Sunday, May 22, 2011

Start a Controversy: Best Iron Maiden Album

Iron Maiden is one of my all time favorite bands, but something compels us human beings to determine a favorite in everything, and thus I must decide which Iron Maiden album is the best. With Maiden, this is a tough question because they put out so many great albums. They have released 15 studio albums to date. I'll do my best to whittle it down to the best, the peak of the mountain of metal that is Iron Maiden.

I think most would agree that it's easy to start by throwing out the albums with Blaze Bayley ("The X Factor" and "Virtual XI"). I'm not a total hater; I've found something to enjoy about each of these albums. Even Maiden themselves realize that there's some really good material from this era, and they continue to perform some of these songs. "Virtual XI" has some of the better stand-out tracks (such as "The Clansman" and "Lightning Strikes Twice"), but I find that "The X Factor" is a little more enjoyable to listen to straight through. Despite the fact that these aren't terrible albums, they're clearly not among the band's very best.

Next, I'd probably have to throw out they're two early 1990's records, "No Prayer for the Dying" and "Fear of the Dark." The first of these two was a lackluster record that only had a few tracks worth paying attention to ("Fates Warning" is a favorite). They started to get some of their mojo back on "Fear of the Dark," but it still seems like the departure of Adrian Smith was hurting the overall quality of their songwriting. The title track is a killer and several other songs (such as "Judas Be My Guide" and "Wasting Love") are cool, but it's not enough to rescue it.

The next problem to consider is Maiden's original singer, Paul Di'Anno. He sang on the first two albums -- and did an awesome job. I think these first two albums, "Iron Maiden" and "Killers," are terrific. Most people seem to like "Killers" a bit more, but I think the debut album is the better of the two. "Prowler," "Remember Tomorrow," and "Strange World" are just great songs. These albums have a bit rawer sound and more power-rock drums; these two still had Clive Burr rather than Nicko on drums. While I love each of these records, most fans rightfully agree that the presence of Paul Di'Anno puts these albums in a different category, and therefore are not the top of the heap.

Now the difficulty picks up a bit: what do we make of the rebirth of Maiden in 2000? In my opinion, the new Maiden kicks ass. I couldn't believe it when I first listened to "Brave New World." I expected a weak album that would only be an attempt to cash in on the glory of their reunion. But it rocks. While I agree that too many of the songs are repetitive and over-long, they still show their songwriting ability and musical chops. "Nomad" is particularly cool. Each of their albums since has shown that they still know how to create intriguing music. "Dance of Death" has some massive monuments to metal music (love that alliteration, don't you?). Although I absolutely hate the title track and can't stand to listen to it, all of the other songs are top notch. "A Matter of Life and Death" has some real stand-out tracks, too, especially the first three. Some of the songs are a bit over-long again, but this is a very solid effort. I'm still digesting "The Final Frontier." The title track and "Mother of Mercy" are fantastic, but it seems to me that the second half loses distinctiveness. It's just Maiden doing it's Maiden-y sort of thing, but the songs tend to be undistinguished. Maybe that will change with time.

Anyway, to sum up, the late Maiden is very good quality metal. I continue to be impressed...but it's a second-order sort of impressed. That is, it's more like I want to congratulate them for not being crappy. But let's face it: this is not the pinnacle of their career. A song like "Starblind" is not going to be confused with the greatness of a song like "Hallowed Be Thy Name."

Which brings us to the glory years of Iron Maiden: 1982-1988. Now the hard part begins. How do you choose between such awesome artistic achievements? (Oops, more alliteration...sorry).

The Number of the Beast (1982)
Piece of Mind (1983)
Powerslave (1984)
Somewhere in Time (1986)
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988)

The first thing to do is butcher the sacred cow. Despite the persistent jibber-jabber about "Powerslave" being the best, there are some unfortunate weaknesses. While the two opening tracks are classic Maiden and the title track and "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" are fantastic, the middle sags a bit. "Back in the Village" is pretty good, and I don't usually skip it when listening to the album, I do skip "Losfer Words" and often "Flash of the Blade." If you have to skip more than one track of an album most of the times you listen to it, than it can't hardly be the best. The awesomeness of "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" cannot be denied, but this isn't their best. (It's just one of the best).

