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.

676471_1301451337976_full

‘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.

779875_1311220196796_full

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…

iron-maiden-empire-of-the-clouds-single-2016

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’!

Advertisements

Ninety-Two Minutes to Midnight, Part 1

When Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris stated in a 2015 interview that ‘Supper’s Ready’, the early Prog Rock epic that takes up all of Side Two of Genesis’ ‘Foxtrot’ album, was his favorite piece of music of all time, it shouldn’t have raised many eyebrows. Harris has made no secret of his love of classic Prog, and there’s ample proof in the grooves; Maiden has covered songs by Prog giants like Jethro Tull and Nektar, just to name a few. But the fact that ‘Supper’s Ready’ clocks in at over 23 minutes hints at a troubling trend in Iron Maiden’s music… You see, for decades, ‘Arry has been suffering with a severe case of the Creeping Epics.

It should also come as no surprize that, as a young Prog fan, ‘Arry hated Punk Rock, but his band (and the entire NWOBHM) absorbed it’s furious energy and in-your-face aggression and channeled it into their own music. It was Iron Maiden’s potent mix of Punk and Prog what set them apart from most of their peers; while most of the Punk-inspired NWOBHM movement was mining the catalogues of Thin Lizzy, UFO, Judas Priest and their ilk for inspiration, Steve Harris was reaching beyond mere rock and metal and toward the expansive creativity and technical complexity of his beloved Prog heroes: ELP, Yes, King Crimson, Focus, and of course the aforementioned Jethro Tull and Genesis.

sanctuarycover

 

The undeniable Punk attack of Maiden’s 1980 debut album is accented by several elements borrowed from Progressive Rock: elevated technical skill, complex arrangements, and fantastical subject matter. The clearest example of this unique formula is the mini-epic ‘Phantom of the Opera’. After it’s cryptic opening, ‘Phantom’ blazes across several different movements, twisting and turning through seven minutes and two seconds of neck-breaking tempo changes and intricate instrumental passages. While a song of this length was a bold move for a debut album, Maiden packed more excitement into the 7:02 of ‘Phantom’ than most BHM bands could muster for an entire album, ensuring that the song never overstays its welcome. ‘Phantom’s extended length works to make it the album’s grand statement, ground zero in Maiden’s punk/prog presentation.

The obvious Prog moment on Maiden’s second album ‘Killers’ was ‘Prodigal Son’, a lush, acoustic guitar-laden tune that stands out from the rest of the record with its breezy Wishbone Ash feel and plaintive lyric. As with ‘Phantom’, the song with the strongest Prog influence is also the longest on the record, at 6:05. Maiden would continue to balance creative finesse and snarling aggression on ‘The Number of the Beast’, but by this point, the band’s Punk edge had begun to fade. Their Prog leanings remained, evident in the melodramatic sprawl of album closer ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’. Another mini-epic, ‘Hallowed’ was, at 7:08, longest song the band had ever recorded… Although a few more albums down the line, 7:08 run-times would be commonplace.

On ‘Piece of Mind’, the band’s progressive side was clearly gaining strength, as nearly every song includes that extra bit of complexity, depth and flair, culminating in the final track ‘To Tame a Land’. ‘Land’ is a work of art, miles outside of conventional NWOBHM songwriting standard, snaking through exotic sonic territories as yet unexplored by Maiden. Here, for the first time, Iron Maiden have stepped squarely into the land of Progressive Metal. There were other signs related to ‘Piece’ as well; Jethro Tull’s ‘Cross-Eyed Mary’ was recorded for a B-side, and Bruce Dickinson’s ‘Revelations’ speaks for itself. Several songs on ‘Piece of Mind’ passed the 6-minute mark; ‘Tame’ tipped the scales at 7:28 to become the new Longest Maiden Song Ever. ‘Piece of Mind’ was also the Longest Maiden Album Yet, at 45:18.

Are we seeing the trend? As the Prog in Maiden’s music becomes more evident, so do the song lengths expand…

On ‘Powerslave’, Maiden strike the perfect balance of NWOBHM attack and adventurous songcraft. Top-notch writing and spirited performances easily obscure the Prog-creep, with 2 songs at 6 minutes-plus, and one at 7:12… That is, until the mammoth final track, Harris’ adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem ‘Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’. Worry not, for ‘Rhyme’ is a Maiden Masterpiece. While the adapted lyrics might be a little over-stuffed, the underlying arrangement is exceedingly well-constructed. ‘Arry was approaching ‘Supper’s Ready’ territory with ‘Rhyme’s 13:45 run time, but the cinematic sweep of it’s middle sections renders any question of ‘prog excess’ moot. After somehow squeezing another 2 songs onto Side Two, ‘Powerslave’ was the Longest Maiden Album So Far, pushing the limits of vinyl mastering with its 51:12 run time.

