Sunday, December 26, 2010

Talkin' Eds - The Final Frontier (2010)

Music is meant to be a shared experience. My first encounter with the music of Iron Maiden was as a thirteen year old listening to my friend's bigger brothers' tapes, two of us huddled over a portable stereo listening, each track a revelation and needing to be discussed, compared, enthused over. This happened less and less as albums came and went, and I just went. There are other bands whose music I bought on the first day of their release, racing home or to a friend's place to play it in comany and turn the listening experience into a communal one, but it wasn't until this year that I was able to do this properly for an Iron Maiden record. Semi-regular commenter Tim is also, as is obvious, an IM fan, and so on the day of release we raced from our respective work desks to hit the road with the new album in the CD tray, sharing the experience of hearing Maiden's latest (possibly last) album 'live'. We parked overlooking town on a beautiful sunny day, chatting animatedly over the tracks as they played - it was a good lunch hour, whatever the outcome.


The Album
And so this is Album Number Fifteen, reaching the number Steve Harris said not too long ago that he would be aiming for with Maiden. Adding to this the ominous title you'd be hard pressed not to think TFF is the band's last outing. More recent press suggests this might be premature, and sales haven't hurt it at all - going to number one is several countries (including New Zealand). Perhaps there's life in the old dogs yet. In the mean time Frontier is apprpriately a rumination on that most final of frontiers, the death of the individual. It's not a complete overall theme, departing from time to time, but it's unquestionably there. The album opens unconventionally, with a barrage of reverbed drums and a shouted first person narrative by Dickinson about a stranded spacefarer low on life support and drifting towards a nearby sun. In a segue that is shared across the first three tracks (tracks one and two are technically the same) the album's title song kicks in, continuing the story as the man reflects on his lot:

"For I have lived my life to the full/I have no regrets.
But I wish I could talk to my family to tell them one last goodbye"

There's not a lot of space in the song for regret, however, and it's interesting to note that incomparison with earlier narratives of the damned (The Trooper, Hallowed Be Thy Name, Sign of the Cross) there's less of a sense of impending dread and more of peace with one's lot. The voice of an aged yet succesful band against a younger group with debts and dues to pay? Or am I reading too much into this? Certainly the sense of contrast with the past is there with returns to old ideas - the soldier on the battlefield (Mother of Mercy), the historical figure (in this instance Dr John Dee in Janick Gers' lively The Alchemist) and the hero of legend - here it's the original British and, potently, undying king in Isle of Avalon which restarts the album after a slow lapse and introduced a strong troika returning the album's theme. Indeed, its immediate successor Starblind seems in it opening lines to return to the doomed astronaut of the album's overture stil drifting to his doom, but spiritually resigned in a beautiful description:

"Take my eyes the things I've seen/in this world coming to an end
My reflection fades/I'm weary of these mortal bones and skin
You may pass through me and leave no trace/I have no mortal face
Solar winds are whispering, you may hear me call."

Starblind is the highlight of Frontier for me, an easy anchor point with fantastic solos and Dickinson in strong voice. I can't decide however whether the vocals suffer slightly from the singer's age (the higher notes are 'thrown' as elsewhere on the album and Dickinson's 'F's are sounding more wet), or are given greater conviction because of it. This would have lifted the roof back in the days of Number of the Beast but would it have resonated as well amid the bloodthirsty songs of vikings, demons and madness? To Maiden's, Dickinson's and Harris' credit (and not forgetting the other songwriters of the band) strong lyrical compositions matter more in these later albums - technically the band have never dropped in quality despite the singer's voice aging and the drummer being the senior member), so it's heartening to see them being given obvious attention here. Gers returns to writing chores with The Talisman, a (whoops!) doomed seafarer dropping at the last hurdle on his voyage to the New World. It's a good composition and yes, Gers has trod this tale before with Ghost of the Navigator on Brave New World, but he does this stuff so well I can forgive him easily.

The final highpoint of Frontier is Steve Harris' rewrite of Raymond Briggs' When the Wind Blows, closing the album as one of the longest songs of Maiden's repertoire. When the Wild Wind Blows reliably tells the story of an old couple responding to the imending nuclear holocaust around hem by huddling in their shelter, but choosing to end their lives (unlike the unhappy protagonists of Briggs' story). The fact of the false alarm that drives them to it is a cruel trick of fate, but maybe here Harris is having it both ways - individuals facing death with dignity, and all the while death not being the end of the world around them.

If The Final Frontier is Iron Maiden's legacy album, the last release in their name as a group, then it works very well, hitting the notes of the past without falling into the trap of sentimentality of self-reverence. Coming as it did on the heels of the hugely succesful Somewhere Back in Time 'golden years' world tour and album, you could be forgiven forexpecting some of the obvious formulas of the past creeping in either through familiarity or an acknowledgement of what worked in the past. Thankfully for Maiden they haven't done this and haven't needed to - whatever they're doing it's clearly still working. There's nothing shocking or new on Frontier past its overture, but not does it sound tired or rehashed,a testament to the invention and energies of its seven strong contingent. If this is the end, then true to the heroes of the album, they depart in style.

Cover Art

Nooooo! It was going so well! This, believe it or not (and many didn't, and frankly the jury's still out a little) is Eddie. Yup. Space Eddie, hoovering a dead astronaut's brains. Yeah. Whatever floats your boat, buys. Obviously not a Derek Riggs portrait, it comes from the usually reliable Melvyn Grant and for what it's worth the design has stuck, being incorporated into the standard Giant Eddie onstage and on the single artwork by Anthony Dry. As you might imagine, I'm far from sold. It's cartoonish in the wrong way and actually looks really clumsy. There's a back story to the art involving a quest for seven keys (for seven bandmembers?) one of which Eddie has presumably retrieved here, but it's not followed up in the album (just a spin-off game), so we';re really into Ed Hunter territory here. Frankly, a close up of the astronaut helmet with a more classic Eddie reflection would have been preferable, and may have suited the opening track more. In other words, I ain't buyin' the tee shirt for this one.

Album Tracks
Satellite 15... The Final Frontier
El Dorado
Mother of Mercy
Coming Home
The Alchemist
Isle of Avalon
Starblind
The Talisman
The Man Who Would Be King
When the Wild Wind Blows

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Ha Ha! He said 'bell's end'!

One of the few yuletide songs I can bear on a more than yearly rotation:



Season's greetings, one and all!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Roll Over!

Boo-ya!


Last Sunday saw a test card perfect summer day in the Capital and, as blogged earlier, I was stuck inside almost for the duration of its balmy and later humid length. It wasn’t all bad, though. I, Paul M, Jamas and Meromo played my near-complete D&D game ‘below Barbigazl’, a sequel to the 2007 smash-hit and character-killer that took its PCs (that’s Player characters to those of you not playing at home) into an abandoned Dwarven kingdom where deadly goblins, deadly undead and surprisingly sophisticated and ruthless Gnomes awaited. The original game ended with a rush and was a bit of a fumble due to a lack of preparedness and closing windows of opportunity (read: real-life timetables). Could the follow-up improve things? Well, as it turned out, a little. But not entirely.

The party this time were sent on a mission by the community of the Gnomes they had last ambushed (see Jamas’ description here) and was situated as the title suggests, some distance below the Dwarven stronghold, in strange caverns of giant fungi, a lost city of rock salt, and narrow tunnels inhabited by horrible blind troglodytic humanoids. There were some unconventional steps – the opening monster was no mean enemy – a green dragon with an impressive hoard. The party dispatched him after some puzzle solving and could have walked away then and there intact and rather flush for the experience. But credit to them and their players, they hung on, entering the mountain in search of the ‘missing behind enemy lines’ character they were enlisted to rescue. Then their troubles began, and I’ll leave it to Jamas to describe the story in his blog.

It was a very enjoyable afternoon, situated in an off-the-street art space in the CBD with plenty of room and (a revelation!) a whiteboard which became my favourite tool as Dungeon master – so useful for mapping out tunnels and corridors and spaces, assigning a marching and fighting order for the party, and it became pretty much our fifth member for the game for that. I think the guys enjoyed themselves. We had one character death – not an heroic one, but the guy involved distinguished himself early on so wasn’t without his triumphs before the curtain descended. Everyone made sacrifices – my chief one was sidetracking (and in doing so railroading) some deadly Kobold caves. I’d been reading Tucker’s Kobolds, an infamous and hilarious editorial from Dragon magazine committed to digital form – during my last-minute creation of the module I realised the insanity of the intricate pitfalls and traps I was obsessing over at the expense of the greater game, and stopped, making sure that sections of the game such as this could be closed off if time was short.