The next thing I have to do pains me a great deal: I have to ax "Somewhere in Time." This was one of my favorite albums growing up, and I love it dearly. But I've been listening to it the last several years with the goal of being as objective as possible: it's not their best. Although "Wasted Years" may be one of their best songs, and "Alexander the Great" is a great album-closer, this album suffers from poor production. The guitars especially seem a bit too weak. I'd like a bit more chunk-chunk, but it's more of a buzz-buzz. While I'll always love this album, I can recognize that there are greater achievements.

And that brings us to "The Number of the Beast," "Piece of Mind," and "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son." Now many fans would have discounted "Seventh Son" a long time ago...but not me. And in fact, I think it's their best. I hereby declare "Seventh Son" the best Iron Maiden album! Their 1982 and 1983 albums are great collections of songs and a true testament to the best that metal has to offer. My all-time favorite Maiden song is "Hallowed Be Thy Name," and "Children of the Damned" is not far behind. "Gangland" is great, too. "Piece of Mind" is right there with it. Classics like "Revelations" and "The Trooper" and "Flight of Icarus" cannot be denied. It's just a great album from start to finish.

But "Seventh Son" is better -- because it hangs together as an album better than anything else Maiden has put out. It's a "concept album." I don't even think the "storyline" to the album is anything to jump up and down about, but the songs connect to one another conceptually and the narrative fuses together the whole album. I listen to this album all the way through every time -- and love every minute of it. It represents the one concerted attempt by Maiden not to just adapt other material. They are true creators on this album. Although I'm a fan of English poetry, I don't need to access it through Maiden's versions. Instead, Maiden came together as a band to craft a wholly original work of art. The high points are the songs that close each of the "sides" ("The Evil That Men Do" and "Only the Good Die Young") and the songs that start the "sides" ("Moonchild" and "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son"). The title track is especially awesome. I know a lot of people don't care for the keyboards, but I think they fit the song really well. It's an eerie and powerful song, and one of Maiden's best. The same could be said for "Infinite Dreams," which transitions nicely between three different segments. They tell a story musically and lyrically -- and it's their best!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Blind Guardian, "Imaginations from the Other Side"

First, a confession...I never listened to Blind Guardian until the 2000's. I was one of those American metal fans from the 1980s who transitioned to grunge and alternative music in 1991. I could write a whole post about what I liked about 1990's alternative music -- and could probably write many posts about my disappointments, but that's not my purpose here. I need to write a little something about how unfortunate such a lengthy departure from metal was. I missed Blind Guardian!

And, really, I never should have missed them. They put out two solid speed metal-ish records in the 1980's and they should have come up on my radar. But by 1989, my side-journey was already beginning: Faith No More and Jane's Addiction had started the transition. But I think I would've incorporated Blind Guardian into my full-time collection had I heard "Tales from the Twilight Hall" in 1990. "Traveler in Time" and "Lost in the Twilight Hall" are killer songs and may have kept me interested enough to pick up their 1990's releases. But, alas, my social network was only as broad as the people I knew personally. (No metal blogs were around to persuade me to stay).

When I did get around to listening to Blind Guardian in 2002, I was not impressed. I had read some fantastic reviews of their current album, "A Night at the Opera," so I picked it up. I liked the first song, "Precious Jerusalem," but then I lost interest. The production really bothered me. The lead guitar, with its thick and cloying sound -- and the fact that it was ever-present through the songs (even the vocal parts), was really annoying. I wanted more oomph in the rhythm guitar. Instead, it seemed like an over-orchestrated mess.

Funny thing? I still have the same feeling about "A Night at the Opera." Obviously, I've come around to some of the songs. It's not half bad. But it's clearly not their high point. For me, their high point is 1995's "Imaginations from the Other Side." The vocal melodies are incredibly memorable -- and powerful. Some died-in-the-wool metal people grimace when they hear that a band has "catchy choruses," but a song's catchiness says nothing about its power. These guys know how to be heavy and aggressive, but the melodies are strong and they stick with you.

When the whole chorus of background vocals come in, everything sounds perfect. A great example is in "The Script for My Requiem," which has one of those rousing, gang-vocal backgrounds. The vocals emerge from a speed-metal pace to a slow and powerful, half-time beat with that stellar melody.

