Iron Maiden: Last Great, Last Good, First Bad Album Roundtable
With 16 albums under their belt, Iron Maiden rank as one of the most popular and prolific acts in metal history. But all that material has come with many changes, most notably with their singer.
The band’s 1980 self-titled debut featured Paul Di'Anno, who stuck with the group through its sophomore LP, Killers. Then Bruce Dickinson arrived, grabbing the reins of the band and performing on seven albums from 1982-92.
Dickinson’s departure opened the door for Blaze Bayley. Though his singing style was generally criticized by the Maiden faithful, Bayley stuck around for two LPs before Dickinson’s 1999 return. He has stayed at the helm since then, delivering an additional five albums, including the band’s most recent studio LP, 2016's The Book of Souls.
As to be expected with a catalog as long and varied as Iron Maiden’s, not all albums are created equal. Read below as five UCR contributors debate the band's last great, last good and first bad album.
1) What’s the last “great” Iron Maiden album?
Ed Rivadavia: While I’m tempted to cast a vote for Brave New World or A Matter of Life and Death, neither one is substantially better than all of the other, new-millennium Maiden LPs nor can they hold a candle to the band’s ‘80s classics. So, I’d have to go all the way back to Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, which managed to innovate and stay on brand, witnessed an unprecedented collective songwriting effort and delivered a genuine concept album about evil shit. Sign me up!
Jed Gottlieb: Seventh Son of a Seventh Son became a finale for the band’s best-known line up as a five-piece: singer Bruce Dickinson, guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, bassist and mastermind Steve Harris and drummer Nicko McBrain. On subsequent albums, a little of that classic-era magic disappeared. Some might say the record has too much gloss or is too poppy, but it offers up ideal examples of what make Maiden so unique. The guys do catchy and quick with “Can I Play With Madness,” epic and endless on the title track and unexpected and experimental on “Infinite Dreams.”
Joe DiVita: Although I'm not quite as enamored with it as I was in the ensuing months after its release, I can still comfortably say The Book of Souls. We were first treated to "Speed of Light" with its roaring Ritchie Blackmore-esque opening riff and maybe the best harmonized melody since the '80s — proof Maiden could still bust out an unstoppable, shorter song if and when they want to. The other relatively quick songs here may not be entirely bulletproof, a sore part here and there, but none of it is outright bad. Janick Gers again asserted his supreme songwriting chops on the mystic, mammoth title track, which earned him a pass for basically regurgitating the "Wasted Years" intro elsewhere on the album. "If Eternity Should Fail" is among the band's best album openers (that Killers-era riff break partway through is just godly) and, of course, the other Dickinson exclusive, "Empire of the Clouds," is insurmountable. A much better dabbling with the piano than say, Black Sabbath's "Changes." Yuck.
Michael Christopher: Enough time has passed that the luster on The Book of Souls should’ve worn off and it can now be recognized as a solid attempt at reclaiming the past while trying new things – but it hasn’t. It’s still a great album! Any longtime fan can’t deny the old-school-vibes pull of “If Eternity Should Fail,” “The Red and the Black” and “When the River Runs Deep.” It challenges on repeated listens, too. Even with their well-oiled sonic opulence, an 18-minute Iron Maiden epic runs the risk of being well over the limit, but “Empire of the Clouds” is not only captivating, if it’s the last song on the final studio effort from the band, I’m okay with that being the way it concluded.
Martin Kielty: I surprise myself by going as far back as Seventh Son of a Seventh Son to define true Maiden greatness. It always bugged me that the concept seemed to have been sidelined in the interests of a more commercial song order – but music business, hey. I truly believe it’s the only Maiden album without any fillers and one of very few they could get away with playing live from beginning to end. it features every element that made and kept the band’s name, from smart musicianship, genre-jumping from prog to pop, clever lyrics and soaring solos, twin-guitar attacks and searing vocal melodies. To me, it feels almost effortless, the result of several years of hard graft that gave them confidence without doubt. Every song had a little gimmick, and even the production was niggle-free. So many of the high points in the classic-lineup era before Seventh Son were clearly leading up to Seventh Son; all the best album moments from Nicko McBrain’s arrival onward could have found a place on the record. It’s quite amazing, now that I think about it, that it’s legitimately an early-era Maiden album, and it says a lot that it still towers over and drips into everything else they’ve done since.