As it turned out, time did diminish somewhat, but we were all home before tea and nobody got hurt. The new creatures I created (the mole men) were suitably ooky and threw the party, almost TPK-ing them, as did an encounter with an enormous slug, a traditional monster with surprising advantages, but a rewarding encounter for giving some of the characters ‘beats’ to play out their specific talents. I missed some opportunities along the way – putting in magical items that were either irrelevant or not that useful where another would have been, and failing to get the party to rest adequately between encounters. Their oversight turned into an inability to rest once they were deep inside the goblin lair, and death was sort of inevitable for one character who had been in turn cursed against wielding anything metal, burned by acidic slug spit, afflicted with a leprous disease, and finally shot by a goblin. In the end the last act was eerily like the earlier game – a Mexican stand-off, albeit with short grey-green Mexicans, and a hastily-orchestrated retreat with the party’s rescued Delver and his all-important crosier, back to safety and ready to plan the next adventure.

Will there be another attempt on Barbigazl? I hope so. There may be an opportunity, and there’s certainly enough in the way of loose ends to create something close to what I’d have liked both games to be. But with two attempts down, will the third time be the charm? Roll d20 to see, I guess…

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Talkin' Eds - A Matter of Life and Death (2006)

This is simply one of my favourite Iron Maiden albums – although it may be apparent to some that I have weird choices. It’s also the only Maiden album post-Piece of Mind I never saw in shops at the time of its release, so its content and packaging were a genuine unknown to me when I finally picked it up in the great Maiden back catalogue bargain hunt of 2008. Listening to them fresh opened up the album as a fresh and new, total experience – many previous albums I was able to delineate or compartmentalise by album tracks on either side or following/preceding more familiar singles; but AMOLAD came out even after the most recent video compilation (Visions of the Beast), and so there was nothing on it that was familiar, and nothing to break up the full 70 minute opus.

I’m old enough to still have a vinyl record collection and even a few tapes – so unavoidably my approach to albums of songs is to think of an A side and a B side, a rising and falling structure of an album in two acts – or four if it’s a double of course. CD albums have changed that, or should have, and now that I’m as likely to download individual tracks on iTunes than full albums there’s something to be said also for their role in the album’s status as an increasingly non-linear phenomenon. I suspect though that being prog fans Iron Maiden have that two act structure embedded as much as this listener does in their subconscious, and AMOLAD could be said to follow this pattern. For the most part the whole album deals with one theme; it rises and falls from initial Nicko-voiced martial cry “Aiiiee!” to the final acoustic strum of its closing track, broken up around the halfway point by a track quite unlike the rest of the album in topic – there is an audible A side and B side, to me at least.

The Album
War is the overall theme of A Matter of Life and Death, a subject to which iron maiden are no stranger. In contrast to the blood and thunder of The Trooper and Aces High however, this is late era Maiden’s take on conflict, informed as much as the likes of X Factor’s The Aftermath and notably Dance of Death’s Paschendale were – indeed either song could be a dress rehearsal for this album as a whole. After a fast-paced opener in Different World (seemingly a call-response dialogue between youth and maturity, sounding like Husker Du’s later efforts) the album kicks in with an exploration of war’s personal moments. Here is the signing up of a soldier (These Colours Don’t Run), the first grim beachhead assault (The Longest Day) and the death of comrades (Out of the Shadows). Amid these is the glowering and thundering Brighter than a Thousand Suns, a tried interpretation of Project Manhattan as a Biblical loss of innocence:

“We are not the sons of God, we are not his chosen people now/We have crossed the paths He trod, we will feel the pain of His beginning”

There’s some great imagery in this song (“shadow fingers rise above/iron fingers stab the desert sky”), a highlight of an album where Harris and Dickinson’s writing is well in the ascent, and inevitably popular culture gets its end in (“out of the universe a strange light is born/unholy union, Trinity reborn”) – it’s expertly measured in tone and instrumentation. At the halfway point is a departure from war and conflict in The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg, a confessional narrative from a damned individual whom Harris teased fans with in an “is he? Isn’t he?” online hunt to find the titular antihero. Breeg never existed, and the song (the album’s first single) stands out a little for its length and ill thematic fit, but it never derails the set. The three songs following Breeg close the album, departing from the individual viewpoint of its first half with a broader, accusatory tirade against its subjects – For the Greater Good of God targets the righteous "holy war winner” world leader – unnamed, but you could take a guess, I imagine. It’s the voice of a mind at the end of its tether, followed by Lord of Light, an arresting hymn to the original rebel and father of war, Lucifer. If this came from early Maiden you might dismiss it as Church-baiting rabble rousing - but this is more seductive, more angry, and less provocative, asking the question: if the capacity for destruction is in every man and religion’s good is so misused as a tool of propaganda, why not just submit to nature?

Finally, The Legacy, a Janick Gers collaboration which shows off the style of acoustic intro he's now quite the professional at. A last address to an architect of weaponry ("some strange yellow gas") on his deathbed, it looks to a future legacy the man leaves behind, and it's not a heroic one.


AMOLAD thus carries its theme through to the end, though it's no concept album or even a loose narrative like Seventh Son. The spectre of the Twentieth Century's European wars hangs over albums by Maiden's antecedents (Pink Floyd's The Wall and The Final Cut, The Who's Tommy), and it continues to be fertile ground for Heavy Metal in all its guises. maiden's fourteenth studio album is one of their strongest, perhaps the more for not directing its focus on one event or one time period, but making its references recognisable and also universal: The Longest Day's lyrical "Overlord" mention nods to D-Day, but I found its description of scared men fighting a deadly tide while cliffs explode above them could be any number of locations, perhaps ANZAC Cove. Clever.

Cover Art
A definite improvement on Dance of Death, but again Eddie is almost a backdrop character, posed on a more impressive tank with a literal army of the dead around him. It’s a grim piece befitting the tone of the album, and betrays its computer generated origins a little readily, but tonally you can’t fault it. On the back is a stencilled marine Eddie, a logo which would be used to a fair length on band merchandise, and again as before, some classy shots of the individual band members – monochrome to emphasise the years on their faces and hands, and studio-set. I like the approach, hiding nothing (I’m still suspicious about ‘Harry’s rather sculpted cheekbones on the reverse of the previous album’s cover) and dispensing with a dramatic setting (coughLondonDungeon!cough) or tableaux. In all it’s the look of a band comfortable with its age and expertise.

Album Tracks
As with Maiden's debut album, this release is rare for having had its entirety played live (and indeed was played as a live album for the US tour). Despite this, live versions vary in quality (they really need a DVD), and many many of the fan videos just go too far with the imagery, letting spectacle get in the way of the perfectly adequate lyrics. So for the non-squeamish:

Different World
These Colours Don't Run
Brighter Than a Thousand Suns (fan video version also good!)
The Pilgrim (studio version)
The Longest Day (fan video version here)
Out of the Shadows
The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg
For the Greater Good of God
Lord of Light
The Legacy

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Back on a Roll



The further back I look, the harder it gets to find my first encounter with the phenomenon of Dungeons and Dragons. Likely I saw pictures of the game and read about it in books just as I was exiting childhood and entering adolescence, but it might be earlier than that. I had an issue of the Star Wars comic (actually I had two and that’s the sum of my collection!) which had an enticing cartoon advertising the game, and it’s possible that that same issue was also advertising the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings movie, such was its infiltration into popular media of the time. In 1982 the movie ET attempted to show a game in progress (further discussion on that here.)



The Greatest American Hero even pitched in on the trend working in a (very silly) story connected to early misbegotten LARPing games in real life, and later still TSR in relaunching the set for an 80s audience ran a serial advertisement in UK comics (2000AD in my case) to continue the marketing push. All of this served less to explain the game to me than promote more confusion, but with that, it did increase its mystique. It was simply a game I HAD to find out more about! So the advertising worked, due in no small part to my overactive imagination. By my 14th birthday my brother and I had a set – the red ‘Basic’ box rather than the older Advanced D&D rules (they really didn’t name things these well, did they?) and we set to, armed with a couple of handy independent guidebooks to help us on our way. This was the best of the bunch – British in origin and approach, and full of really useful insight into a game our parents were absolutely dumbfounded by and just didn’t understand. Which, in its own way, was rather cool; it made the game all the more ‘ours’, though it didn’t help me accrue many more associated books, modules and game aids because of the fact.

