the drive and starting over.  Certain Van Halen albums used to give me issues in the car, with the repeating songs.  It’s been a pleasure to rock to King Edward this week.  It’s hard to believe but he died over a year ago now.

I remember coming home from work the day he died and I was just in a foul mood.  Not only was I grieving Edward Van Halen, but I felt stupid for grieving someone I never met and never hoped to meet.  It was a torrent of shitty feelings, plus I hadn’t eaten properly.  It was a Tuesday and I had to do laundry or something, and I snapped at Jen.  I felt like an asshole afterwards.  I also remember telling you this story, and you were the one who said it was OK to be grieving.  Until that moment I didn’t really consider that maybe you don’t have to be a psycho to be upset about Van Halen’s death.

Music aside — which was usually warm, fun with instrumental and occasional lyrical depth — Van Halen meant a lot to me.  I must have been 13 years old when I was sitting on the porch with my best friend Bob, hearing 1984 on the tape deck for the first time.  My dad came home from work, heard the noise and asked what we were listening to, as dads often did.  “Van Halen!?” he said.  “Sounds like some kind of tropical disease!”

My dad was always good with one liners!  When we watched music videos on Much, he would mock the singers shrieking their best operatic screams.  “What’s wrong with that man?  Should he go to the hospital?  He sounds like he’s in pain!”

Good memories, all.  I’m very attached to those childhood memories.  I’m trying to commit them all to writing before they’re gone.  Often, lost memories can be triggered by an old photograph.  But there are many things I wish I had video of!  If only there was a tape or photograph of that first time I heard Van Halen.  But film was a precious commodity until the last 15 years or so.  You didn’t just take pictures of you and your friends listening to music on the front porch.

I remember some of the tapes, and conversations.  Iron Maiden’s Maiden Japan was popular in our porch listening sessions.  George would come over from next door, and Bob would come over with his tapes.  My house was right in the middle!  I wonder how much of my happiest childhood memories are due to geographic concerns.  If my house wasn’t right there in the middle of everybody, maybe I never would have been there that day to hear Van Halen or Iron Maiden.

Sometimes I worry that I spend too much time living in the past and trying to recapture those moments.  But then I think about what you would say to that.  “Why are you worried about something that brings you happiness?” I think you might ask.  And you’d be right.  So bring on the Van Halen.  Bring on the Iron Maiden.  Let’s party like it’s 1985.  Might as well go for a soda — nobody hurts, nobody dies.

Mike

 

#938: Tears of a Clown

RECORD STORE TALES #938: Tears of a Clown

Yesterday, September 10, was Suicide Prevention and Awareness Day.  I was reminded of a good story, about a special young man that I met only once.  It was years ago, but for background, I’m going to tell you some things about myself that I’ve never shared publicly before.

The stigma on people who suffer from mental health issues is real.  We get called “crazy” or “weak”.  In reality we are some of the strongest people you will ever meet because we wrestle daily with things just because the chemistry of our brains is a little bit out of whack.  Every day that we finish is a day that we won.  Support is hard to find.  Everybody here should know by now that I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  This is compounded daily by the stresses of supporting a wife sick with untreatable epilepsy.  Nobody can accuse me of having it easy.  I went to the doctor and got some “happy pills” but they didn’t agree with me.  One day when I couldn’t take it anymore, I went back to the doctor and she immediately put me on a sick leave.  I begged her not to.  I didn’t want my work to have to deal with it.  The doctor talked some sense into me.  I went on sick leave, and I made damn sure I did not waste my time.  As far as I was concerned, I might not have been “at” work, but I had to work, and that meant working on myself.

I enrolled in a class called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.  It’s called “CBT” for short, which means something else too. I’ll get into that in a bit.

The people I met at CBT group were just like anyone else I ever met.  There was en executive.  There was a goth.  There were people who worked in finance.  Parents and grandparents.  People who cared for sick family members.  All walks of life.  Some I’m still friends with today.  We worked through things together and it was heavy.  We had some laughs too, as you should, but we dealt with a lot of things in that group.

One of the ladies I met there, “Katy”, became a friend immediately.  She was an office professional in the world of finance.  I think when she was younger, she worked as stage crew for touring bands.  We knew a lot of the same groups.  She was a fan of the Genitorturers, who I believe she worked for in the past.  One day in CBT class she leaned over and with a sly grin and whispered to me, “Do you know what else CBT stands for?”

I had an idea.  Thanks to some friends in the UK tattoo and piercing community, I knew that CBT also stands for “Cock and Ball Torture”.

