Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Talkin' Eds - Powerslave (1984), Live After Death (1985)

Iron Maiden have conquered the world, and now they intend to enslave it. That may well be the mission statement for this, Maiden's fifth album and second into their 'classic' line-up. We're now a third of the way through the band's discography, including this year's forthcoming (and farewell?) release The Final Frontier.

Powerslave continues a building trend of all the Maiden albums, boosted enormously by the two most recent member's contributions - Bruce Dickinson shares co-writing credits on some of the songs here again, and writes one for himself, while Nicko seriously pounds the drumskins. I don't write that idly - there's a real heft to each hit, and his use of the bigger/louder cymbals in the kit is notable too. Of the rhythm section Steve Harris seem to have turned the volume of his bass up just a tad, perhaps to compensate for the sterling lead work of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith who manage to provide distinct and separate leads for all of the album. Yes, in most cases you can venture a guess as to who is providing which part as both players have a signature style, but there's really no sense of having heard any solo before throughout the eight tracks. This is a band still with a lot of lead in its pencil.

The Album
Thematically Powerslave begins almost as a set of twins - Aces High and Two Minutes to Midnight both deal with the loose theme of war, and after Maiden's last-to-date instrumental Losfer Words (Big 'Orra), Flash of the Blade and The Duellists share the topic of swordfighting. Harris' The Duellists is inspired by Ridley Scott's movie Duel, but it's competitive fencer Dickinson's Flash about a young man's vengeance after his parents' death that is a more fun listen with its tapped intro. Beside it, Duellists owes perhaps too much to the structure and rhythm of the earlier Where Eagles Dare. Back in the Village returns (again, loosely) to Number of the Beast's nod to The Prisoner and is another enjoyable track with a breakneck speed and indulgent "six six six" whispered over the lyric "I see sixes all the way". The title track's a little perfunctory, enlivened by a chugging power chord rhythm and a cod-Middle Eastern chord structure and guitar fill at the end of some lines. Live of course it's added to by Bruce Dickinson wearing a strange feathered mask for God knows what reason. The rest of the album is left to the stand-out track and live favourite, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a devoted re-telling of Coleridge's hallucinatory epic poem. It's… prog. And there's more where that came from, but the construction's sound, it doesn't outstay its welcome even at fourteen minutes in length, and Dickinson carries the vocals off, although his buccaneer rasp in the narrated sections featuring Coleridge's own lines, is a little OTT. On a positive note it probably scored highly for my schoolmate Grant Davies who used it as an example in our high school speech competition defending the intellectual side of Heavy Metal. Grant, what ever became of you, eh?

My first encounter with this album was in admiring its cover art (below), reduced hugely to fit the dimensions of a tape cassette, but enough for me to make out the rude in-jokes in the hieroglyphics, and poring over the lyrics without the benefit of the music accompanying (it was a friend's brother's tape…). Back in the Village made a big impression on me, as did Two Minutes, which boasts some pretty visceral imagery - unusual for Maiden, it must be said, of the casualties of modern war:

The body bags and little rags of children torn in two
And the jellied brains of those who remain to put the finger right on you
As the madmen play on words and make us all dance to their song
To the tune of starving millions to make a better kind of gun

Strong stuff. Powerslave was the last full Maiden album I remember hearing around the time of its release, and even then it was at a woolshed party, so those aren't ideal conditions. With its boastful title and liner notes cataloguing the vast world tour which followed (New Zealand was promised, but never eventuated to my great adolescent disappointment) it seemed the band was one of the biggest things in the world. Nowadays to me the album stands less on its own and more a second half to Piece of Mind - the band spreading its wings further and enjoying its freedom of expression and experimentation. The indulgence of Village's overdubs, like Piece of Mind's mischevious backwards masking, proof that the band's following was more than enough to allow them some fun amid the hard work.