From that age I played the game with school friends, as did my brother with his, and for two or three years it featured quite heavily in my extracurricular life, fitting somewhere between youth group, scouts and venturers, and (thankfully) girlfriends. My characters came and went, as did my playmates, and eventually so did the game – revived over a couple of university summers mainly to recapture some of the old magic when Paul M, one of the old group, returned home from the Navy for the holidays. Things eventually went really quiet; Paul and I moved away for good, we found spouses and he even moved overseas. Before making that move though we had one ‘last’ game, with a few local friends and his brother – Jamas has it blogged here. It went okay – being as we are all grown up with less free time the games were rushed and business-like. For the most part they were okay – some of the old magic was there, albeit framed by adult duties responsibilities – that’s life.

This weekend Paul’s back for a limited time. We have one day set aside to return to the mines of Barbigazl and undo the wrongs committed in the first place. Will righteousness prevail? Can the heroes see it through and triumph? More to the point, can we fit this in over one Sunday before the inevitable call to come home for dinner? We wait to see!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Talkin' Eds - Dance of Death (2004)

Rock and roll – heavy metal, is a young man’s game. True, there are old men involved, and young women too, but by and large it is a genre consisting of young men strutting their musicianship, singing to other young men visceral songs about the sorts of concerns (or lack thereof) that a male in the prime of life might have. “Getting drunk... having sex… getting drunk and then having sex” in the words of Blaze Bayley. And well it might be – “rejoice, young man, in thy youth’ says Ecclesiastes. Very few uses of this phrase venture any further into the verse, because the cold reality of age and creeping decrepitude become the theme; it’s a bit of a downer, and that’s life. Rock and roll is also a form of escapism from the inevitable, a railing against light’s dying, but when the glory days are in the past and a young man’s pursuits become regarded as trivial, temporary and less than profound, what then for the aging rocker? Fifty years on we still haven’t found the answer to that question.

Iron Maiden have been looking though, and having found each other and themselves again with Brave New World, their follow-up Dance of Death is an attempt to continue the search for deeper meaning and something else to sing about besides the devil and history’s bad men. That’s not the theme of this album though – despite the title, DoD has no theme, and that’s an initial failing. The previous effort won through on the large spectacle of the band’s reinvigorated return, and its longevity when all of its comrades from 1980 had dwindled or stumbled off into solo projects (or actually DIED!) Their rejoinder is a hodgepodge of tracks, each technically tight and well-executed, but also a song apart from the rest. The pieces are there, but the places are wrong. Furthermore, this is the workings of older men. While the instrumentation goes undiminished, Bruce Dickinson’s voice shows the first signs of its aging here (although he’s still a formidable talent), and Steve Harris and Adrian Smith are tackling their issues with questionable direction. “I’ve got to organise some changes in my life!” is the opening line to track one Wildest Dreams, a baby-booming paean to hitting the open road on one’s new wheels. Whee! But really, these are hardly the same league as NotB’s longboats, X-Factor’s eleven saintly shrouded men, or BNW’s hand of fate? It’s a self-help manifesto for change – a mid-life crisis in the form of a song that could double as a car ad. Things improve with Rainmaker, another fast-paced high-end foot stomper, and No More Lies, a sort of Masque of Red Death with a chorus that does what it says on the tin and allows some Gatling gun drumming from Nicko McBrain to back the shouted title. All three songs are individually different, yet typical of Dance of Death, being the summation of over twenty years of Maiden doing their thing, but not pushing the boat out too far, and perhaps that’s the album in microcosm. Of all of Maiden’s fifteen studio outings, this is the one I feel the least goodwill towards – even Virtual XI has its moments as much as the two ex-Smith, pre-Bayley records. Dance sounds great, but it’s the sound of not a lot.

There are no classic tracks here – Smith’s Paschendale is the closest to meeting the criterion, but with two albums to come it’s not difficult to see its ideas being better exercised later on – ditto album closer and acoustic number Journeyman. Between these is material which is far from being dross (there’s no repeat of Quest for Fire, for example), but frustratingly misses the mark, even with every band member contributing to the lyrics and composition. Janick Gers provides much of the title track, and it stands out for being a little too much like Number of the Beast in narrative and therefore out of time. Montsegur is the least appealing – a shouty, clanging noise of a song with Dickinson racing to keep up with the meter. Age of Innocence has a reliably excellent solo by Dave Murray, but is spoiled lyrically – Harris railing against the injustices of the world around him with all the insight of a taxi driver. “A life of petty crime gets punished with a holiday/ the victims’ minds are scarred for live most every day” – what, scarred by petty crime? You really think that, Steve? For me it’s uncomfortably close to the over-earnest sound of the late 80s ‘social comment’ song, so many dealing with the plight of the world’s poor, performed by residents of the world’s tax havens. It’s disingenuous, and even if that isn’t the intent, the association sticks, and I’ll never pretend to imagine that the prison system is for anyone a ‘holiday’. I shouted back at the song when I first heard it and still grumble over skipping it now.

But re-listening to the album in full as this blog has required of me has borne some fruit. The lesser-played tracks Gates of Tomorrow, New Frontier and Face in the Sand have each earned a new ear and probably by virtue of not being the title track, the big message, the opener or closer, have been more enjoyable for it. The doom saying Face in the Sand in particular is the album’s highlight for me, and in a pared-down listing should definitely have opened Dance of Death, beginning with Dickinson’s upper register and detailing some form of game plan for a collection of songs from a band held together as friends and equals while the world seemingly falls apart around them.


Cover Art:
Well, here it is. Despite recent stiff competition, we've come to the worst ever Iron Maiden album cover. It's a tragedy and a travesty - obviously at some point there was a design specification here, a plan of some kind, and then everything went haywire and before everyone knew it the thing was finished before all of the fancy digital artwork could actually be rendered, polished and tested before a live studio audience. At least Eddie's centred - even if everyone else is in cluttered non-solid dimensions land. Fans didn't take kindly to this, some een thinking it an actual joke on the band's part, but it seems the truth is theat someone deicided it was finished before the artist (not Riggsy, not Melvyn Grant) decided it was. The rest is now consigned to Maiden history, save for the artist's name, which he asked to have removed (and fair enough too).

On the other hand, inside the booklet are some of the band's best posed pictures of the guys, surrounded by blurry artistically nude ladies in masquerade masks. Top stuff, made all the more arrestiog for their contrast to the throw-up on the front.

Album Tracks(taken from the Death on the Road tour where possible)
Wildest Dreams
Rainmaker
No More Lies
Dance of Death
Montsegur
Gates of Tomorrow
New Frontier

Paschendale
Face in the Sand

Age of Innocence (save yourselves! Try Nicko's version instead)
Journeyman

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

This, That and the Otter

Last posting on Albert for a while, promise.


Anyway, the book is out and sales are pretty good. At the moment supply is chasing demand, so that's promising too. Oh, and the coverage!

David's blog Southerly kicked things off on Public Address and conversation was plentiful and really positive, even if it eventually turned into a linguistic discussion free of otters. This sort of stuff happens on PA, and that's cool.

A week or so later there was a nice piece in The Press, largely about the author but with some good reproductions of the book's artwork. I'm sure I must have been reading Phillip Matthews' stuff for nearly twenty years now and have dug it for just as long. He can carry on saying nice things about us, frankly!


Then Morgue sent me this hat-tip courtesy of the VUW Psyc department newsletter. Whoah. Didn't see that coming. Nice to see we're in good company.


And finally and most recently, we made Steve Braunias' 'Best Of 2010' column over the weekend in the Sunday Star Times supplement. Unexpected, unsolicited, and very cool, from another writer I could just read and read again.


Result. For any readers out there who've contacted me about copies, hang tight, they're on their way. In the mean-time, I'm crossing my fingers and sharpening my pencil for the next project.

Otter and out!


