Saturday, February 27, 2010

Iron Maiden - A Matter of Life and Death (2006)

Empires rise and fall, men age with their gods and kings, stars ignite and contract, asteroid belts continue to hover across the firmament, and through it all, Iron Maiden continues to slog forth relentlessly, bringing their aged and fermented heavy metal to new generations of bright eyed youngsters and those crazy bastards that loved them all along. As of 2006 I cannot say I had any expectations whatsoever from this rusted old tank. They had thrilled me from 1980-1988, flirted with me for a few years beyond that, had me filing for divorce for the latter half of the 90s, had a quick encounter of makeup metal at the turn of the century, and then hung me out to dry once more. A Matter of Life and Death was just another frame of time, as sure as my morning coffee but doubtfully as sweet.

I had felt Dance of Death might function more realistically under the title 'Dance of Dragged Feet', but that album had come and gone without much offense, simply a dull endeavor rather than an outrage. At 72 minutes, this was going to be the longest Maiden album yet, surpassing the numbing duration of The X Factor, and no Derek Riggs cover in sight, instead adorned with a decent piece by comics illustrator Tim Bradstreet. The album has a nice, bright sound to it which I felt was lacking on its predecessor, and this is in part due to the lack of a final 'mastering'. Iron Maiden wanted to stick it straight to your gut, and so they did. It sounds great. But what of the songs?

Once I finished listening through the first track to this 14th album, "Different World", I had at least the impression that they were going to wring out some late inspirational tears as they did with Brave New World. For this track reminds me quite a lot of "Wicker Man", with the same emotional ballast and accessible hooks. It's not as powerful, but it will suffice, especially if the rest of the album can carry the torch. I was eager to listen to "These Colours Don't Run", partially inspired by the entire Ozzfest/Sharon Osbourne vs. Iron Maiden with hardcore kids and eggs debacle, but blown into a far broader meaning here through the lyrics. Great song title, but the song is little more than average, with a chorus that feels redundant. "Brighter Than a Thousand Suns" is a solid enough tune, with some cool guitar melodies that arch beyond Bruce's verses, but I didn't find much in the way of payoff lying in ambush in the nearly 9 minutes of time it took to finish.

"The Pilgrim" has one of the band's traipsing folk-like memories shorn off at the neck towards a thrusting rhythm, then morphing into an acceptable, atmospheric chorus with some nice backing vocals. "The Longest Day" is powerful and emotional, but riff-wise it's simply not all that meaty, playing its best moments through the chorus guitar melody. "Out of the Shadows" is a gently flowing ballad with a few minutes where the chords erupt or the lead shines, but I'll be honest, unless it's being blared right before my ears, I tend to entirely forget its existence. "The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg" was the first single to this album, and again, a couple of minutes of ballad with clean guitars before you get to the metal bits, and those are at least somewhat catchy for the dirty groove of the guitars that spawns the chords. But it doesn't support the 7+ minute length.

And from there out, all the songs are pretty long. "For the Greater Good of God" is over 9 minutes, and has its highs and lows, though everything aside from the stunning melodic chorus feels redundant with tracks that the band has written in the past. I was excited to see a track called "Lord of Light", as this is one of my favorite science fiction novels, from the acclaimed Roger Zelazny. Of course, like "Childhood's End" on Fear of the Dark, the song has little in common with the book except for the title, though some of the fiery images in the lyrics might remind one of the characters. Unfortunate! As for the song itself, it slowly escalates into a fairly powerful groove, with Dickinson going off at every opportunity. "The Legacy" is another track to start off with acoustic guitars and slowly climb itself up to the actual metal, a tactic the band has used far too many times since their heyday in the 80s. But there is some eventual payoff here, and it's probably one of the better songs overall on the album, like a Maiden prog-rock opus once more over 9 minutes.

Overall, A Matter of Life and Death is not really a matter of life or death...but it damn well sounds good, with perhaps the best production to mine ears since the band's 80s albums that I so fawn over. I feel this another album where much fat could be trimmed down about the actual pork, in particular the excess use of mellow intros which the band needs to just kick in the nuts. Even the better songs don't exactly scream out with replay value here, but there are many pleasant melodies scattered throughout and the performance of Dickinson is nothing to scoff at.

Highlights: Different World, For the Greater Good of God, The Legacy

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (for the memories, for the money)

Iron Maiden - The X Factor (1995)

With Bruce Dickinson flying the coop, Iron Maiden were faced with a dire situation...who could fill this man's shoes? Who would even try? I would have to think that the financial benefits of fronting one of the world's most recognizable heavy metal bands would certainly bring the roaches out of the woodwork, and in fact Maiden did audition a great many prospective replacements for their infamous second singer. The band had survived the transition from Paul Di'anno to Bruce Dickinson, to be sure, but keep in mind those were the years the band was only beginning to generate buzz, they hadn't grown massive until the 80s, at which point Dickinson was the vocalist many identified with.

Obviously the band would be after someone with a professional pedigree, and that person wound up being Blaze Bayley, frontman for the band Wolfsbane who had released a few albums at that point; the first of which, Live Fast Die Fast, was quite a rollicking romp of fist fighting pub speed metal that generated some buzz at the end of the previous decade. The man had a good voice, at least one which fit his band's down to earth, brawling excess, but it was really nothing like Bruce Dickinson, so the decision felt quite controversial. Still, an admirer of his previous band, I took the bus from University after classes the week this was released, and enthusiastically picked up my copy of The X Factor...yes, a not so clever title for the band's 10th full-length album...curious about the use of the model on the cover in place of another Derek Rigg illustration.

What I was greeted with when I first played the album, was, well...shock. Not shock that the new singer sucked, or that the band had somehow changed their direction. Shock that even after No Prayer for the Dying and Fear of the Dark, both good but not great albums, the band could not rally up an acceptable set of songs to debut their new singer. Slowly, the latter half of the album started to grow on me, but the first half is almost inaccessibly boring. I'm all for another Maiden epic, but the 11+ minute "Sign of the Cross" is simply not a sufficient track to break in this full-length, and from there you've still got numerous tracks to pore through before you arrive at anything bordering on catchy.

That is correct. I am not blaming this one on Blaze Bayley, who seems to give it all he can, but simply cannot succeed when the music he is fronting is so crushingly mediocre. He's stretching himself out here, taking a more mellow approach than the Wolfsbane material I enjoyed, and his voice does seem to hold together, but it simply incapable of all the peaks and valleys of a Bruce Dickinson. Yet, he's the man with the job.

"Sign of the Cross" is not the epic I was looking for, having expected a possibly harder hitting Iron Maiden that would make the proper use of their new hire. It's plodding and dull, all of its best moments arriving when the band either makes the slight, sluggish lean towards warp drive, or provides Dominican-like chanting or some other nuance to distract the listener from how sterile the central riffing is. Why this song has been included in the band's set list for years is far beyond my ability to comprehend, when so many others never made it there. Even this very album has better songs which have gone long ignored. Unfortunately, "Lord of the Flies" did not smack the taste out of my mouth, another of the band's Dire Straits-like intro rhythms descending into bland verse riffs that even the pumping of Harris' bass cannot salve. "Man On the Edge" doesn't really work either, though it feels a lot more flighty and Maiden, and has that one ascending line in the verse that has you praying for more. Just how do you fuck up a song about a great book/movie like Falling Down and then look yourself in the mirror the following morning?

Sadly, the center of the Tootsie Roll is still a few good licks away. "Fortunes of War" is another insipid bore, especially the first few minutes while you wait for the stagnant morass to develop into something more...only to be greeted with a slug-a-long that must have taken this band under 30 seconds to compose. After that, "Look for the Truth" wastes another few minutes in morose, wasteful balladry before it starts to bare its fangs, and the riffs barely carry it to the level of average. "The Aftermath" is a little better, but honestly, even these riffs feel stretched out and completely lacking in any inspirational melody, just a simple hard rock rhythm which sounds nearly as neutered as anything prior, with a slightly better written vocal hook. It wasn't until "Judgement of Heaven" that I got a song which didn't outright leaden my eyelids and pass me into a dull dreaming. It's not perfect, mind you, but at least the vocals, riffs and leads perk up the attention span, like the sad little melody after 3:30.