‘Somewhere In Time’ is a major mis-step. Steve Harris also wrote three of the 8 tunes on ‘SIT’ himself, and his prog mojo is in full effect here, though this time it doesn’t quite work. Each Harris composition is needlessly long and overwritten; the album’s lead-off track runs 7:22, immediately signaling that something’s up, and there’s really no reason why a straightforward tune like ‘Heaven Can Wait’ should last for 7:24. It must also be said that ‘Arry’s ‘Alexander the Great’ is a failure; at 8:35, it’s an uncharacteristically tough slog through ancient history. These three over-long excursions push the total run-time of the album to 51:18, six seconds longer than ‘Powerslave’, and Maiden’s new Longest Maiden Album. The guitar synths that adorn the album push the Prog Metal envelope even further… or reveal a desire to hide the fact that the band are struggling for inspiration.

Maiden’s average song length had almost doubled over the course of six albums; on ‘Killers’ it was around 3.72 minutes; on both ‘Powerslave’ and ‘Somewhere’ it was 6.37. Album lengths had steadily expanded from the admittedly short 37:35 of their debut to ‘Somewhere in Time’s 51:18. Ironically, Maiden would make some wise adjustments to the excess on their next album, restraining their tendency for epic sprawl while, at the same time, raising the stakes thematically.

Iron Maiden’s seventh album, ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’, is quite a rebound. IMHO, It’s their last great album, and a Prog Metal masterwork. The songwriting this time out was a much more collaborative effort, with Bruce Dickinson garnering several credits, where on ‘Somewhere’ he wrote contributed nada. It’s a concept album (how Prog is that?) that succeeds both musically and thematically. The music still contains plenty of fire & brimstone, and there’s a feeling that the band is once again firing on all cylinders. Song lengths had been paired down to more concise lengths, with one exception: the excellent Harris-penned title track, which works as the centerpiece of the album at a whopping 9:52.

iron-maiden-seventh-son-of-a-seventh-son-vinyl-record-lp-emi-1988-[5]-40552-p

Fans of the early NWOBHM-era Maiden bemoaned the use of synths, the commercial-sounding first single (‘Can I Play With Madness?’) and the slick production. But Steve Harris said, in Mick Wall’s band bio, “I thought it was the best album we did since ‘Piece of Mind’. I loved it because it was more progressive… ‘cause that’s the influences I grew up with.’ Like it or not, the axe-wielding, Thatcher-stabbing, Devil-beheading Iron Maiden was long gone; Eddie was no longer a shadowy figure lurking in dark alleys, he was a time travelling clairvoyant cyborg… Maiden had gone Full Prog. Where to go next?

The average length of a Maiden song had grown by almost 3 minutes, album capacities were being stretched to the limits of manufacturing standards, the epics on each record had gotten even more …epic, the lyrical themes more grandiose. But so far, Iron Maiden had more or less successfully balanced Steve Harris’ Prog Rock tendencies with their NWOBHM roots to become the biggest Metal band on the planet. That delicate balance is the defining element of classic-era Iron Maiden. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll look at how (if?) that balance is maintained during the 1990s and beyond…

Blaze and Ripper’s Excellent Adventure

August 1991. The Metal God pops the clutch on his massive Harley and rolls forward into the fog shrouded darkness. Gliding the beast forward with only the roar of the crowd to guide him, he is unaware that a hydraulic stairway has only partially descended, and smashes into it face first, breaking the bridge of his nose and tumbling off the bike beneath the gigantic stage set. He lies unconscious and bleeding for three minutes before he is found. ‘Hell Bent for Leather’ is performed for the first and only time without lead vocals.

It was the dawn of the 1990s, and a difficult time for Heavy Metal; especially for Metal bands from the ’70s and ’80s trying to stay relevant. Judas Priest had never been afraid to ‘adjust’ their sound to better suit the ever-changing Metal landscape; ‘Turbo’ and ‘Painkiller’ were both concessions to prevailing trends (hair metal and thrash metal, respectively). Both records were successful, but it had been difficult for many to watch Priest, one of Heavy Metal’s most important pioneers, chasing trends rather than setting them. And now the ’90s were presenting new challenges: Metallica had abdicated their throne, and Grunge, Alternative Metal, and Nu Metal were all about to make life difficult for several iconic bands from HM’s glory days. For Rob Halford, the writing was on the wall.

