nicko mcbrain

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

 

 

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

REVIEW: Smith/Kotzen – Smith/Kotzen (2021)

SMITH/KOTZEN – Smith/Kotzen (2021 BMG)

Had this album come out 30 years ago, it might have been called Smith/Curran.  According to our good pal Andy Curran from Coney Hatch, Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith has been looking for a project like this for quite some time.  The right partner arrived with soulful singer/songwriter/shredder Richie Kotzen.  As heard on the nine-track debut, everything clicked.  It was Smith’s wife Nathalie that introduced the two.  Friendship turned to jamming, and jamming turned to writing and recording.  We owe Nathalie a huge debt of rocking’ gratitude.

Fans of Kotzen, either via his solo work or the Winery Dogs, won’t be shocked by what they hear.  It is the Maiden fans who are in for an adjustment.  Not that Smith/Kotzen is wimpy — it isn’t at all — but it is vastly different from the traditional metal that Maiden peddle in.  This is a soul/blues/rock fusion from the heart.

None of the nine songs should earn a “skip” in your player.  Each one boasts a wicked blend of guitars and voices.  Who would have thought that two players and singers, so different in style, would mix so naturally?  You can usually pick out who is playing what, but it all works as one monolithic gestalt.  The whole thing is brilliant.  You can choose your own peaks, because everyone will have their own favourites.

“Running” should be an uptempo high point in anyone’s scorebook.  On the opposite end of the spectrum is the power ballad “Scars” (if you want to call it that).  Over six minutes with heartfelt playing and harmonizing over a slow riff — pigeonhole it any way you like.  The guitar tones on this album are rich and sometimes trippy.  Fans of both guitarists are in for a tour-de-force of feel.

Another high water mark is “Glory Road” which may be a slower blues, but boasts a melodic power chorus that you can imagine Iron Maiden pulling off successfully.  That gives way to a wicked series of solo trade-offs that blow the mind and punch the gut all at once.  But if you really like Maiden, there is no way you will not recognize the one and only Nicko McBrain on the Purple-y “Solar Fire”.  (The drums on the rest of the album are performed by Kotzen and Tal Bergman, which Richie and Adrian share bass duties.)  Picture the Coverdale/Hughes/Blackmore vibe.  An album highlight, “Solar Fire” is as hot as the stellar eruptions it’s named for.

Pick a song — “I Wanna Stay”, “Some People”, “Taking My Chances”, or “‘Til Tomorrow”  — all are excellent choices.  Smith/Kotzen has nine remarkable tracks to choose from.  They’ve all been road tested, and given fair play at home and on the porch.  Though they vary in tempo and direction, all nine promise excellent, memorable melodies and powerful playing.  This is an album for the summer of 2021 — an album we need.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Iron Maiden – Nights of the Dead – Legacy of the Beast – Live in Mexico City (2020)

IRON MAIDEN – Nights of the Dead – Legacy of the Beast – Live in Mexico City (2020 Parlophone)

I feel a bit like a jackass reviewing this, because so many people I know caught this tour, or at least one of the recent tours, and I’ve never seen Maiden live.  I only have these live albums to go by.  But what I like about Iron Maiden is that they take the time to document almost every single tour since the Bruce reunion era began.  (Only three tours did not receive a live album.)  The Legacy of the Beast tour was in support of a video game, and featured a sort of “legacy” setlist, heavy on the old classics with a small smattering of more recent material.  This prevents too much crossover with the prior live album, The Book of Souls – Live Chapter.

Without going track by track, I can tell you that Nights of the Dead was pieced together from three shows in Mexico City, much like Live After Death in Long Beach and Hammersmith.  Even so, Bruce’s voice only tends to get stronger as they go further down the setlist.  By “Hallowed” and “Run to the Hills”, it sounds like the man is just warming up!

The setlist is a delightful mix of hits, deeper cuts and the odd recent classic.  “Where Eagles Dare” from Piece of Mind whips the throng into immediate hysteria.  “Revelations” from the same LP has a certain contemplative gravity that it brings to any live album, and hearing it here is sheer nostalgic delight.  Two Blaze-era songs return to the set in “Sign of the Cross” and “Clansman”, both lengthy epics.  Enhanced by the three-guitar lineup and the Air Raid Siren, can we say these versions challenge the originals for supremacy?  Though it wasn’t written for Bruce, “Sign of the Cross” has more dynamics with him at the microphone — he adds a few high notes for embellishment.  Not to mention the depth that the third guitar adds to a song that was always a bit thin sounding.