What's great about this album is that it's strong all the way through. It starts on a great note with "Imaginations from the Other Side," which has the feeling of a tribal incantation. But where a lot of great albums use up their good ideas in the first few songs, this album continues to pummel you. My favorite songs are the last three: "Bright Eyes," "Another Holy War," and "And the Story Ends." "Bright Eyes" is especially strong. I love the eerie intro, those chanted background vocals, and then the lead vocal, which holds that one powerful note while the rest of the music stops at about 45 second in. Perfect. Then the subversive repetition of "watching you, watching you, watching you" in the background -- very freaky. It gives me chills. But again, it all comes down to the chorus: very memorable and beautiful, without lacking in power.

This album has to go down as one of the best metal albums of all time. For those of you who gave up on metal in 1991, you totally missed out!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Yngwie Malmsteen, "Marching Out"

The other day I woke up with Yngwie Malmsteen's "I Am a Viking" in my head. I don't know what put it there, but I couldn't dislodge it all day long. The song is the perfect combination of a powerful riff and badass lyrics. The riff is slow and simple, but it sounds massive in the way that the early Black Sabbath riffs seared themselves into your consciousness. And the lyrics:

I am a warrior
My mind is set to kill
Life or death is on the line
I am a slayer
And you will taste my steel
I've got your life right in my hand

Jeff Scott Soto has a voice both pure and aggressive enough to make you believe those words. The melodies are memorable, but sung with an intensity that separates the music from garden-variety melodic hard rock. The song ends with several layers of ethereal guitar parts doing a sort of call-and-response, almost like it is a hymn sung after battle. This is a fitting end to a well-crafted song.

The other songs are great across the board; there's no filler. As a matter of fact, the "second side" of the album is perhaps better than the more well-known collection of songs at the beginning. My favorite song is "Soldier Without Faith," which has a crawling, arpeggio-laced verse riff, then a very good chorus with tasteful keyboards in the background. The eerie, plaintive quality of the song fits its lyrical content perfectly.

And here's the crazy part: I haven't mentioned the guitar solos yet! Did I mention that Yngwie Malmsteen is one of the best there is? His solos here are typically classical and fast as hell, but they're a bit more memorable than a lot of his more recent albums. In "Soldier Without Faith," for example, he puts some echo effects that pan from speaker to speaker to achieve a wonderfully eerie sound. The acoustic intro to "Disciples of Hell" still blows my mind. Can he really play that fast?

The album is really well-constructed, managing the emotional content and variety from beginning to end very well. I especially appreciate the outro instrumental "Marching Out," which again serves to contextualize the aggression and power that preceded it. A truly touching song.

I don't know how "power metal" got its start or what its commonly understood lineage is, but Malmsteen's "Marching Out" is what prepared me for it. I wouldn't have been led to bands like Blind Guardian, Helloween, or Stratovarius without first going through Malmsteen.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Review: Sons of Seasons, "Magnisphyricon"

It's no coincidence that I was just talking about "slow growers" in my last post. Sons of Seasons make challenging music that requires many listens in order to truly grasp the scope of what they're doing. Because this is a new album and I've only listened to it about 10 times, I can't claim any privileged insight into the album. However, I can say that it rewards close listening. The musicianship is top notch and the band really made the effort to create complex and accomplished music. The album is dark and heavy and challenging.

However...I want to say a little something about "symphonic" metal. While Sons of Seasons could be also be called progressive metal or power metal, I want to talk about their symphonic aspect. (I find genre labels tiresome in general because you always end up quibbling about bands that are on the boundaries; I'm not particularly interested in those kinds of debates).

At any rate, Sons of Seasons are so talented and full of musical ideas that they begin to layer their songs with many complex and interlocking parts. Guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards are just the beginning. Extra guitars and multi-tracked vocals cover the album in layer after layer of sound. Phil Spector has nothing on these guys. There seems to be an ever-present layer of keys or simulated orchestra on everything.

This over-laden, over-polished production is not unique to Sons of Seasons -- and in fact I hate to bring it up here when there are worse offenders out there. But I'm provoked to mention it because the album has so much promise otherwise. This is a good album that could have been great with just a touch more restraint. There's a lot of variety on this album, and I think it could have used some variety in overall sound, alternating between a stripped-down, direct sound and the full and layered sound on the rest of it.