From here on, the album slowly tries to redeem itself like a slowly evolving beast that exchanges its fins for webbed feet to travel quick along the banks of mud at the edge of the primordial swamp. "Blood On the World's Hands" has some decent jamming moments, and a passable atmosphere resounding beneath some of Blaze's more powerful intonations. "The Edge of Darkness" feels largely like a classic Maiden track, though you've once again gotta get past a boring and predictable escalation to get to the meat. "2 A.M." again assumes we want the dull intro with the clean guitars, like almost every song on this album, but builds into Bayley's catchiest vocal hook on the album, the 'Here I am again' sequence, and another cute little lead at around 3:00. "The Unbeliever" is the other 'epic' track here, just over 8 minutes, but it's vastly more memorable than "Sign of the Cross", not as long or torturous.

Is it too little, too late? Yes it is. Thanks to the CD technology, it's not so hard...and in this case, always tempting to just click >>| >>| >>| up until about track 7, in order to save nearly 40 minutes of my life from the sucking drain that grants one entrance to this 70+ minute monstrosity of stagnant sewage. And for all I might sing in favor of some of the album's later tracks, there are still none I would find worthy of any 'greatest hits' list when shuffling tracks about an .mp3 player or making a mix for an aspiring Maiden-head. It's almost as if the fan's negative, precognitive reaction to hearing a new album without their lord and master Bruce Dickinson not only psychically willed this album the chart lower than many of its predecessors, but also sapped the life energy directly from the band.

Oddly enough, then, that this is NOT the worst Iron Maiden album...

Highlights: turn over enough rocks and you might found two or three, later in the search.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10] (time's a perfect healer)

Nocternity - Harps of the Ancient Temples EP (2007)

Of late I've found myself re-visiting a lot of short play releases from the past decade, in particular from underground black metal bands whose full-length material has had me in stitches...not the laughing kind, but the kind you get to cover the open wounds some of this material is capable of carving into your skin and memory. Nocternity is a Greek black metal 3-piece who have issued a pair of decent albums and a few splits, but it's their 2007 Harps of the Ancient Temples EP which I have found the most hypnotizing. Granted, it is extremely brief, with only two tracks at around 11 minutes, and only one of these is an original...but this is definitely the direction I'd like to hear the band proceed in, for it would be likely to evoke a masterpiece of epic proportions should it manifest in a full-length effort.

Nocternity are a little difficult to pin down as far as their exact style, but that is also one of the things I enjoy about them. Not necessarily 'depressive' black metal, but extremely vacuous and grim, with the guitars forming several layers of melody over a slowly moving rhythm over 7 and a half minutes of the title track. For much of its playtime, it is highly repetetive, yet so engrossing that you are cycled far back through time to the vaulted halls of old Europa, in which the vision of the three is manifested as a sorrowed parting. Ravn and Khal Drogo (nice George RR Martin reference) have a subtle beauty to their guitars that truly mirrors the bloodstains of the fallen, whether they are wailing off into the subterranean strata or pushing an exhaustive, bristling distorted rhythmic pattern. The vocals here range from heavily affected narrative grunting to a black rasp that washes across the listener like a livid, sharp wind.

But not only do we have the great original track here...we also get a killer cover of Vangelis' "Crystal Tears - End Titles", from the Blade Runner soundtrack. This is one of the best ideas for a cover I've ever heard from a black metal band, and to top that, they really do it justice with some searing, distorted leads that cover the main synth melody, keeping the ambiance alive with the backing choral synths. Vangelis ist, of course, completely krieg and if this could serve as a gateway for more to discover the man's amazing work, so be it. Very classy of the Greeks to include this here on the EP, and puts it well over the top into the purchase category. An excellent, if brief effort here, and hopefully they can continue to thrill whenever they've prepared their 3rd full-length.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Xasthur & Striborg - Split EP (2007)

As hard as I might try, I can think of no two other artists within the bleak, black metal underground that could possibly complement one another like the impressive, depressionist Xasthur and the lord of forgotten trails across the Aussie nightscape Striborg. Thus, their limited edition vinyl split EP from 2007 is no mere eventuality, but a clash of the titans of obscura, each performing a track exclusive to the 1000 copies that will not disappoint those who have come to appreciate their impenetrable grimness. Neither of these artists is even bordering on the accessible, nor do they perform any of the more technical minded black metal that some would demand, instead relying on their innate abilities to channel the very core of darkness into their simple and atmospheric compositions.

Xasthur's piece is entitled "A Tortured Shallow Grave" and runs over 6 minutes, with charnel, gritty guitars that clang and wallop their haunted effigies below the simmering of synthesized flutes and organs. If ever you sought a soundtrack to an overcast, cold morning on which you sat upon a moor and daydreamed the ghosts of dead, muted lovers rising up to stare you into oblivion, I can think of nothing else I would so quickly recommend than Malefic's horrifying rasps morphed into this tapestry of guilt. Striborg's "The Epitome of Misanthropy" buzzes out of the speakers like a hellish wasp factory, conceived through absolutely disgusting vocals that feel as much feedback as actual pronunciation, and sloppy shifts in tempo that half endear me to its woes, and half threaten to drive me up the nearest wall. Still, the song (also over 6 minutes) picks up some good atmosphere within, as melodic undertones surge below the entropic wailing and somewhere, somehow, glory erupts within the turbulent deaths, a black promise.

You've got to struggle with the Striborg track a little more than Xasthur, which feels almost calm by comparison, but they both commit your sanity to the same depths, beyond the limit where the casual pop listener or even black metal fanatic can appreciate the happenings. If you haven't trained your ears to appreciate such disturbing sounds, and feel they won't fit into your limited panoramic view of extreme metal music, then your misgivings are unlikely to alter. But if you are a fan of these two gods of 'bedroom' black metal, I can see nothing but inverse paradise in your immediate futures.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Iron Maiden - No Prayer for the Dying (1990)

Iron Maiden hit a brick wall when they released their 8th full-length No Prayer for the Dying, because the world was moving on and it was pretty obvious that the boys had no intention of keeping up with it. And should they have even tried? Part of me wants to say, fuck no. Granted, this was the same year Judas Priest released Painkiller, which I would argue did in fact 'keep up with it'. Yet, rather than a heavier, more forceful Maiden, they kept the status quo. I had already mentioned that I felt Iron's 'dating' had begun with Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and this album furthers that theory, but regardless of what I or anyone else might say about its lack of wall to wall arena-stunning anthems, the fact is that No Prayer for the Dying is not really a 'bad' entry into their catalog. It comes and goes, with a few pretty good songs (some of which even entered their live program), and doesn't necessarily leave a foul aftertaste in the mouth. Only a craving for more, and better...

But the advent of Viagra aside, just how many bands could 'keep it up' as long as Maiden did in the 80s? I think it's asking a little much, but since Seventh Son of a Seventh Son was so loved, expectations were huge for this, and honestly it just wasn't bound for success in a metal scene that was producing efforts like Painkiller or Rust in Peace in the very same year. Though I have my doubts that it might have turned out much differently, this is the first album on which Janick Gers (White Spirit) had joined the band, being asked to replace the departing Adrian Smith, after he had worked with Dickinson on his first solo album. I honestly didn't notice a different, though clearly Gers and Dave Murray in tandem had a more driving rhythm than past (and future) Maiden albums.