Reunion era Maiden is cut back, leaving only “Wicker Man” and the always welcome “For the Greater Good of God”.  Both deserving songs.  Stuff like “Wicker Man” (and the earlier “Flight of Icarus”) really pump up the adrenaline levels by keeping it short, sharp and unshackled.

Then you have the stuff that you have to call “the hits”:  songs like “Aces High”, “2 Minutes to Midnight”, “Trooper”, “Beast”, “The Evil that Men Do”, “Iron Maiden”, “Fear of the Dark” and “Run to the Hills”.  These are the Maiden standards; a serving of essentials that everybody has connected with at some point in their life.  Some of them float in and out of setlists, and some always remain.

A word should always be said about the packaging and artwork of any Iron Maiden album.  The Mexican-themed Eddie can be found in a couple pieces of art inside and out.  Manager Rod Smallwood wrote the included liner notes, explaining that the live album came to be when the world came to a halt due to Covid-19.  Yay Covid?  Joking aside, Smallwood’s notes are always informative to read while rocking along to the CD.  There is even a mini 2021 tour poster (let’s hope!) included, with the Trooper version of Eddie surrounded by iconic imagery from prior Maiden artwork.  Icarus, the mushroom cloud from “2 Minutes to Midnight”, a crashed Spitfire…have a look.  Finally, a sticker sheet is an added bonus though most of us will be keeping the stickers intact, I reckon.

Perhaps it’s just giddy glee that there’s a new Maiden live album to cap off this year, but Nights of the Dead is so good that I wouldn’t change a thing.

5/5 stars

#869: Piece of Mind

GETTING MORE TALE #869: Piece of Mind

Trying to remember exact details is a bit like filling in the blanks, but here are the facts that I know I can state with confidence:

  1. The vinyl copy of Piece of Mind by Iron Maiden is the original that I bought back for Bob Schipper as a gift in the mid-80s.
  2. It was purchased at a music store in Kincardine, Ontario.
  3. It ended up becoming my property because he already had it.

I think it had to be the summer of 1985.  I remember being on vacation at the cottage.  I was just getting into heavy metal.  I know the basics but not the details.  Being away from home, I missed my best friend Bob, but I looked forward to getting him a birthday present.  I wanted to get him an Iron Maiden album.  I thought that he didn’t own Piece of Mind, and there it was in stock at this little music store on the main street of Kincardine.  I got it for him, or, more likely, I picked it out and my parents paid for it.  I was 12 turning 13.

For some reason, I think the record did not come sealed.  Again, memories are hazy here.  I might have known two songs:  “The Trooper” and “Flight of Icarus”.  I seem to remember looking at the credits and wanting to tell Bob about these two guys pictured inside named Martin “Black Night” Birch and Derek “Dr. Death” Riggs.  Bob knew the names of the band members, sure, but did he know these two guys?  I actually didn’t note that it was spelled “Black Night” instead of “Black Knight”, nor would I have caught the Deep Purple reference if I did.

On the other side of the inner sleeve, I thought Bob would love the photo of the band at the banquet table, Bruce wielding a mean looking blade.  At that point, I at least knew who Bruce was.  I also recall that the neighbour kids liked Dave Murray least because they thought he looked kind of goofy.  Meanwhile, Adrian Smith appears absolutely flabbergasted at the feast before them.

I looked forward to giving Bob the record, but there was a hiccup of some kind.  Either he already got Piece of Mind, or the LP format wasn’t good for him anymore.  He would have had to play LPs on the living room stereo rather than his own bedroom’s tape deck.  It could even have been both those things.  Either way, because of that well-intentioned gift, I ended up with my first Iron Maiden.

I consider myself lucky to have this record so early in my life.

By ’86-87, I was spinning it pretty regularly on the turntable.  I was lucky enough not only own this album as a young teen, but to even have a turntable in my own bedroom.  My parents weren’t going to use it anymore, so they handed it down.  Any time they wanted to hear a song from their records, I would tape it for them.

I can recall studying for exams in the 9th grade playing Piece of Mind, and a Triumph single, in constant rotation.  Although I should have had my mind on other things, I ended up memorizing the lyrics of the Dave Murray tune “Still Life” instead.  It was one of my first love affairs with a deep cut.  I mostly memorized “Sun and Steel” too.  I practiced singing these songs in my bedroom.

I had the writing credits committed to memory.  I liked all the songs.  It was an extraordinary album to me.  Few were the albums where I truly liked all the songs.  Some more than others, (“Quest For Fire” is perhaps not as good as “Revelations”, yeah?) but I liked them all for their own reasons.  Even the twisting, complex “To Tame a Land” was a cool Iron Maiden epic, though certainly not as accessible as “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or “Alexander the Great”.

