nicko mcbrain

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

REVIEW: Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls (2015)

NEW RELEASE

IRON MAIDEN – The Book of Souls (2015 Parlophone, collector’s book edition)

I have a new hero.  His name is Bruce Dickinson.

Bruce has not only beaten cancer back to that dark hole from which it came, but he takes command on Iron Maiden’s new opus The Book of Souls.

Even though he only has writing credits on four of the 11 tracks here, his impact is massive.  With lungs of iron, Bruce propels everything.  For the first time (possibly) ever, I feel that the most important band member is not leader Steve Harris, but the singer himself.

Right from the opener “If Eternity Should Fail”, Bruce is center stage.  He wrote this complex number himself.  It boasts one of Maiden’s most memorable choruses yet, and musical twists and turns that return us to Powerslave.  Meanwhile, there is a hook that reminds me of Bruce’s solo song “The Ghost of Cain”, from Accident of Birth.

We took a good look at the lead single, “Speed of Light” a couple weeks back.  Maiden often write a fast, heavy blazer to go with a new album, and that’s “Speed of Light”.  Even though it is the single, it is far from the strongest song.  Written by Bruce and Adrian Smith, it is certainly a good Iron Maiden track, but in comparison to the monuments of metal that surround it, “Speed of Light” feels like a brief diversion from the epic metal moments at hand.  Adrian’s solo, however, is delicious.

“The Great Unknown” (Smith/Harris) opens softly, but even so there is a menacing tone to Bruce’s voice and the underlying instruments.  With a slow, thrusting riff, “The Great Unknown” soon lurches forth, a killer metal march for the ages.  Bruce pushes his voice to the very limits, giving it all and then some.  As with many of the songs on The Books of Souls, I hear hints and echoes of past Maiden epics.  This is not a lack of originality, more like a signature — familiar but always different.  “The Great Unknown” ends on the soft note with which it began.

What is an Iron Maiden album without a Steve Harris bass intro?  He and producer Kevin Shirley captured a wonderful bass sound on this album.  “The Red and the Black”, another epic, is the only Harris solo writing credit.  It has a riff that takes me all the way back to Killers, but then it is gone, and it’s onto another riff…and another…and another.  At 13 minutes in length, this is one of those trademark Harris songs.  Time changes galore, loaded with hooks.  You can draw parallels to many epics from the past, but to do so takes away from this one.  “The Red and the Black” is a proud achievement, a passionate metal song as only Iron Maiden can really do.  Adrian Smith handles one of the guitar solos with a huge splash of wah-wah, and that is simply a thing of beauty.  In sum, if you took a little bit of everything that makes Iron Maiden great and unique, then all those ingredients are in “The Red and the Black”.  Bass outro, and that’s that.

A semi-shorty (5:52) is in the next slot, a fast riffer called “When the River Runs Deep” written by Steve and Adrian.  This one is hard to compare to any past Maiden tracks, as it occupies a space all its own.  Adrian Smith sometimes brings in riffs that sound like something other than Iron Maiden, and I think that’s “When the River Runs Deep”.  Adrian takes another wah-wah solo, but not to be outdone is Janick Gers who throws down an edgy solo of his own.  As far as Iron Maiden goes, this song is guitar solo nirvana.

A 10 minute epic always makes a good closer when you’re Iron Maiden, so the title track “The Book of Souls” (Gers/Harris) is last for disc one.  Gentle acoustic guitars and keyboards emulating pipes tell us that this is previously uncharted territory.  Then “The Book of Souls” trudges forth, with a beat not unlike “Mother Russia” from No Prayer for the Dying.  There’s far more to the song than that, however. Soaring lead vocals (Bruce only seems stronger!) just ice the cake.  All three Maiden guitarists shine on this, but Janick and Adrian have some solos that just play off each other so well. You want those trademark Maiden guitar melodies?  How about galloping riffs?  Nicko McBrain killing it on the drums?  Maiden deliver, in top notch style, everything and then some more.

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Bruce and Adrian co-wrote “Death or Glory”, opening side two with frenetic drums and riffing.  Going for the throat, The Book of Souls has more fast riffs per minute than any Maiden album in decades.  In five brief minutes, you are blasted against the wall, bounced off the floor, and nailed to the ceiling.  Don’t hurt your neck from all the headbanging.  This time, the guitar spotlight is on Dave Murray for an intense, dramatic solo.

“Shadows of the Valley” (Gers/Harris) sounds a lot like “Wasted Years” at first, but only briefly.  If anything, “Shadows of the Valley” recalls Dance of Death-era Iron Maiden.  Although this song is not as powerful or memorable as others on the album, it does contain some seriously incredible instrumental moments.

One of the most heartfelt and powerful songs on the album is the shortest.  “Tears of a Clown” is a thoughtful moment about Robin Williams.  The poignant lyrics are to the point:

All alone in a crowded room,
He tries to force a smile,
The smile it beamed or so it seemed,
But never reached the eyes, disguise,
Masquerading as the funny man do they despise.

I found this to be one of the compelling songs.  Of all the bands to commemorate Robin Williams, I did not expect it to be Iron Maiden.  But they did it in such a way that it completely fits.