"Tailgunner" is a strong opener to the album, in part because it's one of those soaring rhythmic tracks that feels like a natural spiritul sequel to something like "Aces High", "2 Minutes to Midnight" or "Where Eagles Dare". The bridge is quite good, with crashing grooves beneath the racing dual melodies, and it's honestly one of Maiden's heavier tracks of the 90s. I'm not entirely fond of "Holy Smoke", though its got a more barroom brawl mentality than many of the band's other songs, and there are still a few worthwhile melodies in there, plus a filthy delivery courtesy of Dickinson. The title track only skirts on being memorable, due to the light synth melody that slowly builds to the climax. It's the type that you'll remember as you're listening, but simply not wish to listen to independently of its environs. I really enjoy the little guitar melody right around the minute mark of "Public Enema Number One", and the entire song delivers more than several others you'll find here, with a little choppy guitar harmony section that introduces the fairly scathing lead guitar.

A million network slaves, in an Advertising new age
I don't need a crystal ball to sell ya
Your children have more brains, than your drug infested remains
California dreaming as the Earth dies screaming

"Fates Warning" is not a song I think much about, partly because the guitar rhythm reminds me much of "Chains of Misery" from the following album Fear of the Dark, and I liked that one a little more. However, the vocal performance is pretty passionate, and it's not unpleasant to sit through by any means. Though "The Assassin" is plucky and keeps a busy rhythm due to the little guitars that grind off to counter the central rhythm, the chorus is somewhat underwhelming and it's not a favorite here. Ditto for "Run Silent Run Deep", though it has a nice savage pace and a song about submarines was probably inevitable for Iron Maiden.

As mixed as my feelings may be for much of the album thus far, I actually really enjoyed the final three tracks on No Prayer for the Dying, all of which stand out the most to me after two decades. "Hooks in You" is pure kickass rock & roll, with a nice jangling rhythm around the verse, and a really killer chorus that you simply can't ignore...for both Dick's fun delivery and the actual lyrics themselves:

Hooks in you, hooks in me, hooks in the ceiling for that well hung feeling
No big deal, no big sin, strung up on love I got the hooks screwed in

I appreciate the duality here, between the smutty S&M and the wider implications of any relationship. I also love the ringing, old school guitar on the bridge over Dickinson's moodier vocals, took me right back to Somewhere in Time. "Bring Your the Slaughter" needs little introduction, as it wound up the most successful song on the album, worming its way into the hearts of fans and a staple in Maiden's live rotation for many years. And for good reason...the vocals are extremely infectious, as is the moody, Billy Idol-like gothic rock atmosphere of the verse, and the big R&B-gone metal chorus. It's like the next best thing to "White Wedding". And though it's the most 'far out' track on the album, "Mother Russia" does much to evoke the natural, hammer and sickle rhythms of that territory, and it's great that Dickinson and crew aren't trying to totally take the piss out of the formerly 'feared' capital nation of Soviet Union, but celebrating the chance it now had to return to its roots.

As you can see, No Prayer for the Dying does's just that the milkman has brought you skim since they were all out of whole milk. Tasty, refreshing and light, but it's not going to fill your belly or satisfy that craving alongside those chocolate chip cookies. There's no reason to dwell on it or direct much dissatisfaction when there are such staggering disappointments on the late 90s horizon.

Highlights: Tailgunner, Hooks in You, Bring Your the Slaughter, Mother Russia

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (assume an attitude)

Iron Maiden - Fear of the Dark (1992)

Fear of the Dark is the 9th album of UK heroes Iron Maiden, and in my opinion the best they would release in the 90s. It's one of the band's longer efforts, clocking in at nearly an hour, with a dozen tracks, most of which are at least catchy, if not entirely at the level of the previous decade. The album compensates slightly for its predecessor No Prayer for the Dying, which seemed to thrive on filler, with only a few truly memorable tracks, but Fear of the Dark too seems to take the same excess tongue lashing from fans. It's a little more rock than the previous albums, and about half the songs are laid back and accessible (this might explain some of the loathing), but I'm honestly surprised that a few of them haven't been given a little more attention through the band's set lists over the years.

This was the last album before Bruce Dickinson would split from the band and be replaced by Blaze Bayley for Maiden's most miserable albums, but this possibility was not set in stone at the time, so there is no sense of emergency or desperation here. It's just business as usual, with the same penchant for catchy guitar melodies, carefully crafted leads that never hinge on excess, busy bass that feels central to so many of their compositions, and a top shelf performance from Dickinson. And in 1992, a year in which death and black metal were still taking off, and 'alternative music' and grunge rock were the orders of the day, Fear of the Dark feels somewhat like refreshment, from a band that many people were probably tiring of as they turned towards the next shiny audio bauble. Among such shifts in trend, the album often feels like a statement that the guard will NOT be changing via metal's highly successful dignitaries...oh, what sweet irony!

"Be Quick or Be Dead" is a fine opener to the album, a fast and memorable track which recalls the uncouth power and ribaldry of something like "The Trooper" or "Aces High". Dickinson spits some of his nastier vocals, with a clipped pitch to his voice that sounds like he had just dialed the Beast's number again and was feeling slightly possessed. I enjoy the riffs, I enjoy the way the vocal echoes off in the chorus, and the verse rhythm is pure old 80s barbarity. It's followed "From Here to Eternity", which feels a little like a Dire Straits or ZZ Top track at first, with a decent hard rock kick to the verse and then another obvious chorus with backup vocals that felt a little like AC/DC. This wound up being one of the more popular tracks from the album, at least so much that Maiden would include it on live shows and albums, and I have to say that I'm somewhat less impressed by this than numerous other pieces on the album. Another of the staples is "Afraid to Shoot Strangers", which is a cooler tune with a morose intro section laden in subtle synths and flowing, catchy clean guitar melodies. It feels like a lullaby about the Gulf War gone wrong, but the chorus remains quite atmospheric due to the guitar line that weaves through it, and the track does pick up for some solid driving metal.

"Fear is the Key" has a thundering step to it that feels a lot like a rambling Zeppelin rhythm, but I personally enjoy the vocals here and the message of lost rebellion and youth. The mystical wall of melody that opens and recurs through the track is also quite nice. "Childhood's End" sadly doesn't seem based upon the fantastic Arthur C. Clarke science fiction novel, instead a lament for the poor and suffering of the world. However, it's probably my favorite track on this album, with glorious, cascading melodies that storm behind Dickinson's highly memorable chorus line (though the lyrics are rather weak). Very surprised this song did not take off and become a single or a live standard. Had "Wasting Love" come out a few years earlier, it might have run headlong against popular hard rock power ballads like "I'll Remember You", "Heaven" or "Fly to the Angels", but here it feels a little cheesy until the chords crash in.

The latter half of the album begins with "The Fugitive", an average song with some of the similar, simple and expressive chords that Maiden used to make a name for themselves in the decade prior. Not sure if the lyrics were inspired by the book or film, but alas, they're pretty weak, though the progression of the song does seem to build an urgency that might be shared by one on a run from whatever institution is narrowing in on him, and there's a cool groove buried after 3:30 where the solo begins. I found "Chains of Misery" rather amusing, for all its swagger, vocal hooks and the little guitar fills in the pre-verse and chorus. "The Apparition" seems a little too light hearted, or playful, but the riffs aren't all that bad and it has a nicely wailing solo with some melodies catapulting beneath it, alongside the bass.

"Judas Be My Guide" is a hidden gem, with excellent, flowing guitar melodies that recall the same fire that I loved about so much earlier NWOBHM, simple and blues-based and scurrying off into the night. The chorus is fantastic, not unlike something from an early Queensryche album. "Weekend Warriors" is one of the most loathed tracks on the album, an homage to football hooligans which I also felt could be about corporate paintball matches...but either way, it's acoustic opening makes it sound like a Traveling Wilbury's song, and then it rocks out like mid-80s party Priest. In fact if I close my eyes I could almost envision Halford sharing the vocals here just they did on "The One You Love to Hate". Maybe they should try it some time! The chorus is really not all that bad, and in fact this is not one of the least memorable tracks on the album, so I believe the negativity leveled at it is slightly blown out of proportion. Though believe me, the last thing I want is an Iron Maiden that sings about sporting events. The 7+ title track serves as the finale to the album, and though it's not bad either, it simply isn't one of the most striking tracks in my opinion, so naturally it becomes the one Maiden plays most in their sets and live albums. Go figure.