20 years later I went full circle back to Piece of Mind once again dominating a time in my life.  I had finally quit the Record Store and was working a blissful job in the mail room at United Rentals.  I had just started reading Frank Herbert, starting of course with Dune.  This led me right back to Piece of Mind and “To Tame a Land”.  And finally, I memorized those lyrics too.  “He is the Kwizatz Haderach, he is born of Caladan, and will take the Gom Jabbar”.  I finally understand what the shit those words meant!  Insofar as a layman in the Herbert world, anyway.  The lyrics are a bit ham-fisted, but did it matter?  No, of course not, as I sang the words over the incessant rattle of that mail machine.

It was a contraption of aligned (or mis-aligned more often than not) components, at least 10 feet long.  Place a carefully sorted stack of invoices in one end, load a handful of windowed envelopes somewhere in the middle, and in theory, the thing would fold, insert, seal and stamp all the mail.  In reality it required constant babysitting at almost every step, but I soon became its master.  And I sang away in victory:

The time will come for him
To lay claim his crown
And then the foe yes
They’ll be cut down
You’ll see he’ll be the
Best that there’s been
Messiah supreme
True leader of men
And when the time
For judgement’s at hand
Don’t fret he’s strong
And he’ll make a stand
Against evil and fire
That spreads through the land
He has the power
To make it all eeeeeend!

Even over the clanking of that machine, I could still be heard.  I knew that, and I kept singing anyway.  I actually loved that job and wanted the world to know it.  I was so happy to be free of the Record Store.

Playing back Piece of Mind today is like putting on an old familiar T-shirt.  It fits just right, no adjustments needed.  Eventually you forget that it’s there, except that for persistent smile on your face.  Peace of mind indeed.

 

 

 

 

RE-REVIEW: Iron Maiden – Virtual Lights Strikes Over France (1998 bootleg CD)

Merry Christmas, Harrison!

 

IRON MAIDEN – Virtual Lights Strikes Over France (1998 bootleg CD)

I took some flak when I first reviewed this.  “So funny, you guys bashing on a Maiden album,” said a disbelieving Aaron.   “Compared to contemporaries, you gotta know they still kick ass and take names over any of the pretenders to the throne.”  If only it were that simple.  More recently, Blaze Bayley-devotee Harrison has questioned my 1/5 star score.  It’s time to revisit the album after seven years and see if it sounds any better.


Ever wonder why Blaze only lasted two albums with Iron Maiden?  Most people assume it’s because they were more popular with Bruce, which is true.  But there was more to the story than that.  The evidence is here on Virtual Lights Strikes Over France, a live bootleg from the 1998 tour.  A handful of tracks aside, Blaze’s voice was in rough shape.  He struggles to hit and hold notes, on his own material no less.  He’s not as bad as Vince Neil, mind you.  He sings all the words and gives it all he’s got.  He’s just continually flat or sharp on key notes.

“Futureal” starts things in a promising manner, powerful and solid.  The struggle begins on “Angel and the Gambler”, missing notes here and there.  He begins “Lightning Strikes Twice” prematurely.  He does OK through the verses, but the chorus is a lost cause.  This is the tipping point.

“Man on the Edge” from The X Factor should be a slam dunk.  The problem is when Blaze hits a bad note, he really commits to it.  When the first Bruce Dickinson song is up, “Heaven Can Wait”, it’s all over.  No matter how good Iron Maiden are, this version is as close to unlistenable as the storied metal band ever gets.  Bayley recovers for a while on “Clansman”, but “Two Worlds Collide” must be tougher to sing.  “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a slaughter.  Shame, since it’s a rarely performed Paul Di’Anno tune.  “2 Minutes” is marginally better.

In general, Blaze fares better on his own songs, but that doesn’t mean they’re exempt from problems.  You have to be a patient fan to listen to the entire set in one sitting, and you’ll absolutely wince multiple times.

The second CD has three bonus tracks from a show two years prior, from the X-Factour.  On these, Blaze is tops!  The difference is striking.  Here, he’s got the power necessary to accompany Iron Maiden on stage.  You can at least buy this CD for definitive live versions of “Fortunes of War”, “Blood on the World’s Hands” and “The Aftermath”.  It’s clear Blaze’s voice had changed between the two tours.

Am I being harsh?  Admittedly, yes, but for two reasons.