The one place where the over-layered wall of sound recedes nicely is on the album's final track, "Yesteryears." This is a brilliant song with a very poignant vocal melody and thoughtful lyrics.

But too much of the album is like the beginning of "1413." It's a great song in theory, but there's instrument overkill. The first 23 seconds of the song has a great-sounding metal riff and some kick-ass drumming...but it's got synthetic orchestral intrusions that ruin what would otherwise be a show of strength. As if that's not enough, the song also pipes in a bit of synthetic horn sounds into the left channel. Why? Isn't metal guitar/bass/drums good enough? At the end of that 23 seconds is a nice stop, which adds a bit of needed dynamics, but then there's even more layers when it restarts. I swear there's 27 different instruments coming at you. A bit more restraint is called for.

While I have some things to complain about, Sons of Seasons have really put together a bold and ambitious album. I think I may get to like the album even more after additional spins, which will give me more of an opportunity to digest the provocative lyrics.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Trouble with Reviewing

Even reviewers will agree that there are inherent problems with reviewing works of art (such as heavy metal albums). First, there's such a thing as "slow growers," albums that are good, but that take a while for listeners to understand. The more you listen to it, the more awesome you realize it is. It's always hard to admit when this happens, because it means your initial impression was off the mark.

But in order to "stay relevant" in the contemporary media landscape, you've got to be talking about what's current. There aren't enough people who want to read a review of an album that came out two or three years ago. And yet sometimes it takes that long to understand and appreciate an album, to "incorporate" an album. I like this term "incorporate" because it means to take into the body. A great album becomes a part of you; it is incorporated into your view of the world. This isn't something that necessarily happens overnight. This is especially true of lyrical content, which often requires more reflection than the immediate auditory response to the music.

Therefore, reviewing is really more of a recording of one's impressions of a cultural work of art (such as a heavy metal album). These impressions can be useful, but they're really only the first stages in working out how that album is going to become a part of you. So, for me, reviews on this site will really be more about sharing my initial impressions. I won't give albums a score or a rank. Often, I will probably not even discuss them holistically, but rather pick out one or two elements that have me thinking. So, while I often have strong opinions, they are based on this early exposure to the music and should not be seen as final judgments. That's why blogs are great: you get to see the thinking process as it occurs.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Appreciation: Motley Crue, "Too Fast for Love"

I plan to share brief impressions of some of my favorite metal albums. It's tough to find a place to start, but something propelled me to begin with Motley Crue's "Too Fast for Love." Not because it's a very early album or because it really started anything new, but I think it's an important album in sonic terms.

What I love most about it is how raw the recording is. The guitar is especially prominent in the mix, and it basically sounds like a mic in front of a Marshall. Nothing fancy, but very direct, balls to the wall. Recordings ever since the mid-90s have been trying to get farther and farther into the amplifier. Guitars sound more electronic or even digital now than they used to, like it's not a real thing but just a simulation.

With "Too Fast for Love," you get guitar -- right in the face. They made an important decision to not overdub the rhythm guitar tracks during the guitar solos, which means that the solos stick out that much more. And Mick Mars' solos are so emotionally powerful and melodically pure that they deserve the extra emphasis. (The music journalist Chuck Klostermann once observed that Dokken guitarist George Lynch was great, but he couldn't remember any of Lynch's solos; I don't think anyone would have that problem with the guitar solos on "Too Fast for Love).

And it's not just the guitar that has a full, raw, in-your-face sound. It's the same with the drums. Tommy Lee's playing, though not fantastic, is pure rock and has a great, raw sound. The ride cymbal sounds great, and, let's face it, you gotta love the cowbell. ("I got a fever, and the only prescription is MORE COWBELL").

I also love fact that the songs have almost no space between them. One song ends and the next starts after a millisecond pause. They must have had so little money that they couldn't afford the extra tape....

My favorite song on it is "Starry Eyes." All the "ballads" are particularly strong and memorable, but "Starry Eyes" takes it to the next level. That opening guitar chord is so rich and puzzling, I'm just blown away. And the guitar solos are so awesome. It's not how many notes you can squeeze in, but how much you can squeeze out of each note. And these solos are downright moving.