Fear of the Dark is nowhere near as lousy as the fans and media of the day tried to spin it, they will simply too busy with their tongues and noses up Kurt Cobain's rear to realize that it's just another Maiden album, with a bunch of good songs that, while not about to set the record straight, have a lot of appeal for me even after nearly two decades. The lyrics are among the band's weakest, and there are a few songs that could be clipped. But this is certainly stronger than No Prayer for the Dying, the humdrum X Factor or the abominable Virtual XI, and I listen with anticipation to at least half the songs every time I hearken back to it.

Highlights: Be Quick or Be Dead, Childhood's End, Chains of Misery, Judas Be My Guide

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (whispers in the night)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Iron Maiden - Flight 666: The Original Soundtrack (2009)

Flight 666 was a 2009 documentary film directed by Scott McFayden and Sam Dunn, who you may be familiar with through their previous documentaries Global Metal and Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. If you haven't yet had the chance to see this, you should, if only for the great HD video and surround sound. Granted, it's no Anvil!: The Story of Anvil or Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, but it's not intended to be, instead focusing on the band's performances. And fuck, if all these other bands are getting the documentary treatment, why not Iron Maiden?

Of course, this is another of those 'Fuck Corporate America!' snafus, as the Somewhere Back in Time tour was rolled out alongside the pitiful, worthless compilation of the same name, and the band has also decided to profit off a 2CD live album, instead of just including that solely with the DVD itself and letting everyone's pockets rest. But, of course, this sort of excess is always available to the rich and storied artists of our music industry, and the best way to counteract is to vote with your wallet. And in this case, I think that's the due course, because the only way I feel you should really experience this is by seeing the actual documentary, watching the band perform in all of these great locations (Mumbai, Tokyo, Sydney, Buenos Aires, Toronto, and...New Jersey, among others). Not only the live performances are worthwhile, but there are many snippets of the band in between, at bars, in flight, and with the travails of rock stardom playing out on them (though not to the extent that a Hetfield - Ulrich verbal catfight ensues).

But you're not getting all of that here, are simply getting 17 live tracks, most of which have already appeared on previous live albums, only this time they're being cast at you from all over the wide world. The band have wisely stuck with older material for fact, I was stunned by the presence of only a single track from beyond the band's Silver and Golden Ages of material, and that would be "Fear of the Dark", performed in Buenos Aires". The rest are all veritable classics, from all of the band's first seven albums except Killers, which is unfortunate.

The crowd on this double live album can grow pretty loud, after all these are huge dates with rabid fans from all over Gods know where, but they're not enough to smother the highlights here. For Disc 1, these include the ol' one-two combination of "Aces High" and "2 Minutes to Midnight", which the band follow with "Revelations" and "The Trooper". Yes, the first four songs that were also performed on Live After Death, with a re-ordering of the 3rd and 4th. The irony is not lost upon me. Also great here are the performances of "Can I Play With Madness?" from Mexico City and "Wasted Yeras" from Monterrey. Disc 2 likewise starts with a band, after all, how can you go wrong with "Powerslave" or "Heaven Can Wait"? "Moonchild" and "Run to the Hills" are also strong points here, and almost all of the tracks on this disc are from South American tour dates, aside from the closing "Hallowed Be Thy Name" from Toronto.

Flight 666 certainly sounds excellent, but the advent of the actual documentary film makes this slightly less valuable in my eyes than a standalone live effort. I can't think of any advantage to owning this album when all of the songs are already available on other live offerings, at least no advantage over sitting down with the family or friends on the sofa to experience the DVD in all its 5.1 surround sound glory and HD video. If you feel like digging deeply into your pockets beyond the DVD to throw more money at these guys who obviously need it, well maybe you'll proudly pop the soundtrack into your collection. McFayden and Dunn have done a decent job with the film, perhaps a lot less biased than their prior ensemble documentaries which feature some questionable interviews, but the soundtrack feels like unnecessary excess fat to turn up some additional pocket change.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Iron Maiden - Maiden England (1994)

By the virtue of Iron Maiden graciously offering us 3 live recordings at stock prices in the year before, the 1994 audio CD release of the 1989 Maiden England VHS seems very heavy handed. But oddly enough, this album is actually superior to A Real Live Dead One or Live at Donington, and I wish it had simply come out instead of those. The contents of the album (and video tape) were recorded in late November, 1988, at the N.E.C. in Birmingham, and Steve Harris himself directed the production of both the audio and video components. This is out of print now, aside from a bootleg DVD option, but seriously, who the fuck would want a video tape unless he/she was really cool. At any rate, the audio disc does still possess some value, as one of the band's better live albums outside Live After Death or Maiden Japan.

I love the sound here; the bands excellent reverb-heavy 80s production evoking much nostalgia not unlike Live After Death. In order to fit the concert on a single disc, they have unfortunately omitted "Hallowed Be Thy Name" and "Can I Play With Madness?", but we are still left with 13 cuts of Eddie goodness, including an excellent rendition of "Moonchild", from the band's most recent album at this time, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. This is a seriously great opening to the album, and since you won't hear this on most other Maiden 'official' live albums, you're already into the plus. Even without "Can I Play With Madness?" present, this album gets quite a lot of coverage, with "The Clairvoyant", "The Evil That Men Do", "Infinite Dreams" and the title track "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son" which is another one you won't hear on most of the band's live releases. I should note that each of these songs sounds great and mixes in well with the older material.

Speaking of which, "Heaven Can Wait" and "Wasted Years" are both present from Somewhere in Time, and they also sound excellent, as the melodies glow across the crowdscape. Powerslave is sadly ignored, but there are a few uncommon offerings from Piece of Mind: "Still Life" and "Die With Your Boots On", in place of "The Trooper". Quite nice for a change! "The Prisoner" is also hear sounding sweet, alongside "The Number of the Beast" from the album of the album of the same name. "Killers" and "Iron Maiden" ensure that the first two albums are alive and kicking, and the entire set flows smoothly from beginning to end. In fact, I'd place some of these versions up there with those of Live After Death.

If you can find this re-issued package lying around in some used record store or bargain bin at a big retail lot, and it's cheap, then I'd certainly recommend its acquisition. It's a pity to have two tracks missing, but you can always pop the video in your...I'm assuming it's broken by now, so maybe that's not such a great idea. Anyhoo, Maiden England stands alongside Maiden Japan and Live After Death as the 'trinity' of Maiden live albums that are probably worth owning.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Iron Maiden - Live at Donington (1993)

Because two live albums were not enough for 1993, Iron Maiden also decided to release a 2CD set covering their performance from the 1992 Monsters of Rock festival, recorded in August at Donington. Granted, the nearly 2 hour set captured here is more substantial than either A Real Live One or A Real Dead One, and since Fear of the Dark had been the most recent studio offering, we escape the imminent nightmare of the next few albums. But Live at Donington suffers for another reason...the sound is just not that great. And the vocals seem a little strained, even as early as the first track I feel like Dickinson is about to lose his voice.

I don't know if he smoked a few packs that day, or if he was recovering from a bad cold or perhaps the onset of bronchitis, but Bruce seems a little off during certain parts of "Be Quick or Be Dead", which opens the first disc. It might also be that he seems a little softer in the mix than some of the band's other live albums. I wouldn't call it a deal breaker, as it's not a terrible performance, but that and the rather sterile feel to the guitars and excess plunkiness of the bass have me leaning towards the studio version. Luckily there are far better sounding tracks on this recording.

