Well, we’re almost there… It’s not too big a statement to make to suggest that, alongside Judas Priest, Iron Maiden are the main reason this magazine exists; and, with a new Maiden album on the horizon (in case you’ve been living under a rock, the band’s new offering, Senjutsu, is scheduled for release on September 3rd), we decided to reactivate our august Worldwide panel of metal’s great and good to poll them on the ten finest Maiden albums of all time. They responded – like the, um, Troopers they are – and here, in all it’s glory is the result…
ALBUMS FOR THE AGES – IRON MAIDEN
10. The Book of Souls (2015)
Emerging in the wake of those rumours of the imminent demise of Bruce Dickinson at the hands of a cancerous tumour, the expectancy surrounding The Book of Souls on it’s release in 2015 made it the most eagerly anticipated Maiden album since the ‘reunion’ record, Brave New World a decade and a half earlier. Was it worth the wait?
At the time I’d probably have said no, as the album threatened to collapse under the weight of it’s own self importance at ninety two minutes in length; just three of those songs, The Red and the Black, the title track and Dickinson’s mock opera Empire of the Sun contributed to forty plus minutes of that as bassist Steve Harris‘ grim-faced mission to prove that ‘progressive’ can only ever mean ‘unwieldy and in need of some serious self-editing’ in his book neared it’s natural conclusion. But, at a decent remove, time has proven The Book of Souls to be the best of the latter-day Iron Maiden albums, reaching heights that none of the others have come close to since Brave New World. Sure the who-ohs are a bit over done and you know what’s coming more often than not, but tracks like Death or Glory, that title track and Tears of a Clown are surely good enough to hold their own in the pantheon of Maiden greats. As it turns out, The Book of Souls will be a hard act for Senjutsu to follow… Scott Adams.
9. Fear of the Dark (1992)
It’s ironic that, though the prog side of Maiden would never really come to fruition until after the 2000 reunion with Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith, there are real moments of progressive rock on 1992 album Fear of the Dark – portions of Afraid To Shoot Strangers are eerily reminiscent of Marillion‘s Forgotten Sons, for instance – that perhaps position this as an album closer to latterday Maiden than the glory records that had preceded it through the eighties. In many ways a strange album – it was Bruce’s last of his original tenure, the last to feature involvement from producer Martin Birch who had done so much to help forge the Maiden sound, the first to be co-produced by Steve Harris, perhaps the best thing most people had to say at the time of release was that it wasn’t as bad as it’s predecessor, No Prayer For The Dying…
It’s an album born of frustration; Dickinson wasn’t fully invested in the album, phoning in a performance that at times sounded more like his idol Ian Gillan doing the pub metal circuit than the man who had held the world spellbound with tales of Ancient Mariners and Seventh Sons, whilst Harris was keen to show the world that he was master of all he surveyed, and more than just a galloping sergeant major. The result was a record that too often fell between too many stools to be truly satisfying but in the process spawned all time Maiden classics like the title track and coruscating opener Be Quick or Be Dead. It also spawned real, bona fide clunkers like Weekend Warrior, but we need not talk about that here in what is meant to be a celebration of Maiden’s finest. Good in parts… Gavin Strickmann.
8. Brave New World (2000)
Smith. Dickinson. Riggs. All names back in the fold for Iron Maiden’s first foray into twenty first century metal; the Brave New World, it would seem, was actually all about looking backwards but you’d not have heard a single metalhead complaining about that as they waited, agog, to hear what Maiden’s reunion album would sound like, and how Eddie might look in Huxley’s dystopian future…
These questions and many more were quickly answered by first single The Wicker Man; a classic Smith/Harris/Dickinson chart-bothering romp, it contained every aspect required to reignite Maiden mania after a run of four albums in a decade that saw the band becoming ever more acquainted with the law of diminishing returns. The nineties weren’t kind to Iron Maiden, as was the case with many other trad metal names; Brave New World was the start of the fight back. Ghost of the Navigator may have been …Mariner lite, but it was performed with such exuberance and panache that that was forgiven, and by the time the band reached the two early set piece epics, Brave New World and Blood Brothers, it was like the glory years had never been away.
In some ways BNW can be seen as similar to Judas Priest’s reunion album, Angel of Retribution, especially the fact that at times the band seemed guilty of trying to make a ‘quintessential’ band album, bolted together using classic tropes from the past; when seen in context of the time and what went before, it can be said that Brave New World was in fact far more successful. It was the album the band absolutely had to make in 2000, and still stands strong today as one of the band’s key works… Ferry Templeton.