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Talkin’ Eds – Best of the ‘B’ Sides (2002)

You can tell a lot about a band, judge their character possibly, by the quality of their B sides. Perhaps that’s going a little far – I have a limited experience when it comes to b-side collections and only own a few, being mainly a completist for the bands whose flippers I have collected. Blur’s b-sides I’ve found virtually impregnable, despite being a big fan of their singles. But I do believe that the status of these often lesser-known songs deserve as much attention as album tracks for a given band, if not as much attention as the singles themselves. For the most part from their heyday through to their demise sometime in the last ten years they have been released alongside a band’s crop of their best or most accessible work. Perhaps the marriage isn’t always a happy one, and perhaps management or record company machinations make some pairings of single and b-side something of a shotgun affair, but for as long as the two have been paired we’ve been stuck with them. Artists, choose your b-sides as wisely as your singles, I say.

A prolific band needn’t fear the prospect of a b-side. If lesser songs can’t be added, out-takes included or demos trialled on the spare vinyl of a 45 single, then other options offer themselves: a live track, perhaps, an interview for the fans, maybe? How about a cover of another band’s song? Iron Maiden did all of these from 1980 through to 2000 and the resulting double CD release collects the majority of this output. For the most part there are covers, which shouldn’t diminish the appeal of the title, as they are pretty well chosen and not immediately familiar – in fact, I would venture to say that it’s the more familiar tracks (Who and Zeppelin I’m looking at you) which suffer the most from sloppy execution or poor comparison. For myself I wasn’t aware of a lot of the bands from whose crops Maiden have harvested these songs: Tull I do know of course, plus UFO and Free, but the rest are a new discovery and so the collection offers something of an introduction to those bands who have inspired maiden along the way. I think that’s what the intention was, and it’s a cool gesture. There are some notables here: Reach Out has Adrian Smith singing – a slightly throaty vocal reminiscent of Joe Elliot (in a good way) with Bruce Dickinson providing backing. It’ a good match, and a shame Smith didn’t get any other opportunity to flex his vocal chords. Doctor Doctor is the last cover and the last Blaze Bayley song featured here, but distinguishes itself for being a popular song for the band to play before live shows. It’s actually one of Bayley’s best vocal performances with maiden, and is a standout for that. The other standout I’d nominate is actually absent, and one of my favourite Maiden covers – Thin Lizzy’s Massacre from Seventh Son, in which Maiden speed things up to a tempo that suits them, and Dickinson demonstrates just how much of an influence the voice of Phil Lynott was on his style. Fortunately this is available as a track on the iTunes version of Seventh Son, so it was an easy purchase for me.

I have less to say about the live versions – Maiden is in its element lie and so the quality here is reliable, despite a cheat here and there. Remember Tomorrow is a Di’Anno era recording with Dickinson’s voice overdubbed and it feels less honest for that, but the rest of the selection is very sound – it’s good to hear DiAnno letting loose on Drifter early on and Blaze sounding in good form also. Like the covers the selection ere is not exhaustive, but it’s enough, and Dickinson’s version of Futureal from Rock in Rio (I think) rounds things off well.

Which brings me to the originals. An even more mixed bag, particularly for being something of a pick and mix. Invasion is called a proto-version of NotB’s Invaders, and brings out the early punky side attributed to the band in its infancy, while Burning Ambition wears a few influences – Boston, Cheap Trick, on its sleeve. At the other end of the collection are two of the three X-Factor cast-offs covered earlier. Good for those interested in Blaze’s potential, but almost all of them not absolutely cheated as potential album fillers. Between these poles are the four novelty originals – Black Bart and Nodding Donkey Blues, The Sheriff of Huddersfield and Roll Over Vic Vella. Half of them dedicated to the subject of bedding groupies, the other half about support crew or management. Sheriff (directed at band manager Rod Smallwood) is the funniest and least offensive, and Vic Vella (which as you’d expect takes its musical cue from Chuck Berry) the least intelligible. The other two are indicative of the changing nature of the band and its output – very self-indulgent, throwaway, and not as cap-doffing to musical roots. I’d be as happy to not have these, and perhaps Dickinson’s fourth-form interjections over the closing lines of Juanita and Space Station No. 5 as I would have the omissions listed below, but you can’t have them all, literally.

Cover Art
We’re beyond serious Eddie here, and the technique is rougher for it, as well. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury – in deference to the compilation title Edward the Head presents his very own and decidedly ‘b’ side out of a (tour bus?) windscreen. The CD-label design sketches for Somewhere in Time and Stranger in a Strange Land inside the package may be more to your taste.

Track Listing:
These are out of order in the following list
Originals:
Burning Ambition
Invasion
The Sheriff of Huddersfield
Black Bart Blues
Nodding Donkey Blues
Roll Over Vic Vella
Justice of the Peace
Judgement Day

Not featured: I Live My Way

Live versions:
Drifter
Remember Tomorrow
Prowler ‘88
Charlotte the Harlot ‘88
Blood on the World’s Hands
The Aftermath
Futureal
Wasted Years

Covers:
I’ve Got the Fire (Montrose)
Cross-Eyed Mary (Jethro Tull)
Rainbow’s Gold (Beckett)
King of Twilight (Nektar)
Reach Out (ASAP/The Entire Population of Hackney)
That Girl (As above)
Juanita (Marshall Fury)
All in Your Mind (Stray)
Kill Me Ce Soir (Golden Earring)
I’m a Mover (Free)
Communication Breakdown (Led Zeppelin)
Space Station No. 5 (Montrose)
I Can’t See My Feelings (Budgie)
My Generation (The Who)
Doctor Doctor (UFO)

Not featured: The Massacre (Thin Lizzy)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Whole Otter Love

Hooray! The Hidden Talent of Albert Otter has now sold out of its limited first edition! This is good news, but there's more to come as a couple of other translations are now completed and a launch of the second print run is imminent.

To mark the occasion, a couple of out-takes (ott-takes?):












Albert as a line-art profile for the front endpapers.
















A smaller illustration not intended for publication.

Copies are still available for pre-order through Public Address Books

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Otter in a Can



Some of my more regular readers may know that for the past year or thereabouts my attention has been taken up by many things domestic and creative, and deputy chief among these is this chap here, Albert Otter. I’m delighted to announce that after eight months of evenings and occasional weekends wrestling with a pretty new medium, my illustrations for David Haywood’s wonderful story The Hidden Talents of Albert Otter are now on the eve of publication. The book is rit, the pics are drwnd. I have enjoyed a sleep like no other for a good week or so now.

The project was long in execution and had some build-up. I initially contacted David through his blog after his call for an artist for a previous project, on which we made some headway before the very early arrival of Jet Junior meant my complete attention and energy were needed elsewhere for the foreseeable future. That illustration project went no further, and in the interim David completed his second book, the scurrilous and outrageous NZ Reserve Bank Annual 2010. I missed the Parliamentary launch but gate-crashed his setting up for the signing at Arty Bees to say Hi and (hopefully) reconnect as things domestic had settled down considerably. Gracious and welcoming as ever, David offered me a copy of the book and said he had a new project in mind and would I be interested? A few days later he revealed it was to be Albert (of course it would be Albert!), and we set to work, gradually planning the look and feel of the book.

David was initially interested in an Oliver Jeffers approach (though not a slavish copy of course), while I’d imagined something Beatrix Potter-ish. I think we struck a happy medium, and in the event David’s feedback throughout has been positive, helpful and insightful. Readers of David’s blog will of course know that his home is among those in one of the worst-hit areas of the Christchurch quake zone, so his patience and encouragement are, in my opinion, absolutely heroic. And now, scarping on the good side of a deadline the book is done – hooray!

For a better look inside I urge you to visit the preview pages at Public Address Books.
More details on availability are there.

Thanks to David and his family and of course my family for their patience and stoicism over the last eight months, and to those generous friends who’ve already put orders in!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Talkin' Eds - Brave New World (2000)

Iron Maiden have reformed, and it’s an interesting thing. Most band reunions take place over a short space of time and are generated around a particular event – a tour, a Best Of album or perhaps an appearance borne from other media – say, a movie appearance. Maiden’s is different, as much as the band itself are different to many about at the time or since. Bruce Dickinson has had a pretty good solo career, and Adrian Smith too has enjoyed collaboration with other musicians and the chance to flex his considerable talent; but over the time of their respective absence from the main band things have changed. The band has got older, the brand itself has aged and music – heavy metal in particular, has evolved. Blaze has come and gone. All of this is evident and has been covered in previous posts, but what bears repeating from those for me is that the writing of Steve Harris, to date still the core and main writer for Iron Maiden, has also changed. His compositions – never simple in the first place, have by and large lengthened, involving fewer tricky time changes and more slow-build; his lyrics have moved on from the Hammer Horror stock of the past and embraced the subjects of a maturing man. There’s much more of this to come over Maiden’s most recent (last?) three full studio albums, but for the moment the band’s ‘comeback’ album has the unenviable challenge of acknowledging the past, and marking time as it looks to a future with the biggest line-up it’s ever had.