Within 24 hours of bashing his face in, Halford was back home in Phoenix AZ formulating a plan. He wanted things both ways; to work a solo project for ‘three to four years’, and to then return to the band and resume his position. For the rest of Judas Priest, this was ridiculous. Sit around for 3 or 4 years doing nothing, while we wait for their singer to decide to come back? IF he decided to come back at all? No way. Once Halford’s new band Fight was announced in 1992, Judas Priest cut the cord, and the inevitable war of words began. Hey, that might be a good title for an album…

Meanwhile, Iron Maiden were weathering the early 1990s fairly well. Their stripped-down response to the Big Four, ‘No Prayer for the Dying’, hit #2 in the UK, and the album’s (awful) single ‘Bring Your Daughter… to the Slaughter’ hit #1. The follow-up album, 1992’s ‘Fear of the Dark’ also hit #1. But singer Bruce Dickinson was bored, bored, bored. A solo album and tour in 1990 hadn’t been enough to calm the singer’s restless spirit, and while working on a second solo record during the ‘Fear’ tour, Bruce decided to leave the band. The final legs of the ‘Fear’ jaunt became Bruce’s ‘farewell tour’, which wrapped with a televised performance in August of ’93. The show was broadcast live as a pay-per-view event; magician Simon Drake performed magic and illusions during breaks in Maiden’s set. Drake’s final trick: making Bruce Dickinson disappear.

The Metal God and The Air Raid Siren were gone. Halford and Dickinson’s departures left gaping holes in each of their former bands. Square in the middle of the metal-unfriendly ’90s, both bands would have to establish themselves all over again in an inhospitable landscape ruled by Soundgardens, Nirvanas and Faith No Mores; to prove themselves to a brand new generation of Metalheads raised on the Big Four, Pantera and the emerging Death Metal genre. But there was so much more at stake here than just the fate of two legendary Heavy Metal bands; the fate of Heavy Metal itself hung in the balance. Would Metal survive the ’90s without Judas Priest and Iron Maiden? Twilight of the Gods, indeed.

For a while, it appeared as if Judas Priest were honoring Halford’s request for ‘three to four years’ off. Not much was heard from the JP camp until 1996, when their new lead vocalist was announced: Ohio native Tim Owens. Dubbed ‘Ripper’ by guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, Owens was a virtual unknown who fronted two small-time bands: Winter’s Bane and British Steel. While the former was an all-original metal band, the latter was a JP tribute. The two bands were usually booked together, with Owens fronting both. When a videotape of a British Steel performance somehow made its way to Priest, Owens shot ahead of shortlisted candidates like Ralph Scheepers (Gamma Ray) and Sebastian Bach. Four days later, Owens was in the UK auditioning for the band; after singing one song, ‘Victim of Changes’, Tipton offered him the gig.

Steve Harris wasted no time reaching out to Blaze Bayley of Wolfsbane, who had supported Maiden on the NPftD tour just a few years earlier. Bayley politely declined. Woflsbane had done three albums, an E.P. and a few singles, and were ready to re-enter the studio for album #4; both parties chalked it up to bad timing, and Harris moved on. ‘Arry and the rest of Maiden then slogged through thousands of tapes, CDs and videos sent in by hopefuls from all over the globe… and got nowhere. But by the time Bayley was to enter the studio to begin his band’s fourth album, he had changed his mind, deciding that Wolfsbane had run its course. Bayley soon found himself facing off against Doogie White (just a few years away from joining Rainbow) for the Maiden job. Bayley won.

Priest had perhaps found the one man up to the task of recreating Rob Halford’s histrionic vocal stylings. But in losing Halford, JP lost a lot more than a voice; they lost an attitude, a swagger, and a particular lyrical voice. Halford’s acting background was apparent in his delivery; he could (and regularly did) deliver ludicrous lyrics in a convincing manner, with an air of melodrama and just the right amount of camp. Tim Owens had the pipes but none of Rob Halford’s charisma. Blaze Bayley (real name: Bayley Cook) was blessed with a deep, resonant voice capable of conveying a strong sense of the dramatic. However, Bayley often sang one full octave below his predecessor, delivering Harris’ overstuffed lyrics with an oppressive air of doom and gloom. After 12 years of Bruce Dickinson, an almost super-human vocalist with a flair for the dramatic, even operatic, it’s hard to understand exactly why Steve Harris felt that Blaze Bayley’s voice was the right fit for Maiden.

