Ninety-Two Minutes to Midnight, Part 2

Despite having developed into one of the most successful Heavy Metal bands on the planet during the 1980s, Iron Maiden entered the 90s in a state of crisis. The musical climate was changing around them; most notably, Americs’a ‘Big Four’ Thrash Metal bands had erupted from the underground and were making serious inroads into the Metal universe, threatening the Maiden throne. The key to Iron Maiden’s massive global success in their first decade was their blend of 70s Prog rock and Punk-inspired Heavy Metal, and the band closed out the 80s with increasingly prog-leaning albums like ‘Somewhere in Time’ and ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’… Enter the young, angry upstarts from across the pond to ‘smash it up’ and destroy the status quo. Those who know their music history will find plenty of Iron-y (heh) here.

Steve Harris made some decisions. The music on Maiden’s eighth album would be simpler, stripped-down and more direct, closer to the band’s earlier sound. The change in direction was so drastic that Adrian Smith left the band during pre-production. The resultant album, ‘No Prayer for the Dying’, was a near-complete regression back to the street-level, headbanging vibe of Maiden’s early years. The lyrics covered real-world concerns such as oppression, religion and politics, all sung by Bruce Dickinson in a rougher, raspier voice. Even the artwork reflected the ‘new’ direction, depicting Eddie (sans lobotomy bolt and cyborg augmentation) smashing out of his tomb to strangle a hapless gravedigger, a far cry from Eddie the reality-bending cosmic existentialist from the previous album.

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‘Prayer’ rejects ‘Arry’s progressive tendencies and just gets on with it. Not one of the album’s 10 tracks breaks the 6-minute mark, and the whole record runs at a tight (for Maiden) 43:42, almost 10 minutes shorter than both ‘Powerslave’ and ‘Somewhere in Time’. But Harris couldn’t completely resist his Prog compulsion; the album’s closer, ‘Mother Russia’, contains several progressive elements, although it’s multiple movements and ambitious historical sweep are constrained to a mere 5:30. Still, ‘Mother’ feels like an awkward edit of a 10-minute ‘Arry epic, and sounds out of place on an album of much more concise and immediate material.

So Iron Maiden had forced themselves back to square one, denying the Prog beast within and returning to their roots to do battle with Metal’s next wave. Did the change in direction work? In the UK, ‘Prayer’ reached #2 and the album’s second single was Iron Maiden’s first-ever UK #1. In the States, the album held it’s own, but the the Thrash Metal movement was in it’s heyday, and Metallica now dominated the Metal conversation. ‘No Prayer for the Dying’ went Gold in the US, but it would be the last Iron Maiden album ever to do so. Maiden’s return to their roots was perhaps too little, too late.

What to try next, then? How about… everything! On ‘Fear of the Dark’, Maiden’s 9th album, confusion reigns. It’s the first Maiden album not produced by Martin Birch; it’s also the first Maiden record not adorned with the artwork of Derek Riggs. The music within reveals a band struggling for direction, identity and relevance, featuring full-on Metal, a power ballad, and yes, the (welcome?) return of Steve Harris’ beloved Prog. And with the return of progressive elements to Maiden’s music came expanding song lengths: two of ‘Arry’s contributions stretch past 6 minutes, and the total record was the longest ever in Iron Maiden’s history, at 57:58, just shy of an hour.

Regardless of their length, it’s the Harris-penned tunes on ‘Fear of the Dark’ that sound most like classic Maiden. ‘Arry’s ‘Afraid to Shoot Strangers’ and the album’s title track are standouts; both creep past 6 minutes and reach back to the expansive, indulgent sound of just a few years previous. While overall it’s an uneven listen, ‘Fear’ topped the UK charts, giving Maiden their first-ever UK No. 1 album, and charted higher in the US than ‘Prayer’. Hmmm… Maybe re-asserting Steve Harris’ Prog side was the way to go next…

GAAHHHHH! On Maiden’s tenth album, ‘The X Factor’, Harris unleashes the Prog beast, and it runs rampant over this 70-minute disaster. Opening with the 11-minute slog ‘Sign of the Cross’ sets the stage for a looooong, mid-paced trudge through the tortured landscape of Steve Harris’ psyche. The bassist was dealing with a difficult divorce while writing the album, and his name is on 10 of the 11 songs here; only ‘Man on the Edge’, written by new singer Blaze Bayley and guitarist Janick Gers, trots along at a proper Maiden-esque pace. ‘Edge’ is the shortest tune on a record where half the songs move well past the 6-minute mark, and every track feels like a 10-minute epic. Maiden had shown in the past that they could ably hold the listener’s interest through songs of extended lengths… here they fail spectacularly.