I love the fact that despite Smith’s return Maiden have retained Janick Gers. It seems only fair – in 2000 he’d already served more time than Smith had in years and only two albums shy to equalise him. Like Smith he’s had a hand in writing and composing too, significantly changing the sound of the band. Brave New World is as much a product of Gers’ time in Maiden as any of his previous records, although it seems the dynamics of three guitarists on stage at once are themselves a developing thing for live Maiden. Early shows for the reunited band carried reviews that reduced Gers to backing guitar, or class-clown with his now trademark antics of throwing his instrument and dancing with it to fill in the gaps as it were. On the album however the roles change.

Brave New World does open on a tease, mind. The Wicker Man is one of a small number of traditional Maiden songs, and you’d be forgiven for thinking its position in the track listing is as Trojan Horse – all the old Maiden hallmarks are there: fast pace, sing-along chorus, horror movie trappings. It’s a cheat though – Harris’ “Your time has come!” catch cry isn’t directed at the song/movie’s unwilling sacrifice, but the band’s new audience of young listeners accrued in the previous decade and seemingly entering this new millennium at the height of their potential – “hand of fate is moving and the finger points to you/ He knocks you to your feet and so what are you gonna do?” After ten years of railing against a changing world around him Harris is passing the baton to the next generation.

From there on Brave New World settles in, an exploration of the musical developments of the past three albums, with the essential reinjection of two of its greatest assets. This is a good album, and one from a band who know what they are, confident in a very strong fanbase (particularly in Europe and South America, who would be repaid the debt in the monumental CD and DVD Rock in Rio the following year). The songs have greater space and less gallop than Classic Maiden, but are the stronger for this, I think. Oddly, it’s the fillers – The Mercenary, The Fallen Angel and possibly The Wicker Man, which evoke the band of old and stand out as being a little less than the maturer efforts of, say, Blood Brothers and the album’s title track. At risk of repeating myself, the album does slow somewhat towards the end – Iron maiden seem to have an issue with album length and often err on the side of too long. Perhaps it’s the newer slow-build approach that affects the last three tracks, but each of them The Nomad (clunky beginning and dodgy lyrics but a beautiful instrumental section), Out of the Silent Planet and The Thin Line Between Love and Hate show that there’s still time for the band to look again at track arrangement. For the most part the albums are better paced from here, though this is by no means a poor effort. It’s a great return to form, and in that, not an entire return at all, which is all the better.

I bought the previous compilation CD Best of the Beast after chancing across the band performing The Wicker Man on Top of the Pops , of all places. It’s a mimed playback, alas – a far cry from the ragged and punchy live band debut of years ago, but it did the job. The band were older, Bruce had cut his hair and divested himself of the studded gauntlets of his heyday, but my partner and I were suitably impressed.

Cover Art
If you look carefully there’s the ghost of Derek Riggs in here somewhere – or rather, the ghost of his Eddie, the remaining (and apparently unauthorised) use of an earlier mock-up cover he’d done for the Wicker Man single. I’m not enthralled by this album cover, mainly because it’s just not an Iron Maiden cover – it’s static, scenic, and Eddie’s once again pushed to the background. The days of the band mascot being the star feature are now gone. On the back the boys stand in a field of weather balloons (used in the official video for The Wicker Man here). Ooh, haven’t they aged well?

Album tracks
The Wicker Man (Rock in Rio version - non-album intro!)
Ghost of the Navigator (Rock in Rio version)
Brave New World (Rock in Rio version)
Blood Brothers (Rock in Rio version)
The Mercenary (Rock in Rio version)
The Dream of Mirrors (Rock in Rio version)
The Fallen Angel (live in Argentina)
The Nomad (fan video using Hildago footage)
Out of the Silent Planet (album version, official video cuts off the intro)
The Thin Line Between Love and Hate

Friday, October 15, 2010

Brother

My discovery of Tolkien was chiefly through my brother. Like a lot of younger siblings I suppose, I idolised my elder ones – him in particular, and spent many of my earlier years hanging on his every word. Things changed, as they inevitably do when we both became older and in turn desired more personal space, literally and figuratively. But for five or six years we shared a room and lived in each other’s heads, after a fashion. Second-hand I learned about machines, history (wars, mainly), school ground politics and the exploits of his friends (who all seemed so much more daring and clever and funny than mine). I learned about which music was best and what happened in movies I wasn’t allowed to stay up and watch, and in the dim orange bedside lamplight of our room I learned scarier things too. The "Bomb" that mankind had made which could destroy anything, but couldn’t be disposed of itself (“you couldn’t even shoot it into space”), and of course I was told the story of The Lord of the Rings.

This is the edition we had at home – bought, I think, by him as a school prize in third form. The cover drew me in, seemingly infinite in perspective and possibility – a window into a mountainous and green world framed by arching trees, with strange creatures (Gollum?) playing among their roots. The potted version of the story I was told had Gandalf the Wizard, a Hobbit called Frodo and a creature called Gollum who plotted secretly to himself to steal back the Ring, and a cool Elf called Legolas. And it had Orcs “evil things like goblins, but with faces like a mix of men and animals”, and their shadowy overlord “Soaron”, the real Lord of the Rings who watched over everything in a tower on the other side of Middle Earth. Expressive gesticulating hands casting shadows over the bedroom walls, and increasingly hushed tones after the lights went out; somehow it’s this version which has stayed with me – gripping, imaginative, as full of possibility as that book jacket, far more than the book I eventually read and read again, or the film adaptations I watched. None of them conveyed the same mystery or creepiness or heroism that my brother was able to over those summer nights, not long before we’d move into our own rooms and everything would change again.

In times to come I’d be relayed more stories – synopses of whatever he’d been watching – Monty Python, Rocky Horror, The Who’s Tommy, and after that his D&D games with some of those self-same schoolmates (God how I envied him!) All of them eventually discovered by me in time, but somehow diminished with it. First time is always the best, and so many of them never lived up to those early lights-out re-tellings. I still think he's one of the best storytellers I know, and so this post is for him.

Happy birthday, big brother.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

(Another Very Special) Talkin' Eds - Viral XI!

As mentioned earlier, Virtual XI was a real disappointment to me, featuring some poor song choices, particularly in light of some stronger songs preceding the album in the single Virus and a couple of original B-Sides from The X Factor. Angel and the Gambler kills the album early from its length, and the whole virtual reality inspired name dates it even for 1998. So with no more ado, I present: Viral XI!

No more football theme - this album really has eleven tracks!

And a Derek Riggs cover (taken from the poster for Futureal)!

Angel and the Gambler is still here, but shorter!

Album Tracks

Virus
Futureal
Judgement Day
Lightning Strikes Twice
The Angel and the Gambler (single edit)
The Clansman
When Two Worlds Collide
The Educated Fool
Justice of the Peace
Don't Look to the Eyes of a Stranger
Como Estes Amigo

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Talkin' Eds - Virtual XI (1998)

Okay, I'm going to keep this brief. In my opinion Virtual XI is the worst Iron Maiden album so far. Unlike The X Factor I don't think its reputation can be saved by calling it a side-project for Steve Harris and his friends - this one is just not a great collection of material. Collectively it's the sound of five pairs of eyes being taken off the ball, to borrow a football metaphor - and why not, as of course Harris himself decided to here

But first, a matter of catching up. Iron Maiden haven't been idle since album number ten, having put out The Best of the Beast - my re-entry into their canon, as it were, and with it the non-album single Virus. Virus is Harris’ answer to critics of the band’s recent direction and despite a rather rough video is a pretty decent song for this era, recalling bits of Edge of Darkness and Metallica’s One in the intro. The main guitar again has the weird, thin overdub sound referred to in The X Factor, and it returns on Virtual XI, a number of songs from which sadly don’t meet the standard set by Virus or the album before it. Did Harry burn himself out with that one song, I wonder?

