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Metal/Prog Metal CD Reviews

Iron Maiden

The Essential Iron Maiden

Review by Mike Korn

"Essential" is a tricky term to use for a compilation like this. A legendary band like Iron Maiden has a lot of songs that can be considered "essential". One man's "essential" is another man's "ho-hum". Personally, I consider songs like "Hallowed Be Thy Name", "Murders In the Rue Morgue" and "Revelation"(Mother Earth) to be utterly classic and indispensable examples of Maiden's metal mastery. Yet none of those tracks appear here.

The band has flooded the market with so many "best ofs", live albums and DVD's that most die-hards won't need this collection. Yet it does indeed provide a thorough overview of Iron Maiden's lengthy and illustrious career. If you are just getting into Maiden or metal in general and want a solid understanding of these phenomena, "The Essential Iron Maiden" is an excellent place to start. There's probably close to three hours of the band's music here for you to devour, covering all of their releases including the ones with Paul Di'anno and Blaze Bayley as singers.

There are not too many surprises over the three discs, but few clunkers as well. Let us dive into this molten sea of British steel...

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Disc 1
Paschendale
The compilation is in reverse chronological order, starting with this lengthy track from the band's latest (and hardly greatest) Dance of Death record. It features classic Maiden mid-tempo riffing and a strong Bruce Dickinson vocal performance, yet it lacks the bite and breadth of the band's older epics such as "Alexander the Great" and "Rime of the Ancient Mariner".
Rainmaker
This is a simpler and more direct tune with some driving melodies and slick, understated guitar work. It's one of the best songs from Dance of Death.
The Wicker Man
The cool riff that starts this is about as metal as you can get. From the Brave New World album, this was the first single and it welcomed Bruce Dickinson back into the fold. The pounding chorus line of "Your time will come!" is pretty memorable.
Brave New World
The title track to the album of the same name starts with low key, proggy guitar work and subtle melody. There's something about the song I don't care for...I don't know, it doesn't seem really "Maidenish" to me. It's not wimpy or badly executed, it just doesn't do it for me and the repetition of the phrase "brave new world" is definitely overdone.
Futureal
The Blaze Bayley era of Iron Maiden is often derided and maligned but it did produce some pretty good tunes and this is one of them. It's a fast paced belter that has energy to spare. Bayley's voice suffers in comparison to Dickinson's, there's no doubt, but you can get comfortable with it after a while. Great soloing and guitar melodies from Dave Murray and Janick Gers help.
The Clansman
Whoever picked the Blaze songs here knew what they were doing. This is the track most likely to be called a Maiden classic from his brief run. It's a sprawling epic chronicling the career of "Braveheart" William Wallace, beginning in a mellow mode with mysterious keyboards and a haunting melody. It then kicks into powerful metal mode, with patented Maiden "galloping" rhythms. Bayley's voice is perfect for this tune, with a rough edge to it. You can almost picture the medieval warfare while listening to this.
The Sign of the Cross
This is even huger than "The Clansman". Comparable in length to "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", this takes a long time to build from a quiet prelude to a driving heavy mode. The track has a lot of peaks and valleys and ends much the same way it began.
Man on the Edge
The last of the Bayley era tracks included here, this is also the least of the lot. It's not a terrible song, but the simplistic "Falling Down, Falling Down" chorus is a far cry from the clever songwriting Maiden has showed in the past. It's a fast and heavy track that nevertheless doesn't really go anywhere.
Be Quick or Be Dead
Here we are back in Bruce Dickinson territory and the excellent Fear of the Dark album to be more precise. This is an aggressive metal cut that really smokes, with a grittiness missing on much of the later material. I remember this as being great live and Bruce's vocals have more venom than usual.
Fear of the Dark
This cut is surely one of the best cuts the band did in the 90's. Here we get treated to a live version of the song that's just as strong as the studio version. Man, the Brazillian crowd really gets into this, singing along not just with the words but also the riffs! I really like the spooky and mellow melody that begins and ends the song. Between those bookends is some great killer riffing in traditional Maiden style that will get heads banging anywhere. There are a couple of minor goofs in this live version, but the energy of the crowd makes up for it. This song is one of the examples I would volunteer if somebody was to ask me why Iron Maiden is one of the best metal bands ever.
Holy Smoke
I like the breezy, upbeat feel of this metal bruiser with its cool opening guitar chords. It's pretty simple for a Maiden track but very catchy and the anti evangelist lyrics are a hoot. "I've lived in filth, I've lived in sin/And I still smell better than the s**t you're in!" It's a very underrated song from the canon.
Bring Your Daughter (To the Slaughter)
Whoever considered this an "essential" Maiden track should have their head examined. I know there's room for different opinions, but I doubt even the band themselves consider this turgid rocker a standout. It just doesn't sound very much like the Maiden we know and Bruce's almost spoken vocals are poor. The chorus is insultingly dumb. "Mother Russia" or the title track would have been better from the No Prayer For the Dying album.