2) What’s the last “good” Iron Maiden album?
Rivadavia: The Book of Souls, which is not only good, but one of the better albums recorded by the reunited Maiden sextet. A few of its tracks are overlong and others sonically redundant, but I think it was overall better than predecessor The Final Frontier, and it took a lot of balls to include an 18-minute epic about zeppelins like Bruce Dickinson's "Empire of the Clouds."
Gottlieb: The answer to this will always be whatever Iron Maiden released recently. I would wager that if a classic metal fan, somebody who loved Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Metallica, somehow had never heard Maiden, nobody could guess this fan’s favorite Maiden album. We love The Number of the Beast because we discovered it as kids, but The Book of Souls would probably feel just as revelatory to virgin ears. Don’t buy this? Fine, I still insist The Book of Souls is at least as good as anything the band has done in 30 years.
DiVita: Another one I loved considerably more when it came out than now (for the record, The Final Frontier is still top shelf in my eyes — and ears) is A Matter of Life and Death. It's too plodding and formulaic too often, despite those elongated, quiet intros also feeling quite necessary for each track. As much as they tried to play off the lack of mastering by telling fans to play it louder, the reality is that doing so isn't always feasible. So, many sublime melodies got lost in the mix ("Lord of Light" in particular), and for all the effort of trying to capture the elusive live element in the studio, the sonic result fell a bit flat. "Brighter Than a Thousand Suns" still rips and this could be McBrain's finest moment outside of introducing himself on "Where Eagles Dare" all those years ago.
Christopher: Fans were rightfully excited at the return of Dickinson and Smith, and there are some great songs on Brave New World, but in retrospect, it’s just a good album. Little things like “Dream of Mirrors” being lyrically meandering and picking up a little too close to late-'80s Maiden had them feeling like more of a nostalgia act by not really pushing things forward. It wasn’t the album to enter the new millennia, more of a throwback and well-earned reward for fans who stuck with them during the Blaze Bayley era.
Kielty: More than anything, I think Brave New World gave the average Maiden fan hope again. The return of Bruce Dickinson was one thing; the return of Adrian Smith proved that many listeners, including me, had underrated his input. “The Wicker Man” bellowed a triumphant challenge to those who’d maybe enjoyed the band’s drain-circling period of the ‘90s, and so many elements that followed seemed to promise that they were going to pick up where they left off. The fact that they didn’t is neither here nor there – Maiden fans know that Maiden do what Maiden do, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door – Brave New World proved that a new classic era could have arrived if they’d really wanted it to. That was enough for many of us ... at the time anyway. Sadly, of course, it was those hints at where they were really going to go that stopped it from being a great album. I don’t query for a moment Janick Gers’ right to remain in the band, but I do question how it was achieved. Something didn’t make it through the process, and I believe it could have done with a bit more thought.
3) What was the first “bad” Iron Maiden album?
Rivadavia: I'm going to give Somewhere in Time a pass, because, in retrospect, it's a pretty decent LP that simply fell short of a string of pretty darn perfect LPs, and set my sights on the properly dismal No Prayer for the Dying. In attempting to reset their sound to its core fundamentals after the progressive ambitions of Seventh Son, Steve Harris and company only managed to grow instantly dull and stale, and Adrian Smith's departure didn't help, though I don't think any of us realized, back then, just how important his songwriting contributions had become on Maiden's prior albums.
Gottlieb: I honestly don’t think there is one. There are songs that are only okay. There are albums that I listened two twice and don’t plan on listening to again. But every LP has glory and fire and madness on it. That said, Blaze Bayley made every track he sang on less compelling. The two albums he sang on featured some weaker material and frustratingly thin production, but, for all his talent, his voice just didn’t fit the band.
