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
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!


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
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)