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!

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