I'll admit, the selection of songs here is pretty well spread across the band's discography up to this point. Fear of the Dark is given a healthy representation with "Afraid to Shoot Strangers", "From Here to Eternity", "Wasting Love", "Fear of the Dark", and the aforementioned "Be Quick or Be Dead", all on the first disc. Of these, none sound truly fresh or invigoration on Live at Donington due to the lackluster sound, but I'd go with "Fear of the Dark" from this lot. No Prayer for the Dying gets two tracks in the set: "Tailgunner" and "Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter", and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son is in good hands with "The Evil That Men Do", "The Clairvoyant" and "Can I Play With Madness?" Again, they all sound a little sterile, but at least the crowd interaction for "Bring Your Daughter..." brightens up the recording, if a little.

This is yet another live recording where the band's best album Somewhere in Time is mis-represented, with only "Heaven Can Wait" on the track list. I really don't get it...surely the band could not have been burnt out by this point on all the majesty of that masterpiece. Was it some kind of conspiracy between the band and an ignorant fanbase whose letters and rash opinions helped determine the set list? Hogwash! Powerslave and Piece of Mind are also snubbed here with one track each: "2 Minutes to Midnight" and "The Trooper". The Number of the Beast is given much more lavish attention, with the title track, "Run to the Hills" and "Hallowed Be Thy Name", and the Di'anno years provide "Iron Maiden", "Sanctuary", and "Running Free", all of which are pretty obvious selections. Most of this is confined to the 2nd disc, and the stronger pieces here were "Wasting Years", "2 Minutes to Midnight" and "Running Free" for the good crowd service.

The biggest issue with Live at Donington is of course the fact that it feels redundant after two other live albums being released just months before. But it also really pales in comparison to the band's hallmark Live After Death (after which no subpar live offering should have been issue unless it was a cheap grab for more money). The track list, while thorough enough to include something from all of their albums to this point, also feels a little redundant. Had there been a few unexpected surprises among the selections, it might have offset the rather bleak tones off the mixer, but I'd imagine the band feels the need to rifle out the hits for all the casual fans that want them, and the rest of us can just dust off that 1985 LP and ignore this.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Iron Maiden - Wasted Years/Stranger in a Strange Land EP (1990)

The First Ten Years: Part VIII

Wasted Years/Stranger in a Strange Land is the 8th EP in the First Ten Years collection, featuring both of the band's 1986 singles for the phenomenal album Somewhere in Time. It's one of the more valuable selections of singles in the series, because each of these two songs is complemented with 2 tracks that you won't find on any of the band's albums. However, I wouldn't say the non-album material is the best quality. Much of it originates from The Entire Population of Hackney project the band members did with a few of their peers from other NWOBHM bands, in which the Maiden members wrote some of the songs, as did the other members.

Aside from its excellent title track, the Wasted Years single includes "Reach Out", a hard rock song written by Dave Colwell, who was in the band FM in addition to joining Adrian Smith's ASAP project later on. He was also a member of The Entire Population of Hackney. This track is a little more mainstream than one expects from Maiden, though it does have some of the band's classic dual melodies and a decent atmosphere. But what is most curious about the song, is that features Adrian Smith on the lead vocals (Dickinson provides some backups). And as far as a bluesy hard rock singer of the Coverdale camp, Smith is really not all that bad...though the lyrics are pretty trivial and typical of bad 80s rock. "The Sheriff of Huddersfield" is a goofy tribute to manager Rod Smallwood's life in Los Angeles, set to music which, while not horrible, feels like it did not take long to compose (though there are some melodies in there).

The B-sides for Stranger in a Strange Land are two more tracks from members of The Entire Population of Hackney. "That Girl" is actually quite strong, an old FM track, with typical Maiden triplets and a subtle melodic picking, and a fine performance from Dickinson. The lyrics are once again tripe at the level of 80s glam rock radio, about as compelling as those of "Reach Out", but musically this is probably the best bonus of the EP. "Juanita" feels like a "Cat Scratch Fever" type riff with some of Maiden's brazen melodies, Bruce giving it his dirtiest rocking vocals, and it's not that bad, with the least annoying lyrics of the three bonus tracks from Adrian Smith's associates (this track being the cover of a band called Marshall Fury).

The "Listen With Nicko!" segment for this EP is a little hard to follow, as he bounces back and forth with his anecdotes and you don't get a very clear picture of what all the bonus tracks are all about, but it's one of the longest at over 12 minutes and there are a few interesting stories, in particular about Rod Smallwood and "The Sheriff of Huddersfield". After the Can I Play With Madness?/The Evil That Men Do EP, this is probably the most valuable (outside of the obvious collector factor and the voucher for the box set) because you get three good non-album tracks. Granted, the lyrics are not at the Maiden level, but it's fun to hear other projects these guys were involved with, even if they were just intended for a few lives.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10] (too much time on my hands)

Dark Tranquillity - We Are the Void (2010)

I really feel that Dark Tranquillity peaked with their 2002 album Damage Done, which was basically flawless, each track loaded with good hooks, and an excellent fusion of the bands keyboard-heavy atmosphere, driving inspirational guitar lines and Stanne's heavy (if not brutal) delivery. It more than compensated for the half-mediocre albums the band had been releasing like Projector or Haven. Since that time, Dark Tranquillity have remade Damage Done in 2005 and 2007, calling it Character and then Fiction. Granted, the riffs were not always exactly the same, and the production was arguably superior, but just listen through the chugging and the tempos of the tracks in general and it becomes clear that the magic of Damage Done was the formula that the band wanted to relive.

Here, eight years after the fact, we have the band's 9th album, We Are the Void, and once again, I am reminded very closely of Damage Done. Stanne's vocals seem to have a blacker edge to them, more of a vicious rasp which I actually don't think even borders on improvement. The band still experiments a little with the writing, but most of the album does feel as if you've already heard it. That being said, there are about 3-4 tracks on this which do stand out pretty far, amidst a crowd of filler that feels like it was already perfected earlier in the previous decade.

We Are the Void feels as much modern as the past few releases, opening with the booming bass and synth-driven mystique of "Shadows in Our Blood", which has a few decent thrashing melodic death rhythms and acceptable lead work, but doesn't feel all that remarkable. "Dream Oblivion" has a huge groove hook not unlike something Soilwork would have written during their 2000-2003 period, with a bouncy bridge over which the proggy electro keys strafe. "The Fatalist" has some resonant electric piano strikes over a generic chug, and then a melodic pick me up riff which isn't far from Damage Done, though the synth line there gives it an enhanced atmosphere. "In My Absence" is the first track on the album which I felt compelled to listen more than once, with a great chorus and some nice charging segments that shift into breakdowns.

And that's the story here: you go through a couple of filler-feeling tracks to get at the meat of the album. "The Grandest Accusation" and "At the Point of Ignition" went straight in one ear, and out the other, but "Her Silent Language" is fairly poignant and memorable through its goth vocals and gorgeous melodic mute pickings. Of course, if you don't like a mix of clean and melodeath vocals, stay clear. "Arkhangelsk" borders on symphonic black metal, not unlike Dimmu Borgir or Moonspell, but it's not all that great. "I Am the Void" is another of the album's strongest tracks, with a rousing rhythmic pulse that veers between dense thrash and layered synthesizer atmosphere. "Surface the Infinite" is similar if less interesting, but the closing track "Iridium" is possibly the best on the entire record, with a massive wall of ringing pianos and a highly melancholic riff sequence.

It's a fairly good album, and I'd expect no less from a veteran band such as this, but it just doesn't have that level of songwriting which evokes any desire to play it through in its entirety. If you think Character and Fiction are the be all end all of this band's catalog, then I can't imagine you'd find this disappointing. Nor did I, since I haven't exactly built any expectations around the band in years. There are a few songs here I'd certainly incorporate into an iPod playlist of the band's material, but the rest simply feel too average to revisit.

