Thursday, July 29, 2010

Talkin' Eds - Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988)

1988 in heavy metal

So far So Good… So What! - Megadeth
Blow Up Your Video - AC/DC
Savage Amusement - Scorpions
The New Order - Testament
In God We Trust - Stryper
South of Heaven - Slayer
Danzig - Danzig
…And Justice for All - Metallica
State of Euphoria - Anthrax

There are some mentionable omissions here (live albums from Frank Zappa, Motorhead, more of the same slogging from Deep Purple and Ozzy, a reunion of sorts from Pink Floyd), but the list above is evidence enough to show that the scene has changed. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal has passed, and Maiden and their cohorts are beyond being the Establishment and are now rubbing shoulders with younger, faster and heavier acts once influenced by them. Potently, Slayer, Anthrax and Metallica are putting out some of their strongest and most enduring work, while the previous year has seen the rise and rise of Guns 'N' Roses. Iron Maiden are no longer the young men of heavy metal, and their sound is dating quickly.

Fortunately Maiden have a strong fan base, still command large audiences, and creatively are strong. Seventh Son is evidence of the band doggedly sticking to their guns in terms of sound, songwriting and influences, while indulging themselves further with their own influences. Prog rock has been a feature of their albums for some time, but this will be the last obvious nod for a few years from the band, and is in some way the last blow-out before a new sound and lineup is introduced. Crucially, it's also Adrian Smith's final album with the band for nearly ten years, and it's a testament to this relative latecomer that his absence will be felt keenly. 'Classic Maiden' as an entity are in the dying days of their first age, and though the band will never break up, its days as a recognisable element in modern heavy metal are numbered. But for now things are still good. Seventh Son is a strong album, and in terms of sales and unity it does deliver. Like the two albums before it at the time I knew it for one single, having seen the video for Can I Play With Madness (below) on Radio With Pictures - and liking it. But I didn't investigate further, seeing the album cover and easily passing it by. For years I didn't know that it was a 'concept album', and so unfamiliar with it that I was, foolishly misheard the Moonchild lyric "Babylon, the scarlet whore" and wondered why Bruce Dickinson was singing about He-Man's nemesis.

The Album
So to the album itself then. It's prog rock. You've had to hear the word 'prog' a fair bit here and I'm sorry, but that's the best description of it. It is prog in inspiration, intention and execution, and by that yardstick it succeeds and fails.

Seventh Son is largely, mind, a success - and commercially it certainly was, garnering great chart scores for most of its four singles and earning the band a headline at Donnington later that year. Where the album falters is where many prog projects tend to, and that is its execution. Seventh Son is a narrative which really only fills one half of an album, in a similar way perhaps to Kate Bush's contemporaneous Hounds of Love. And like that album its greatest commercial successes lie outside the actual narrative and in some very strong singles. That both Bush and Maiden had an audience more accepting of what by 1986 or 1988 was now a greatly dated and laboured album format was a credit to their success, so on that measure Maiden's indulgence isn't the risk that it might otherwise have been for artists working a more mainstream sound. The narrative in question is the story of the seventh son of a seventh son, and his Cassandra-like efforts to convince his mediaeval village home of an approaching disaster and, assuredly, their ignorance and his ultimate fate. It's a bleak tale skipped over lightly with some virtuoso performances and storytelling on the light side. Maiden fans being as fans are have devoted pages of the internet to deciphering the album's lyrics, the sleeve illustrations see below) and lumping in the usual suspects - tarot, Crowley, fantasy fiction (in this instance Orson Scott Card) to try and make sense of it. I don't think there's much sense to be made of it myself. Opening track Moonchild begins threatening to equal Spinal Tap's Stonehenge for cheese but soon evolves into a thumping and addictive piece, and an obvious live highlight. From there however the tale slips, but of the three intervening songs only Infinite Dreams plods - and even then it lurches to a faster tempo and crashes to another stomping conclusion. Madness and Evil are very sound singles and wise choices, the latter being one of my favourite Maiden tracks of all, simply for the rapid-fire guitar work (carried over from the pacier tracks off Somewhere In Time) and Bruce Dickinson in great form behind the mic.

And then the story returns, with the album's longest tracks filling us in. Seventh Son and The Prophecy are not immediately approachable pieces with their length, timing changes and in some places multiple character voices. Of the two I prefer the former, but Dave Murray's contribution to the plodding latter is significant, and his outro is one of the most elegant guitar pieces of Maiden's golden years, in a way a sign of work to come from him and his future understudy. The Clairvoyant is the album's final single, strangely uplifting in its subject matter (the protagonist's death, vaguely alluded to), and as many have said, actual final track Only The Good Die Young is perhaps too short and much underrated, a refrain of Evil's rhythm but a neat summary of the album's themes. If it wasn't obvious that it is the doomed seer's own words in the lyrics, you could be forgiven for thinking them those of Lucifer, mocking witness to the whole tragedy.
Iron Maiden don't get any more fantastic after this in theme or in places in sound. As an unwitting farewell to 'H' Smith's tenure it's a remarkable send-off, and closes the band's Eighties heights well. After this album everything changes, and the seeds of Maiden's future lineup and sound are being sown. It's almost as if you can imagine the fantasy novels and role playing games being packed away as the Stonehenge acoustic refrain arrives to finish things off. A curious album - in many places a really really good one, and certainly worthy of inclusion for the singles alone.

Album Artwork

Simply Derek Riggs' best, last cover for the band, and as much a nod to prog art designers Hipgnosis as the music is to the genre. Gone are the tumultuous and cloudy skies, the mad moons and murderous streets - everything has been thrown aside and onto its icy powder blue palette. Eddie is now ripped apart by his unborn child, his head a mishmash of Piece of Mind's cranial disfigurement, Somewhere in Time's cyborganics and Live After Death's lightning strike, his spine drips like mercury into a glassy sea, while on the back cover icebergs float above a frozen globe and out of their forms the shapes of Eddie's past incarnations - Satan-botherer, lobotomee, pharaoh, loom. And there's a book - but what book? Amusingly, fans have been at pains to interpret this piece and the equally impressive single sleeves also shown here, only to have Riggs freely admit years later that he just winged it, drawing what looked cool to him, and there was no hidden meaning intended, ever. And that's the side of Maiden I like to see most of all.

Tracks via YouTube:

Moonchild (album track)
Infinite Dreams (live video from Visions of the Beast)
Can I Play With Madness (official video - with Graham Chapman!)
The Evil That Men Do (live Maiden England video - great sound)
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (as above - long video, obviously)
The Prophecy (album track)
The Clairvoyant (live Donnington track - great video)
Only the Good Die Young (album track)

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