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
No More Lies
Dance of Death
Gates of Tomorrow
New Frontier

Face in the Sand

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

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