Thursday, July 29, 2010

Talkin' Eds - Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988)

1988 in heavy metal

So far So Good… So What! - Megadeth
Blow Up Your Video - AC/DC
Savage Amusement - Scorpions
The New Order - Testament
In God We Trust - Stryper
South of Heaven - Slayer
Danzig - Danzig
…And Justice for All - Metallica
State of Euphoria - Anthrax

There are some mentionable omissions here (live albums from Frank Zappa, Motorhead, more of the same slogging from Deep Purple and Ozzy, a reunion of sorts from Pink Floyd), but the list above is evidence enough to show that the scene has changed. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal has passed, and Maiden and their cohorts are beyond being the Establishment and are now rubbing shoulders with younger, faster and heavier acts once influenced by them. Potently, Slayer, Anthrax and Metallica are putting out some of their strongest and most enduring work, while the previous year has seen the rise and rise of Guns 'N' Roses. Iron Maiden are no longer the young men of heavy metal, and their sound is dating quickly.

Fortunately Maiden have a strong fan base, still command large audiences, and creatively are strong. Seventh Son is evidence of the band doggedly sticking to their guns in terms of sound, songwriting and influences, while indulging themselves further with their own influences. Prog rock has been a feature of their albums for some time, but this will be the last obvious nod for a few years from the band, and is in some way the last blow-out before a new sound and lineup is introduced. Crucially, it's also Adrian Smith's final album with the band for nearly ten years, and it's a testament to this relative latecomer that his absence will be felt keenly. 'Classic Maiden' as an entity are in the dying days of their first age, and though the band will never break up, its days as a recognisable element in modern heavy metal are numbered. But for now things are still good. Seventh Son is a strong album, and in terms of sales and unity it does deliver. Like the two albums before it at the time I knew it for one single, having seen the video for Can I Play With Madness (below) on Radio With Pictures - and liking it. But I didn't investigate further, seeing the album cover and easily passing it by. For years I didn't know that it was a 'concept album', and so unfamiliar with it that I was, foolishly misheard the Moonchild lyric "Babylon, the scarlet whore" and wondered why Bruce Dickinson was singing about He-Man's nemesis.

The Album
So to the album itself then. It's prog rock. You've had to hear the word 'prog' a fair bit here and I'm sorry, but that's the best description of it. It is prog in inspiration, intention and execution, and by that yardstick it succeeds and fails.

Seventh Son is largely, mind, a success - and commercially it certainly was, garnering great chart scores for most of its four singles and earning the band a headline at Donnington later that year. Where the album falters is where many prog projects tend to, and that is its execution. Seventh Son is a narrative which really only fills one half of an album, in a similar way perhaps to Kate Bush's contemporaneous Hounds of Love. And like that album its greatest commercial successes lie outside the actual narrative and in some very strong singles. That both Bush and Maiden had an audience more accepting of what by 1986 or 1988 was now a greatly dated and laboured album format was a credit to their success, so on that measure Maiden's indulgence isn't the risk that it might otherwise have been for artists working a more mainstream sound. The narrative in question is the story of the seventh son of a seventh son, and his Cassandra-like efforts to convince his mediaeval village home of an approaching disaster and, assuredly, their ignorance and his ultimate fate. It's a bleak tale skipped over lightly with some virtuoso performances and storytelling on the light side. Maiden fans being as fans are have devoted pages of the internet to deciphering the album's lyrics, the sleeve illustrations see below) and lumping in the usual suspects - tarot, Crowley, fantasy fiction (in this instance Orson Scott Card) to try and make sense of it. I don't think there's much sense to be made of it myself. Opening track Moonchild begins threatening to equal Spinal Tap's Stonehenge for cheese but soon evolves into a thumping and addictive piece, and an obvious live highlight. From there however the tale slips, but of the three intervening songs only Infinite Dreams plods - and even then it lurches to a faster tempo and crashes to another stomping conclusion. Madness and Evil are very sound singles and wise choices, the latter being one of my favourite Maiden tracks of all, simply for the rapid-fire guitar work (carried over from the pacier tracks off Somewhere In Time) and Bruce Dickinson in great form behind the mic.