Album cover
As befits the band's status Eddie is now a god-king in Derek Riggs' best album cover, and a composition he would revisit later in the band's history. Gone is the night sky and wispy clouds, the maniacal corpse-like Eddie grinning over his victims; here he's regal, elemental, drenched in desert sun and reimagined as a figure from the Egyptian pantheon. Rather marvellously the band's logo and album title are in gold. In all it's a confident and assured design from a band (and artist) much in demand and easily picked out from record bins everywhere. Variations of the theme - Eddie as a mummy in two contemporary works by Briggs and some subsequent, indicate the popularity of this piece.

Tracks via YouTube:

Aces High (from Live After Death)
Two Minutes to Midnight (from Live After Death)
Losfer Words (Big 'Orra) (album version)
Flash of the Blade (video montage - never performed live)
The Duellists (album version - never played live)
Back in the Village (album version - never played live)
Powerslave (from Live After Death)
Rime of the Ancient Mariner (part one) (part two) (from Live After Death)

Live After Death
A necessary inclusion. Released to capture the enormity and impact of the World Slavery Tour, Live After Death is Maiden's first live album since their debut Live! +1 in 1979. As such, and with the passing of time this is a larger, more accomplished recording with brilliant sound engineering mustering the band's live approach and particularly the twin lead guitars (each has a speaker representing their position on stage - Dave Murray is the left hand, Adrian Smith the right). The tracks are for the most part from the recent three albums, although the longer 1998 reissue CD manages to incorporate some Di'Anno tracks, including Iron Maiden and Running Free. For years this was considered an essential live metal album for its sound and quality of tracks, though I have to say I'm not entirely sold, having come to it from the DVD first, and subsequent performances and therefore somewhat spoiled by the later polish (the most recent live DVD Flight 666 may in fact be better!) In particular Dickinson's in 'tour voice' mode, so to sacrifice vocal range for longevity and volume was probably a necessary evil - the upshot is that the range is contained a little too much in some tracks and he comes across as a bit… barky. That said, Bruce does seem to be saving himself for the bigger shows, if the track order is an accurate representation of the set-list (as it appears to be). Ancient Mariner fares better for him saving his voice, as does the assuredly demanding Hallowed Be Thy Name.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Video Affects - Joan Jett: I Love Rock n Roll, 1982

At age eleven my music idols are still to really appear. I 'follow' the chart show Ready to Roll along with my older siblings and note the current top ten as it changes over the weeks and months. Over 1981 ex-Runaways singer Joan Jett records this, a cover of the Arrows' original from 1975 with her new band the Blackhearts. In 1982 it reaches New Zealand and it is h-u-g-e. Well, that's the way I remember it, and Wikipedia and the RIANZ website won't tell me any different. It's probably not important, because what this does signify to me is that in the short space of a year my music appreciation has shifted from casual TV chart show viewing and likely acquiescence with my siblings'/parents' tastes through to noticing the tastes of my peers and other adults of significance. My intermediate teacher Miss Watson brought along her new purchase to school and had us write a poem about her favourite track on it. Within a fortnight I had followed suit and bought my first grown-up record, Queen's Greatest Hits but to this day I still ponder the wisdom of setting such a lofty assignment to a class of eleven year olds, based around the themes and lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody (true story!)

