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…

Advertisements

Martin Birch: Engineering History

I’ve got books on my shelves about Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy, Rush, and Judas Priest. About The Ramones, Blue Oyster Cult, and Cheap Trick. Books about classic albums like Led Zeppelin IV, ‘Master of Reality’, and ‘Deep Purple In Rock’. I have bios written by Gillan, Iommi and Lemmy. One each by Steven Tyler and by Joe Perry. By all 4 members of KISS. The rock books in my personal library range from trashy tell-alls to insightful and historically accurate journalism. The career arcs of my heroes and critical analysis of their works is something I study with great interest. The one book I don’t have, and the book I am most anxious to read, is one that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been written yet.

Martin Birch: Write your bloody book already.

The name ‘Martin Birch’ appears on several of the most important hard rock/heavy metal albums of all time. At the end of this post, I’ve included a list of just some of Birch’s production credits. This gentleman has produced/engineered/mixed the soundtracks to our youths He has worked with many of our musical heroes for extensive periods of time; he could probably fill a book with his experiences with Deep Purple alone (seven studio albums), and make his work with Iron Maiden (eight) his Volume II… And still not even scratch the surface of his experience.

martin-birch-producer-sound-enginer

You know he’s got stories to tell. Working with Ritchie Blackmore in the studio on a whopping 10 records… Witnessing the sad disintegration of legends like Bill Ward, Tommy Bolin, and Michael Schenker… And being present at the creation of new legends like Bruce Dickinson and Ronnie Dio. Dude was hand-picked to rebuild the stature of a born again Black Sabbath, and of a floundering Blue Oyster Cult. This guy was the first to record the harmonizing guitars of Wishbone Ash’s Andy Powell and Ted Turner, and the first to capture the harmonizing voices of Glenn Hughes and David Coverdale. Birch was behind the board in Munich as Ritchie Blackmore’s solo single became a solo album, and helmed the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio outside Festival Hall in Osaka, Japan in August of 1972… not just witnessing history being made, but recording it… And not merely recording history, but taking part in it; shaping it.

Birch was often credited as producer/engineer as well as for mixing, meaning he was solely responsible for the overall sound of his projects. This often meant getting workable performances from drug addicts, volatile personalities, and in some cases, people with very little talent. In other cases, it meant recording under extremely difficult circumstances, including sessions held in a barn in Steve Harris’ backyard (No Prayer for the Dying’), and in the freezing cold hallways of empty hotel in Switzerland (‘Machine Head’). Ya, this guy’s got stories.

machine-head-deep-purple

And nicknames! Birch appears in album/single credits with various band-bestowed nicknames sandwiched between his first and last names, such as Black Night, Sir Larry, Basher, Big Ears, Court Jester, Doc, The Farmer, The Wasp, Headmaster, Jah, Live Animal, Masa, Mummy’s Curse, Plan B, Pool Bully, The Bishop, The Juggler, The Ninja, and my two favorites: Martin ‘Phantom of the Jolly Cricketers’ Birch, as he’s credited on the Iron Maiden Single ‘Run to the Hills’ (Live)/’Phantom of the Opera’ (Live), and Martin ‘Disappearing Armchair’ Birch, as credited on Maiden’s ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ lp. Note: This is not a complete list. A guy with this many nicknames has some great life experiences to share.

But what is it about this man that put him in the same room with these musicians time and again? What does he bring to the table that sets him apart from his peers? I would love to read his own take on why he was the go-to guy for so many iconic bands. Clearly the man has an excellent set of ears, but also must possess an extraordinary talent for inspiring and motivating artistic people. Deep Purple MkII dedicated a song to him on ‘Deep Purple In Rock’ (‘Hard Lovin’ Man’) and called him ‘a catalyst’ in the liner notes; high praise coming from one of the more creative and progressive heavy bands of the era. There is a compelling, historically significant story here: how one man helped mold and shape an entire genre for more than 2 decades.

Black Sabbath - Heaven and Hell - Frontal1

Is there a ‘Martin Birch Sound’? Birch’s productions do all share a similar overall ‘presence’; it’s all about sonic space, and balance within that space; much of it happens in the mix, and (as you’re noticing as you read this), it’s very difficult to describe. To my own ears, Birch creates a space where every instrument can clearly be heard perfectly, and where every element has exactly the ‘right’ shape and presence in the mix, and works together to create an almost solid, 3-dimensional sound. I would suggest Rainbow’s ‘Long Live Rock and Roll’, Iron Maiden’s ‘Piece of Mind’, and Black Sabbath’s ‘Heaven and Hell’ as prime examples of what a Martin Birch production/mix sounds like. Three very different bands with three vastly different sounds; one consistent sonic presentation.

After Whitesnake’s ‘Slide it In’ in 1984, Birch was commandeered to work exclusively for Iron Maiden. Some have called him Iron Maiden’s ‘Fifth Member’. Wouldn’t Eddie be the fifth? That would make Birch the sixth member, unless you acknowledge Janick Gers, which I don’t… But I digress. Martin Birch retired permanently in 1992, after his umpteenth album with Maiden, ‘Fear of the Dark’. Drastic changes in recording technology led to subtle changes in Martin Birch’s signature presentation, evident in Maiden’s ‘Seventh Son…’ and ‘Somewhere in Time’ albums, and perhaps Birch knew that his era was drawing to a close. He was a mere 42 years old when he walked away from the business; today, he’s a bit past his mid-60’s… Mr. Birch, we suggest you add ‘The Author’ to your impressive collection of nicknames.

martinbirchsteveharris

Deep Purple: Deep Purple In Rock, Fireball, Machine Head, Made in Japan, Who Do we Think we Are?, Burn, Stormbringer, Made in Europe, Come Taste the Band, Last Concert in Japan

Black Sabbath: Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules

Rainbow: Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Rising, On Stage, Long Live Rock and Roll

Whitesnake: Lovehunter, Ready an’ Willing, Live in the Heart of the City, Come an’ Get it, Saints an’ Sinners, Slide it In

Blue Oyster Cult: Cultosaurus Erectus, Fire of Unknown Origin

Michael Schenker Group: Assault Attack

Iron Maiden: Killers, The Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind, Powerslave, etc etc etc.

Wishbone Ash: Wishbone Ash, Pilgrimage, Argus