The Clairvoyant
Here we venture into the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album, which features the band's most complex and involved songwriting. It kicks off with some busy Steve Harris bass work and a kind of majestic guitar melody. The song only partially manages to keep this early level of interest up. Synthesizers are more noticeable here and that's not a plus in my book. But the solo guitar work is definitely up to snuff.
Disc 2
The Evil That Men Do
This also hails from Seventh Son... and is a very well structured song with a great vocal performance. For some reason, though, I've never warmed up to it, but I still acknowledge it as a very good Maiden track.
Wasted Years
This shows a slightly more commercial side to the band with a very melodic chorus and a melancholy feeling that fits the song title. The guitar arpeggio that reoccurs through the song is one of the band's more memorable motifs.
Heaven Can Wait
Here is a neglected Maiden track that even I had forgotten about. It's got a great driving riff with a vaguely classical or even Middle Eastern feel to it. Bruce's vocals are fast paced jabbering that follows the quick riffing, but they never fly off the hook completely. I find the chorus to be a little clunky but the blistering lead guitar work erases that minor quibble easily. It's a very good mid-period Maiden cut that should be better remembered.
2 Minutes to Midnight
This is one of the grittiest, most abrasive tracks the band ever did, hailing from the Powerslave album. It totally lacks the usual Steve Harris bass runs and twin guitar melodies, but the chorus is unforgettable and the anti-war lyrics are really nasty. The further back you go in Maiden's catalogue, the heavier and rawer the songs become and this is a pretty good example of that.
Aces High
I've always loved this one! The intricate guitar melodies and throbbing bass line are awesome and the chorus is sheer chest-thumping brilliance as Bruce's vocals soar and dive like the fighter planes the song describes. This is just a brilliantly constructed piece of song craft that ranks very high amongst the band's best.
Flight of Icarus
I know this is the first single from the Piece of Mind album (which I consider to be the band's best) but really, I would have much preferred the superb "Revelation"(Mother Earth) or "Where Eagles Dare". It's an OK song that's heavy and pounding all the way through, but not the best from that album.
The Trooper
Well, what can you say about this one? It is certainly one of the signature tracks of the band and deserves its status as such. Charging out of the gate like a prize racehorse, this has a blistering pace and superb twisting riffs that dig into your brain after the first listen. Maybe it's not the absolute greatest song by Maiden, but just maybe the most iconic.
The Number of the Beast
Woe to you if you have never heard this classic. Beginning with ominous biblical intonations that have often been tediously imitated, this is one of the most cinematic songs in metal. It really paints pictures in your head...and not particularly cheerful ones at that. This is the epitome of a track that builds suspense until exploding into a frenzy of power riffing and blazing guitar solos. It's an absolutely fantastic song!
Run to the Hills
If I were picking songs from the Number of the Beast album, I probably would have picked "Hallowed Be Thy Name" or "The Prisoner" instead of this old chestnut. It's not that this is a bad song, but I don't think it shows Maiden to as good advantage as the previously named songs. It's a little awkward structurally, but hey, to many, this song IS Iron Maiden, so what do I know?
Wrathchild
We are WAY back in the Maiden canon now, back in the days when the punkish Paul Di'anno screamed his way through the band's most ghoulish tracks. There is indeed a more feral quality to Di'anno's Maiden even though technically he doesn't have Dickinson's lungs. On this short, sharp track, you can definitely feel a punk undercurrent of energy.
Killers
The title track to the band's second album is an unusual and quite ferocious song that doesn't sound much like their other material. I sense that Steve Harris, the band's number one songwriter in these days, didn't have much of a hand in this one, where a savage guitar arpeggio mirrors the gory horror lyrics. These were the days of Maiden's youth, full of energy if not the later sophistication.
Phantom of the Opera
Hailing from the very first album, this is the song that most hinted at the epic songwriting the band would apply later. It is still one of my favorites today. The beginning is clumsy and off-kilter, but from there, the song goes on a journey full of great heavy metal riffs in best British tradition. Again, Maiden's great talent for letting a song build to a climax is on display. Fast, melodic, heavy, epic...you've got it all here and the classic horror lyrics are also pretty damn cool.
Running Free
This is a live version of a first album cut with Bruce singing and it doesn't come across that well. Di'anno's vocals were much superior on this fist-pounding anthem and Bruce's singalong attempts here get tedious pretty quickly. It would have been better to use the original studio version.
Iron Maiden
Another live version of the very early song, Bruce's vocals are easier to take here. This was a track where the band were finding their way, striking out with pure aggression instead of a more controlled fury, but the chorus is inspired and venomous.
 
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