  1. Iron Maiden and Steve Harris have higher standards than this.
  2. I paid $60 for this goddamn thing.

The main point though is 1.  Obviously this situation was not going to be sustainable and Harris made the necessary change.  If he hadn’t, Iron Maiden might have risked being known as one of those bands who are hit and miss in concert, like Kiss and Motley Crue today.

I am going to revise the score higher.  It is live, and it’s not all terrible.  But few songs are free from some seriously sour notes, and for that reason, Virtual Lights will remain the least played Maiden CD in my collection.

2.25/5 stars

#730: It’s 2019. How do I play a record backwards?

GETTING MORE TALE #730: It’s 2019. How do I play a record backwards?

The fellows from Spinal Tap once lamented that there must be a conspiracy between the Dutch and the Japanese to eliminate any audio medium that you can play backwards.

There’s no proof, but Spinal Tap are not the kind of band who require proof.  The Dutch (Phillips) developed the compact cassette.  The Dutch and Japanese (Phillips and Sony) created the CD together.  You simply couldn’t play either format backwards, like you could with the good ol’ LP.  When the record was “finally” replaced by CD, it really did seem like playing music backwards to look for hidden messages was over and done.  How was Satan to communicate with teenagers like he did in the 1980s?

The 90s and early 2000s were a dark time for backwards messages.  It seemed like playing albums backwards would forever remain a thing of the past.  It was actually a real thing that some people did!  I have.  I played my Iron Maiden Piece of Mind LP backwards to find out what the hell Nicko McBrain was saying at the start of “Still Life”.  With the record on the platter, I cued the needle and spun the record backwards with my index finger.  It didn’t work very well, because I couldn’t keep a constant speed.  The pitch was all over the place.  Plus Nicko was using a comical accent, with reverb added.  Playing it backwards with a wobbly pitch meant I still could not tell what Nicko was saying!

This method of playing records backward wasn’t good for the player, the needle, or the vinyl.  We knew that; we just didn’t care.  We had cheap shit and it really didn’t make a difference.  The time to play a record backwards was when you had cheap kiddie equipment.


“Oh my God, Chicago kicks ass!”

So how can kids play music backwards today?  Without being able to play back-masked messages, can they truly enjoy the albums as completely as we did?  Thankfully, playing your records backwards is easier today than ever.  Thanks to “computer magic” (using Spinal Tap’s words) you can do it quickly and more easily than ever before.

STEP 1:  Download Audacity.  It’s free, easy to use, and very solid.

STEP 2:  Record your vinyl (forwards) into Audacity using a USB turntable.  Or, even easier:  load any track from your computer into Audacity.  For this demonstration we’re using the aforementioned “Still Life” by Iron Maiden.  The backwards spoken word Nicko bit is isolated by deleting the entire rest of the song.  (I’ve also boosted the volume on this part, which is quite quiet.  Now you can see the waveform more easily.)

STEP 3:  Highlight the entire track.  Click “Effects” and “Reverse”.

STEP 4:  Press play!  With just a glance you can see the waveform is completely reversed.

What’s Nicko saying?  Even playing it backwards at a constant pitch, it’s still impossible to tell what it is without enlisting the help of the internet, who have already solved this riddle.

“Hmm, hmm!” sniffs Nicko.  “What hoo said de t’ing wit de t’ree bonce.”   Roughly translated:  “What said the thing with the three heads?”  You might recognise “what hoo said de t’ing” as one of Nicko’s favourite phrases.  It appears again on Maiden’s “Black Bart Blues”.  Then he warns, “Dooon’t meddle wit t’ings you don’ unnerstand.”  Good advice for anyone.  Then finally, a belch!  It’s still all but unintelligible, even digitally reversed.

We had much  more success with an older record, Great White North by Bob & Doug McKenzie.  On the track “Black Holes”, you can choose to highlight and reverse only the backwards part of the track.  When you do it in Audacity, it’s a perfect digital reverse.  You can play it and it’s indistinguishable from any of the rest of the album.  In the waveform below, you can see the reversed section highlighted.  When you play the whole track like this, it’s perfectly seamless.

Now you can say that you learned something useful today.  Go ahead and try it on your Slayer albums now!

 

#717: Only Your Nose Knows

GETTING MORE TALE #717: Only Your Nose Knows

 

Who are the most recognizable noses in music? Seriously? Who comes up with this shit?

I do! And why not? We’ve already covered the best glasses, best shoes, and best hats in rock. Let’s go for the nose.

 

5. Barbra Streisand

The mighty Barbra is one of the biggest names in entertainment. From music to movies, Barbra has conquered all stages. Her profile is one of the most famous. Her world famous nose has not held her back!