Highlights: In My Absence, Her Silent Language, I Am the Void, Iridium

Verdict: Win [7/10] (that we resist your pale attraction)

Iron Maiden - Live After Death (1985)

Perhaps it's just that the set list is drawn from most of my favorite Iron Maiden albums and even individual songs. Perhaps its the killer Derek Riggs cover art. Perhaps its the very honest, and fit for its era production standard. For all of these reasons, and more, Live After Death is my very favorite Iron Maiden live experience on disc, and probably ranks as one of my favorite live albums, if not THE favorite, in all of metal. Why, do you say? Is it because I'm old, and perhaps a little biased or clouded with the haze of nostalgia? You could always argue that a little of this plays into any opinion of any decades old recording, but I do in fact believe that this beloved band was on the top of their game in the early to mid-80s, when their imaginations were allowed to run wild and metal music was maturing in general.

In fact, Live After Death was one of the last albums where Maiden, in my opinion, reigned supreme, before the emerging scenes of speed, power and thrash metal took many of their ideas and ideals and elevated them to the next level of intensity. Now I'm not saying they were the heaviest, or fastest band in the realm, but certainly one of the least compromising bands to be striking gold in the bigger picture, in the Billboard charts or the mainstream rock audience. After the following, masterful full-length Somewhere in Time, I don't think the band has ever been able to recover the crown. They've put out good albums, and good songs, but somewhere around the release of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, somehow, a levee broke.

Now, Live After Death is still a live album, consisting of tracks you likely already owned in their studio forms, and it does bear that eternal limitation of 'not being there'. And clearly, if you have not had a chance to witness this legendary band in the arena setting, I promise you it is very much worthwhile, something you should probably do before it's no longer possible due to the age of the band. But the sound here is engrossing, with so many of their earlier, darker tracks in the set-list, all of which are memorable and polished. There is a remastered version of this album available from 1998 which features a bonus disc of 5 tracks recorded in 1984 at the Hammersmith Odeon. I am not reviewing that version, just the original album recorded in 1985 at the Long Beach Arena.

There are 12 tracks, opening with the Winston Churchill speech sample and "Aces High", and how could you psyche up a crowd more than that, even if they are American. The song sounds glorious, and the band are quick to follow this up with another Powerslave staple, "2 Minutes to Midnight". At this point, ever person in that audience and the inner child of every listener to the album over the next 25 years is screaming THIS WILL FUCKING RULE. And so it does. As if that one-two combo wasn't enough, they next launch into "The Trooper", which probably forced much hyperventilation and rioting, as it probably the most recognizable Iron Maiden track up to this point, and sounds raucuous and perfect in this live setting, as if it were simply never meant for anything but the stage. After this, "Revelations" is another perfect fit, as the bass wanders beneath the guitars in the verse, and the pace of the track lets the crowd simmer down a little without ceasing the rock.

But "Flight of Icarus" scales straight back up the majestic heights of Dickinson's howling, perhaps the best single live serving of this track I've ever heard, with brazen guitars and pumping bass lines that counteract one another beautifully. After this, they play "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", and not just a snippet of the track that one might suspect in order to keep up the momentum of the set, but 13 fucking minutes of excellence...including the eerie bridge segment in which the crowd quiets slightly, but somehow transforms into itself into a sound akin to the wind howling over the song's grim, haunted waters, or gulls shrieking about the mast. Not content with just this epic, they next launch into "Powerslave", one of Maiden's greatest songs, and it sounds just as intense as you need it.

Thus far the set has been dominated by material from Piece of Mind and Powerslave, so for the rest of the show the band dials it back through the years. This begins with "The Number of the Beast" and "Hallowed Be Thy Name" back to back, both of which excel here with a good balance of uplifting melody and nostalgic grace. Following this, the band's namesake "Iron Maiden" as Dickinson works up the crowd, and I'm sad to say that this version of the song, with Bruce on vocals, sounds every bit the match for Paul Di'anno's original, as it swerves into a higher range but delivers just as powerfully through the chorus backing vocals. "Run to the Hills" again works the audience into a frenzy, and then the band closes the disc with their classic "Running Free", the crowd screaming!

I can imagine driving home after this 'incident', with your heart warmed and mind racing through every mile of just how much you love metal music. Such enthusiasm in those days for the genre, and not just by a marginalized niche of tasteful individuals. Strangely, there is nothing from Killers on this core recording, though the bonus disc version at least includes "Wrathchild".
Other than that, I can't think of a single complaing about Live After Death. It sounds perfect to me even after about 70% of my life has passed, and if there is one live album well worth spending the money to attain, it is this one. Lucky for you, you can pick it up today remastered WITH the five additional tracks on the 2nd disc: "Wrathchild", "22 Acacia Avenue", "Children of the Damned", "Die With Your Boots On", and "Phantom of the Opera". Even as a diehard purist, it's hard not to think of that as a plus...

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Iron Maiden - Run to the Hills/The Number of the Beast EP (1990)

The First Ten Years: Part IV

The fourth EP in the First Ten Years series might possess one of the cooler, joint cover images, but the contents are largely a waste of time. Unlike many of the other releases in the collection, it features only four tracks total, and of these, there is but one song worth hearing. Honestly, there was not much point tracking down Run to the Hills/The Number of the Beast unless you're a completionist who needed the voucher for his boxed set to store the 10 EPs.

"Run to the Hills" is a great song, but it's the same song you already own on Number of the Beast. The B-side is "Total Eclipse", the only thing noteworthy on this EP, as I had mentioned. It's a decent, dark tune that arguably would have functioned perfectly well on the full-length, but I'm thankful that it exists at all. The Number of the Beast single is a little less enticing, with the title track from the album and a B-side live of "Remember Tomorrow" with Dickinson on the vocals (and frankly, I preferred Di'anno to what Bruce does here).

"Listen with Nicko!" IV is one of the less monkeyed monologues and has some interesting information about the video for "Run to the Hills", but he does start fucking around more in the end. I suppose to some this is the attraction, but I would have preferred something else, even packing 3 original singles onto each EP. The 'spring/mattress' joke is well...miserable. Alas, without "Total Eclipse", this would be utter rubbish. Of course, if you want the whole set, you've got to suck it up and take it like a man.

Verdict: Fail [2.5/10]
(dust clouds and barren wastes)

Iron Maiden - 2 Minutes to Midnight/Aces High EP (1990)

The First Ten Years: Part VI

2 Minutes to Midnight/Aces High is the 6th EP release in the First Ten Years collection, and like the Part IX single featuring Can I Play in Madness? and The Evil That Men Do, it benefits greatly from the inclusion of non-album material. Granted, it's not all studio work, but at least it beats B-sides that are straight from albums.

The original 2 Minutes to Midnight single was releasd in 1984, and in addition to the kickass title track, it includes a studio cover of "Rainbow's Gold" from the bands' friends Beckett. This is a very groovy hard rock tune with a little NWOBHM in there, try and imagine a happy medium between Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy, and Dickinson really brings it up to the Maiden level. The other bonus track is "Mission from 'Arry", which is not actually music, but a taped argument between Nicko McBrain, Steve Harris and some techs. In a way, I actually prefer something like this to Nicko's narrative tracks, because though it's not extremely valuable, it offers a realistic little snippet of the band at their worst, rather than the forced humor of the bonus monologues included with the EPs.

Also, from 1984, the Aces High single features another of the very best tracks from Powerslave. For its B-sides, there is a live version of "Number of the Beast", and a pair of Nektar covers slapped together under the title of one, "King of Twilight" (includes a part of "Crying in the Dark"). If you're not familiar with Nektar, well it might be time to check them out, as they were a pretty cool prog rock band featuring a mixed German and English lineup. The Maiden version is tight and powerful, and I really can't stress enough how classy the guys have been throughout their career, picking forgotten gems like this one instead of more obvious covers.

