Iron Maiden, Ghost
Glen Helen Amphitheater
July 1, 2017
Heavy metal stalwarts Iron Maiden first immortalized their Southern California fan base more than 30 years ago. Their 1985 album, Live After Death, was culled from performances at Long Beach Arena that year, where they delivered epic renditions of classics such as “The Number of the Beast.” But what remains most infamous, and an inside joke within the Iron Maiden community to this day, are Bruce Dickinson’s repeated shouts between songs to “Scream for me, Long Beach!”
The outdoor expanse of San Bernardino’s Glen Helen Amphitheater — the site of Iron Maiden's most recent Southern California performance — is on the opposite end of the atmosphere spectrum from what was then a 20-year-old sports arena. But the 25,000-plus in attendance on Saturday were just as enthusiastic and screamed for Bruce yet again.
The sweltering afternoon sun left show-goers sweating and sunburned during early sets from Bay Area thrash titans Exodus and Florida power metallers Kamelot. It was appropriate that the sun began to go down as occult-obsessed Swedish rockers Ghost took the stage around 7:30 p.m. The mystique of Ghost has been built visually on their lead vocalist, Papa Emeritus, who alternates between the face-painted personas of a Satanic cardinal and a 1920s-style dark troubadour. Flanked by masked musicians known as Nameless Ghouls, Papa Emeritus stalks the stage with the mannerisms of a graceful spell-caster while singing the poppiest songs about Satan ever put to tape.
Ghost have been plagued in recent months by offstage legal issues, with former band members suing Tobias Forge — the man behind Papa Emeritus — for what they claim is their rightful share of the band's profits. That has been offset by Ghost's largest explosion in popularity yet, mostly on the strength of last year’s hard-hitting arena-rock anthem “Square Hammer.” Saturday’s set was a strong indicator of that increased success. When Ghost opened with the new hit, a quarter of the audience rose to their feet immediately, sang along and head-banged throughout the band’s entire set.
Ghost’s set list exposed how much their sound has evolved since their 2010 debut, Opus Eponymous. That record put a satanic spin on the poppier, more melodic hard rock of the 1970s popularized by acts such as Blue Oyster Cult. In the years since, Ghost have evolved their sound from simpler pop-rock songs to deeply layered arena-rock anthems full of riffs from the playbooks of ’90s stadium-metal giants like Metallica, while maintaining the catchy sing-along choruses of their early output. The current group of Nameless Ghouls, all new to the band within the last year, came off as a well-oiled, muscular rock machine.
By the time Iron Maiden took the stage at 8:50 p.m., the night sky had turned pitch black, and the heat of the day was long gone. The group’s self-titled debut record came out in 1980; yet even as their members either near or cross into their 60s, the overall crowd was not an aging, sexagenarian audience. When vocalist Dickinson took an unscientific survey before a stirring rendition of “Children of the Damned,” asking those in the crowd born after the song’s 1982 release to raise their hands, at least half of those in attendance raised their arms high in the air.
The first half of the set list was mostly tracks from the group’s most recent record, 2015's The Book of Souls. The live performances of new songs displayed the continued songwriting prowess of the group, spearheaded by bassist Steve Harris. Iron Maiden’s current compositions steer toward a more epic, proggier sprawl. The Books of Souls is a two-disc, 11-song, 92-minute effort. Buried within the sprawl, however, are still the epic choruses that have inspired Maiden fans to shout along with the band for nearly 40 years, as the crowd “oh-oh”-ed along to “The Red and the Black” unprompted by the band.
The second half of the set saw the band rip through a gauntlet of fan favorites, from “Iron Maiden” and “Fear of the Dark” to “The Number of the Beast” and set closer “Wasted Years.” The group’s lyrical material isn’t exactly lightweight pop. The majority of Iron Maiden’s output has been inspired by tales of fallen civilizations, 19th-century literature and war. But even amid those heavier lyrical themes, there is still a sense of fun, theatrics and showmanship that keeps an Iron Maiden concert from descending into self-seriousness, and the show ended with smiles onstage and off.
The theatrical was on display with the band’s 10-foot-tall mascot, Eddie, stalking the band across the stage and engaging in battle with individual members. The fun was on display as vocalist Bruce Dickinson joked about old hits being from “the antique factory,” draped a British flag over Janick Gers’ guitar as he tried to play the solo for “The Trooper” and donned random headgear throughout the set, including a monkey mask, a lucha mask and a bra that had been thrown onstage at some point. No matter how serious the band’s subject matter, their enthusiasm for performing live kept a party atmosphere going throughout the night.
But the biggest factor in keeping Iron Maiden’s performances stirring in 2017 is simply that they have kept themselves in great shape. While many of the bigger metal and rock bands from the 1980s and even ’90s have given in to the rigors of age, vocalist Bruce Dickinson still spends the entire show running across the stage and leaping over large monitor speakers in a manner that would wreck the knees of even many younger performers. His ability to hit and hold soaring high notes throughout his career has earned him the nickname of the “Air Raid Siren,” and even as he approaches his 60th birthday, he is still more than capable of hitting and holding those notes.
As the band serenaded us into the night with “Wasted Years,” a look around the crowd was testament to the continued power of Iron Maiden’s live presence. From folks in their 50s who might've gone to the Long Beach Arena shows in the ’80s, to folks in their mid-30s (like me), to newer teenage metalheads sporting the vintage shirt designs of the band’s initial rise to fame, multiple generations of metal fans return to witness Iron Maiden's vigor and showmanship every time they come to town.