And then the story returns, with the album's longest tracks filling us in. Seventh Son and The Prophecy are not immediately approachable pieces with their length, timing changes and in some places multiple character voices. Of the two I prefer the former, but Dave Murray's contribution to the plodding latter is significant, and his outro is one of the most elegant guitar pieces of Maiden's golden years, in a way a sign of work to come from him and his future understudy. The Clairvoyant is the album's final single, strangely uplifting in its subject matter (the protagonist's death, vaguely alluded to), and as many have said, actual final track Only The Good Die Young is perhaps too short and much underrated, a refrain of Evil's rhythm but a neat summary of the album's themes. If it wasn't obvious that it is the doomed seer's own words in the lyrics, you could be forgiven for thinking them those of Lucifer, mocking witness to the whole tragedy.
Iron Maiden don't get any more fantastic after this in theme or in places in sound. As an unwitting farewell to 'H' Smith's tenure it's a remarkable send-off, and closes the band's Eighties heights well. After this album everything changes, and the seeds of Maiden's future lineup and sound are being sown. It's almost as if you can imagine the fantasy novels and role playing games being packed away as the Stonehenge acoustic refrain arrives to finish things off. A curious album - in many places a really really good one, and certainly worthy of inclusion for the singles alone.

Album Artwork

Simply Derek Riggs' best, last cover for the band, and as much a nod to prog art designers Hipgnosis as the music is to the genre. Gone are the tumultuous and cloudy skies, the mad moons and murderous streets - everything has been thrown aside and onto its icy powder blue palette. Eddie is now ripped apart by his unborn child, his head a mishmash of Piece of Mind's cranial disfigurement, Somewhere in Time's cyborganics and Live After Death's lightning strike, his spine drips like mercury into a glassy sea, while on the back cover icebergs float above a frozen globe and out of their forms the shapes of Eddie's past incarnations - Satan-botherer, lobotomee, pharaoh, loom. And there's a book - but what book? Amusingly, fans have been at pains to interpret this piece and the equally impressive single sleeves also shown here, only to have Riggs freely admit years later that he just winged it, drawing what looked cool to him, and there was no hidden meaning intended, ever. And that's the side of Maiden I like to see most of all.

Tracks via YouTube:

Moonchild (album track)
Infinite Dreams (live video from Visions of the Beast)
Can I Play With Madness (official video - with Graham Chapman!)
The Evil That Men Do (live Maiden England video - great sound)
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (as above - long video, obviously)
The Prophecy (album track)
The Clairvoyant (live Donnington track - great video)
Only the Good Die Young (album track)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Changing Face of the Dalek Cake

The despotic and brilliantly twisted scientist Davros spent decades developing the survival vehicle of the mutant Kaled creature to transform it into a ruthless universal killing machine. My good wife took just a couple of birthdays.

Behold: the Mark IV Travelling Cake on 27/7/95:

And its descendant on 24/7/10:

Monday, July 5, 2010

Video Affects - Shriekback Nemesis (1985)

A rare example of "I know where I was when I first saw this" applied to music videos, my first encounter with Shriekback's Nemesis took place at the house of my friend Derek, during the holidays near the end of 1985. We had been watching his music videos, particularly those of Sting, whom we both were into at the time, and Derek remembered that he'd videoed (ahh, nostalgia) the previous night's Radio With Pictures. So it was obviously a Monday. Probably the first Monday of the summer holidays, a gloriously languid and sun-drenched day as they all were at the time, the air buzzing with wildlife and the footpath outside his parents' architecturally-designed home almost ticking in the heat. I digress. We fast-forwarded idly through the videos - was ZZ Tops' Legs in among them? Unlikely. How about Neil Young's This Bud's For You? Possibly. But the last clip of the night, the last episode of RWP for the year, was reserved for presenter Karen Hay's favourite video of the year, and it was Nemesis. After a few blasts of Synchronicity II we definitely favoured Shriekback's offering in the end, and must have played it until we could remember the whole thing (although it would take years before I could decipher its bizarre lyrics.)