Dave Murray and Steve Harris might not have known that Bruce already has a solo song called “Man of Sorrows”, but it doesn’t matter much since Maiden’s song is called “The Man of Sorrows”.  Musically this sounds much like X Factor-era Maiden.  Bruce takes it to a higher level than that.  Dave himself has a nice slow bluesy solo at the end that is just pure gravy.

The biggest surprise, the biggest song, and the biggest challenge has to be “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 instill it with all the drama and heaviness that you expect from Iron Maiden.

Even though 92 minutes have elapsed, The Book of Souls does not particularly feel longer than A Matter of Life and Death or The Final Frontier.  Like those two previous records, The Book of Souls is going to have to be digested long-term, returned to again and again to fully absorb and appreciate.  This is an album in the true sense:  best appreciated in sequence, as a single work.  There’s an intermission in the middle for you to change CDs and take a break, but I recommend diving right back in once again.

With Bruce’s very serious health scare, and the increasing age of the band, there is always the chance that this could be the last Iron Maiden album.  Of course, some said that about The Final Frontier as well.  It seems that ever since Brave New World in 2000, Iron Maiden have set to top the previous album each time.  The cumulative effect of that is that they had a hell of a lot to live up to on The Book of Souls.

Mission accomplished.

5/5 stars

Disc 1
1. If Eternity Should Fail (Dickinson) 8:28
2. Speed Of Light (Smith/ Dickinson) 5:01
3. The Great Unknown (Smith/ Harris) 6:37
4. The Red And The Black (Harris) 13:33
5. When The River Runs Deep (Smith/ Harris) 5:52
6. The Book Of Souls (Gers/ Harris) 10:27

Disc 2
7. Death Or Glory (Smith/ Dickinson) 5:13
8. Shadows Of The Valley (Gers/ Harris) 7:32
9. Tears Of A Clown (Smith/ Harris) 4:59
10. The Man Of Sorrows (Murray/ Harris) 6:28
11. Empire Of The Clouds (Dickinson) 18:01

For the official KeepsMeAlive review by Aaron, click here!

REVIEW: Iron Maiden – “Speed of Light” (2015 single/T-shirt bundle)

For Superdeke‘s review of the new Maiden single, click here!

NEW RELEASE

Scan_20150825IRON MAIDEN – “Speed of Light” (2015 BMG single/T-shirt bundle – Best Buy exclusive)

“Only at Best Buy — the words chill me to the bones.

I don’t know what the deal is with Best Buy exclusives in Canada.  When Tenacious D’s movie Pick of Destiny came out, I found the Best Buy edition no problem, just up the street.  Bonus disc and all, easy peasy.  Didn’t even know such a thing existed until I found it at Best Buy.

Only a few years later, it became impossible to find Best Buy exclusives at Best Buy.  Using Tenacious D as the example again, the Best Buy edition of Rize of the Fenix has two bonus tracks.  I had to buy it on eBay, so you know it was an inflated price.  Same thing with the last Black Sabbath album.  Best Buy had a bonus track called “Naïveté in Black” which happened to be one of the best songs.  Had to buy it on eBay.  Paid too much.

A few weeks ago, Best Buy announced they were getting an exclusive on the new Iron Maiden single “Speed of Light” from the forthcoming double album The Book of Souls.  It came with a T-shirt.  But I wanted the single just as much.  That’s where Stone from Metal Odyssey came in!

First of all, I’m gonna tell you to follow Stone in some way, shape, or form.  (WordPress/Twitter)  He read my plight regarding Best Buy items here and took pity.  I called my closest Best Buy — all CDs have been removed from their inventory.  So Stone bought two copies and sent me one, asking nothing in return.  (I will return the favour — just name it man!)  To say I appreciate this gesture is am understatement, which is why I’m being more long winded than usual for a one track CD single!

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“Speed of Light”, written by the duo of Dickinson/Smith, is true to Iron Maiden, and it sounds fucking brilliant.  We know all about the new double album, with plenty of long bombers.  “Speed of Light” is just a hair over five minutes, a very concise song for any Maiden album.  When Adrian and Bruce write together, you can count on a catchy riff and hooks.  “Speed of Light” delivers, and Bruce’s singing is just as powerful as ever, cancer be damned.  His voice is virtually unchanged since Brave New World, 15 years ago.  The air raid siren is intact.  And this album will be the fifth with this Maiden lineup, the longest lived in its history.  Impressive.

Most impressive.

A highlight of “Speed of Light” has to be Adrian’s solo.  The three Maiden guitarists (Janick Gers and Dave Murray being the other two) all have their own distinct styles, which is a major boon to a band like Maiden.  Adrian is the one who thoughtfully composes his solos, and then lets them rip.  This one is brief but has his stamp all over it.

Sometimes Maiden take on a 70’s vibe.  “The Angel and the Gambler” is one such moment, but I think “Speed of Light” also has one foot in the 70’s.  Just a hint, an insinuation, at the beginning.  Otherwise, “Speed of Light” is purely a modern Maiden metal moment.  It would have fit comfortably on The Final Frontier, although I would caution against inferring the sound of the new album from just one single.  It is probably one of the more straightforward moments on The Books of Souls, but we’ll find out for sure on September 4.

One last comment:  fuck you, cancer!  You just got beat by Bruce Dickinson!

4.5/5 stars