7. Iron Maiden (1980)
Even after all that’s been written, much of it in officially-approved biographies or said in in-house-produced DVDs, it’s hard to over emphasise just what an important album Iron Maiden’s 1980 debut was and is. As a young punk from South London with a hearty mistrust of anyone ‘heavy’ apart, of course, from Motörhead, Maiden somehow appealed through their street level sensibilities and down-to-earth, sleazy East End tales. Guitarist Dennis Stratton may well have worn the sort of silk kimono type tops more favoured by the likes of Styx and Boston – but you got the idea he’d wear them down his local and hang one on any one who might take exception. And that’s a very punk thing to do indeed.
And so, even if the band did, in ‘Arry’s words, ‘despise’ everything punk as a movement stood for, their music in it’s raw, working class, no-nonsense fashion, was actually more punk than art school dilettantes like Wire could ever conceive. There was clearly no side to short haired singer Paul Di’Anno, either; and whilst the bloke could clearly sing, he eschewed the preening and caterwauling favoured by most of his metal compadres. This was music as made by fans for fans, and as such opened heavy metal to people like me who had previously deemed it as something for grammar school kids and bearded weirdos festooned in Rush-patched denim. An historic album that shifted music’s tectonic plates in more ways than one… Michael Stronge.
6. Killers (1981)
If 1980’s self-titled debut told you squarely – and very loudly – where East End ‘erberts Iron Maiden had come from, it’s successor album, Killers, very clearly marked out where they were headed.
Despite mining some of it’s material from the same time period as that debut, the addition of producer Martin Birch to the Maiden ranks immediately transformed the band’s ‘roughly-hewn stable boy charm’, in the process marking the band out not just as the leaders of the burgeoning NWoBHM movement, but also as potential world beaters of the kind English heavy metal hadn’t produced in some while.
So, despite some earth dogs and rivet heads bemoaning the cleaning up of the essentials of the Maiden sound, not many were actually complaining about the quality of the songs. These songs also benefited from the acquisition of Adrian Smith to complement Dave Murray in the six string department. Previous incumbent Dennis Stratton, good player though he was, clearly belonged in the ranks of more melodically-inclined acts like Praying Mantis; Smith’s gritty, rhythmic playing fitted beautifully with the sleeker, faster playing of Murray, transforming even more workaday tracks like Another Life into storming, strutting classics. And then, of course, you had the peerless drumming of Clive Burr.
Burr combined the swing of Ian Paice with the power of Cozy Powell – in short, he might well have been the complete heavy rock drummer. Have a listen to his work on instrumental Genghis Khan just to remind yourself of how good the man was.
A great album that has stood the test of time… GS
5. Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988)
As the culmination of everything Iron Maiden had been working towards throughout the eighties, 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son must be viewed as the band’s crowning glory. Others may prefer the visceral thrill of the Di’Anno albums, some might prefer the full-on metal glory of the first two Bruce albums (that’s me – Ed.), but surely everyone must agree that SSoaSS is where everything comes together in the most perfect synthesis of everything that makes the band great…
It’s got a classic Maiden belter of an opener (Moonchild), hit singles everywhere you look – but most notably Can I Play With Madness and the superb The Evil That Men Do – mystic Steve Harris shenanigans (Infinite Dreams) and, of course, strident galloping (the title track), all wrapped in a superb late eighties production from the band’s eminence gris, Martin Birch. In short, the perfect Maiden album!
It all started to fall apart shortly afterwards, of course, as the band, worked to breaking point by relentless touring, became frazzled and fractious in equal measure. But for one, short but brightly-burning moment, they were the biggest heavy metal band in the world thanks to this album… FT
4. Somewhere In Time (1986)
Coming hard on the heels of the World dominating Powerslave tour, you can’t escape the slightly dark feeling that perhaps surprisingly envelops Somewhere In Time. For all it’s glossy, airbrushed use of hi-tech utensils, there’s a brooding melancholy about tracks like Wasted Years and Stranger in a Strange Land that points to a band that’s lost control of it’s own destiny, trapped on the treadmill of public demand and an industry whose gaping maw demands more ‘product’ the more successful a band becomes…
The irony, of course, is that those two songs are jewels in the Adrian Smith canon, testament to the man’s supreme artistry as a songwriter. Through the pain, through the ennui, through the mind-numbing exhaustion, he comes up with two of the band’s greatest ever hit singles. Out of torment comes beauty. Music can indeed soothe the savage beast.
The superb cover art, looking back wistfully at the band’s history thus far, also has a slightly sad, nostalgic air; and, despite the melody present throughout, and despite the use of guitar synths almost everywhere, there’s a dank heaviness present in tracks like Sea of Madness that actually marks the material here as some of the heaviest the band had committed to wax thus far.