XI certainly starts reliably enough, with the pre X Factor quickfire opening track reinstated. Futureal is one of two songs here which survived the Bayley era for a while and still goes down well. It’s an energetic, spiralling song which doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s immediate successor does, however, and is probably the biggest, ugliest nail in the album’s coffin. The Angel and the Gambler is Iron Maiden doing a crowd opening stadium song, years after they perfected such tracks. The result is a plodding, hackneyed and overlong mess with a really really really repetitive filler trio of lines (‘don’t you think I’m a saviour, don’t you think I can save ya, don’t you think I can save your life” – around 21 times in succession). It’s simply too much, and its Superbowl keyboard stabs punctuating the verses kill any attempt at ‘rock’. Oh, its video references the sleeve for Stranger in a Strange Land, by the way. Dave Murray’s Lightning Strikes Twice is mostly good, with the main weaknesses being the verse to chorus leads in and a dated guitar rhythm. Plus the song is about… lightning striking. It’s not asking too much, but in the wake of outside criticism of a new lead singer I’d imagine that a reasonably decent composition like this with a gift of a song title could have had farther reaching lyrics to match – maybe, I dunno, thematically addressing the possibility that another great frontman for the band could be a possibility? Instead it, like Angel, is detached from the album at large – it’s the second filler song in a row. Things pick up with The Clansman, another ‘epic’ song based around the story of William Wallace, probably. Well, based on the recollections of someone who once saw Braveheart perhaps. There’s more lazy songwriting here with harks to ‘the land of the free’ and biscuit tin Highlands ‘they’re taking our land/that belongs to the clans’ – the sort of thing Irvine Welsh called ‘Jocksploitation’. It’s a shame, because Bayley clearly believes in the song and it served him well, as it did Janick Gers’ rather soulful into. Clansman is the second survivor of the album, and has probably aged better as a live song for it.

I’m coming down hard on the lyrics and composition of Virtual XI mainly, but I have to say I’m not impressed by the production either. The album was made using Pro Tools, and it has a shallowness to it that exacerbates the impression that for a lot of the songs there seems to be only one guitar really working. I’m not sure what’s going on, but Maiden’s signature twin guitars have fled the studio by this album, and the result means that these track in particular sound overlong and over linear. I mean absolutely no pretence or ambition in saying they sound like something I could have composed in my band days – and I was a rubbish composer. When Two Worlds Collide is a prime example – maybe the worst song on the album for boneheaded lyrics (it’s about an approaching asteroid, not a planet) and very straight structure that again does Bayley no favours. The Educated Fool is where Harris opens up a little more and has become a highlight for me. It’s still not great in all, but does have a variety in touch that makes you forget the songs before. Don’t Look To The Eyes of a Stranger is a Killers-era theme which could have been shorter and would have been better for it. At last, and the last song of Blaze’s days, is Como Etsais Amigo, co-written again with Gers and after nearly an hour’s inane plodding it serves to end the record on a dignified note. Initially about the Falklands War (though not actually about the war but the need for rebuilding friendship afterwards), I can’t hear it without imagining it as a fitting farewell to Bayley himself as frontman. Probably the best song on the album.

I don’t know much about Virtual XI’s creation, but I’m guessing it wasn’t good. The album was launched alongside a themed video game (never a good idea) Ed Hunter and images from that litter the booklet along with the aforementioned football shots and merchandise offers. We’re a long way away from the young chancers posing in the London Dungeons or in the sun-drenched Barbados. Distracted, tired, and maybe looking for an escape clause, I just don’t think Maiden were trying hard enough here, and it shows.

Cover Art

Mind you, it's not all bad. Melvyn Grant, the artist responsible for the cover art Fear of the Dark does a decent job here is bringing together the disparate elements of 'Arry's shopping list - here's Eddie in blood-red bestial glory, a virtual reality machine (maybe ten years out of fashion but hey ho), and finally some of yer actual football being played. The band feature in the liner booklet also in football strips, so this is an indulgence of the soccer-mad Harris clearly being played out. Interestingly Derek Riggs' name seems to have still been on Maiden's rolodex as he had a stab at the album cover too (look out for it next post), but Grant's does the trick well enough, and while Riggs' is reliably good, maybe it references his past work a little too much.



Album Tracks

Futureal
The Angel and the Gambler
(4-minute version)
Lightning Strikes Twice (album version)
The Clansman (album version, bad fan art?)
When Two Worlds Collide (live , and better for being faster!)
The Educated Fool (live, Canada)
Don’t Look to the Eyes of a Stranger (album version)
Como Estais Amigo (album version)

"Which will it be?"

I reckon that Generation X is to date the last generation to play Cowboys and Indians as children. Lots of elements probably fed the genre's popular demise - urbanisation and the urbanisation of its motifs and archetypes (perhaps most potently in the figure of The Man With No Name turning into Harry Callahan), the emergence of Sci-Fi as a popular cinematic genre in the Seventies, shifting cultural identity in an increasingly mutlicultural United States... and possibly bigger and more obvious reasons than those which occur to me now.

Consequently the Westerns of my childhood were largely from off the TV - shows like Gunsmoke, The Virginian, Bonanza, The Lone Ranger and their ilk. There were very few Western movies I recall watching with interest, and few which stuck with me. I properly discovered Westerns in my university Film Studies course, and only then realised what I'd dismissed or simply not seen.

Having said that, I still haven't seen a lot of Westerns, but I do count some of them among my all-time favourite movies. So I was really excited to hear that one of those, which I fondly recall watching around the age of nine or ten, has been remade by the Coen Brothers:



If you've not seen the original, hell, why not just watch its trailer below and have the whole thing pretty much told to you in hilarious style. I'm guessing the 2010 revision will be less on the lightness and a more ponderous piece, which isn't to discount the original at all. True Grit's a great story, and the Duke deserved the Oscar he got for bringing Rooster Cogburn to life on the big screen. Roll on, December...



And seriously, how cool is Wayne in that last confrontation?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Talkin' Eds - The X Factor (1995)

1995 In Heavy Metal

Heavy Metal is dead. Its Glam and Speed successors have similarly come and gone – Metallica and Anthrax have gone grunge and the future, it appears, is in Death, Goth, Industrial and Nu-Metal. In the same year of The X Factor Slipknot and Korn form, and Nine Inch Nails and Killing Joke are also on the scene, also informing some of the mood for Nineties heavy music.

The X Factor, Maiden’s tenth studio album is a reaction to the changing scene, and arguably the last time the band audibly change with the times. On a personal level it’s fed by events in Steve Harris’ own personal life (a divorce and the death of his father) and the world around him. With Bruce Dickinson having left the band, Harris seems to have drawn a line under the band of the past and sought a new sound with the enthusiastic and agreeable (and less fractious) Blaze Bayley as his helmsman. The resulting album is dark, less self-knowing than previous efforts, and inescapably introspective. The ‘X’ moniker is a useful peg on which to hand the whole project, offering as it does many interpretations – X being the Roman numeral ten of course, X the unknown, X the cross of suffering, faith and perhaps salvation. More so than previous albums I get the sense that The X Factor is actually trying to be something other than another set of songs for the band’s fans, and to a degree it works as that, however those same fans received it at the time. I quite like this album, but it’s not a party album, or maybe even one for company. Is it an Iron Maiden album? I still don’t know. It may be that it would have gone down better as a side project under a different name – in some corners it wasn’t received well at all, Kerrang! Magazine going as far as inviting a very real thrashing by Harris for blithely dubbing it ‘a novelty record’. Nevertheless, The X Factor is important Maiden history, and a significant album in the band's canon.

The Album

The album opens strongly, as most Maiden efforts do, but eschew the standard fast-paced potboiler for a long narrative, The Sign of the Cross, wrought around a condemned man during the inquisition and musically recalling the slow build-up of Somewhere in Time's Alexander the Great. As I indicated in that review, this is the version I prefer, with some new and uncharacteristic sounds adding great atmospehere - Gregorian-styled chant for one, with bayley's opening vocals not appearing until well into the second minute. It's an impressive start and an immediate highlight with some of Dave Murray's best lead guitar in the hird acts and, rouding things off, bayley closing the song and the instruments fade around him. It's a fantastic gesture of faith by harris in his new vocalist to allow him to carry the most important track of a new album alone, and it pays off. The following two songs are more traditional in style and tempo - Lord of the Flies once again takes its cue from literature, in this case William Golding's novel, while Man on the Edge is lifted directly from Joel Shumacker's cinematic tour de force Falling Down. And then the album begins.


