Friday, 9 April 2010

IRON MAIDEN - Number Of The Beast


By the time Iron Maiden entered the studio to record their third album, they had no previously unused material in their archive. Bruce Dickinson (aka ex-Samson vocalist Bruce Bruce) had also become the band’s frontman, replacing Paul Di’Anno, who’d provided vocals on Maiden’s first two full-length releases. The band and producer Martin Birch (who’d produced their previous album, ‘Killers’) were effectively starting from scratch.

What resulted is probably one of the finest heavy metal albums of all time. It’s certainly the album where Iron Maiden’s “classic” sound found its feet.

Telling a tale of Viking hordes, of plundering, rape and pillage, ‘Invaders’ opens the album with a real statement of intent. The band approach the number at full pace; Steve Harris employs an unmistakably aggressive bass style, while Clive Burr turns in one of his most powerful drum performances. Dickinson’s wailing vocal shows itself to be almost the polar opposite to Paul Di’Anno’s raw, punk-influenced vocal style - and he announces his presence rather unsubtly. A strong opening, certainly, but there’s far better to come...

‘Children of the Damned’ (inspired by the movie of the same name) is the album’s gentlest track. In some ways it feels like it appears slightly too early on the LP, but provides a brilliant contrast to the opening number. It highlights the softer end of Bruce’s vocal range, as well as proving how effortlessly he hits the long vibrato-edged notes. Adrian Smith guitar work appears in both its extremes, offering some gorgeous soaring guitar work during the song’s intro and a blistering guitar solo towards the end. A couple of other songs from the album have outshone this one in terms of longevity, but musically, ‘Children of the Damned’ shows a great maturity and is one of the album’s standouts.

Inspired by the cult 60s series starring Patrick McGoohan, ‘The Prisoner’ returns things to a fast pace. The track begins with the famous sample of McGoohan’s “I am not a number...I am a free man” and Burr’s pounding drums, before kicking into high gear. Steve Harris’s bass playing here is upfront and high in the mix, but surprisingly he never opts for his favourite galloping approach. The track also features fantastic guitar work from both Adrian Smith and Dave Murray. A co-write between Steve Harris and Adrian Smith, ‘The Prisoner’ has a more melodic chorus than a lot of other songs here. I presume that was Smith’s big contribution, as his writing has sometimes shown a slight AOR/melodic rock influence.

A sequel to ‘Charlotte The Harlot’ from Iron Maiden’s self titled debut appears in the form of ’22 Acacia Avenue’. Supposedly based on someone the band knew, lyrically it provides a low point for ‘Number of the Beast’ with its tales of red-light wrong-doing. Musically, though, the band is in fine form, yet again. A slow lead guitar break midway acts as the song’s climax.

The two single releases culled from ‘The Number of the Beast’ (‘Run To The Hills’ and the title song) have remained solid fan favourites. While neither of the songs are as complicated as some of the material Maiden would go on to record, both tracks typify the band’s classic sound. The ‘Number of the Beast’ song is interesting, if only for the fact that it’s lyrically better than most things from this album (supposedly inspired by a nightmare Harris had), yet musically isn’t quite as good as some of the album’s other tracks. However, that doesn’t stop it being enjoyable and it remains one of Maiden’s best known songs. The anthemic nature of ‘Run To The Hills’ has allowed it to become one of the tracks most associated with the NWOBHM and become a staple for rock compilations. Musically, this employs a galloping bassline; something which recurs throughout various other Maiden tracks and a sound very easily identifiable with Harris. Both ‘Run To The Hills’ and ‘The Number of the Beast’ have been almost permanent fixtures in the band’s live set since 1982.

‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ is more grandiose, hinting at a more complex musical approach. Lyrically, it tells the tale of a man waiting to die. He waits in his cell for someone to take him to his execution. Dickinson’s vocals are soft and slightly reflective at first, identifying with the dying man’s plight, before building to his trademark wail. The music builds in tandem, soft to begin with, then adding some excellent twin guitar leads. Most of the track focuses on a mid paced, classic heavy metal sound; it builds gradually, always making fantastic use of those twin harmonies on the guitars, until it reaches its peak, as the whole band play their hearts out – parts of the end section are as fast as anything ‘Number of the Beast’ has to offer. Clive Burr hammers out a relentless drum rhythm as Smith and Murray offer up a couple of top guitar solos; all the while, the whole thing is being anchored by Harris’s bass work, always solid and never showy.

‘The Number of the Beast’ offers only one obviously weak track: ‘Gangland’ (written by Smith and Burr) sounds throwaway compared to the rest of the album. Clive Burr’s drumming is solid and, as always, Bruce’s vocal is great, but the opening guitar riff sounds slightly jarring. That’s enough for the track to never really recover, but it’s also a bit weak lyrically.

‘Number of the Beast’ became a platinum seller, reaching number one on the UK album chart. It’s now rightly regarded as one of the great musical milestones of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

[The remastered CD features ‘Total Eclipse’ as a bonus track.]


February 2010

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