This article originally appeared on ramp.ie on April 12th 2013
From the lows to the highs, Iron Maiden’s discography gets ranked
Not many of the bands from the golden age of metal have remained relevant. Most of them have quietly petered out over the years, struggling to remain creatively fresh while at the same time retaining what made them popular in the first place. Iron Maiden are one of a few who have, against ageing odds, managed to keep pace and successfully update their act for the modern era. They haven’t always hit the right notes though. Join me on a voyage of discovery through the magnificent eighties, the dark nineties, and the rejuvenating noughties, as I embark on the impossible task of sorting one of the greatest discographies in all of metal.
And so we begin with the lowpoint of Maiden’s career. As the nineties rang in, the band were on the back end of an incredibly hectic ten years, one which saw their rise to stardom; seven albums and constant touring is enough to take its toll on even the greatest of musicians. With No Prayer for the Dying, that strain is clear; the general level of song writing is well below what fans had come to expect and Dickinson’s new, raspy vocal stylings were a mistake. There’s a good reason none of the songs of this album feature in live appearances any more. ‘Bring Your Daughter…to the Slaughter’ has the baffling honor of being Maiden’s only no. 1 single ever despite it being kind of awful. The album as a whole is made to look even worse considering it came out right after the masterful Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.
Stand out track – ‘Mother Russia’
14. Fear of the Dark (1992)
Two years laters and the band’s next effort fared a little better, but not by much. Certainly one can see the creative drive returning and Dickinson reverted back to his more usual singing style which helped a great deal. Its big weakness is in the amount of filler; most of the songs here have long been forgotten but ultimately it would prove a worthwhile endeavour, with the title track emerging as a trademark live moment that is still played regularly to this day.
Stand out track – ‘Fear of the Dark’
Following two underwhelming releases, Dickinson left the band to pursue other musical avenues. And so into his shadow stepped Blaze Bayley, his task of replacing one of metal’s most celebrated frontmen an impossible one. Contrary to popular belief, the two Blaze era albums aren’t bad at all. In fact, they’re rather good, just different. They’re definitely the darkest in tone, something which Maiden were familiar with already, but previously the dark edge always had a sense of playfulness about it and here, it was just plain grim. This can likely be attributed to Harris, the chief lyricist, going through difficult personal times. Combining that with Bayley’s more grave sounding voice and the result is an album that is quite different indeed. Were critics and fans able to accept and judge Bayley on his own merits instead of comparing him to Dickinson, they would have found a competent and enjoyable release, and the beginning of Maiden’s steady climb back to glory.
Stand out track – ‘The Sign of the Cross’
Virtual XI is quite like its predecessor in many ways but feels more cohesive, as if the new line-up had settled and were better able to function as a team. Unfortunately it received as mixed a reception as The X Factor. It’s hard not to wonder what would have become of Maiden at this stage were Dickinson and Smith not enthusiastic about returning. Bayley’s two albums weren’t bad by any means but they lacked the punch of eighties Maiden and it was clear that this approach wasn’t clicking with a lot of fans.
Stand out track – ‘When Two Worlds Collide’
11. Killers (1981)
Iron Maiden did not succumb to the oft quoted ‘sophomore slump’. Killers may not have produced as many classic hits as the debut, but it remains a wonderful punk metal record. This was Di’Anno’s second and final release with the band, before they went supernova a year later. His contribution shouldn’t be underestimated; while they ultimately decided on a different trajectory, Di’Anno was an important ingredient in paving the way to greater things.
Stand out track – ‘Killers’
10. Iron Maiden (1980)
This is where it all began. The 1980 eponymous debut put Iron Maiden on the map, faring well in the charts, beating out even the already well established Judas Priest. It’s quite a simple album, especially in comparison to their complex modern epics, although there is a hint of the future in the seven minute long ‘Phantom of the Opera’, a fan favourite. ‘Running Free’ and ‘Iron Maiden’ have remained live staples ever since. The stripped down, twilight tingles of ‘Strange World’ and indeed, several others songs from the Di’Anno era, such as ‘Prodigal Son’, are an absolute feast for the ears and add great variety to both albums. It’s a shame the band only ever returned to such a sound in very small doses.
Stand out track – ‘Phantom of the Opera’
9. Piece of Mind (1983)
Piece of Mind is likely the most overrated Maiden release. It is unquestionably a fine record but it doesn’t quite hold up when looked at in the context of the rest of the their eighties output. ‘Revelations’ is one of their most beautiful songs but nothing else really reaches the heights they’re capable of although ‘Flight of Icarus’ and ‘The Trooper’ are of course great straightforward rockers.