4. Geddy Lee

What do Geddy Lee and Barbra Streisand have in common? They both come from Jewish families, and both have a prominent schnoz! In fact the “Jewish nose” is an old racial stereotype, one which has actually been studied in science and literature. Geddy’s recognizable nose is loved by millions.

3. Rachel Bolan

Rachel is probably responsible for launching the nose ring trend that picked up in the late 80s. You didn’t see nose rings on rock stars back then, and certainly none with a chain connecting to their ears. Rachel Bolan was the rock and roll nose ring pioneer in 1989!

2. Michael Jackson

Few remember what his original nose looked like. We can’t get the image of that plastic surgery nightmare out of our heads.  Yet that weird, artificial construct is now iconic.  Who knew?

1. Nicko McBrain

“Old flatnose himself” has an old schoolmate named Peter Beecham to blame or thank for his profile. Beecham broke his nose in a school brawl. Nicko was “clobbered”, but it’s all good. As Nicko has said, “Look where I am now. Fuck you!”

REVIEW: Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls: Live Chapter (2017)

IRON MAIDEN – The Book of Souls: Live Chapter (2017 Universal)

Not many bands can get away with releasing so many live albums so late in their career.  Iron Maiden can.  They can for three main reasons:

1: They still kick enormous amounts of ass.
2: Their setlist changes tour after tour and there will always be songs you won’t get to hear again.
3: See #1.

It doesn’t hurt that their new albums are as acclaimed as their old. Ever since Maiden’s 1999 reunion with Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith, we have been treated to an abnormally solid stream of brilliant records. Deal with the devil, perhaps? Faustian bargain #666?

The atmospheric and shadowy intro to “If Eternity Should Fail” is a perfect way to begin an Iron Maiden concert.  This track is magnificent.  It also serves as a dramatic way to open what is sure to be the greatest live experience on Earth. “Scream for me, Sydney!” yells Bruce to rile up the crowd. Yes, The Book of Souls: Live Chapter is taken from a number of different shows, which is a format Maiden have succeeded with before.

Another thing Maiden do successfully is top-load their live set with new songs.  The first two songs here are the same two as The Book of Souls itself.  Single “Speed of Light” really kicks up the excitement level.  To go from the epic drama of the opener to the taut single immediately causes an energy surge.  From there, we travel back to 1981 with “Wrathchild”.  It’s like a time machine to the London stages that young Maiden once trod upon.  Bruce’s scream is unholy.

Jump cut to Canada and “Children of the Damned”.  Bruce speaks French for the raving Montreal crowd, a nice touch of respect for the province of Quebec.  Maiden never sagged in popularity there.  In Quebec, Maiden’s 1995 album The X Factor (with lead singer Blaze Bayley) went Top 10.  Back to new material, “Death or Glory” is another energetic shorty.   The triple guitar solo slays.   Then it goes to epic, “The Red and the Black”, 13 minutes and the longest track on the album.  Riff overload!  Unabated, we launch into “The Trooper” and “Powerslave”, both old classics that remain as amped up as they were in the 80s.  It is pure joy to listen.  (Only qualm: backing vocals on “Powerslave” sound like tape.)

A pair of top-notch new songs, “The Great Unknown” and “The Book of Souls” kick off the second CD.  These are not short tracks.  In a way this is the “meat” of the set.  It is a run of 17 combined minutes of epic Maiden, and it’s a lot to swallow.  Savour every bite; this is prime stuff.  And will they ever be played live again?  Who can say?

You know the show is drawing to a close when you hear the opening chords to “Fear of the Dark”.  This favourite has been in the set since 1992.  It’s the crowd’s chance to really sing along and be a part of it.  More favourites follow:  “Iron Maiden” and “The Number of the Beast”.  (Absent is “Run to the Hills” which is on plenty of other live Maiden albums of recent vintage.)  “Blood Brothers” from the reunion album Brave New World seems oddly placed in the second-to-last slot.  The crowd at Download festival are thrilled to sing along.  On CD, you can hear Steve on backing vocals clearly, and appreciate how he and Bruce complement each other.  Then finally, it’s a terrific “Wasted Years” from underdog favourite Somewhere in Time.

The mix here is just dandy.  There are variances in sound from track to track and city to city, but these are minor and only natural.  You can clearly pick apart the instruments in the stereo field, and it’s pure delight to do so.  Once again, Iron Maiden have released a quality product.  You cannot go wrong by investing in any version of The Book of Souls: Live Chapter.

4.5/5 stars;

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