I Love Rock n Roll is quite a different song, however. Despite it being roughly the same age as Rhapsody its impact, delivery and video (having made a similar impression on the new new MTV) mean the song will be sung in playgrounds, along with the radio, at school camp and, most crucially, at my school social that year. Which underlines my other discovery of that year, really - girls. The obstacle I have with Rock n Roll is ironic then, in that it's sung by a 'girl'. But no sort of girl I'd see at school, that Ms Jett; and I'd not use that title - the epithet 'Ms' being viewed by my parents as a little suspicious and feminist-sounding. Jett is quite the antithesis of a pop starlet in the song and the video, scowling and sneering her way through the verses, roaring the 'Yaaow!" bits that the all-male Arrows had left to their guitars. The Blackhearts' guitars, for what it's worth, are the stronger in this too - heavier at the bottom and with a great solo. It's not hard to see why the song took on a new lease of life with Jett and is largely regarded as her composition. It was revolutionary to me - the video (the version here starts with a snippet of Runaways hit Bad Reputation) was in black and white, though not originally, as seen in the first version (in colour!) and Jett's onscreen attitude is all balls - leather jacket, spiked hair, getting in the spaces and faces of the young dudes at the bar, on which she'll later dance in a very non-Coyote Ugly way. To the girls in my class this was probably enormously exciting too - a cool chick miles from the sweet and squeaky clean fare we'd had 'til then - the Tina Crosses, Nolan Sisters and Sheena Eastons. This song, its opening line a neat inversion of The Beatles' I Saw Her Standing There (the Arrows had written it intending to address The Stones' It's Only Rock and Roll) is a deliberate role reversal. In my innocence I hadn't concieved that a girl could sing, behave and look like that. But Jett did and she was inescapable, and I soon happily saw the error of my ways, singing it at the top of my still small voice with all my classmates later that year at my school social.

And nearly thirty years on it's still a great song. Jett and the Runaways are experiencing something of a revival at the moment with a forthcoming biopic in production (Jett to be played by Kristen Stewart). A couple of weeks ago she and the Blackhearts made an appearance, looking and sounding in fine form performing Bad Reputation live on Letterman.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Robin of Sherwood - Series One

It seems timely to be putting this up given that Ridley Scott's new version of Robin Hood complete with our/their Russell Crowe in not-quite Lincoln green has hit our multiplexes. It's a reminder that like Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur seemingly every generation brings to the table their own interpretation of the legend.
For my generation one of the most prominent would have to be Richard 'Kip' Carpenter's Robin of Sherwood, a highly stylised and considered take which, like those before it borrowed from the Sir Walter Scott template of the post-Crusade England mingled with residual Anglo Saxons versus Normans resentment. Uniquely, it also touched on older traditions, particularly a form of forest mysticism and mythology based around the 'Celtic' shamanistic figure of Herne, with his anointed 'son', Robin, an analogue of the very early linking of Robin-in-the-Hood with a nature deity himself. There are layers to Carpenter's version, giving it a resonance and a depth that I haven't noticed in subsequent versions. Carpenter's approach takes in two bites of the cherry in its versions of Robin the man - the yeomen Robin of Locksley and the nobleman Robin of Huntingdon, and through the inspired use of Herne was able to 'regenerate' one into the other, neatly (and by all accounts happily) replacing one lead actor with another when circumstances demanded.

We start with the best-known and regarded, Michael Praed - young, fine featured, dark-haired and with a dancer's build (Praed came to the role through stage work, notably The Pirates of Penzance), and surrounded by a stripped-down band of 'Merries' - the usual suspects of Little John (Clive Mantle), Maid Marion (Judi Trott - another dancer), Friar Tuck (Paul Rose) and Will Scarlet - Ray Winstone reinventing the once-dandyish role into a temperamental and aggressive fighter not too far removed from the roles that would permeate Winstone's wider career. Peter Llewellyn Jones plays Much the Miller's son (and Robin's half-brother) as a young simpleton, and crucially Sherwood introduces the Saracen Nasir, a late addition which was picked up by the Kevin Coster movie and recent BBC series. Mark Ryan's swordsmanship (coached by Doctor Who's chief stuntman Terry Walsh) made the character of Nasir THE boys' favourite while the girls happily got Praed, but it's the combined and considerable talents of Mantle and Winstone that drive the team through the entire series. Mantle's great, Winstone is a revelation. Praed's good though - quiet, measured, stagey in the right way. Another thing that escaped me at the time was the diversity of accents of the Merry Men - a deliberate detail, it appears, from the excellent 6-part DVD documentary that accompanies the Complete Series release. The idea being that these heroes would represent a unified England against the Norman-haired and named Sherriff and Guy of Gisbourne, ever drawing on his old mates from the Crusades to quell the Sherwood rebels. The latter two antagonists are of course played by Nickolas Grace (a spot of camp with a generous side order of ham, surely the model for Keith Allen's recent version) and Robert Addie (downtrodden, thuggish but strangely sympathetic) who died seemingly not long after the original documentary. Grace turns it on with all of his eye-bulging, vein-popping best while Addie skulks, sulks, and out-rides everybody else on screen. It's a credit to the writing that you can't despise either of them, though they (and the Sherriff's brother Abbot Hugo) are reliably despicable men.

