Essential Albums: Bruce Dickinson, “The Chemical Wedding”

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After 1988, Iron Maiden took a creative nose dive.

Perhaps the years of extended touring took a toll on the band. Or, perhaps, after the classic 1988 album, “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son,” the band’s well had run temporarily dry. Perhaps the band members were just sick of each other and needed a break.

Whatever the reason, “No Prayer for the Dying” and “Fear of the Dark” were very much hit-and-miss albums. It’s also true that, around 1989, the metal scene began changing dramatically; compared to metal albums like Soundgarden’s “Louder Than Love,” Pantera’s “Vulgar Display of Power,” and Alice in Chain’s “Facelift,” those post “Seventh Son” Iron Maiden albums sounded like an unwelcome time capsule from 1982. Although the song “Fear of the Dark” is a classic, the majority of the early 1990s Maiden output is uninspiring. When guitarist Adrian Smith left during work on “No Prayer” and frontman Bruce Dickinson departed after “Fear of the Dark,” it seemed like the band’s time in the sun was over.

In Jeff Wagner’s biography on progressive metal, Mean Deviation, Dickinson says he was frustrated by Maiden’s desire to stay on the well-trod NWOBHM path. Shortly before and then after leaving Maiden, Dickinson’s made several well-received solo albums — “Tattooed Millionaire,” “Balls to Picasso,” “Skunkworks” and “Accident of Birth” — which certainly had some shades of Maiden, while showing Dickinson wasn’t afraid to go his own way.

All of those albums have high points and bright moments, but Dickinson’s solo masterpiece was 1998’s “The Chemical Wedding.”

Darker and heavier than anything Dickinson had done with Maiden, “The Chemical Wedding” paired Dickinson with guitarist/producer Roy Z, Adrian Smith on second guitar and the searing rhythm section of Eddie Casillas (bass) and David Ingraham (drums). Dickinson and Z co-wrote the album (with a couple assists from others in the band), and the two had a musical connection that really shines here. The album was far better than anything Maiden had done without Dickinson in the 1990s, and can stand toe-to-toe with Maiden’s best work in the 1980s. It’s an album that shouldn’t be missed.

“The King in Crimson” opens the album with a downtuned, minor-key roar that is more Black Sabbath than Iron Maiden. But even the Sabbath reference lasts only for the first 30 seconds, before kicking into a driving rhythm. Dickinson spits out the lyrics with venom in his voice, and solos are hard-hitting. It makes for a compelling start.

A word about the solos. Anyone familiar with Maiden will recognize Smith’s guitar style, which fits well here. Roy Z’s style is very different — Z often hits with a blizzard of notes in his solos. It’s not the Smith/Dave Murray combination familiar to Maiden fans, but it works. Smith and Z also shine while playing in unison, like on the solo for “The Tower.”

“Chemical Wedding” is one of the standout tracks on the album — it’s big, grand, operatic and pounding, with a superb performance by Dickinson. “The Tower” also impresses, with a sinewy guitar line, a pulse-pounding rhythm and another one of those great Dickinson choruses he nails so often on the album.

“Killing Floor” is not at all bad, but not quite up to the power of the first tracks. But all memory of “Killing Floor” is wiped away immediately by the rage of “Book of Thel,” which displays Dickinson at the angriest he’s ever sounded in his career. It’s a stunning, blazing roar, one hundred times darker than anything Maiden achieved on “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” (the darkest of the band’s ’80s albums). Midway through, the tempo shifts upward for a pair of fiery solos, particularly by Roy Z. Somehow, the band manages to wind the tempest down to a piano coda and a bit of poetry.

“Gates of Urizen” is slower in tempo (but not quite a ballad), that nicely showcases Dickinson’s ability to sing softly when he wants (although he does soar on the choruses). It’s a solid track, but it gets eclipsed by “Jerusalem,” a reworking of a classic English song that gives Dickinson a chance to indulge his inner Medieval bard. I suppose it jars a bit, compared to the angry outbursts of “King in Crimson,” “Killing Floor” and “Book of Thel.” But, it’s a great work, lovely, even. The twin guitars of Smith and Z also shine again.

“Trumpets of Jericho” is a rousing blast of anger and angst, with one of Dickinson’s best vocal performances on the album. It’s a fast, dirty, heavy track, with quite a lot of power. It’s a powerhouse, the first of a powerhouse triple-play that ends the disc.

While comparisons to previous Maiden songs are easy (and lazy), “Machine Men” is another examination of the themes of “Two Minutes of Midnight” — but it’s sung from a place of such hate that it’s mind-blowing. “Turn the lights down in your soul/Cut the power to your heart,” Dickinson bites out, with a bile so fierce Dickinson sounds ready to kill. It’s chilling and hair-raising. Which, of course, makes it a standout.

“The Alchemist” closes the album on a somber note. It’s musically a bit more subdued than what came immediately before, but Dickinson’s operatic delivery is stellar. It’s perhaps the most Maidenesque song on the album (this song would have fit well on “Seventh Son,” and would’ve closed that disc better than “Only The Good Die Young”). In a nice bit of symmetry, Dickinson circles back to “Chemical Wedding” to close out the song.

I spend too much time debating whether certain albums or bands are “progressive” or not, but I think a good argument can be made that Dickinson really stretched his creative wings on “The Chemical Wedding.” It’s bold in it’s dark moments, while also containing a beauty on songs like “Jerusalem” that likely would have been ruled out place on a Maiden album. Dickinson’s skills as a songwriter are really on display here. After the power of “The Chemical Wedding,” Dickinson was able to rejoin Maiden not as a man needing a career boost (since he was actually in a stronger position than Maiden at the time, I’d say), but as a songwriter and performer at the absolute top of his game.