Nemesis represented a curious and infectious collision of worlds in our heads; though I speak for both me and my friend we were very much alike in interests and obsessions. With shaven-headed singer Barry Andrews purring his way through a melange of odd images, looking for all the world like Robin of Sherwood's latter-day villain Gulnar, the clip promised more - a Bacchanalean feast, weird masks of wood and feathers, black glassy eels and most thrilling of all, the Arch-Deviant himself, Pat Mills' comic creation Nemesis the Warlock as a slow-mo phantom swathed in red mist. Shriekback's lyrics are, it turned out, nonsensical, but contained wonderfully arch vocal triggers that caught our young ears - "In the jungle of the senses/Tinkerbell and Jack the Ripper"..."We drink elixirs that we refine/from the juices of the dying"…"Call in the airstrike/with the poison kiss". The music itself is harsher than the band's earlier, dreamlike and more avant garde efforts, with guitars and real drums to the forefront, and Sarah and Wendy Partridge's shrill screamed vocals matching the synthetic strings during the choruses. That it makes no sense either visually or lyrically has opened the song up to various interpretations - is it about the comic strip? Probably not. Is it about mankind's destructive urge? Maybe. Is it about the postulated 'death star'? Some (not me) think so. It doesn't matter though, Nemesis is three minutes and forty-three seconds of sensoral wonder set adrift in the mid-Eighties and in one moment changed my musical tastes from pop to something more askew (ironically, its parent album Oil and Gold is regarded as Shriekback's most commercially succesful). I returned briefly to Sting and the Police, but never let go of Shriekback and still have three of their albums in my permanent collection. And every time I hear Nemesis I return to that day when my mind met something quite recognisable and alien at the same time.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Talkin' Eds - Somewhere in Time (1986)

1986 is a watershed year for heavy metal and its dalliance with popular music. Among the big hitters for this year and some months beyond are strong and commercially succesful entries from the US (Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet) and Europe (Europe's The Final Countdown). As a short reminder to Iron Maiden from their stablemates in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal their friends have chalked up another strong album with Mutt Lange and will be huge as a result - Def Leppard's Hysteria is mere months away. The Powerslave and Live After Death albums and World Slavery Tour have filled arenas and stadiums and spread the word globally for Maiden, but it seems that the sort of teenybopper crossover that the likes of Jon Bon Jovi and Joe Elliott achieved will not be shared by Bruce Dickinson and company. Success will continue assuredly, but for the most part as it has always done - in exchange for hard work.

For myself this album was almost entirely new territory, being like Powerslave more of interest for its cover artwork than songs. I'd gone off Maiden and had moved onto other stuff - poppier stuff, as it turned out. Maiden seemed to be a bit embarrassing by then, and the ownership claimed by the guys at my school into the band and Metal at the time didn't convince me otherwise - they were welcome to each other. It'd be a few years before I'd even hear my favourite song from the album, as I recall.

The album
The first thing that strikes you is the synth, or rather, guitar-synth. Time is the first of Maiden's albums to employ the instrument and as it goes with these things, the instrument is very much at the front of the band's sound for much of this album. The sound itself is BIG. Maybe too big for low volumes, and it seems designed to replicate a stadium experience, as do some of the compositions within. Everything is larger and more echo-ey, as though the band fell into a tank of reverb on the way to the studio. The two guitarists audibly multitrack their instruments so their attack is fuller, and Steve Harris' bass is turned up to match them. Against them Dickinson wails bravely, but some of the songs aren't his best work - the album opener in particular has him wavering in paces with pitch, and introducing his low cackle between songs, maybe to give his throat some variety. He's still absolutely on form, but an album of this sort of approach gets wearying, to my ears.

Opening track Caught Somewhere in Time introduces a loose theme across the album of the passage of time, displacement and isolation. It’s a mixed bag to begin with - the vocals are typical of the problem I note before, but the the guitars are great, buzzing like wasps during the chorus lead-in. What stands out of course are the opening bars and the new instrument brought into the band's repertoire with this album, the guitar synth. It's not entirely a success, although Caught doesn't suffer particularly from their use. What struck me on listening to the track for the first time was that, having put it into the rather sensitive CD player on our home PC, it skipped while playing, but in such a way as to not be entirely noticeable - I thought it was an extra vocal effect and was even more bewildered!

