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Penetration

Photo by Ross Halfin

Challenge yourself to take Iron Maiden seriously. Because y’know what? You gotta.

This is one important band. Changed metal history, really. Though the Allman Brothers (first album 1969), Wishbone Ash (debuting 1970) and Thin Lizzy’s double-ax lineup (1974) may have ascended the twin-guitar-harmony stage earlier, and the examples of Judas Priest and the Scorpions were hardly lost on Maiden, Iron men Dave Murray and Adrian Smith were the worthies who heaved early-’80s double-helical twiddle over the top, making the world safe for the likes of Accept, Warlock, Metallica/Megadeth and beyond.

More important, Maiden kicked the blues right out of bed. And metal never looked back. Not that these Limeys didn’t feel the symbiosis between rock and the music of class servitude: They titled an album Powerslave and a tour “World Slavery.” And there’s no question that schooled historian Bruce Dickinson, the band’s most durable singer, had a clue about colonialism and lordly dominion. They just decided they didn’t need Mississippi for their peasant connection, founding their heavy rock on the gallops and reels of English-Irish folk music. That link had already been forged by Led Zeppelin (“Gallows Pole”) and Black Sabbath (“Children of the Grave”), but those groups both started as blues bands. Iron Maiden boogied not.

Which is partly why, as a young dick, I never used to like them. Building from Zep, Sab and Hendrix, I preferred my weighty whiteness with a Muddy bottom: Deep Purple, Savoy Brown, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac (color coordination, anyone?), Chicken Shack, Rory Gallagher, Humble Pie, James Gang — even Grand Funk, what the hell. To me, Iron Maiden may have rocked, but they did not roll.

Another obstacle to Maiden worship was Dickinson: I cringed at his humorless, unvarying, chest-thumping warble. Powerful, sure, but Jesus. Steve Harris, the bassist and main songwriter, had an awesome gift for hooks. And the axmen, flogged along by drummer Nicko McBrain, were dynamic and terrifyingly proficient. So I often wished I could yield to the thunder of “The Trooper,” say, without enduring the singer’s strangled bravado. But when I heard early recordings with Paul Di’Anno on vocals, and saw Blaze Bayley replacing Dickinson in the ’90s, the combinations still didn’t click.

 

I no longer have any excuse; you may now consider me an Iron Maiden fan. And it’s not because the group’s been de-Dickinsoned — the throatman rejoined the foundry four years ago, to the accompaniment of much reissuing and videodisc mustering. Actually, I didn’t see the light till it got a few watts brighter.

The process started with some of Dickinson’s ’90s solo albums. The discs hit you in the face with the reason Dickinson left: He wanted to dip into something more brave/new, and Roy Z, guitarist with the L.A. band Tribe of Gypsies, was just the henchman to co-write and produce. They got a dark, dense, electronicized sound and a fair amount of attention, including that of Dickinson’s old pal Rob Halford, the golden screamer of Judas Priest. Halford had suffered his own ’90s identity crisis, at one point plugging into tech noise via Trent Reznor’s production in the band Two, and when he returned to his metal crucible in 2000, launching his new “Halford” project, he discovered that Roy Z’s knobsmanship could strike the quintessential balance between Reznor-like studio nowness and melodic rock.

No surprise, Halford recently cuddled anew with Priest after witnessing the successful re-Maidenhood of Dickinson, who has found a substitute for Roy Z in producer Kevin “Caveman” Shirley. Shirley is one South African who knows how to rock: A single exposure to the mega-successful 1995 Silverchair debut or Aerosmith’s 1997 Nine Lives will leave no doubt. He’s done three first-rate records with Maiden (one live, two studio), and the latest, last year’s Dance of Death, reveals the relationship in honeymoon heat.

The record leaves the blocks at full sprint with “Wildest Dreams,” all three guitars (Janick Gers joined in 1993, and Adrian Smith returned in 2000) blasting and riffing as Dickinson declares he’s “out on my own again” — ironic given the circumstances, but he didn’t write the lyrics. There are plenty of roaring rockers like “Rainmaker” and “New Frontier.” There’s the usual quotient of 3/4 and 6/8 meters and Renaissance acoustic touches, as on “Face in the Sand” and “Journeyman.” And surely you didn’t fear that Maiden would omit the epics: Eight-minute showcases like the title cut and “No More Lies” twist through a dozen changes of tempo, mood and attack. Dance of Death rounds up all the aggro of a new-millennium Halford disc, the classic-rock optimism of Westworld, and Shirley’s special blend of technology and sensuality. If you light up at the beginning and ride it right to the end, you will not be sorry.

What’s different? Well, the songwriting of Harris and the others is ace, bringing out Dickinson’s poppier, less overbearing side. A low-grounded analog/digital sound mixture counterbalances the band’s tendency to rattle around in the top of your head and neglect the ’nads. And one factor that Harris reportedly struggled against works especially well: Shirley’s preference for recording live in the studio. Maiden can be an unnecessarily tight-assed bunch, but here they strut like gunslingers; the rhythms of “Gates of Tomorrow” and “Paschendale” stretch the borders of metal with an almost funky batter & surge, at times four-wheeling right off the road. That’s rock and roll.

 

As fine as Halford’s efforts with younger sidemen have been, Iron Maiden’s Dance of Death is the kind of thing that makes me look forward to his reunion record with Judas Priest. Whatever you think of heavy metal — the histrionics, the silly logos, the pretension — this is an art form rooted in musicianship, and the old cowboys know their firearms. Though money is an obvious spur to forsake new frontiers and sniff around old wells, Halford and Dickinson both have a lot to lose by backtracking: not just their freedom, but their time. Time is not on their side, and they’re not fucking around.

Iron Maiden plays the Universal Amphitheater Friday and Saturday, January 30 and 31. On first blind listen to billmates Arch Enemy, you may appreciate the depthful, razoring shudder of this Swedish supergroup, but you definitely won’t guess that the scorch-tonsiled croakster is a skinny blond babe.


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