DiVita: No Prayer for the Dying, no question. The impact of Adrian Smith was felt the instant he joined in place of Dennis Stratton, and the same, although in a negative way, can be said for his exit. Janick Gers has grown into an essential contributor and was far from the problem with this record. Going backward rarely works out for any band, especially on the heels of overwhelming success in regards to musical progression. For a band so bent on nonconformity, putting songwriting constraints on themselves comes off as possibly the most un-Maiden thing in their whole career. Still, there were some keepers here — "Run Silent Run Deep," and I'll confess to being a sucker for "Bring Your Daughter ... To the Slaughter," even if it's pretty daft.
Christopher: A lot of people zero in on No Prayer for the Dying, but is that because it’s bad or because it was so different than Seventh Son of a Seventh Son? I think it’s the latter. There are some quality tracks on there, like “Run Silent Run Deep” – even if it rips off Deep Purple’s “Perfect Strangers” – “Bring Your Daughter … To the Slaughter,” etc. Fear of the Dark is where everything felt listless. The band was at a loss going into it after the criticisms levied at No Prayer for the Dying, Dickinson was checked out and making the record longer didn’t make it better. And if I needed to hear a ballad about “Wasting Love” in 1992, the last place I wanted to look was to Iron Maiden.
Kielty: Virtual XI was just a bad-tempered “fuck you,” and I find that unforgivable. While No Prayer for the Dying might have been a “difficult album” in that classic-rock way, there were embers of brilliance. There was even a positive “fuck you” feeling to The X Factor – the determination to survive after the failure of friendship that was Dickinson’s departure. But when Virtual XI came along with all its preprogrammed income-stream calculations, there was simply not enough of the band’s trademark attitude for it to be in any way convincing. I know it was a difficult time for the post-grunge metal world, and the growing pains of the internet's influence on music were adding to the anger, but everyone else was dealing with that, too, and I think Maiden fans expected better. I don’t blame Blaze Bailey for what went wrong, although I’ve always thought the act of hiring him was a “fuck you,” and the poor bloke never stood a chance. But the stories that came out afterward just seemed to confirm a sense of Nero fiddling while Maiden burned around this time. There is not a single Maiden album without something to say for itself, but I refuse to give this nasty, temper-tantrum of an audio feud the chance to explain itself to me. No, fuck you!
4) What was the Iron Maiden album that just missed being good?
Rivadavia: I probably have too high an opinion of the Iron Maiden catalog, because I think certain albums, say, Somewhere in Time and even Dance of Death, were actually quite good and lacked just a few more great songs to elevate them to very good status. So I'll take a reckless, controversial flyer on 1995's justifiably critiqued The X Factor, because I've always felt that the bones of a very good Iron Maiden album were in there somewhere, but everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong, including the wrong recording conditions (Harris was going through a lot of personal shit, at the time), wrong production (Martin Birch had just retired) and, yeah, the wrong singer, too (no offense, Blaze Bayley, still love those Wolfsbane LPs).
Gottlieb: I have to go back to the Blaze Bayley era again. Let me reiterate: His voice is great, just not for Maiden. Dickinson set the standard for Maiden and every other grand metal band. Put Dickinson in front of the microphone for The X Factor and Virtual XI, and all the B- songs are B+ tunes, the A- ones suddenly get rewarded with an A+. The man is just that great a singer.
DiVita: The X Factor held so much promise. As tempting as it is to reach for the low-hanging fruit and say what the album was missing was Bruce Dickinson's presence, we all know the root of the problem was beyond who was singing in the studio. The production is just abysmal, and that falls on Steve Harris' decision to put himself at the helm of the recording and its subsequent phases. If there's a powerful riff or ear-fetching melody on here (there's quite a lot, really), most would never realize it. The pitfalls of Blaze Bayley's narrow range are so overwhelmingly on display because it's being laid over a tin can of bass clank, hollow drums and weak guitar tones. The poor guy never stood a chance. At 70 minutes, it's pretty bloated, and the variation in songwriting is too far and between to make this digestible. I will consistently go to bat for this album — there's so many tremendous parts; they're just not assembled to create equally tremendous songs. Venturing off in the darker direction was actually a sound choice and, at least on paper, put Bayley in a position for less criticism as he was singing over music quite alien to what fans had come to expect as "typical Maiden."