As said before, if there's an overall theme to The X Factor it's an internal one, Maiden's darkest album to date being far-removed from the cartoon bogeys of Number of the Beast and its ilk, and set most often in the mindset of its songs' protagonists - prisoners, soldiers, doubters, unbelievers and loners. There's melancholy, particularly in the beautiful and simple 2am, outrage in Blood on the World's Hands (informed by the Balkans conflicts), and even horror, as effectively conveyed in the album's clear nod to Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Edge of Darkness.

Throughout Bayley's voice maintains a level growl, an early indicator of his range, certainly, but very much suited to the atmosphere of the album. Compositionally the instruments favour the bottom-end - bass and drums (nicely recorded) are at the fore. Lead guitar is mixed – Dave Murray is strong, but if the rhythm duties are Janick Gers, then the thin, overdubbed treatment given here does him no favours. There's minimal keyboard, and ample use of simple guitar picking - lead-in arpeggios, an indulgent but well-times bass intro for Blood, and the aforementioned 2am's solo by Gers, recalling his work on Wasted Love, providing an effortless and expressive break mid-song. In the first of a couple of notable collaborations Maiden's two most recent members show that they are a great team.


Lyrically the album is a step up as well, with some sensible lyrics in comparison to come of Fear of the Dark's clangers - I particularly like The Aftermath's stab at the likes of Owen or Sassoon, and while Darkness pretty much makes a case for plagiarism from Coppola's script wholesale, it is what it is and isn't pretending to be anything but. In all I find The X Factor pretty strong as an album, despite some limited vocal range and two adjacent intros (Fortunes of War/Look For the Truth) that resemble one another perhaps a little closely. As a Blaze album it's his best - sensitively recorded and playing to his strengths. Sadly, it's downhill from here.

Unusually, The X Factor over-ran in its original compositions, resulting in three extra tracks being released as B-sides, two of which also appear on the Best of the B’sides collection.

Cover Art
A radical departure of course, being a photo of Eddie in verus vita to intents and purposes. But intent aside, this is a deeply unpleasant image both for striving to be lifelike, and in the unrelenting violence depicted. That might seem a slightly overwrought criticism – it’s a model Eddie after all, and therefore a model of a fantasy character; however the attempt to make Eddie ‘real’ succeeds too well in removing the cartoon aspect of the mascot (Eddie doesn’t even have his hellfire eyes, but human ones), and the result is just not nice to look at. Furthermore, I think rather than inviting listening of the album, it puts the would-be buyer off, either because the subject matter is too sensitive, or possibly because despite the aforementioned realism of the piece, it’s still cartoon enough to look juvenile at the same time. What a pity a black album cover had already been done so recently and recognisably by a more successful metal act.

Apparently an alternative ‘wide angle’ shot was made available to satisfy more squeamish markets. It’s the less provocative of the two, and the one I’ve opted for. I like the clouds in that version as well, and the crossed girders behind Eddie’s electric chair carry the ‘X’ theme effectively. Ultimately however, this is a failed cover to my mind – too realistic to dismiss outright as fantasy, yet too tied to its ‘metal’ roots to convey the true sense of departure. In all a painted Riggs-alike cover would be preferable, but that said, The X Factor still doesn’t have the worst Iron Maiden album cover ever!

Album Tracks via YouTube
The Sign of the Cross
(bonus: fan video with Dickinson vocals based on The Name of the Rose)
Lord of the Flies
Man on the Edge

(bonus: fan video based on Falling Down)
Fortunes of War
Look for the Truth
The Aftermath (live B-side version)
Judgement of Heaven
Blood on the World’s Hands (live - Sao Paolo?)
Edge of Darkness
(bonus: fan video based on Apocalypse Now)
2am
The Unbeliever

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Corellian Job

More than likely this is everywhere at the moment, and thanks to Dave for sharing it with me, but if you haven't already, you must check this out:



It's an animated Star Wars that is true to the originals! The colour palette, the sounds, the music and even the dialogue just sing Seventies Star Wars - and it's a beautiful thing.

I'm not a big Star Wars fan. I'm really not. But aged seven it was the biggest thing in my world, and even this many years later I can see and hear the in-jokes and visual references to the original trilogy and in particular the first movie here. It's not overdone, no-one's trying to push an agenda (the last shot is a bit of fun, and why the hell not?), and you can see how easy it would have been to have taken all the talent here and ruined it by going too far, too fannish. But they didn't, and that's really cool.

Lando has to appear in the next one though, guys!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Talkin' Eds: In the Days of Blaze

For years I wasn’t aware that Iron Maiden had a third vocalist. In fact, it was only on properly inspecting the booklet of The Best of the Beast that I saw him – a (then) young man with sculpted sideburns and long black hair, named Blaze Bayley.
Blaze Bayley was born Bayley Cooke in 1963 and made his name in music as the lead singer in Brummie (well, Tamworth) act Wolfsbane. Like Bruce Dickinson’s Samson the band had a bumpy history and a few stabs at the big time – a handful of albums, some music videos and promise of US exposure, but their profile wasn’t high, and it’s probable that after Dickinson’s departure Bayley might not have become the new Maiden frontman but for the good fortune of Wolfsbane supporting Maiden on the No Prayer on the Road tour. Here’s what they might have sounded like, a little more polished for international release:


I think I can see why Steve Harris might have encouraged Bayley to audition. Audition he did, and the rest is history, albeit a diminishing part of Maiden’s growing story. Nevertheless, despite his brief time with the band he leaves as his legacy two albums, a handful of original B-sides and a tenure that lasted a good six years; he outlasted Di’Anno and was nearly in the band as long as Adrian Smith’s first term. Granted, his voice doesn’t compare well to Dickinson’s – it’s deeper; deeper than DiAnno’s in fact. But that doesn’t matter if you consider the direction Maiden were taking at the time – longer, more ponderous songs, less of the spitfire Eighties composition. To that end, Blaze was a pretty good fit.


Unfortunately it seems now that the fans simply wanted Bruce Mk II, and more to the point, they wanted an unchanged Maiden. The band’s development continued, but took faltering steps in doing this, with the ultimate effect of giving Bayley one good album for his voice, and one where his vocal limitations could not save struggling compositions. Furthermore both album tours were hampered by an apparent on-stage allergy Blaze suffered from (oddly not to manifest in his later acts), which compromised his vocals and, combined with a pretty static presence unlike Dickinson’s hyper one, gave mixed performances. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. For what it’s worth, I like Blaze Bayley, and I think at least half of his material with Maiden not only has legs but is well suited for the band at the time. Bruce’s return may have saved Maiden’s reputation with the headlines it garnered, but the band’s fall from grace isn’t just down to this one man, at all.


As a final taste, here’s Bayley with the band gamely struggling through The Trooper, a song that few vocalists could do justice to, and which was plainly unsuited to a touring baritone. Performance-wise it’s a near disaster, with a member of the crowd spitting at the singer while he gets more and more worked up by the insult directed at him. Keep watching to the end and you’ll see that bandleader Harris doesn’t leave his frontman to wear it alone but stands alongside him, ready to unleash some serious aggro on the audience himself. Amidst a pretty ugly scene, there’s a solidarity that wasn’t as evident in Maiden’s fanbase at the time.



Bayley’s Wikipedia entry reads as you’d expect it might – a real rollercoaster of fortunes peppered with mismanagement and personal tragedy. His solo career went well enough, and recently he’s toured with a reformed Wolfsbane, seemingly happier and in a better place for it. Good on him, and godspeed, Blaze.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Putting the Fan Film into Fantasy Films

Not quite in the wake of Judge Minty, here's an earlier stab at the 2000AD-based fan trailer; a mock trailer this time, and in French. I'm sure its writer would approve nonetheless given his work in French press.

Voici Pat Mills' Slaine the Horned God, based on the book of the same name by Mills and Bisley, and reproducing the latter's work with admirable devotion!



