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

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