The_X_Factor-Front

Iron Maiden’s tenth album, ‘The X-Factor’, hit in 1995, just two years after Bruce ‘disappeared’. It’s a difficult album. The opening song, ‘Sign of the Cross’, clocks in at over 11 minutes, and quickly sets the tone for the next 70. Every song begins with a quiet, delicately-played intro, and then plods along for far too long. The ghost of Steve Harris’ marriage hovers over this album, in both the dour, overwrought lyrics and in the music’s downbeat vibe (the album’s lone ‘fast number’ was written by Bayley/Gers). Bayley’s heavy, brooding presence prevents even the more energetic moments from ever fully taking flight; the man can sing but brings none of the spirit and spark that characterized Dickinson’s better performances. It should also be pointed out that longtime producer Martin Birch was not on board for this album… And the cover is hideous.

Judas_Priest-Jugulator

Priest’s first post-Halford album is truly awful. 1997’s ‘Jugulator’ is a train-wreck of harsh, over-processed guitars, anguished vocals, terrible lyrics, and haphazard production. Tipton and Downing wrote all of the music, and several concessions to current trends are immediately evident: down-tuned guitars, atonal guitar solos, and Death Metal-worthy titles like ‘Dead Meat’, ‘Decapitate’, Blood Stained’ and ‘Death Row’. Ugh. Tipton himself wrote all of the album’s relentlessly negative lyrics. Each song begins with a short, atmospheric intro tacked on, with creepy guitars, dialogue or sound effects, adding nothing to the proceedings. The guitars are heavy as hell, but without the wit and irony that Halford’s presence always unfailingly provided, it’s a grim, abrasive hour of music.

Iron_Maiden_-_Virtual_XI

After the much-maligned ‘The X Factor’, Iron Maiden included a new track, entitled ‘Virus’, on the 1996 compilation ‘Best of the Beast’. Dodgy sound notwithstanding, this energetic and interesting song established that Maiden had indeed awakened from their coma, and the album that followed, 1998’s ‘Virtual XI’, impressed with a lighter tone and brighter sound than its predecessor. As for the songwriting, however, chief writer Steve Harris had clearly lapsed into formula, and each song on VXI sounds remarkably like the song before it. While VXI does contain the Blaze era’s lone classic: ‘The Clansman’, the album’s first single, ‘The Angel and the Gambler’, repeats it’s chorus so many times, you’ll feel the need to check your turntable to make sure your needle isn’t stuck… even if you’re listening via mp3. The single clocks in at 6:05, edited down from the 9:56 album version. Martin Birch, where are you?

Judas_Priest-Demolition-Frontal

Priest’s second stab at establishing a post-Halford credibility was 2001’s ‘Demolition’. Again, it’s Tipton’s record, and again he demonstrates his inability to grasp just what made Priest so special. This record is a little more well-rounded than ‘Jugulator’, but also suffers from trying to be all things to all people; Nu Metal, Rap, and Industrial Metal, as well as elements of ’80s Priest all feature here, and absolutely none of it works. There is, however, a melody or two to be found here, unlike the band’s previous disaster. Imagine Judas Priest at their absolute heaviest, then imagine them pushing even harder, but without the irony; without the campy panache or the flair for the melodramatic that informed their best work.

For Heavy Metal, the Bayley/Owens era was a near-death experience. When viewed against Priest and Maiden’s previous body of work, all four of these records were colossal artistic and commercial failures, and in the battle for the survival of Heavy Metal, they did more damage than good. Without these two massive flagship franchises to help hold Metal’s fan base together, the genre continued to splinter and fragment into fractious sub-genres. Heavy Metal survived the ’90s by blowing itself to bits and continuing forward as an amalgam of separate and distinct pieces of a disparately unified whole. As solo artists, Halford and Dickinson released some decidedly un-Metal music, but each eventually returned to classic Heavy Metal with records that beat their old bands at their own game, and positioned both vocalists for their eventual (and inevitable) return. A revitalized Priest & Maiden helped establish yet another (and perhaps the most important) HM sub-genre: Legacy Metal.

Cheers to Blaze Bayley and Tim Owens for ushering two of our favorite bands through Metal’s darkest days. Coulda been worse… Sebastian Bach?? Doogie White??