I didn't think it too many, etc.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Talkin' Eds - No Fear of the Dying mash-up

In concluding this month's overview of the last albums of Iron Maiden's great initial push, it occurred to me that with the relative weaknesses of No Prayer for the Dying and Fear of the Dark there's a pretty decent album's worth of material between them. This mash-up album, call it 'No Fear of the Dying', could effortlessly bridge the gap between Maiden of old (raucous, impish, aggressive in places and punchy with song length) with the Maiden that was developing - longer, more studious, introspective yet looking out at a real world rather than a fantasy one.

Then I thought, why weigh one side of an album with the early attempts at the latter, of which only Afraid to Shoot Strangers survives as anything close to a stand-out? So back to the fun stuff it was.

Lads and gentlemen - introducing No Fear - Iron Maiden of old's last gasp before the age of Blaze and the return of Bruce:


















No Fear of the Dying

Tailgunner
Holy Smoke
No Prayer for the Dying
From Here to Eternity
Hooks in You
Bring Your Daughter… to the Slaughter
Be Quick or Be Dead
Weekend Warrior
Wasting Love
Chains of Misery
Judas Be My Guide
Fear of the Dark


Right, now to make up an iTunes playlist and see if this thing will fly!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Judge Minty fan trailer

Courtesy of Dave who also sent me a Fleetway reprint of the original strip a while back, it's the Judge Minty teaser for the forthcoming fan film:



I am really impressed with this. particularly for its devotion to the look of the story - all very faithful to the comic's design with Lawmasters (bike cannon!), the Grand Hall of Justice, Mega City One's Gherkin-like buildings (a Mick McMahon innovation) and of course Carlos Ezquerra's iconic design of the judge uniform. Oh and Dredd of course, played by Dredd artist Greg Staples with nary a smile or removal of helmet - as it should be. So much of this deserves further explanation - it would have been easy for the makers to stage this on an industrial site or warehouse interior with official Termight replica helmets and hardware, but they didn't . It might have been obvious to some to include as Dredd's cameo a strapping 'roid-fuelled stand-in for Old Stony face, but the slighter, leaner Staples is truer to the original, and to McMahon's version as well. I do wonder about the palette and 'look', particularly after seeing similar and less-impressive stuff on Spartacus recently; the digital stage and bleached screen has dated since the likes of 300 and Sin City, but it's not enough to put me off at all. More information here of course, in the mean-time, messrs Garland, Travis and Urban - take note...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Talkin' Eds - Fear of the Dark (1992)

1992 in Metal

New Albums:
Alice in Chains - Dirt
Body Count - Body Count (features controversial single Cop Killer)
Def Leppard - Adrenalize
Faith No More - Angel Dust
Fear Factory - Soul of a New Machine
Helmet - In the Meantime
Monster Magnet - Tab EP
Nine Inch Nails - Broken EP
Pantera - Vulgar Display of Power
Rage Against the Machine - (self titled)

In other news, Izzy leaves Guns 'N' Roses, Crue fire Vince Neil, and the world is slightly safer with no more activity coming from Europe, Ratt and Stryper. In the year leading up to this Metallica have released their 'black album', and Nirvana and grunge have arrived well and truly; in a year's time Anthrax will throw in their lot with the grunge-ready The Sound of White Noise, and Korn will form.

This is a pretty significant album in some ways. The Fear of the Dark Tour brought Iron Maiden to New Zealand for the first time, although only as far as Auckland. More significantly of course is its place as Bruce Dickinson's last album re-reforming in 1999. In the years leading up to Fear the band had individually explored other avenues and projects, and Renaissance man Bruce spent those years writing, fencing, releasing and touring his own albums, and of course learning to fly. Once again, everything changes for Iron Maiden after his departure, but more on that in another post.

The Album
There are three things going on in this album, really. The group's sound is changing - certainly as much as it was during No Prayer, and added to this is further experimentation with contemporaneous styles - Be Quick rather aptly nods towards the speed/thrash of the lies of Anthrax. The videos have had a ramp up too - Be Quick and Wasting Love both attempt new things, bringing the members in and miming to a soundtrack, and as in the previous album there seems a concerted effort on Steve Harris' part to steer the lyrics away from the fantastic and towards the mundane and the contemporary. It's a delicate balance, particularly as this follows a very late-80s penchant in pop and rock music of the 'public service' or 'social commentary' song. Many bands and artists try it at some stage in the careers and many of them fail, usually stumbling when the demands of addressing big issues within a three to four minute song just can't and won't fit. I do think the attempts on Fear are a fifty-fifty score - Be Quick is a great opener and while not explicitly about the scandal rides on the fall from grace and death of Sir Robert Maxwell (who also meets Eddie on the single's sleeve), while Weekend Warrior is more specific, targeting football hooligans. The latter works for me because of the delivery (Dickinson compliments a rather AC/DC-like composition by singing in a Brian Johnson style) and the simplicity of the thing; the added fact that Steve Harris is an enormous football fan himself adds to the intent hugely - you can imagine him getting worked up about something like this. Compare and contrast with Fear is the Key - a messy affair with awful lyrics and Bruce adopting a Robert Plant vocal style ("liesandliesandlies..") during the double-tempo wig out over a theme of… what, responsible loving? AIDS ("nobody cares 'til somebody famous dies" recalling the recent passing of Freddie Mercury). Childhood's End has a good sound and fierce opening drums but flounders again lyrically with its talk of tyrants, lack of food, love and 'seed's. Lyrically these songs just aren't strong enough to carry the themes through, nor, sadly, does Afraid to Shoot Strangers, Maiden's Gulf War meditation. It succeeds in as much as it adroitly captures the moral confusion in a soldier's mind, but can't bring itself to go beyond that point, even though there's an obvious urge to, unlike wartime songs before it (The Trooper is perhaps closest) and after (Paschendale et al) which work precisely because they're contained in that one moment. So Harris is out of his depth with contemporary social commentary, but that's okay - heavy metal and pop music in general struggles with this anyway, and to Maiden's credit this is really the last we'll hear of this sort of thing for a good while.

Where Fear does work is in looking back to the band's earlier roots and marrying them to new styles. Judas Be My Guide could have come off Piece of Mind, while Chains of Misery, like Hooks in You on Prayer, evokes a more US sound - as if Motley Crue turned up on the day to do the backing vocals for fun. Wasting Love is a second stab at a ballad after No Prayer's title track and it actually works, with a nice lead by Janick Gers added in. The album's closing title track is almost a standout for its subject matter - a return to the supernatural, although Gers' The Apparition tries this too - I think… the lyrics don't make much sense and Bruce's Steve Perry delivery doesn't help. It's telling that subsequent appearances of Fear of the Dark on The Best of the Beast and Somewhere Back in Time have favoured a live performance, and rightly so. The song is fine, if merely reliable, but in a live setting with a huge crowd behind it it takes on a new verve and is a good indicator of how Maiden could turn an okay composition into a crowd pleaser. The second-to-last and least mention of the album is The Fugitive, based on the movie/TV series of the same name. Ham-fisted choruses ("I am the fu-gitive... Being hunted down for game! I am the fu-gitive... But I've got to clear my name!") follow some nice verses, but it's not a keeper, and Maiden have done far better adaptations before and after this. In other news, song number two From Here to Eternity publicly kills off occasional band muse Charlotte the Harlot, the casualty of "a tumble at the Devil's Bend', which goes to show what hazards come from riding a motorcycle with The Beast.

Cover Art
Thankfully the cover art is a distinct improvement, and like its title track has been gathered into the bosom of 'classic' Maiden iconography. Illustrated by Mervyn Grant after a late commission from Derek Riggs proved not to the band's tastes (or perhaps it was the lateness of the commission - the reasons are apparently vague), the scene is of Eddie as a demon in a tree, merging with its trunk and branches, but as the artist states not part of the tree itself. Whatever, it's a nice, sinister and detailed piece with a good composition and rather fetching use of colour and light. It turned my head back in 1993, so it must have worked.

Album Tracks

Be Quick or Be Dead (official video)
From Here to Eternity(official Bad News-esque video)
Afraid to Shoot Strangers (Live in Mexico)
Fear is the Key (album track)
Childhood's End (album track)
Wasting Love
The Fugitive (album version)
Chains of Misery (album version)
The Apparition (album version)
Judas Be My Guide (album version)
Weekend Warrior(album version)
Fear of the Dark (live at Donnington)