It’s interesting to note that that three songs were recorded for the album, ‘Justice of the Peace’, ‘I Live My Way’, and ‘Judgement Day’, but were not included on the finished product. All three clock in between 3:33 and 4:04, significantly shorter than anything that made the final cut, and all three are up-tempo rockers sporting tight, concise arrangements that hearken back to Maiden’s glory years. This would indicate that building an album comprised of over-long, melodramatic downers was an artistic choice. ‘Arry’s head space has been called into question during critical examinations of ‘X’; obviously Steve Harris was in a very dark place during the creation of this record.

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It’s amazing that Maiden survived the ‘X Factor’ debacle, and a testament to their iconic status and bullet-proof reputation that the album reached #8 in the UK. In the US, however, the record peaked at a dismal #147, where ‘Fear of the Dark’ had climbed to #12 just three years previous. Dickinson’s absence was a factor, as was the album’s repulsive cover art. But 70 minutes of poisonous Prog metal sealed the deal: ‘The X Factor’ was a deal-breaker for many US fans, who walked away from the band for good.

In 1996, Maiden released a non-lp single to promote an compilation album. ‘Virus’ was 6 minutes and 14 seconds of classic ‘Arry Prog indulgence, and it solidified a pattern that would become a template for several (too many) Maiden songs to come: an extended intro featuring whispered vocals, moody synth backdrops and delicately played guitars, kicking into a classic Maiden gallop with harmony guitars on top. The trouble is, the quiet, slow-moving introduction lasts for 2:20, which is 40% of the song. An edit of ‘Virus’ was released to radio, which removed the intro completely, slamming immediately in with the classic Maiden sound of yore. There was a lesson to be learned here; trim the fat, cut the excess, strive for maximum impact… ‘Arry was having none of it.

Maiden’s next, ‘Virtual XI,’ was almost 20-minutes shorter than ‘X’; however, the Prog bloat persisted. The album features 3 extended pieces, one at 8:11, the other two at 9:51 and 9:06, all written solely by (surprise!) Steve Harris. Oddly, the album’s longest song, ‘The Angel and the Gambler’, was chosen as the first single. At over 9 minutes, the song had no chance at commercial radio, so an edit was also released, running at 6:05… also too long for commercial radio. The questionable choice for lead-off single was compounded by the song’s arrangement: the chorus of “Don’t you think I’m a savior? Don’t you think I could save you? Don’t you think I could save your life?” is repeated so many times that it makes me want to stab myself in the eye. Even the edited version sends me searching for sharp objects.

The Blaze era was an artistic and commercial failure when compared to what had come before. Take a second to remember the urgency and immediacy of their early work; a catchy guitar riff, the band kicks in seconds later, and we’re off to the races! Now it seemed that every other song started with an extended atmospheric intro. Grandiose epics had become commonplace, which minimized their impact and strained our patience, when in the early years, longer songs like ‘Phantom’ and ‘Mariner’ were anomalies that felt special and exciting. Without Bruce interpreting his material and Adrian Smith’s pop sensibilities reigning in the songwriting excess, ‘Arry’s progressive streak was barreling out of control and the SS Maiden was sinking under the epic weight of their bassist’s ever-expanding vision.

Someone needed to put the Prog genie back in the bottle. Surely the return of ‘Arry’s old writing partners would right the ship and Iron Maiden would pick up just where they left off with ‘Seventh Son’! Well… Kinda. But not really. Bayley departs, Dickinson and Smith return… but Gers stays put. As if to highlight Harris’ ‘more is more’ philosophy, the band itself expanded to six members. Now armed with three guitarists, was there any chance of more economical song lengths, any hope of more compact arrangements, with three guitarists jockeying for solo spots in every song? Or would the addition of two members from Maiden’s most successful period temper the excess and impose some moderation onto the proceedings?