When this album emerged, I felt it was something of a let down after the glorious pomp metal overload of Powerslave; time, however has revealed it to be something of an understated classic, containing some of the band’s best songwriting and studio performances ever… SA
3. Piece of Mind (1983)
From the opening drum fusillades of Where Eagles Dare through to the last strains of closer To Tame A Land, nothing screams ‘prime British heavy metal’ quite so much as Piece of Mind. Maiden had really arrived in 1982 with The Number of The Beast opus, and in many ways Piece of Mind was seen as something of a ‘holding’ operation at the time after the all-encompassing success of it’s predecessor. But any album that can kick off with an opening combination of …Eagles and the monolithic grandeur of Revelations is a monster in it’s own right, especially when augmented by colossal hit singles of the calibre of Flight of Icarus and The Trooper…
Maiden’s mix of Boys’ Own storytelling, superior musicianship and sheer joie de vivre had already proved itself to be a high octane blueprint for success over the course of the band’s first three albums, so much so that label EMI felt confident in sending these crafty cockneys all the way to the Bahamas to record Piece…; and if a little of the grit of the East End was lost in the process it was a price everyone was willing to pay to record at one of the World’s premiere studios, Compass Point. Gone are the tales of Tottenham knocking shops, to be replaced by more high-minded interpretations of the works of English philosopher G.K. Chesterton and the Greek mythological canon, but the band’s native wit still managed to shine on chirpy cuts like Die With Your Boots On. That said this is the band’s first work as a truly international force, and if it didn’t quite live up to it’s predecessor it did at least act as a very real, and very compelling harbinger of what was to come next… SA
2. Powerslave (1984)
Whilst my colleague Ferry Templeton may feel that Seventh Son of a Seventh Son is Maiden’s ‘crowning glory’ I’d have to say, respectfully, that he’s talking through his Iron hat… Surely anyone with ears to hear would hand that accolade to the band’s 1984 magnum opus, Powerslave?
Slightly superfluous instrumental Losfer Words aside, there is not one second of music wasted on Powerslave. Even tracks universally accepted (by idiots) as the weakest on the album, viz Flash of the Blade, The Duellists and the utterly titanic Back In The Village, would be the best on the albums recorded by most of the band’s ‘rivals’ at the time, and that’s before we even get to the album’s set piece classics…
Aces High, 2 Minutes To Midnight, the title track… yes, yes- all brilliant. Spine chillingly, ear jerkingly brilliant… But it is quite clear in my mind that these all pale into insignificance when put against the moment on the band’s Magnum Opus, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, at approximately 11:13, when the flashbombs explode and the band come back in after the quiet spoken word bit – this is the single greatest moment in heavy metal history.
I realise I’m describing the Live After Death version of the song, but that wouldn’t have existed without the studio version, and so I rest my case – Powerslave is the greatest Iron Maiden of all time… GS
All of which leaves the winner as…
1. The Number of the Beast (1982)
When you consider that a song as good as Total Eclipse couldn’t even make the cut to find it’s way on to original versions of Maiden’s breakthrough album The Number of The Beast – it was originally relegated to B-side status on the back of the Run To The Hills single – you start to realise just how good this record is. Add to that the fact that songs of the calibre of The Prisoner were often overlooked when it came to putting set lists together for years after the album came out, and you get a sense of just how good Iron Maiden were at this point in their career. Songs that other bands would kill for? We shit ’em…
Even though second album Killers had been a marked upturn from stellar debut Iron Maiden, there is little to suggest that anyone quite expected what was coming next outside of the band’s inner sanctum. The title track and ... Hills saw the band making their first concerted, consistent attack on the singles charts – previous action had been sporadic – but it’s the sheer consistency of everything else on the album that was the biggest surprise. Here Adrian Smith comes into his own as a songwriter, new vocalist Bruce Dickinson helps tighten things up behind the scenes despite being able to take the credit… this is the sound of a band pulling together, and throwing everything they had at an attempt to make the big time… and how.
That said, Steve Harris bears the brunt of the songwriting, and the title track and Hallowed Be Thy Name stand as outstanding examples of the man’s craft to this day. Freed from the shackles of Paul Di’Anno’s more limited range, Harris was able to write for a voice that would give wings to his ideas for the first time and it’s this combination which gave Maiden the X-Factor (no pun intended) they needed to get to the next level and beyond… The Number of the Beast is the sound of ambition realised, of potential gloriously unleashed. Truly an album for the ages… SA
Bind all of us together
Ablaze with hope and free
No storm or heavy weather
Will rock the boat you’ll see… here’s to Senjutsu!
Main Photo: Ross Halfin