The sound of Iron Maiden dying
n spite of what their first seven albums would imply, not even the mighty Iron Maiden are infallible, and actually weathered out the ’90s with very little of their musical worth or dignity intact. While Blaze Bayley is rightfully singled out as the worst thing about the Iron Maiden albums of this time period, don’t think that the two Bruce Dickinson fronted albums from the earlier half of the decade were much better. Far from it in fact; while I’m not too fond of this band’s 2nd Dickinson era albums, it’s also pretty obvious to me that a release like No Prayer for the Dying is a far less creative and (quite amazingly) a more musically stagnant and tired-sounding effort. It represents the band quickly losing creative steam and poorly integrating some outside influence to the proceedings as well. This is easily one of the weakest Maiden albums, as well their most annoying.
The music isn’t especially far removed from their ’80s albums, but the songs nevertheless lack the larger-than-life quality presented on the 5 albums that came before this one; it was a mood achieved through complex songwriting and intelligent riff construction built around the omnipresent guitar harmonies. This is a considerably more stripped back, rock-infused album, and while this regression alone doesn’t make it a write-off the depths the band have plumbed is truly stunning. There is a near-total lack of high quality, memorable and thought out riffs and harmonies, with the guitars mostly playing bland metallic hard rock fodder that lacks any of the energy, atmosphere and intelligence of their older works. It’s very run of the mill and forgettable music, okay while it’s on but out of one’s memory a short while after the album has finished. That’s not to say it’s all bad though, with competent soloing in spite of the loss of Adrian Smith and Steve Harris’ usual bass guitar wizardry, but these plus points alone don’t save the album.
To make matters worse, Bruce Dickinson puts forward one his most irritating vocal performances. While his voice retains its range he too has taken on board some hard rock influence, resulting in a gravelly inflection to his singing. This isn’t a problem on its own, but as a result of this he seemingly can’t hit a good clean note or put melody into his voice, instead simply shouting over the music with little restraint. The relatively banal music no longer accommodates for any gravitas or passion Bruce might have been able to put into his singing, and the music’s lack of intrigue also makes this a more vocally oriented effort, further exacerbating these issues.
However, in spite of the mediocrity of the instruments and the bad vocals in front of them the real killer here is the songwriting, which is both a very large step down from before and bad even when this album is viewed in its own microcosm. The songs are largely flat and unengaging; there’s very little in the way of intelligence or nuance in the structuring of a lot of these songs. They all have a tendency to repeat themselves a lot and not go anywhere. There is a clear lack of focus and development in the musical ideas used in each track, and despite the relatively short lengths of all of these tracks they tend to meander and ride off one idea like a strong intro (you need look no further than ‘Tailgunner’ for an example of this.) There’s very little depth to the compositions or any sort of atmosphere. Few winners emerge from this album as a result; just about everything is simply too dull and shallow – certainly the title track is a decent half-ballad and ‘Mother Russia’ lacks Bruce’s awful singing but everything else is either textbook rockametal or a song with promise that goes nowhere, aside from the hilariously bad ‘Holy Smoke’ which sounds like an overly simplified punkish commercial track gone very wrong.
The repetitious nature of the songs does mean a few hooks are catchy (there’s a good reason ‘Bring Your Daughter…’ is a live staple and it isn’t because you want to remember it) but this can be said of any piece of music, memorability derived from good craftsmanship is a far more meaningful indicator of quality. The lyrics on this album are very poor, especially considering the poetry and epic stories Iron Maiden had delivered in the past. The aforementioned pseudo-classic is one case, but the incoherent ramblings of ‘Tailgunner’ or the mindless tripe of ‘Holy Smoke’ will serve as equally apt examples of their failure on the lyrical front – in fact only the title track and ‘Mother Russia’ have decent lyrics. And as a final insult even the production is a step down, with the drums having a dry sound to them and everything else sounding decidedly lifeless and tired. Quite how a band that was a bastion of excellence that redefined metal could crash and burn like this remains something of a mystery. It’s a tragic album this; the downfall of a heavy metal legend. Do not seek this out unless you wish to be irritated or saddened.