Alas, the Prog continued it’s expansion, unabated. Album total run times ballooned with each release:
‘Brave New World’ 66:57
‘Dance of Death’ 67:57
‘A Matter of Life and Death’ 71:53
‘The Final Frontier’ 76:34

Which brings us to 2015 and ‘The Book of Souls’.

While I understand the mindset that says ‘there’s a 4 or 5-year gap between albums so let’s give ’em as much music as we can’, the total length of each album isn’t the only reason that Maiden albums have become so… unwieldy. Nowadays, Maiden songs that run 5 minutes or less are now the anomalies; on ‘The Book of Souls’, there are three songs that sail past the 10-minute mark, and the album contains their longest-ever song, ‘Empire of the Clouds’, an 18-minute super-mega-epic about… zeppelins. ‘Arry’s ‘The Red and the Black’, at `13:33, would be a fitting final tour de force to close any of Maiden’s previous albums; on ‘Souls’, it’s only Track #4 of 11… And the song never ends! Just when you think it’s winding up, it changes up and keeps rolling on… and on… and on…

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While I believe ‘Souls’ to be the best of the last five Maiden releases, my assessment is based on a single listen. Why? It took me days to get all the way through ‘The Book of Souls’ in its entirety. With each visit, I’d inevitably find myself losing focus, especially in the longer songs, as my mind drifted while the music blended with the wallpaper. The monstrous length of the album and most of the songs on it are just too much for me. I’ve considered giving the ‘Souls’ CD(s) a second spin, but always decide against it; the prospect feels too daunting, too massive an undertaking, too much of an investment of time and attention. I liked what I heard the first time through, but it will be a long time before I climb that mountain again.

Yes’ ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’, a polarizing progressive rock milestone notorious for its overwhelming length and complexity, has become a symbol of overblown Prog excess. ‘The Book of Souls’ is 10 minutes longer. The needle on Iron Maiden’s progometer has been ‘in the red’ for about 20 years now, and with ‘Souls’, their progressive readings are off the charts. It’s as if Steve Harris has been steadily working to emulate his favorite piece of music: the 23-minute ‘Supper’s Ready’ by Genesis. Enough, already! News Flash: ‘Run to the Hills’, ‘Sanctuary’, ‘The Trooper’, ‘Wrathchild’, ‘Aces High’, ‘The Evil That Men Do’… All classics… all under 5 minutes! Message to ‘Arry: Every song can’t be ‘Supper’s Eddie’!

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Long Distance Runaround

Legend has it that DJs in the 70s used to spin Iron Butterfly’s 17-minute opus ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ to free up time for an extended bathroom break… or maybe that was a smoke break. The song had been edited down to 2:52 to allow for radio airplay and released as a single in July of 1968, but DJs overwhelmingly prefered to air the 17-minute monster (Hey, man, removing the seeds from a dime bag takes a little bit of time, OK?) Repeated airings of the unedited track would help sell 3 million copies of the edited version in the first 18 months of its release; the ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ album would hit #4 and become the first-ever album to be certified Platinum. Yay, drugs!

Of course, ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ has a lot more going for it than just its epic length. The music in an extended piece like ‘Vida’ has to work as a proper ‘song’ in order to appeal to listeners. With rock music in general, when you push past the limits of accepted time frames for Top 40 radio play (3:00-3:30) or, years ago, 7″ record production (3:00-5:00), and kissing Top 40 airplay goodbye, an artist had better keep things interesting. ‘Da Vida is basically a 5-minute song with a couple of extended (reeeeeally extended) solos in it, but the underlying song itself works and the solos add much to the experience. Even if you’re not stoned.

Pushing a song past the 10-minute mark is a true test of what makes a song a song. When a band decides to dedicate an entire side of their record to one ‘song’, they are often attempting a grand, artistic statement, and hoping to hold your interest and attention. Hard Rock/Heavy Prog music has its share of side-long epics… but how many of them are worth the time it takes to listen? Pack a lunch, this is going to take a while…

As the 60s became the 70s, and Psychedelic Rock evolved into Progressive Rock, the ‘side-long epic’ seemed to be the ‘in’ thing. Side Two of Pink Floyd’s ‘Meddle’ follows the same path as Iron Butterfly’s magnum opus, as the masterful ‘Echoes’ seemingly slows the rotation of the Earth by extending an already-hypnotic song into otherworldly proportions by unspooling loooooong instrumental improv sections before briefly returning to its intial song structure to wrap up. Seriously, you can get lost in the middle of this song… And there’s some stuff hiding in there that’s scarier than anything Black Sabbath ever recorded. Be careful.