She laughed that I knew it, and our bond was cemented.  It was an intense class and I needed a friend.  We got sad and anxious as the weeks wound up, and we were set to go back to our lives.  A bunch of us exchanged phone numbers and made plans to stay in touch.  I was really in a state of worry about heading back to work, as was “Katy”.  I wanted to get some new shoes for the job, and she agreed to help me pick out a pair.

“Is it OK if my son comes along?” she asked.  “You’ll like him.”

I did.  I liked him a lot.

I met up with “Katy” and her son “Kenny” at a central Tim Hortons location.  He reminded me of a young Jeremy Taggart from Our Lady Peace.  We drank coffee for an hour or two, while “Kenny” kept me in stitches with his natural sense of humour.  He reminded me of a stand-up comedian.  He just had the natural ability to make people laugh and entertain.  It was one of the best coffee visits I’ve ever had with anyone.  I asked him if he’d ever be interested in working together.  I didn’t have any clear ideas, I just knew that I wanted to do some kind of video with him.  A commentary, a discussion, a stunt…I knew he’d be hilarious.

After coffee we went to a store looking for my new shoes.  When we got there, “Kenny” asked if he could try on some skin-tight spandex workout suits.  He had no reason to try one on…he was not getting into cycling all of a sudden.  I think he just wanted to make us laugh.  He came out of the change room in this ridiculous outfit that was far too tight.  I’m sure his circulation was cut off and he couldn’t feel his feet.  Seeing him pose around the store in this skin-tight wrapping was both awkward and hilarious.  I recall he had a devil of a time trying to get it off.

I really enjoyed my day with them.  I wore my new shoes on my first day back in the office and it felt good to be in the driver’s seat again.  “Katy” and I kept in touch a little bit.  I knew “Kenny” had his own issues, but I was always a big supporter and fan of his.

Then one day in 2015, “Katy” sent me a message on Facebook.  Her son was gone.  I froze in the shock of it.  One day, I guess he just couldn’t take it anymore.  A feeling that I thought I knew, but had never taken further.  I simply could not believe what I was reading.  It seemed impossibly wrong.  This young man, destined to be someone truly special, who made me laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe, was gone.

“It’s always the funniest ones,” I thought to myself.  The year before, Robin Williams took his own life.  Iron Maiden wrote a song about it called “Tears of a Clown”.

“All alone in a crowded room, he tries to force a smile.”  Could I ever relate to that.  “Wonder why he’s feeling down, tears of a clown.”

When I think of all those comedians who struggle or have struggled with their own problems, I think of my friend and her son.  Without exaggeration, one of the funniest people I ever met, if only for a few hours.  It was a long time ago but I still talk about that day.  He was a special kid and I’m sorry that you’ll never get to see the two of us in a video together like I hoped.  It would have been hilarious.

 

REVIEW: Iron Maiden – Senjutsu (2021)

IRON MAIDEN – Senjutsu (2021 Parlophone)

Out of the wild blue yonder, Iron Maiden have returned with a new album to allow us to temporarily escape from our pandemic woes.  Once again, it is a 2 CD monster, boasting 82 minutes of music.  With only 10 songs, you can do the math and figure out that most are long-bombers.  The tunes recall all sorts of flavours of Iron Maiden, from Seventh Son to Virtual XI and the Dickinson reunion era.  New influences emerge as well, on this beefy but steadfast Maiden album.  Maiden turned a corner on The X Factor, incorporating quieter atmospheric sections with the riffing, and Senjustu utilizes this technique on many of the tunes.  Senjutsu might be the most Blaze-era-like of the Dickinson albums.

This time Maiden have gone for a Samurai motif with the album artwork, and this is reflected in the opening title track “Senjutsu” (Smith/Harris).  Only the second time, after The Final Frontier, that Maiden have opened with a title track.  It actually has a similar vibe at first to that opener, with stomping drums (which tie into the lyrics).  Nicko McBrain is a superstar on this album.  Then Bruce Dickinson heralds his own return with an exotic melody and still powerful lungs.  Range be damned, he goes for it on every song.  “Senjutsu” is a varied track that relies mostly on a pounding rhythm and is a little different from typical Maiden.

Onto a short 5:00 firecracker, “Stratego” (Gers/Harris) is like a Brave New World song.  To the point, steady gallop, heavy on melody.  Heavy keyboard backing, which is consistent on Senjutsu.  An album highlight if only because there are so few short songs, but strong regardless.

First single “The Writing On the Wall” (Smith/Dickinson) opens with a western motif, a new side to Iron Maiden.  It’s a little drawn out for a single, and takes a few listens to digest.  You could almost say it’s closer to Led Maiden.  In the latter half, Adrian Smith rips out one of those solos that is almost a song unto itself.