Series One sets the myth anew but touches on the recognisable set pieces - the longstaff duel between Robin and John, the archery contest - this time for a silver arrow of Herne's which reappears as an important totem later in the second series, but is never seen thereafter. The enemies of the Merry Men are variously cast as Normans and their powerful allies (a corrupt and venal Church, Phil Davis' King John) and, as a counterpoint to Herne's influence, spiritual enemies pagan and diabolical. It's a strong opening, and the first year's stories are arguably the strongest, being brave enough to take their time introducing the regulars, dispensing with other contenders (Alan A Dale recast as a rather inept minstrel obsessed with a lass called Mildred), and in the absence of the Sherriff's physical prowess and cunning, giving the heroes a run for their money with other interlopers; Seven Poor Knights From Acre is a particular highlight. The performances are still fresh and in places naïve (Trott starts off a bit wobbly), but everyone is young, credible, absolutely looks the part and the whole design and direction making judicious use of camera filters and handy ruins and standing castles make for a really interesting looking and sounding production. Of course at this stage even the Clannad music isn't overused - an aspect that unfortunately does creep in as the series continues.

For the cost of a couple of tickets to see the Ridley and Russ Show I'd suggest getting The Complete Series instead - or even just the first series. I was happy in this case to discover that the memory mostly doesn't cheat - it really was that good.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Legends of Fantasy Art - Frank Frazetta

Frank Frazetta died this week, aged 82.

For many his name will be synonymous with the pulp fantasy and SF of Robert E Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs - his Conan is simply definitive, and his approach to the human form of both genders made him the foremost and most logical artist of Burrough's Barsoom/Mars books. As I mentioned earlier in my Erol Otus piece the works of Frazetta and to a lesser extent Boris Vallejo were probably the leading examples of 1960s and 1970s fantasy art, and Frazetta went on to inspire a host of artists and cartoonists of the next generation including White Dwarf's Peter Jones, and Carl Critchlow (whose style he initially lampooned in his Thrud the Barbarian), and in 2000AD most crucially, Simon Bisley. Bisley was directly influenced by Frazetta's oils as well as his pen and ink washes, and his adoption of those styles, borrowing Frazetta's earthy palette and accentuated musculature both reinvented the look of two key series by Pat Mills. The previously angular and robotic ABC Warriors became heavy metal beefcake (though done in Bisley's earlier line drawing style) and Celtic hero Slaine in the acclaimed Slaine the King
remains a highlight for Bisley's studied and faithful homage to Frazetta (even down to the aforementioned palette) as much as Mills' own stripped-down narrative. Bisley's tribute marked something of a visual homecoming for a fictional hero whose legend-based roots owed as much to Howard's barbarian hero.

