Thursday, July 1, 2010

Talkin' Eds - Somewhere in Time (1986)

1986 is a watershed year for heavy metal and its dalliance with popular music. Among the big hitters for this year and some months beyond are strong and commercially succesful entries from the US (Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet) and Europe (Europe's The Final Countdown). As a short reminder to Iron Maiden from their stablemates in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal their friends have chalked up another strong album with Mutt Lange and will be huge as a result - Def Leppard's Hysteria is mere months away. The Powerslave and Live After Death albums and World Slavery Tour have filled arenas and stadiums and spread the word globally for Maiden, but it seems that the sort of teenybopper crossover that the likes of Jon Bon Jovi and Joe Elliott achieved will not be shared by Bruce Dickinson and company. Success will continue assuredly, but for the most part as it has always done - in exchange for hard work.

For myself this album was almost entirely new territory, being like Powerslave more of interest for its cover artwork than songs. I'd gone off Maiden and had moved onto other stuff - poppier stuff, as it turned out. Maiden seemed to be a bit embarrassing by then, and the ownership claimed by the guys at my school into the band and Metal at the time didn't convince me otherwise - they were welcome to each other. It'd be a few years before I'd even hear my favourite song from the album, as I recall.

The album
The first thing that strikes you is the synth, or rather, guitar-synth. Time is the first of Maiden's albums to employ the instrument and as it goes with these things, the instrument is very much at the front of the band's sound for much of this album. The sound itself is BIG. Maybe too big for low volumes, and it seems designed to replicate a stadium experience, as do some of the compositions within. Everything is larger and more echo-ey, as though the band fell into a tank of reverb on the way to the studio. The two guitarists audibly multitrack their instruments so their attack is fuller, and Steve Harris' bass is turned up to match them. Against them Dickinson wails bravely, but some of the songs aren't his best work - the album opener in particular has him wavering in paces with pitch, and introducing his low cackle between songs, maybe to give his throat some variety. He's still absolutely on form, but an album of this sort of approach gets wearying, to my ears.

Opening track Caught Somewhere in Time introduces a loose theme across the album of the passage of time, displacement and isolation. It’s a mixed bag to begin with - the vocals are typical of the problem I note before, but the the guitars are great, buzzing like wasps during the chorus lead-in. What stands out of course are the opening bars and the new instrument brought into the band's repertoire with this album, the guitar synth. It's not entirely a success, although Caught doesn't suffer particularly from their use. What struck me on listening to the track for the first time was that, having put it into the rather sensitive CD player on our home PC, it skipped while playing, but in such a way as to not be entirely noticeable - I thought it was an extra vocal effect and was even more bewildered!

The centrepiece of the album comes early, with track two Wasted Years being the highlight, The Trooper of Somewhere in Time, perhaps. Adrian Smith's song of longing on the road ("I close my eyes and think of home/another city rolls by in the night") and the existential reality of life on tour bookmarks Maiden at their height, but is a troubled piece, recalling not too subtly the pressure of continued international touring, (From the Coast of Gold across the seven seas/travelling on far and wide/ but now it seems I'm just a stranger to myself/And the things I sometimes do, it isn't me but someone else") and potentially nodding to the band's alumni who fell along the way. Just as potently it predates Smith's departure from the band, and though it ultimately exhorts the listener enjoy the moment ("don't waste your time always searching for those wasted years… realise you're living in the golden years") it's hard not to hear the song as his attempt to call time out. Such personal songs - even songs about relationships, the concerns of one's life outside the fantastic or metaphysical, are rare indeed for Maiden.

Following these tracks are Sea of Madness, a reasonably light track with Dickinson's vocals veering toward Ozzzy Osbourne's in the chorus, eschewing any modulation of the notes sung. Its bridge section is a little odd too, using chorused backing guitar effects and Dickinson singing in the upper register, again resembling another artists, in this instance the Police circa Regatta de Blanc... Heaven Can Wait is a live favourite with a great pace and tricksy lyrics, while The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner has great energy, although the aforementioned vocal approach by Dickinson is better used in the verses than choruses.

Adrian Smith returns to write another single for the album, Stranger In a Strange Land, which owes nothing to the Biblical quote (the Apostle Paul, I believe) or the Heinlein novel, but is instead based on a true story of a lost Antarctic explorer and the discovery of his frozen remains decades after his death. After a strong opening the song loses me. I think the synthesiser stabs throughout speak a little too much of their era, reminding me of Rage Hard from Frankie Goes to Hollywood's limp Liverpool of the same year.

Dave Murray's songs are best classed a guilty pleasure for me. Lyrically he's not the best writer of the band by any measure, but his hooks are usually enough to carry these sometimes weaker songs through. De Ja Vu is my favourite of his, a short and punchy song about ... well, examples of de ja vu, I guess. It worked for Alanis Morrisette providing examples (good and poor) of irony, so why not? Surprisingly it's never been played live, which is a shame be cause there are some enjoyably sing-along parts to it.

In closing the album Alexander the Great continues the same trick as the earlier To Tame a Land. It's a 'list' song, this time of a real world hero, and musically it's got some great structure and invention. Against this though the lyrics suffer a little, being precisely what they are. Some of the composition will be revisited some albums down the track, and for what it's worth I prefer the later.

Album cover
As Powerslave put its hero into a historical, global setting, so Somewhere in Time launches him into the future and something more sci-fi. Introducing Robo-Eddie! I groaned when I first saw this, it seemed so so obvious and derivative, but the cyborg design of our hero has truly endured, spawning model kits, a video game character, a revival for the Somewhere Back in Time compilation (of course) and he was the Eddie of choice for the tour of the same name. The artwork's great, but in 3-D he's even more impressive. There's a lot going on here - beyond Eddie visually referencing the contemporary Terminator/RoboCop trend (was someone listening to the album when Torchwood's Cyberwoman was being designed? They should be introduced), in the background is a Blade Runner-styled city made up of around 40 references to past Maiden albums, songs, venues and people. There's even Batman and a TARDIS, and Eddie's posture and the curled hand of his victim would suggest that this is a futuristic revisiting of Riggs' artwork for Killers. Is it the same street corner a century on, perhaps? Notably, the single sleeve for Stranger in a Strange Land puts Eddie in a Star Wars cantina-type future noir bar, an image that would itself be referenced in a future Maiden video.

Caught Somewhere in Time
Wasted Years
(official video)
Sea of Madness
Heaven Can Wait
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (album version)
Stranger in a Strange Land (official video)
De Ja Vu (album version)
Alexander the Great (fan made video)

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