Long bomber “Lost In A Lost World” (Harris) unfortunately recalls Spinal Tap’s “Clam Caravan” at the outset.  At the 2:00 mark it drops the Tap and gets to the riff, which is a kicker.  The song meanders a bit, perhaps a little too much, recalling some the Blaze-era’s musical excesses.

“Days of Future Past” (Smith/Dickinson) sounds like reunion-era Maiden, hooky and wailing.  It’s the shortest tune at only four minutes and wastes no time getting to the point.  The effective Smith riff forms the bones of the song, in the tradition of something like “Wicker Man”.

The closer on disc one is called “The Time Machine” (Gers/Harris) and is not based on the movie, nor is it typical Iron Maiden, at least until the gallop returns.  The vocal melody is quite different and keyboards are prominent.  This track could work really well live for those times they want to get the crowd bouncing.

The sound of seagulls and crashing ocean set the stage for “Darkest Hour” (Smith/Dickinson).  Dark, understated, and brilliantly performed by Bruce.  Summoning all the panache he can muster.  The chorus goes full power, and Smith’s solo is something else, a mini composition.  Then Dave Murray comes in with a complementary one, as good as any the duo did in the 80s.

Senjutsu might be defined by its closing trio of songs, all in excess of 10 minutes and all written by Steve Harris.  Indeosyncratic Harris songs, and if you know Iron Maiden then you know what to expect.  Bass intros, soft keyboards, gentle guitar and bashing riffs!

“Death of the Celts” sounds like a sequel to “The Clansman” from Virtual XI (both songs written by Harris).  It lacks the unforgettable cry of “freedom!” but instead has a glorious long instrumental section, and some incredible guitar solo work from Janick Gers, Dave Murray and Adrian Smith in a single row.

A different kind of dark bass intro brings us “The Parchment”, then WHAM!  A riff blasts you in the face.  It’s a little exotic and a lot Iron Maiden.  Think “To Tame a Land” without the Kwisatz Haderach.  Of the Steve epics on this album, “The Parchment” might be the most perfect.  It is definitely the longest.  A big part of its being is a series of great Janick guitar solos, but also a sense of tension.

Finally, “Hell On Earth” is a remarkable closer, as the music goes on and on for a while before Bruce starts singing.  But that music is awesome — textured, powerful, and memorable.  Then Bruce delivers a melody a little left of center, and the song becomes another Maiden classic to be enjoyed years from now, every single time.  So much packed into 11 minutes.  The Maiden March, some wicked Murray soloing, riffs and more.  The total package.  It fades out, and that’s the album.

Janick Gers really shines on this album, as his solos repeatedly jump out of the speakers on tracks like “Stratego”, “The Parchment” and “Death of the Celts”.  Sadly there are no Dave Murray co-writes this time.  Dickinson continues to impress, as he staves off the ravages of time better than many of his contemporaries.  Nicko is a relentless machine, and Adrian and Steve turn in performances as good as the ones they are famous for.

Senjustu, the surprise album that we didn’t see coming, is Iron Maiden doing what they do.  There are a few twists and turns, but this is the album we would have expected from them if we knew they were making one!  There are fans who miss the old days and wish Maiden would put out an old fashioned heavy metal album one more time.  They tried that once with No Prayer for the Dying and it didn’t work.  Maiden have been a metal band with a foot in progressive rock for a long time now, and they show no interest in abandoning this direction.  Long songs with Maidenesque writing and structure is what you will get.  And most of us will just be grateful for it.

4.5/5 stars

#934: What Now?

RECORD STORE TALES #934:  What Now?

I sound like a broken record at the end of every summer.  It’s tough to keep the spirits up at this time of year.  It’s likely I’ve taken my last swim of 2021.  Next time we get to the lake, the sun will be down by the time we arrive.  And then will come the day it is covered with snow, and empty for the winter slumber.

Music helps – music always, always helps.  So does writing.  But it is an annual challenge.

When I was a kid, the end of August would signal the start of the “sad times”.  The back-to-school ads.   Reminders that I was going to have to spend another year with a bunch of bullies again.  Then the colder weather started to roll in.  Our family would take two weeks of vacation in August but back then, they were two cold, rainy weeks. (Not like today.)  You had to start dressing in long pants and sweat shirts.

Shopping for notebooks and new school clothes.  Realizing that a few weeks of warm freedom were about to be replaced by 10 months of misery.  I hated Labour Day weekend.  Back to the “hell hole” as my sister would say.  These feelings stick with me today.  I can’t flip the calendar from August to September without them.

Even though I’m not in school anymore, the heavy heart returns.  I now know that I have Seasonal Affective Disorder and it’s something I need to fight every fall.