Fifty percent of Yes’ 5th album, ‘Close to the Edge’, is dedicated to the album’s title track, which clocks in at 18:12. Perhaps Yes’ most acclaimed recording, ‘Close to the Edge’ is a fantastic composition, with key musical themes asserting themselves, then reappearing further into the song. The composition is divided up into four sections, which flow and morph in and out of each other so well that in the end, the experience is that of a single song. Methinks we have found our benchmark.

Yes take another crack at the enormous on their 1975 ‘Relayer’ album, with ‘The Gates of Delirium’, a 21-minute, 55-second tale of war and peace that was actually inspired by Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, a novel that has become a reference point in popular culture to any work of literature of intimidating length. ‘Gates’ breezes along pretty swiftly, although it’s lightness of tone fails to reflect the weighty subject matter related through what is likely Jon Anderson’s darkest lyric. The ‘battle’ sequences are fuision-y fun, and the whole thing lopes along in that engaging, loose ‘Yes’ kind of way, until the final section (which was lifted as the album’s single, and titled ‘Soon’), resolves the hectic near-chaos of the first two thirds.

Pink Floyd’s ‘Sine on You Crazy Diamond’ kinda works as a side-long epic; if you remove the three standard-length songs in the middle of the record and snap Parts I – V together with Parts VI – IX, you get a single work clocking in at 26:01, longer than most mastering studios would recommend for cutting a vinyl LP. Experienced as one single piece of uninterrupted music, ‘Shine On’ is an amazing work, beautifully constructed and exquisitely executed. Although composed as one continuous piece of music*, splitting it in two actually benefits the song; with the two halves separated by three unconnected songs, ‘Diamond’s recurring themes don’t wear out their welcome, and revisiting them after ‘Wish You Were Here’s swirling synth-wind fade is a blast as they re-emerge and express themselves in new ways.

*David Gilmour argued against splitting the song; he was out-voted 3 to 1.

After toying with extended run-times with ‘By-Tor and the Snow Dog’ in 1974, Rush go for it on their 1975 album ‘Caress of Steel’. ‘The Fountain of Lamneth’ is a suite of six unique segments, each cross-fading into the next. This awkward method of flow makes ‘Lamneth’ a bit of a clunker. A unifying lyrical theme is threaded through the movements, but some early cassettes completely fucked that up, changing the intended track listing by switching the ‘Didacts and Narpets’ movement of ‘Lamneth’ with ‘I Think I’m Going Bald’ (a completely unrelated song from Side One) to balance out both sides of the tape. Rush: The Rodney Dangerfield of Rock.

Rush would follow-up immediately with their ‘2112’ opus, correcting ‘Lamneth’s mistakes and creating a true Hard Rock masterpiece. It was a bold move starting an album with a 20-minute and 33 second song suite (Really? They couldn’t extend the space noises at the intro for another 39 seconds???), but the move paid off, as ‘2112’ gave Rush their commercial breakthrough. The songs on Side Two are Good to Very Good, but that didn’t matter; Side One was all anyone talked about. ‘2112’ loses points for the story’s oft-misunderstood ending, where the Elder Race returns to liberate the people of the Solar Federation…Oops! SPOILER ALERT

Lerxst, Dirk and Pratt (that’s Rush, stay with me) would tempt fate with third side-long epic on 1978’s ‘Hemispheres’, with less than stellar results. But what’s interesting here is that the song ‘Hemispheres’ is actually a continuation of a song from a previous album, entitled ‘Cygnus X-1’. So in reality, the complete title of ‘Hemispheres’ is ‘Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres’, as stated on the album. Musical themes and ‘samples’ from the former song are featured in the latter, connecting the two works, but thematically… that’s where things get nuts. Rush apparently agreed, and would never write another side-long epic, but would redeem themselves with the much shorter (9:17) and much more effective multi-part ‘Natural Science’ on their next record.