As a postscript, I’d  say the influence of “The Chemical Wedding” has been felt on some of Maiden’s 21st Century work. Maiden’s disturbing and powerful “A Matter of Life and Death” has a “Chemical Wedding” vibe particularly on tracks like “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” and “For The Greater Good of God.”

I don’t know if every Maiden fan will love it, because it’s way darker (there’s that word again) and bleaker than the traditional Maiden album. But listeners wanting to hear one the best vocalists in metal (if not the best vocalist in metal) grapple with a titanic metal monster, and win, should track down “The Chemical Wedding.” I don’t get the feeling it did much business in the U.S., which is too bad. It’s an album that deserves to be heard.

Ozzy/Iron Maiden feud continues

I thought the 2005 feud between Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne and Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson was so five years ago. But to Ozzy, those wounds are apparently still pretty fresh.

On Thursday, the good folks at Blabbermouth, reposted a recent interview Ozzy gave to The Quietus. If you don’t remember, Iron Maiden were co-headiners on the main stage along with Black Sabbath during the 2005 Ozzfest tour. At the last show of the tour, Sharon Osbourne allegedly arranged for Maiden’s P.A. system to be turned off several times during the band’s set, and also allegedly had people throw eggs at the band.

When asked about the incident, Ozzy told The Quietus: “You know what? Unbeknown to me, every night (Dickinson) was going on stage slagging me off. And that wasn’t fair. If he didn’t like the (expletive deleted) tour, he should have said ‘I’m jumping [off] the (deleted) tour,’ but to go on stage and (deleted) slag me off for no reason… I’d never said a (deleted) bad thing to him. The bass player [Steve Harris] came round at the last gig and said ‘I’m sorry about Bruce,’ and I’m like, ‘What the (deleted) are you talking about?’ Nobody had told me, you know. I said, ‘You know what? I don’t understand what the (deleted) you’re talking about here.’

“And so, I mean, Sharon got pissed off… it was nothing to do with me. I suppose Sharon got pissed off. I’ll back my wife up to the hilt, but I didn’t know what was going down. But you know what? [MAIDEN were getting] a few (deleted) quid out of that Ozzfest. If you’ve got something to talk to me about, be a man. Come to my face and say, “I think you’re a (deleted)a**hole.” Don’t be a (deleted) idiot. It’s so pathetically childish.”

I wasn’t at the infamous “egg” show, but I did see Maiden at the Ozzfest stop in Holmdel, New Jersey that summer … and I thought Dickinson was pretty damn surly that night. I remember Dickinson taking a not-so-oblique shot at Ozzy by telling the audience he (Dickinson) didn’t need a teleprompter to remember his songs. At the time, I thought Bruce was being a little unfair to the Oz, who put on a stellar performance with Sabbath later that night.

Bruce didn’t reserve his disdain for Ozzy, either. At one point, Bruce started mocking the people in the seats closest to the stage (the venue had a few rows of seats for the high-paying customers … and made the rest of us sit a few football fields away on the lawn). Bruce apparently got mad because the people in the seats weren’t standing up during the set, and started ragging them about how they were a bunch of lazy, jaded jerks, taking up the “corporate” seats while the “real” Iron Maiden fans were stuck on the lawn.

Since I was also planted on the lawn, I didn’t think Bruce was being unfair at the time … but in retrospect, if I’d paid good money to sit up front, I would’ve been pissed that the band I’d dropped hard-earned cash to see was giving me grief.

On a side note, can I tell  you I’ll never go to Ozzfest again? The tour itself wasn’t terrible – Sabbath, Maiden, In Flames, Mastodon and Soilwork all put on great performances – but the day was also crowded with mediocre or uninspired performances (Black Label Society, Rob Zombie)  and outright crappy bands (Mudvayne). Further, the stupid thing started so early that we missed Arch Enemy’s 15 minute set entirely.

And it was hot; one poor guy flopped down with heat exhaustion directly in front of us, you had to pay for autographs in the “meet the bands” tent and a large unattractive segment of the audience stripped down to their sweaty, stinky underwear. The weirdest thing I saw that day was a old geezer, who looked a lot an extra from a Hell’s Angels movie, pushing a maybe 15 year-old girl through the crowd in a possessive, “bad touch” sort of way. Classy.

Well, back to Bruce and Ozzy. I do love me some Iron Maiden. I’m a bigger Maiden fan than Ozzy/Sabbath 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 want to spend the summer opening for Ozzy, he shouldn’t have agreed to do the tour.

Did he deserve a face full of eggs for shooting off his mouth? No. But maybe the experience taught him to tame his rock star ego a bit.

Anyway, the REAL Ozzy/Maiden face off is coming later this summer, when Maiden releases its new album, “The Final Frontier.” Ozzy’s latest disc, “Scream,” was not exactly a classic, but it was much stronger than I expected. The Oz, it seems, has some fire left in his career after all (and having guitarist Gus G on board also helps a lot).

Can Maiden outdo Ozzy – and outdo “A Matter of Life And Death”? From the tracks I’ve heard so far, I’m not optimistic. Stay tuned for a review when the album drops.

Compare for yourself (and start the battle in advance) with the videos for “The Final Frontier” and “Let Me Hear You Scream.”

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

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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.”