"Listen with Nicko!" part six is another 10 minute narrative piece where he goes over the singles, but it's not extremely interesting except where he goes on about the "Mission from 'Arry" argument, shedding a little light onto the situation. This EP is really not all that special save for the Beckett and Nektar covers, as the live "Number of the Beast" feels somewhat redundant and forced in place of another, more interesting cover or potential B-side, but there are certainly worse in the series.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10] (let the creatures out)

Iron Maiden - Rock in Rio (2002)

Iron Maiden's Rock in Rio was recorded in January 2001 at the Rock In Rio festival, Brazil. It could be considered the complementary live to the Brave New World album which featured the reunion of the band with Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith, and the inauguration of the band's three-guitar assault (since they kept on Janick Gers). But though it pays great heed to the band's more recent material, with features some unfortunate selections from the mediocre X Factor and downright awful Virtual XI, the album does mix it up with some older songs, and the sound quality is actually quite good. If you want yet another Maiden live set captured to audio, this 2CD set is far from the worst they've offered.

A great choir intro heralds "The Wicker Man", which is pretty much the best thing you could hope for to open their set, a sheer ass kicking with an unforgettable chorus that inspires both emotion and fist shaking. Judging by the massive crowd response (which honestly sent shivers up my spine), the Brazilians were WELL into this song by the time Maiden dropped down there for the festival. As they should be, because it rules, and it's one of the best on this entire live. Other tracks from Brave New World include "The Mercenary", "Ghost of the Navigator", "Blood Brothers", "Dream of Mirrors" and the title track, all of which the crowd can also relate to. The rest of the newish material is rounded out by "The Clansman" from Virtual XI, which, while improved with Dickinson's energy, is still little more than average. "Sign of the Cross" is included from The X Factor, not one of the better tracks from that album, and not one of the better tracks on this one.

The rest of the set list tours the band's already extensive back catalog, with some oldies from the Paul Di'anno days like "Wrathchild", "Sanctuary", and "Iron Maiden". "The Number of the Beast" "Run to the Hills" and "Hallowed be Thy Name" are surefire audience pleasers from The Number of the Beast album, and "The Trooper" appears from Piece of Mind. Only "2 Minutes to Midnight" arrives to represent Powerslave, and to my huge disappointment, there are no tracks present on this live from Somewhere in Time, which is my absolute favorite... Clearly Harris and crew underestimated the tastes of the Brazilian audience? The final two tracks included are "The Evil That Men Do" from Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and the title track from Fear of the Dark. Like Somwhere in Time, No Prayers for the Dying is ignored, and it's a little sad.

Surely we could have given the boot to "Sign of the Cross" and "The Clansman" and included two or even three tracks from those neglected efforts. "Wasted Years", "Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter" and any other track from Somewhere in Time would have sufficed. Alas, it was not to be, at least for the release of the 2CD set, but at least the rest sound really good, and outside the duo of Live After Death and Maiden Japan, this is one of the better live offerings. Each of the discs is also enhanced with video material, for a little extra bonus. If you're a Maiden fan who rabidly collects their live shows, at least the 'official' releases, you could do far worse than Rock in Rio.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Rotting Christ - AEALO (2010)

One of things I admire most about Greek black metal champions Rotting Christ is that, though they may have evolved at numerous points throughout their career, they never abandon the subtleties that have defined each stage. In listening through their 10th full length AEALO, one can hear equal parts Thy Mighty Contract, A Dead Poem and Sleep of the Angels, though most of the guitar work more closely resembles the mechanical, fast-paced immediacy of their more recent records Theogonia and Sanctus Diavolos. The band have spared no expensive this time to heighten the mood and atmosphere of their musical laments through the use of a traditional vocal choir and numerous guest vocalists, including Magus of Necromantia, Nemtheanga of Primordial, and even a recording of Diamanda Galas herself (on the band's cover of her "Orders from the Dead").

The title track "AEALO" strikes quickly through a forceful use of the choir over some faster paced, black riffing that fragments mid-stride into a flowing, majestic melody that would not have felt out of place on Triarchy of the Lost Lovers. The track is thoroughly captivating, though it always seems to hang you at some precipice where you expect some extremely glorious riff to arrive, and it never does. "Eon Aenaos" keeps the choir to a dull minimal which rings out along the verse and bridge riff, as the spritely guitars evoke national nostalgia for war-filled glades and one could easily close one's eyes and imagine oneself, as a bacchanae tearing at flesh in seductive rage. "Demonon Vrosis" is another track that recollects the Triarchy/Dead Poem years, with the added benefit of a female vocal that adds transient atmosphere. This was easily one of my favorites, ripe for replacement via the thunderous death groove that anchors the intro to "Noctis Era". I enjoyed the manly choir that subtly counterpoints some of the melodic chugging in the verse, and when the track opens up it's difficult to not grab a mug and start swinging it.

"Dub-sag-ta-ke" meshes traditional, flowing strings with a series of percussive guitars spoken through both mutes and chords, soon joined in the lush female chorals that so escalate the album's beauty. "Fire Death and Fear" feels similar, only with a focus on more bludgeoning, simplistic guitar mutes that are haunted by subtler choirs. "Nekron lahes..." is a brief vocal piece which leads the band into the drop hammering "...pir Threontai", with an excellent dual stream of razor melodes careening through the build in the drums and chugs towards an illustrious bridge movement. "Thou Art Lord" is amazing, making full use of various layers of vocals to craft a morose and powerful tribute seethed in regret. "Santa Muerte" is the wildest and grooviest of the tracks, but I didn't care for the chug so much. "Orders from the Dead" is given the Rotting injection, mainly through atmospheric guitars that hover below Galas' sick narrative, an interesting finale for the album. A collaboration between this band and this songstress seems such a natural fit, that I'm surprised it has taken this long for them to appear together, even in this form.

Rotting Christ have kept themselves relevant yet again, and I am personally excited to hear Greek bands like this and Kawir so loyal to the rich history of their land. Aealo will not be foreign to any fan of the band's prior work, but it carries with it a subtle re-invention due largely to the extensive use of the guest vocalists. This is not the best album in their catalog, and the band has not yet arrived at the level of 'black metal Plato' which we all know they could and should, but the songs are compelling and original enough to kill 50 minutes.

Highlights: Demonon Vrosis, Dub-sag-ta-ke, ...pir Threontai, Thou Art Lord

Verdict: Win [8/10] (this twisted and naked world)

Throes of Dawn - The Great Fleet of Echoes (2010)

Throes of Dawn are a fairly interesting Finnish band who turned some heads when they transitioned from their melodic black metal roots into a quite fashionable, atmospheric hybrid of gothic and black metal. I personally enjoyed their 3rd album, Binding of the Spirit a good deal, a subtle and powerful infusion of consistent melodies, one of those albums you just slide into your CD player and feel hard pressed to turn off, even though it feels slow to develop. Not so much a fan of their following effort Quicksilver Clouds, but that too had its moments. I had probably written the band off after this, but six years later they return with their most highly atmospheric, least 'metal' offering to date, The Great Fleet of Echoes.

After such a hiatus, one might wonder whether the band could have a change of heart and return to their blacker roots, but that is just not the case here. If anything, The Great Fleet of Echoes takes the lush synths, acoustic and clean guitars, pianos and dreamy vocals of its predecessor to a new height, and the entire piece plays out like some fantastic idyll caught between dew-stained breaths on a cold, post-apocalyptic morning, or one on which you simply 'wake up' to a new level of reality that moves about you like poetry. Henri Koivula's vocals here are bound to appeal to the Sentenced/Paradise Lost/Crematory gothic metal sect, often resounding through a mid range, or resorting to mysterious whispers. This is not a riff-intensive album, so if you come into the songs expecting much in the way of brazen, memorable melodies you could be disappointed. This is more of an attempt to encapsulate an enigmatic, and gloriously depressing environment within 55 minutes of playtime.

Nothing here is even remotely complex, and to be truthful my favorite moments on the album are those that delve into the more psychedelic edge, like "Soft Whispers of the Chemical Sun" with its ambient synth segues. This is a great track, kind of like a mid-era Tiamat meets Tangerine Dream, and in fact, at this album's best, it does remind me somewhat of Tiamat's inspiring, beautiful album A Deeper Kind of Slumber. Other memorable tracks here are the heavier, grooving "We Have Ways to Hurt You", the somber "Blue Dead Skies" or the multi-layered epic sensations of the title track. Sadly, the album is not all moments of bliss. Many of the tracks feel stretched out and dull, despite the atmosphere they so long to impart. Though the melodies are qualified and the vocals tight, very rarely do they leap off the disc into the imagination, creating a mild ennui where the mind drifts elsewhere.