I wasn't always a fan of Frazetta, and didn't come to reassess his work until seeing Bisley's work which some at the time and since have called derivative (the irony remains however that for nearly ten years on from Slaine the King 2000AD's pages were cursed with the mud-coloured muscled monstrosities of lesser artists, each bearing the unmistakeable hallmarks of slavishly copying Bisley himself). He remains a colossus in his field, his heroes seemingly hewn from the same rocky terrain they inhabit naturally. Where other artists sometimes use terrain as a backdrop or pagefiller, Frazetta's appear to rise from that chalky earth, his heroines graced with the same watery luminosity of their dungeon environments, or as perpetually buoyant as the Martian gravity around them. It's work in caricature sometimes - the warriors sinewed, biceps and thighs bulging as they pose, crouch and fly in battle, their womenfolk equally underdressed to show off the curves, the flowing locks, the undulating concupiscence. Great fodder, as I mentioned earlier, for album covers, movie posters and panel vans, the pop culture canvases of the Seventies. Small wonder then that as ideal body shapes changed into the Eighties Frazetta's work was seen less, and for a good time the airbrush became the champion of fantasy artists. But Frazetta had flow, the style that oils and brushes demand, the medium being so very unforgiving. His subject matter is visceral and as utterly testosterone-led as the stories behind them, which probably explains more than it needed be said why my earliest brush with the master's work was some sneaky peaks at my older brother's borrowed volume of Frazetta art as a very young teen; each portrait a doorway into older, wilder, savage and erotically-charged worlds. And yet to this day I'd be more comfortable in public with that volume under my arm than the likes of say, Vallejo or Chris Achilleos whose work alongside is endlessly glossier, sleeker, more lurid and less elemental.

They really don't make them like Frank anymore.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Talkin' Eds - Piece of Mind (1983)

1981 in Heavy Metal

AC/DC - Flick of the Switch
Accept - Balls to the Wall
Alice Cooper - DaDa
Black Sabbath - Born Again
Blue Öyster Cult - The Revölution by Night
Def Leppard - Pyromania
Dio - Holy Diver
Dokken - Breaking the Chains
Europe - Europe
Girlschool - Play Dirty
Hanoi Rocks - Self-Destruction Blues / Back to Mystery City
KISS - Lick It Up
Krokus - Headhunter
Manowar - Into Glory Ride
Metallica - Kill 'Em All
Mötley Crüe - Shout at the Devil
Motörhead - Another Perfect Day
Ozzy Osbourne - Bark at the Moon
Pantera - Metal Magic
Queensrÿche - Queensrÿche (debut)
Quiet Riot - Metal Health
Ratt - Ratt (EP)
Saxon - Power & the Glory
Slayer - Show No Mercy
Suicidal Tendencies - Suicidal Tendencies
Thin Lizzy - Thunder and Lightning
Twisted Sister - You Can't Stop Rock 'N' Roll

Newly-formed acts include: Bon Jovi Helloween Living Colour Lizzy Borden Mayhem Megadeth Metal Church Morbid Angel Poison and Queensrÿche

Some obvious picks from fellow NWOBHM-ers Def Leppard, Saxon and Motörhead. Elsewhere the old guard fumble along with the remnants of Sabbath in Dio and Ozzy, some European acts emerging (Accept, Dokken, Hanoi Rocks, Europe!), and the 'future' - glam metal (Poison, Mötley Crüe) and speed/thrash (Metallica, Megadeth, Pantera, Slayer) making early overtures. Maiden's sun is still at its height, but change is assured. KISS have even taken off their makeup...

The Line-Up

Having Number of the Beast under their belts Iron Maiden toured the album, but lost drummer Clive Burr along the way, seeingly another casualty of the gruelling tour and demands of the band. His replacement Michael 'Nicko' McBrain once again changes the sound of the band - where Burr's drumming is precise and well in line with the rhythm section, McBrain's obvious skills (he's regarded as one of the greats of heavy metal drummers) and innovation lend a more exploratory attitude to his style. There's been much discussion of the opening drum roll to the album's first track - McBrain hits every drum in an extremely tight triple roll, suffice it to say it's an effective and memorable starting volley, and ushers in THE classic Maiden line-up. Technically the album is another masterpiece, although the version reviewed here is from the 1998 remasters themselves, which balances some of the additional sound effects (the machine guns of Where Eagles Dare, for example) further.