Last year was a success!  I avoided the seasonal depression.  I spent my summer making lots of videos, to take me back there in my mind when I needed it.  I also had the show, the LeBrain Train, to look forward to every weekend.  This year is different.  The videos and photos don’t have the same impact two years in a row, and since May the LeBrain Train has become more of a burden than a joy.  I need something new to keep my spirits up this winter, and I don’t yet know what that is.  It is true that we have a long September ahead, warm but shorter days.  I hope this mitigating factor helps.  I think what I really need is some new creative spark to keep me looking forward.  Last year it was the LeBrain Train but the burnout factor has ensured that I need something fresh that I can look forward to from September to May.

What used to cheer me up at this time of year?

As a kid I used to be excited for a new season of the Pepsi Power Hour which hasn’t existed in 30 years.  I don’t watch a lot of TV these days, but fortunately Marvel has constant content forthcoming on Disney+.  We have a new Iron Maiden album to look forward to, but the idea of new music from my favourite bands doesn’t have the same excitement factor as when I was 15 years old.  Yes I’m happy there is a new Iron Maiden coming, but compared to the sheer expectation of Seventh Son coming out in ’88?  No chills.

It feels like…work?  Like I haven’t finished digesting The Book of Souls and here comes another one.  I can’t remember how half that album goes, and now we have a new one to get to know.  It’s not like in the old days when I felt literally starved of Iron Maiden because I’d played all their albums over and over and over.  Now, there are so many that you don’t necessarily even play them all in a year.

Back then, getting a new Iron Maiden album felt just as amazing as a new Star Wars or Marvel movie today.  Something you have been anticipating for a while.  Music videos were like movie trailers.  We’d watch repeatedly, we’d pause, and we’d slo-mo trying to glimpse details.  Costumes, instruments, stage sets, all of it.

When I was working at the Record Store, I still didn’t know that this seasonal depression thing was real and not just me.  It often came and went in spurts.  I used to call them a “big blue funk”.  2003 was a very “funky” year for me.  I’d been dumped (twice) by my Radio Station Girl, and even with a new Iron Maiden in my back pocket (Dance of Death, and also a new Deep Purple called Bananas) I still felt like I needed to do something to help me get through the winter.  And there was something I used to do to pick myself up back then, especially if I had my heart broke.  Yes, broken hearts are for assholes, but I chose to get new holes.  On September 3, I went to Stigmata in Guelph and got my nose pierced.

It was my third visit to the tattoo studio that year.  After Radio Station Girl dumped me, I got my lip pierced at Stigmata.  A couple months later I got my tragus pierced — that piece of cartilage at the opening of your ear.  A friend of mine named Lois Sarah had just started piercing there and if I remember the details correctly, I was a guinea pig.  It’s fun to go back and read my notes!

Lois asked if I was ready. I said yes, and she asked me to take a deep breath and exhale….

I said, “Wow, I didn’t feel a thing.”

Lois said, “That’s because it’s not through yet.”

I felt the needle go through at least 3 distinct layers of cartilage. Each one hurt more than the last. On the last layer, I said, “FUCK” and both my legs shot out. 

Lois did a great job and it’s the one piercing that I do still have.

But September 3 2003 was just my nose, nothing too painful.  It was Labour Day weekend once more, and I decided to go for it.  Normally I went to get a piercing with a “wingman” but this was my first time going alone.  I distinctly remember wearing my Iron Bitchface T-shirt.  An uber-cool looking guy with a massive afro shot me an approving glance, so I felt good from the get-go.

I was led to the back room, but not before washing up my hands with disinfectant gel. I sat down in the Very Big Chair, as I liked to call it, and Lois prepared the goods. She marked my nostril with a dot and got the position right where I wanted it. Then she applied some iodine to the area, both inside and out. She tested out the position of the receiving tube, and finally asked me to take a deep breath.  As I exhaled, the needle went in no problem. Almost no pain at all. I’ve been pinched harder.  (By your mom.)

The rest of the year still sucked, nose ring or not.  It was the year of working with the Dandy, a manchild that drove me slowly mad as he sucked up to the big-wigs.  Work was miserable and not getting any better.  But at least I was proactive, and did something that I thought would help.  Something that helped in the past.

I’ve been there and done that with piercings, and though I like the look of them, I don’t enjoy the upkeep.  I prefer to spend my money on something more permanent, like a tattoo.  That’s something to consider, but I think I need to look elsewhere for a bright spot this winter.  Maybe I will find my joy in the live show once again, but I can’t count on it.  Truth be told, I haven’t been feeling it as much since May.  I remember telling Deke that I was struggling and he suggested back then that I take a break.  But I didn’t feel like I could take that break until the end of the summer.  And here we are.

So now I search for some new slant on my creative outlet to revitalize me.  Something to look forward to regularly.  I was very lucky during the winter of 2020-2021.  I hope I can pull it off again!