Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Talkin' Eds - Powerslave (1984), Live After Death (1985)

Iron Maiden have conquered the world, and now they intend to enslave it. That may well be the mission statement for this, Maiden's fifth album and second into their 'classic' line-up. We're now a third of the way through the band's discography, including this year's forthcoming (and farewell?) release The Final Frontier.

Powerslave continues a building trend of all the Maiden albums, boosted enormously by the two most recent member's contributions - Bruce Dickinson shares co-writing credits on some of the songs here again, and writes one for himself, while Nicko seriously pounds the drumskins. I don't write that idly - there's a real heft to each hit, and his use of the bigger/louder cymbals in the kit is notable too. Of the rhythm section Steve Harris seem to have turned the volume of his bass up just a tad, perhaps to compensate for the sterling lead work of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith who manage to provide distinct and separate leads for all of the album. Yes, in most cases you can venture a guess as to who is providing which part as both players have a signature style, but there's really no sense of having heard any solo before throughout the eight tracks. This is a band still with a lot of lead in its pencil.

The Album
Thematically Powerslave begins almost as a set of twins - Aces High and Two Minutes to Midnight both deal with the loose theme of war, and after Maiden's last-to-date instrumental Losfer Words (Big 'Orra), Flash of the Blade and The Duellists share the topic of swordfighting. Harris' The Duellists is inspired by Ridley Scott's movie Duel, but it's competitive fencer Dickinson's Flash about a young man's vengeance after his parents' death that is a more fun listen with its tapped intro. Beside it, Duellists owes perhaps too much to the structure and rhythm of the earlier Where Eagles Dare. Back in the Village returns (again, loosely) to Number of the Beast's nod to The Prisoner and is another enjoyable track with a breakneck speed and indulgent "six six six" whispered over the lyric "I see sixes all the way". The title track's a little perfunctory, enlivened by a chugging power chord rhythm and a cod-Middle Eastern chord structure and guitar fill at the end of some lines. Live of course it's added to by Bruce Dickinson wearing a strange feathered mask for God knows what reason. The rest of the album is left to the stand-out track and live favourite, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a devoted re-telling of Coleridge's hallucinatory epic poem. It's… prog. And there's more where that came from, but the construction's sound, it doesn't outstay its welcome even at fourteen minutes in length, and Dickinson carries the vocals off, although his buccaneer rasp in the narrated sections featuring Coleridge's own lines, is a little OTT. On a positive note it probably scored highly for my schoolmate Grant Davies who used it as an example in our high school speech competition defending the intellectual side of Heavy Metal. Grant, what ever became of you, eh?

My first encounter with this album was in admiring its cover art (below), reduced hugely to fit the dimensions of a tape cassette, but enough for me to make out the rude in-jokes in the hieroglyphics, and poring over the lyrics without the benefit of the music accompanying (it was a friend's brother's tape…). Back in the Village made a big impression on me, as did Two Minutes, which boasts some pretty visceral imagery - unusual for Maiden, it must be said, of the casualties of modern war:

The body bags and little rags of children torn in two
And the jellied brains of those who remain to put the finger right on you
As the madmen play on words and make us all dance to their song
To the tune of starving millions to make a better kind of gun

Strong stuff. Powerslave was the last full Maiden album I remember hearing around the time of its release, and even then it was at a woolshed party, so those aren't ideal conditions. With its boastful title and liner notes cataloguing the vast world tour which followed (New Zealand was promised, but never eventuated to my great adolescent disappointment) it seemed the band was one of the biggest things in the world. Nowadays to me the album stands less on its own and more a second half to Piece of Mind - the band spreading its wings further and enjoying its freedom of expression and experimentation. The indulgence of Village's overdubs, like Piece of Mind's mischevious backwards masking, proof that the band's following was more than enough to allow them some fun amid the hard work.

Album cover
As befits the band's status Eddie is now a god-king in Derek Riggs' best album cover, and a composition he would revisit later in the band's history. Gone is the night sky and wispy clouds, the maniacal corpse-like Eddie grinning over his victims; here he's regal, elemental, drenched in desert sun and reimagined as a figure from the Egyptian pantheon. Rather marvellously the band's logo and album title are in gold. In all it's a confident and assured design from a band (and artist) much in demand and easily picked out from record bins everywhere. Variations of the theme - Eddie as a mummy in two contemporary works by Briggs and some subsequent, indicate the popularity of this piece.

Tracks via YouTube:

Aces High (from Live After Death)
Two Minutes to Midnight (from Live After Death)
Losfer Words (Big 'Orra) (album version)
Flash of the Blade (video montage - never performed live)
The Duellists (album version - never played live)
Back in the Village (album version - never played live)
Powerslave (from Live After Death)
Rime of the Ancient Mariner (part one) (part two) (from Live After Death)

Live After Death
A necessary inclusion. Released to capture the enormity and impact of the World Slavery Tour, Live After Death is Maiden's first live album since their debut Live! +1 in 1979. As such, and with the passing of time this is a larger, more accomplished recording with brilliant sound engineering mustering the band's live approach and particularly the twin lead guitars (each has a speaker representing their position on stage - Dave Murray is the left hand, Adrian Smith the right). The tracks are for the most part from the recent three albums, although the longer 1998 reissue CD manages to incorporate some Di'Anno tracks, including Iron Maiden and Running Free. For years this was considered an essential live metal album for its sound and quality of tracks, though I have to say I'm not entirely sold, having come to it from the DVD first, and subsequent performances and therefore somewhat spoiled by the later polish (the most recent live DVD Flight 666 may in fact be better!) In particular Dickinson's in 'tour voice' mode, so to sacrifice vocal range for longevity and volume was probably a necessary evil - the upshot is that the range is contained a little too much in some tracks and he comes across as a bit… barky. That said, Bruce does seem to be saving himself for the bigger shows, if the track order is an accurate representation of the set-list (as it appears to be). Ancient Mariner fares better for him saving his voice, as does the assuredly demanding Hallowed Be Thy Name.

1 comment:

  1. The weighty production is definitely the thing I notice with this album, (and I'd say it's the 'heaviest' sounding one in their canon). Placing Flah of the Blade fourth in the track sequence was a good move as the intro helps maintain interest (and it's one of the more distinctive tracks from the 80s). Too far to the start or end of the album and it would be overshadowed by the more heavyweight tracks

    I agree with you on it being the mirror to POM; it's like the stronger tracks on Powerslave balance out the weaker ones on the former. The other thing I like about it is there's not filler on here (To Tame A Land etc).

    Special mention to the title track, with the riff that loops back on itself. Again Maiden pulling out something different from the bag and keeps the interest up. I reckon this is one of the more textured albums they've produced.

    I'll have to go and check the hierogylphs out now!