The centrepiece of the album comes early, with track two Wasted Years being the highlight, The Trooper of Somewhere in Time, perhaps. Adrian Smith's song of longing on the road ("I close my eyes and think of home/another city rolls by in the night") and the existential reality of life on tour bookmarks Maiden at their height, but is a troubled piece, recalling not too subtly the pressure of continued international touring, (From the Coast of Gold across the seven seas/travelling on far and wide/ but now it seems I'm just a stranger to myself/And the things I sometimes do, it isn't me but someone else") and potentially nodding to the band's alumni who fell along the way. Just as potently it predates Smith's departure from the band, and though it ultimately exhorts the listener enjoy the moment ("don't waste your time always searching for those wasted years… realise you're living in the golden years") it's hard not to hear the song as his attempt to call time out. Such personal songs - even songs about relationships, the concerns of one's life outside the fantastic or metaphysical, are rare indeed for Maiden.

Following these tracks are Sea of Madness, a reasonably light track with Dickinson's vocals veering toward Ozzzy Osbourne's in the chorus, eschewing any modulation of the notes sung. Its bridge section is a little odd too, using chorused backing guitar effects and Dickinson singing in the upper register, again resembling another artists, in this instance the Police circa Regatta de Blanc... Heaven Can Wait is a live favourite with a great pace and tricksy lyrics, while The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner has great energy, although the aforementioned vocal approach by Dickinson is better used in the verses than choruses.

Adrian Smith returns to write another single for the album, Stranger In a Strange Land, which owes nothing to the Biblical quote (the Apostle Paul, I believe) or the Heinlein novel, but is instead based on a true story of a lost Antarctic explorer and the discovery of his frozen remains decades after his death. After a strong opening the song loses me. I think the synthesiser stabs throughout speak a little too much of their era, reminding me of Rage Hard from Frankie Goes to Hollywood's limp Liverpool of the same year.

Dave Murray's songs are best classed a guilty pleasure for me. Lyrically he's not the best writer of the band by any measure, but his hooks are usually enough to carry these sometimes weaker songs through. De Ja Vu is my favourite of his, a short and punchy song about ... well, examples of de ja vu, I guess. It worked for Alanis Morrisette providing examples (good and poor) of irony, so why not? Surprisingly it's never been played live, which is a shame be cause there are some enjoyably sing-along parts to it.

In closing the album Alexander the Great continues the same trick as the earlier To Tame a Land. It's a 'list' song, this time of a real world hero, and musically it's got some great structure and invention. Against this though the lyrics suffer a little, being precisely what they are. Some of the composition will be revisited some albums down the track, and for what it's worth I prefer the later.

Album cover
As Powerslave put its hero into a historical, global setting, so Somewhere in Time launches him into the future and something more sci-fi. Introducing Robo-Eddie! I groaned when I first saw this, it seemed so so obvious and derivative, but the cyborg design of our hero has truly endured, spawning model kits, a video game character, a revival for the Somewhere Back in Time compilation (of course) and he was the Eddie of choice for the tour of the same name. The artwork's great, but in 3-D he's even more impressive. There's a lot going on here - beyond Eddie visually referencing the contemporary Terminator/RoboCop trend (was someone listening to the album when Torchwood's Cyberwoman was being designed? They should be introduced), in the background is a Blade Runner-styled city made up of around 40 references to past Maiden albums, songs, venues and people. There's even Batman and a TARDIS, and Eddie's posture and the curled hand of his victim would suggest that this is a futuristic revisiting of Riggs' artwork for Killers. Is it the same street corner a century on, perhaps? Notably, the single sleeve for Stranger in a Strange Land puts Eddie in a Star Wars cantina-type future noir bar, an image that would itself be referenced in a future Maiden video.

Caught Somewhere in Time
Wasted Years
(official video)
Sea of Madness
Heaven Can Wait
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (album version)
Stranger in a Strange Land (official video)
De Ja Vu (album version)
Alexander the Great (fan made video)