So far we’ve imagined a combined 26-minute ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’, which never would have fit on one side of an LP, and envisioned an uninterrupted ‘Cygnus X-1 Books I & II’ which would also break the side-long barrier at a monstrous 28:33… But, Ladies and Gents, breaking the single-side barrier is not merely an interesting thought experiment; it’s actually happened, several times…

Ever wonder why Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1973 radio hit ‘Karn Evil 9’ starts off with the lyric ‘Welcome back my friends…’? ‘Welcome back’ from where? From Side One! The album version of ‘Karn’, found on ELP’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ album, consists of three ‘impressions’, and due to the limitations of the vinyl format, the first impression starts at the end of Side One and completes on Side Two. The two parts are listed as ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part One’ and ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part Two’. It was Part 2 that we all heard on the radio in ’73. The ‘Welcome back’ intro was directed at listeners of the LP who had just flipped the record over to hear the other half of the piece.

The whole of ‘Karn Evil 9’ rolls out at 29:39. Thankfully, in the CD age, this having-to-flip-the-record-over nonsense was dispensed with, and CD editions of ‘Brain Salad’ combine ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part One’ with ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part Two’ into one unbroken audio track, entitled simply ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression’… rendering the nifty ‘Welcome back, my friends’ lyrical device moot.

Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick’, both the album and the ‘song’ (…well, really, there is no difference between the two; the song is the album, the album is the song), was composed as one continuous piece of music spanning both sides of the record, although as with ELP’s ‘Karn Evil 9’, concessions were made to the realities of the vinyl and cassette formats. Side One ends with a repeated section of music that slowly fades into synth hiss; Side Two opens with distant echoes of that same section, serving as a brief reminder of where we were before we had to flip the record. The 1985 CD version of the album combines both parts as one seamless track (43:46), but then that transition section just doesn’t work…

Tull would find a better way to cross the side barrier with their next album, ‘A Passion Play’, which is constructed as an opera composed of nine songs combined into one continuous piece of music. This time, Tull found a clever way of acknowledging the need to flip the record: by including an intermission. ‘Interlude – The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles’, is a short piece designed to resemble a children’s storytelling record. Halfway through the story, an electronic tone sounds, signaling the ‘child’ to turn the record over; the ‘Hare’ fable then completes at the start of Side Two. The complete work (with ‘Interlude’) clocks in at 45:05. Some CD versions remove the tone, and combine the two parts of the ‘Interlude’ device, which exists an unnecessary interruption within the larger work.

Exhausted yet? Well, gear up, because we have arrived at the Everest of epics… a record that defies evaluation, but still must be included: Yes’ ultra-humongous ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’.

To refer to ‘TFTO’ as a double album is a massive understatement. If you find side-long epics to be a tough slog, imagine an album of FOUR sidelong-epics, each based on a sacred Hindu text, with a total running time of 81:15! After the success of ‘Close to the Edge’, had Yes decided that creating protracted pieces of music was the way to go? Well, yes and no; Rick Wakeman said in 2006, “…because of the format of how records used to be we had too much for a single album but not enough for a double, so we padded it out and the padding is awful …” Once again, ambition clashes with the constraints of contemporary media formats. But by constantly testing the limits of physical format, Yes were also testing the patience and the attention spans of their critics and their fans.

But while critical reactions to the record were mixed, and despite its excessive weight, ‘TFTO’ became the first album to ever ship Platinum, topped the UK charts for 2 weeks, and hit #6 in the US. By all accounts, the record was a massive (heh) success. On the corresponding tour, Yes performed the ‘TFTO’ album in its entirety, along with the ‘Close to the Edge’ epic, night after night. But Rick Wakeman announced he was leaving the band during the tour, which included 2 sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden, citing ‘boredom’. I totally get it.

I have never made it 100% through this record in one sitting, and I am certain that I never will. Who has that kind of time?? This album and it’s ilk sealed Prog Rock’s fate, establishing the genre as an obnoxiously bloated Progosaurus, dragging its ponderous weight across the landscape, a sitting duck just waiting for a white-hot musical meteor to strike and render it extinct. Oh, hello, Punk Rock!

Note: I had a paragraph on Genesis’ ‘Supper’s Ready’ (23:06) prepared for this piece, but I felt the article was too long…