Essential Albums #3: Iron Maiden: “A Matter Of Life And Death”

iron maiden

Many people probably considered Iron Maiden a nostalgia act when vocalist Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith rejoined the band in 2000. Those people should have known better.

In the years since Dickinson’s departure, Maiden had continued to move forward creatively. Although Blaze Bayley was no Bruce Dickinson, he was a strong vocalist and the band put him to good use on songs such as “The Clansman.” While the Blaze years didn’t match up to what the band had done with Dickinson in the ’80s and early ’90s, it’s hard to argue that Steve Harris, Iron Maiden’s musical leader, had lost his ability to write great songs.

Meanwhile, Dickinson’s solo work was pursuing a much darker road than Maiden had followed when he was with the band. “The Chemical Wedding,” which Dickinson cut in 1997 with producer/collaborator Roy Z and ex-Maiden guitarist Smith, is an essential album itself – moody, sinister and incredibly heavy, with moments of ethereal beauty and soaring vocals.  Instead of resting on past glories or simply touring on old Maiden material, Dickinson was growing beyond the traditional IM sound. Those influences would be felt when Dickinson and Smith rejoined Maiden in 2000.

When Smith departed, Iron Maiden hired Janek Gers, who had worked with Dickinson on his first solo album, “Tattooed Millionaire.” Instead of jettisoning Gers when Smith returned, the band kept him in the fold. Having a third guitarist in the band – along with Smith and longtime IM guitarist/songwriter Dave Murray – added a new layer of texture to the band’s already complex sound. Gers would also prove to be an asset as a songwriter.

“Brave New World,” released in 2000, was a strong album with several excellent moments – and “Dance of Death” (2003), was even stronger and more cohesive … but both albums were kept from achieving greatness. Like early ’80s classic Maiden albums “Piece of Mind” and “Powerslave,” “Brave New World and “Dance of Death” contain one or two filler songs that didn’t match up to the rest of the material. Now, a Maiden filler tune is still worlds better than the best work of lesser bands – but it seemed the reformed Maiden would be unable to make “perfect” albums, like “The Number of the Beast” and “Somewhere in Time.”

But the band , somehow, was still growing musically, and would achieve perfection again on “A Matter Of Life And Death.”

ironmaidenAt just over four minutes, album opener “Different World.” is and isn’t a traditional Maiden rocker. With producer Kevin Shirley at the controls, “Different World” has an energy that feels almost like a jam session. The song seems deceptively simple at first listen … but with three guitar players in the mix, nuances being to pop out for the attentive listener. While Harris and drummer Nick McBrain lay down a solid rhythm, Smith, Murray and Gers interlace guitar parts over one another. Lyrically, the song is personal in a way that Maiden avoided in the past: Instead of fantastic tales or stories out of history or literature, Dickinson sings about the personal uncertainty in life, of not knowing what will happen in the future where one fits in the scheme of things. Dickinson sounds positively urgent on “Different World” and the entire band sounds hungry. It’s the sound of a band not ready to rest.

Want proof? Here’s the vid for “Different World.

“These Colours Don’t Run” starts with a slow, muffled riff before speeding off into the first two verses. While “Different World” has a straight-ahead melody, “These Colours” shifts tempo at the midpoint, for a several minute instrumental section before the reverting back to the original riff.

“Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” is the first “epic” of the album. After an ominous opening riff and subdued Dickinson vocals, the song explodes, with an operatic chorus, a mid-section galloping time change and another temp shift before reverting back to the chorus for the final moments. The guitars stand out, McBrain’s drums sound huge and Harris’ bass lines swirl like currents under the main melody.

Maiden has tackled history in song before, but “Suns” is not a black and white recitation. A song about the creation of the atomic bomb, the tone of one of moral ambivilence and horror. The aura of uncertainty colors “Suns,” making it one of the most lyrically complex songs in Maiden’s history.

Here’s a live version of “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns,” from Abbey Road studios.

“The Pilgrim” is an examination of the evangelical spirit that leads to holy war. Gers and Harris create a driving melody, only to throw a left hook after the chorus, with a Middle Eastern riff that could hardly be accidental. “The Longest Day” is history again – this time of the Normandy invasion during World War II – and the song ratchets up the tension with a quiet, building opening, drums like artillery explosions and a sudden soaring vocal line and galloping melody. A long instrumental midsection allows the band to showcase their triple guitar work, while throwing in effortless time changes. The lyrics focus in on the people in the boats and on the beaches, and Dickinson soars through the long high notes effortlessly.

“Out of the Shadows” is metal balladesque, and you’ll be forgiven for noting similarities between the song and “Revelations.” But the song is another showcase for Dickinson’s pipes, and the man proves he can still wail with the best. “Operatic” is a pretty fitting description for the man’s style and Dickinson is still capable of belting out high notes that reach the back row. Strong solos and an unexpected time change make “Shadows” a solid song indeed.

“The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg” is an “I see dead people, and they’re driving me insane” Maiden monster on par with “Revelations” and even “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” It’s a BIG song: Heavy riffs, a lumbering central beat, a sudden unexpected gallop in the mid-section and another great vocal performance. Everyone sounds inspired and the triple guitars are put to good use, before the abrupt halt and acoustic coda.

Since I’m all about the videos this time, here’s the official vid for “Benjamin Breeg.”

Maiden has tackled religion before, but not in quite the same way as in “For The Greater Good Of God” and “Lord Of Light.” “For The Greater Good …” is Harris’ examination of religion and the morality of religious violence. From a quiet opening, the song blasts into a trampling beat before swinging into a gallop for the chorus. A time change brings in the solos and a long instrumental section before the song swings back to the chorus and fade out. At almost 10 minutes, the song requires some concentration, but it’s impressive in both its musical ambition and for Harris’ willingness to take on such lyrically dense material.

“Lord Of Light” is not so much sympathy for the devil, but the observation that the devil is us. “The Legacy” is a good companion for “Lord Of Light.” “Legacy” is another look at war – they’re rife on this album – and Dickinson’s delivery is again urgent and relentless in the verses and soaring in the time change. The guitars again stand out and the song goes soars toward epic status before the acoustic fade.

Maiden did a tour where they performed “AMOLAD” in its entirety. Some fans grumbled, but the tour made sense: The album is one of the strongest in the band’s career. It deserves to be ranked with “Somewhere in Time” and “The Number of the Beast.”

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3 Comments

  1. great article! makes me wanna listen to some newer maiden

  2. Liked your piece of AMOLAD. In conversations I’ve had, there seems to be this divide between those that were a part of the golden era catalogue of Maiden and have not heard newer Maiden albums (Brave New World, Dance of Death, and A Matter of Life and Death) to those that have recently picked up on Maiden’s newer material and either don’t know about their golden era catalogue or are slowly getting into it.

    I liked how you focused more on the musicianship of the Blayze Bayley era than BB himself. For me, it was more of a combination that was lacking – vocals, artwork, etc. on those two albums.

    Look forward to reading your pieces on Accept, S.O.D., and Anthrax, especially the particular album you mention.

  3. […] follower … hell, I selected “A Matter of Life And Death” as one of my essential albums picks. But I have to side with Ozzy here; Ozzfest was Ozzy’s show and if Bruce didn’t […]


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