So while I'm not suggesting "Too Fast for Love" is the greatest metal album of all time or anything, I believe it is the album with perhaps the greatest metal purity. It sounds like you're in the garage listening to them play. So when you find yourself listening to new albums that all sound too full, too polished, and too bland, this album is a great antidote.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Crafting an Album

People are up and down on Metallica. It's common these days to pooh-pooh them for being an aging collection of cranks, crybabies, or psychological cases. Sure, there are still some die-hard stalwarts who brook no dissent and defend them to the end. I'm probably somewhere in between. I loved them in the eighties, found something better to do during the late nineties, and was pleasantly surprised by the emergence of "Death Magnetic" in 2008.

My purpose here isn't to talk about Metallica's entire career -- or start any arguments about the merits of their roller-coaster career. However, I am interested in their artistic development after "Kill 'Em All." Early on, I noticed a striking correlation between the layout of "Ride the Lightning" and "Master of Puppets." It's obvious if you take a look at the track listing paired in this way:

1. "Fight Fire with Fire"
1. "Battery"

2. "Ride the Lightning"
2. "Master of Puppets"

3. "For Whom the Bell Tolls"
3. "The Thing That Should Not Be"

4. "Fade to Black"
4. "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)"

5. "Trapped Under Ice"
5. "Disposable Heroes"

6. "Escape"
6. "Leper Messiah"

7. "Creeping Death"
8. "Damage, Inc."

8. "The Call of Ktulu"
7. "Orion"

I had to switch up the order a bit at the end, but it's amazing how similar the songs in each pairing are. The first song of each album is a short and brutal track with a melodic acoustic beginning. The second song is a massive thesis statement (and title track). The third track is a slower paced power track of more reasonable length. The fourth track is an emotion-packed power ballad.

What might be called 'side two' (for those who owned the album or cassette back in the day) started out with another fast and aggressive song, and then a slightly more melodic song with more vocal range. Metallica made different choices about how to end these albums. "Ride the Lightning" put a smashing classic ("Creeping Death") in the penultimate slot, leaving the gargantuan instrumental "The Call of Ktulu" to close the album. "Master of Puppets," by contrast, switched that order. The massive instrumental came before the punch-to-the face that ends the album ("Damage, Inc.").

In terms of structure, song by song, these albums are almost carbon copies of each other. It's very clear that the guys in Metallica felt that there was a certain way an album should go. They set out to achieve a particular emotional trajectory in these albums. I think this is a crucial insight because it proves that they thought of their creative efforts in terms of albums rather than just in terms of songs. An album, from their perspective, is not just a collection of songs, but a work of art in itself that is more than just the sum of its parts.

While a lot more could be said about the particulars of their narrative strategy, I'm only going to focus on the way these albums end. That is, why the switch up between 7 and 8? I've got a theory that they wanted to make it harder for those who dislike instrumentals to skip over the instrumental at the end. That (misguided) segment of the population that absolutely needs to hear singing in every song might just skip "The Call of Ktulu" and start over at the beginning. That's a travesty, of course, as "The Call of Ktulu" is one of my absolute favorite Metallica songs.

Another theory is that the band felt that an album should end with a punch in the face, not a lengthy and cerebral exploration of a musical theme. It's as if they decided that a metal album should end with a short, aggressive burst of metal mayhem -- like a period that abruptly ends a sentence. This theory has some basis if you look at other Metallica albums. Some of their heaviest songs come right at the end: "Dyers Eve," "The Struggle Within," and "My Apocalypse."

Another reason behind the switch up of tracks 7 and 8 is that "Orion" has what I think is a fatal flaw making it an impossible choice for an album-closer: it fades out. That's right, it fades out! You can't end a metal masterpiece with a fadeout.

For those who argue that "Ride the Lightning" is a better album than "Master of Puppets" (and there are a surprising number of these), this is your best place to make your case. Both "Creeping Death" and "The Call of Ktulu" have great endings, very powerful and dramatic. Either one could have effectively ended the album. The weak fadeout of "Orion" is a less impressive musical achievement than "The Call of Ktulu" -- and it performs its role on the album less fully than "The Call of Ktulu."


(Note: It's worth mentioning at this point that "...And Justice For All" follows this same structure very closely. And it's a terrific album...but it was much easier to make this argument with just two albums. Three will always be a weird number.)