Those of you who cherished the bands past albums Binding of the Spirit and Quicksilver Clouds might want to give it a listen, and also fans of other melodic black metal bands gone psychedelic like Fall of the Leafe or Autumnblaze, though Throes of Dawn don't run quite so far afield. I might add that the lyrics here are quite nice. Otherwise, I didn't take to the album, aside from the few better songs, so if you're a newcomer I'd cut a path straight for Binding of the Spirit.

Highlights: Soft Whispers of the Chemical Sun, The Great Fleet of Echoes, Blue Dead Skies

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]
(from the open wounds the future runs)

Iron Maiden - Can I Play With Madness?/The Evil That Men Do EP (1990)

The First Ten Years: Part IX

The 9th EP released in the First Ten Years series is perhaps the one I found the most valuable in the entire series, because the B-sides for both Can I Play With Madness? and The Evil That Men Do singles are unavailable elsewhere, and also quite good. This is the quality that I would have liked the band to uphold through all singles, or the bare minimum that any band should produce on such a release. I mean, ideally, they wouldn't happen at all, but if you're going to squeeze out a few extra bucks from either fans or non-fans who for some silly reason can't see the benefit in paying a few extra dollars for a full-length, it should be worthwhile.

Can I Play With Madness? is a great, memorable Maiden tune, but the real reasons to acquire this EP come in the form of the "Black Bart Blues", which is like this near 7 minute jam section which is actually comprised of great riffing. There are vocals too, but they're actually sort of silly and self-referential towards the song. There is also a Nicko McBrain 'answering machine' in the song, and a bunch of his tomfoolery near the end. In other words, for the first 3-4 minutes, you get a decent Iron Maiden jam loaded with NWOBHM goodness. The other B-side is a cover of Thin Lizzy's "Massacre" from the Johnny the Fox album, and like a lot of their covers, is a good choice, and kicks a bit of ass, in particular the spiky little melodies panning out to the side of the mix.

The Evil That Men Do is likewise a treat, and the title track is another of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son's strongest. But the attraction to this single would have been the Bruce Dickinson-fronted versions of "Prowler" and "Charlotte the Harlot". Both sound quite excellent in all their modernized glory, with the music itself being streamlined for the Maiden of '88. I'm not trying to infer that they're better than the originals, mind you. I'll always have a soft spot for the Di'anno versions, but if you ARE going to do some remakes for fun, I'd say a single or EP is a good place to allocate them. Of the two, I think I liked "Prowler '88" a little more.

"Listen With Nicko!" begins more with a little more flatulence than the previous entries to the monologue, and as he usual he talks about the charting of the singles. He also pays a brief memory to Graham Chapman (the Monty Python comedian who appeared in the "Can I Play With Madness?" video but passed away not long after. Basically everything you need to know about the two original singles, and then some...

This is definitely the biggest treat in the First Ten Years collection, because all four of the bonus tracks from the singles are worth hearing and owning, the possible exception being the dicking around the band does in "Black Bart Blues". If you can track them down in one place rather than the constituent singles, why not?

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Monday, February 22, 2010

Hearse - In These Veins (2006)

The fourth album from Sweden's Hearse is quite a study in contrasts, or rather, the lack of contrast. While it's a far harder rocking effort than its predecessor The Last Ordeal, it's also the band's least dynamic offering musically, sticking quite closely to the punk-fueled death & roll rhythms, though the melodic surging continues in small doses. Some would inevitably find this more to their liking than other Hearse albums, if only because it seems to jive better with the pure aesthetic of the genre that Entombed started with Wolverine Blues. In These Veins is not the finest hour for Johan Liiva and crew, but it's a solid block of rock that you could ignite while burning down any cosmic roadway and at least get the neck hammering away.

"House of Love" doesn't conjure up anything truly catchy, aside from maybe the male choir backups in the bridge, but it boils up a cauldron of high powered riffing that benefits from the same massive production standard as the previous album The Last Ordeal. "Corroding Armour" goes for broke with a big dragstrip stoner groove that surges into more of the band's effortless punk chords, with some brief transitions into death metal and hardcore rudder riffs that serve as the chorus. Again, not insanely catchy, nor is "Intoxication", which once again bludgeons forth with death punk attitude, this time even picking up through the bass breaks and counter vocal angst. "Naked Truth" sticks close to the tree, d-beating drive rhythms with some great vocal echoes and a pretty cool, eerie little break with the guitars wailing to offset the melodic death.

"Crusade" feels like the band's take on a more nostalgic strain of hard rock & heavy metal, but it retains the punk and squealing, cautionary leads of many of their other songs. It's quite catchy and one of the better songs on the album, followed by the blunt thrash-core of "Among the Forlorn", which also has some great little guitar harmonies and a decent thrash breakdown. "Atrocious Recoil" has the most memorable of the album's melodies, a simple line over a surge of jet-fueled death which wouldn't be out of place for Amon Amarth. After three albums, the band finally decided to include a namesake song, and "Hearse" is another of the more memorable trips on the record, with giant crashing chords and ballsy blues grooves. The title tracks leads us out, a punchy number with a shuffling gait in between a forgettable death line, but the best solo on the album by far.

As a whole, In These Veins is a little better than The Last Ordeal. But only a little...and it lacks the hooks to truly burn out your mind. The sound is still somewhere between Entombed's 3rd album and Liiva's work in Arch Enemy, and the mix is excellent, at most levels and in most CD players. Not the first album I'd recommend for a new listener, but if you enjoy Armageddon, Mon Amour or The Last Ordeal then it's a safe bet.

Highlights: Crusade, Atrocious Recoil, Hearse

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Iron Maiden - Purgatory/Maiden Japan EP (1990)

The First Ten Years: Part III

This is the third release in the First Ten Years collection, 10 EPs that collect 20 of the band's singles during their first decade of existence. Purgatory was a 2-tracker, standard single released in 1981 and the Maiden Japan EP was also released that year which I've already covered elsewhere in its extended, superior, fan club format upon which you could experience the whole gig, as the penultimate live recording of the band with their original vocalist Paul Di'anno.

Because it's all available elsewhere, I find this to be perhaps the single most worthless EP in the entire series. Both "Purgatory" and "Genghis Khan" are available on Di'anno's 2nd album with the band, Killers, though admittedly they are both great songs that I don't mind hearing again...I would only mind paying for it. The Maiden Japan EP contains only four of the tracks from the performance, beginning with "Running Free", then the murky 70s vibes of "Remember Tomorrow", the wailing "Killers" and the Zep-stepping grooves and morose melodies that complete "Innocent Exile". These all sound great, but I've covered them elsewhere, and I'd certainly urge any Maiden fan to try and track down that full-length version of the concert rather than this EP or the Maiden Japan EP itself, which is identical if you've got the standard domestic version.

"Listen With Nicko!" begins with the drummer mock snoring, which is my sentiment exactly when faced with the prospect of another of his rambling, schizoid anecdotes as he takes the piss out of himself and showcases the history of these tracks, which are coincidentally not something he himself was a part of (Clive Burr was still drumming). We learn little details like the original title of "Purgatory" and how it was one of the only singles that didn't chart in the top #50 for Maiden (by 1990, anyway), and McBrain jokingly infers that had he been part of the band then, perhaps it would have charted more favorably...

Simply put, this is the least compelling of the First Ten Years EPs, with very little of interest to offer unless it is your only means of acquiring material from the Maiden Japan EP. "Purgatory" and "Genghis Khan" are both great, but they are greater as a part of Killers. Otherwise, this is good only for its voucher towards the box case.

Verdict: Epic Fail [2/10] (places I have never seen, pennies I will never see again)