Stand out track – ‘Revelations’
8. Brave New World (2000)
A new millennium, a new Maiden. This was arguably one of their most vital releases. With the return of old personnel on the back of four mixed albums, it was make or break time. Dickinson and Smith’s time away surely had a rejuvenating effect, and for the first time, there were three lead guitarists in the line-up What happened in the studio during the recording of Brave New World would lay down the foundation for what Maiden were to become over the next ten years. Many of the longer songs on this record are unnecessarily so, a kind of prototype of a formula that would be mastered in the future.
Stand out track – ‘Brave New World’
7. Somewhere in Time (1986)
Somewhere in Time saw the introduction of synths, a rather strange addition considering Dickinson had been caught on video, years earlier, proclaiming with conviction that “you can’t make metal with synths”. It all happened against his will actually, the frontman wanting to go in a more acoustic direction but the rest of the band disagreed with him. And so we ended up with a near concept album, likely the most underappreciated and forgotten portion of Maiden’s discography. Somehow the epic the closer ‘Alexander The Great’ has never once been played live, surely one of the great injustices of our time.
Stand out track – ‘Alexander The Great’
Dance of Death is quite a bit more accessible than its predecessor Brave New World and is all the better for it. There are some playful experiments here such as the folky title track and the acoustic closer ‘Journeyman’. It still has that cruel harshness of past Maiden releases, as demonstrated by the World War 1 inspired song ‘Paschendale’; this particular sound would form the basis for Maiden’s next release, being very much perfected. It may suffer slightly from being a tad overproduced but that didn’t stop it from being an indisputable affirmation that Maiden had returned to top form after many years of mediocrity.
Stand out track – ‘Dance of Death
5. The Final Frontier (2010)
The most recent release, as of writing. It’s a logical progression from 2006’s A Matter of Life and Death, taking the more complex and unconventional song structure and turning it up to eleven, making for Maiden’s longest LP yet, clocking in at a huge seventy-six minutes. Unlike Brave New World though, every minute is well spent. ‘When The Wild Wind Blows’ and ‘The Talisman’ earn their place deservedly amongst the rest of Maiden’s god tier material.
Stand out track – ‘When the Wild Wind Blows’
The culmination of Iron Maiden’s modern philosophy. While it isn’t a concept album, war and religion feature heavily as recurring themes, and many of the songs on offer here demonstrate some of the most effective lyrics Harris and co. have ever written — the nine minute epic ‘Brighter Than a Thousand Suns’, detailing the creation of the atom bomb, being a particular highlight in this regard; ‘Yellow sun it’s evil twin / in the black the winds deliver him / We will sleep to souls within / At a siege a nuclear gust is riven’. Drummer McBrain is at his very best here too, the decision to leave the album unmastered adding an incredible amount of punch to each drum beat. A prog metal masterpiece.
Stand out track – ‘For the Greater Good of God’
The debut of Bruce Dickinson and the launching of an international career. The Number of the Beast marked a drastic change, a shedding of their punk roots and an embracing of something more polished and ostentatious. The operatic traces found in Dickinson’s voice elevated every other aspect of the music to a new level. A good deal of Maiden’s most popular material appears here, including ‘Run to the Hills’ and the title track, although both are inferior to the spectacularly morbid final song, ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’.
Stand out track – ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’
The year was 1988. Having successfully experimented with synthesizers two years earlier on Somewhere in Time, they took this learning experience and went on to create something truly special. Seventh Son also sees some of the prog rock elements, which would later go on to define modern Maiden, make their introduction. This is even further reinforced by its position as a concept album based around the ideas of prophecy and clairvoyance. It’s the shame this stands as the only true concept album in their library; Maiden are wonderful storytellers and it would be an absolute treat were they to put together as cohesive and focused a record as this in the future.
Stand out track – ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’
This is likely the band’s most impressive album from purely a guitar point of view, with Smith and Murray really outdoing themselves. This is especially noticeable in ‘Losfer Words’, which is, surprisingly, the band’s only instrumental. (Note: Not the band’s only instrumental. My mistake. I hang my head in shame.) ‘Aces High’ gets into the mind of an RAF pilot during the Battle of Britain and is likely their greatest concern opener. The most popular track from Powerslave is surely ’2 Minutes to Midnight’ although that is only to scratch the surface of the extraordinary quality seen throughout the whole album. It is of course notable for featuring what remains Maiden’s longest song, the thirteen minute epic ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, based on the Samuel Taylor Coleridge lyrical ballad of the same name. Undeniably one of metal’s all time greatest tracks. As with practically all Iron Maiden title tracks, ‘Powerslave’ thrives.
Overall, this stands as a towering achievement in an already hugely successful musical career and as not only one of the best metal albums of all time but one of best albums regardless of genre. May they never stop rocking.