For me Piece of Mind was almost an unknown quantity. Prior to The Best of the Beast I’d not heard anything off it, but The Trooper made an immediate impression - the album's other single The Flight of Icarus less so initially, but I've come to enjoy its coda greatly, and its video is notable for actually being something out of the ordinary for Maiden - no live footage, but studio film and other imagery combined. Prior to this the album was a tee shirt worn by a school mate - I think I may have assumed it was based on an EP, as mine (Maiden Japan) had been. Having bought the album proper then I've come to it with some prejudices still intact. I don't think Tim's going to like some of what I'm about to say!

The Album

With Beast having been the greatest success for Maiden to date, Piece of Mind continues the pace of one album per annum, surely the work of young men with energy and drive, and to be sure Piece marks something of a continuation of Beast's sound, with some notable developments. The songs are developed more in places, sometimes incorporating other musical works (To Tame a Land) and attempting new tricks (actual backing vocals on Die With Your Boots On, and some songwriting input by Bruce Dickinson). Lyrically though, the steps forward are marked with a few staggers; for every solid work (Where Eagles Dare, The Flight of Icarus, The Trooper) there's a real clunker (Boots again, Quest for Fire, To Tame a Land). There's no theme to the album again, but the songs largely come from various narratives, whether historical (Sunlight on Steel, Trooper) or from popular literature (er, almost all the rest). Revelations takes chunks of C K Chesterton and Crowley, and Boots nods towards Nostradamus a few times, but this isn't an album you'll listen to for the lyrics, especially in the leaden Quest ("for Fii-yurr!"), a low point for the album and band with its screeching vocals, Neanderthal beat and an opening line ("In a time/when dinosaurs roamed the earth!") coming more from an Amicus movie than the actual novel and film. Quest to me has at least a kitsch quality which helps, but if I must appreciate the album on that level as the sort of thing I'd have been into at thirteen or fourteen with its sub-Dungeons and Dragons imagery in Revelations and Still Life, then I find it also interferes with the stronger, more mature tracks, those being the three mentioned earlier, and Sunlight on Steel which, while it re-uses the Trooper galloping bass a little too soon, fair moves at an enjoyable lick. It's good stuff.

I want to like Piece of Mind though, and in fact a good many people do, regarding it as one of Maiden's finest albums, for some the best. I just find it disjointed - in places a victory lap after the triumph of Beast, but perhaps a little self-indulgent as well. To Tame a Land and Quest simply re-tell the stories of Dune and 'Rosny's original novel (more likely the movie) and indicate the list-making aspects of a few later compositions; Revelations being one man's mash-up of some ropey metaphysics is almost impenetrable and again works for me best as phantasmagoria rather than an attempt to actually say anything deep. Perhaps that's an unfair accusation, some HAVE found depth in the song, but they've clearly had to work at it and I need to remind myself that This. Is. Heavy. Metal. and not really anything more. I don't think that's what we're supposed to be doing with this.

Cover Art

It's a full-bodied Eddie for the first time, and the first of many torments our hero is put through, this being a lobotomy and straitjacket (now get out of that one, my lad!) Derek Riggs provides another iconic cover with more sickly yellow as its highlight hue - he's well on a roll at this point, and his album covers seem to improve exponentially with each release. There's still some continuity with previous covers - that distinctive sky appears on the back cover seen from inside Eddie's ubiquitous padded call although the shape of the opening and the buttoned wall lining make it look a little more luxurious than yer average psych unit - I used to wonder whether he was in some form of aircraft, hence the sky and no land being visible. Perhaps it's a flying panel van?

Album tracks
Where Eagles Dare (album track)
Revelations (Live in Dortmund)
Flight of Icarus (Live in Dortmund)
Die With Your Boots On (Live in Hammersmith)
The Trooper (official video)
Still Life (Live in Ipswitch)
Quest for Fire (album track)
Sun and Steel (album track)
To Tame a Land (Live in Hammersmith - with back story by Bruce)