Christopher: A Matter of Life and Death had so much possibility but came way too close to being conceptual in nature. Like many albums of that ilk, if often ended up getting lost in serving the themes instead of the songs. Trim a few tracks, like “Brighter Than a Thousand Suns” and “The Legacy,” down to a more manageable length, and you enter “good” territory.
Kielty: I completely subscribed to the concept of A Matter of Life and Death. It was time for Maiden to create a definitive opus about the worlds they’d explored and make some important observations about what they’d seen those worlds go through, fueled by the experience of what they’d gone through themselves – splits, divorces, readjustment, trying to trade in anger and hurt for wisdom. They were old enough, and so were most of us. Sadly, the sheer indulgence let the package down. I wanted something with the sheen and sparkle of Seventh Son; instead I got an overstretched lecture that began to shine brighter than a thousand suns and then felt like it was the light of a slide projector as a boring uncle droned on about his visit to the battlefields of history. I wanted AMOLAD to be great, and I recall talking it up to as many people who’d listen, telling them that in years to come it would be seen as an important musical work to a world beyond Maiden fans. I was wrong. Again, there are some great moments, but it felt to me like it should all have been one great long moment.
5) It’s been almost six years since Book of Souls. Do you think they can top it?
Rivadavia: I'd never dare bet against Iron Maiden so, yeah, assuming everyone's health holds up and all six members can return, physically rested and creatively inspired, there's no reason these heavy metal champions couldn't conjure up more magic one more time. Sure, it would take some kind of miracle for any new material to challenge those legacy-defining early works, but that's as much a fault of fans' impossibly tall expectations as the band's enduring talent.
Gottlieb: Absolutely. There is about a two percent chance the band can come out with something that tops The Number of the Beast (I won’t rule out Maiden making another masterpiece until Dickinson and Harris are in the ground). But I think it is a sure thing betting the band can make another great album. While a global pandemic probably hasn’t helped the timeline for a new album, all five songwriters probably have a dozen demos each just waiting to become the next song to scream to in concert.
DiVita: I have no reservation. Inspiration has never been in short supply. External pressures? Ha! If all of the songwriting fell on just one or two members, there's a high chance for some material to inevitably flatline. If they were going to truly falter in the new-millennium reunion era, we would have seen more obvious signs of decay by now. I'm not one that clings to blind faith in any aspect of my life, but I'd follow this band to the edge of the Earth — if the Earth was flat and had an edge, of course.
Christopher: Reflexively, I want to shout “No! Leave it alone!” but then see Judas Priest delivering the goods with Firepower and know it can still be done by metal bands at an advanced age. Topping The Book of Souls, though? That’s too steep a mountain to climb. Best to leave it as a bookend to a majestic career.
Kielty: Is there much to “top”? In recent years I’ve come to accept the description of myself as a former Maiden fan. Listening to the odd song or even a few tracks of what they’ve done in the past 15 years or so makes me feel like I’m peeking at an ex-girlfriend’s Facebook page. I don’t think I don’t get what Maiden are going; I just think I don’t care. Having said that, there’s one specific thing that would make me send a friend request, perhaps in the hope of meeting up for a drink or something. In the past, Nicko McBrain would come up with a handful of drum fills that he used regularly and exclusively for one album. Some of them would stay to be used again, but they’d take a back seat to his next set of lyrical little riffs. I think the band lost something when that subtlety left, although I have no idea which was the chicken and which the egg. In a group of musicians who all developed trademarks that fans expect to hear, McBrain’s contribution was to have a revolving trademark; I didn’t care that I came to be able to predict where a “new” Maiden song would go next – I was listening out for how McBrain would take us there. If that wee gimmick came back, it might bring me back, too. In fact, it might bring that whole mighty Maiden writing machine back to full power. Maybe. Or perhaps I don’t care any more. Your move, Nicko McBrain!