Iron Maiden will always have a special place in my music collection simply because the first CD I ever bought at the tender age of 12 was their latest release at the time, No Prayer For the Dying. I'll be honest enough to admit that back then I bought it as much for the awesome album artwork as for the music itself (although songs like “Number of the Beast” and “Run to the Hills” were already some of my most played songs from the various mix tapes I had recorded from the radio), but at the same time it's also true that it's one of the few bands that I listened to back then that I still love listening to today. So, way to go on that call, little me. You're more or less forgiven for liking Vanilla Ice's “Ninja Rap” back then as well now.
One of the things that really set Maiden apart from their eighties contemporaries was that instead of writing lyrics about partying, drugs, women, or all of the above, they wrote songs about literary works, films, and other stories that inspired them, and tried to tell that story in their own way. That's why I'd like to take you all on a little tour through the six songs that make up this pack of fan-favorites, and tell you one or two things about the stories behind them. Please keep your appendages inside the vehicle at all times, and tempting as it may seem, don't feed Eddie.
First up is “Phantom of the Opera” from the band's self-titled 1980 debut album. This song should not be mistaken for one of the many metal covers of Andrew Lloyd Webber's song of the same name, because that didn't come out until a few years later. Instead it's the band's own take on the classic French novel about the deformed 'phantom' that haunts the Paris opera. What's interesting about this track is that although it has a bit of a rawer sound to it than band's later work, all of the typical Maiden elements like the galloping bass are clearly there, and are used very effectively to create the impression of being watched and chased by an unknown stranger. “Phantom of the Opera” also marks the Rock Band debut of guitarist Dennis Stratton, who left the band after this album, and of Iron Maiden's original singer, Paul Di'Anno.
The second song in the pack is “The Prisoner”, off of the 1982 album The Number of the Beast, which was the last album with drummer Clive Burr and the first with vocalist Bruce Dickinson. It was inspired by the cult TV series of the same name about a former secret agent who is held prisoner in a mysterious village as his captors try break his spirit by reducing him to nothing but a number. This relatively straightforward song opens with a sound clip from the show to set the mood before Dickinson sings defiantly to his (former) captors over an unrelenting fast drum beat.
Next up is Maiden's version of the Icarus myth in “Flight of Icarus” off of 1983's Piece of Mind. This song was the band's first single that was released in the US, and it's certainly the most “radio-friendly” song in this pack, if only because it's the only song in there that's under 6 minutes in length. It's also the catchiest song of the pack by far, though, that starts strong with a “Holy Diver”-esque guitar riff and will have everyone in the room singing “flyyyy on your way like an eagle” at the top of their lungs every time that chorus pops up. Lyrics-wise, it's interesting that the song seems to imply that Daedalus knowingly sends his own son to his doom by urging him to fly as high as possible. Considering how being a massive jerk to your kids seems to be a requirement for being a dad in Greek mythology, this doesn't seem that unlikely an interpretation.
Continuing the literary theme is a retelling of the epic poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This closing track of the 1984 album Powerslave is as deserving of the term “epic” as its source material, since with a duration of over 13 minutes it's the longest studio song Maiden have ever recorded. Like the poem, the song tells the story of a mariner who shoots an albatross while out on the open seas, which is perceived by the rest of the crew as an ill omen. Despite the fact that the crew makes him wear the dead albatross around his neck as a sign of penance (a fashion statement that oddly enough never really caught on), they soon find themselves assaulted by angry spirits (of dead ornithologists, perhaps?) and even Death itself. Every member of the crew is killed, except for the mariner himself, who is cursed with eternal life and the task to tell his story to everyone he meets, as a warning that messing with an albatross is about as good an idea as hitting a chicken in Skyrim. The story itself may not have been changed much (Dickinson even literally quotes a verse during the eerily quiet middle section of the song), but 13+ minutes worth of gallops, riffs and solos make it clear that even literary classics can still be improved by adding the power of metal.
Rounding out the pack are two songs off of my personal favorite Maiden album, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, which was released in 1988. This was Maiden's seventh studio album and is considered to be the most progressive of their eighties releases, both because of the prominent role of synths and keyboards and because it's somewhat of a concept album. It was inspired by Orson Scott Card's novel Seventh Son and chronicles the life of a “seventh son of a seventh son”, people who according to folklore have been blessed (or cursed) with supernatural powers.
First up is the “ballad” of this pack, “Infinite Dreams”, a song about the seventh son becoming aware of his powers through the ominous dreams that he's having. I've put ballad in quotes because even though this song starts off slow, the tempo is cranked back up in the second half of the song, which contains a couple of fantastic guitar solos as well.
The final song is the title track “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son”, which is more or less a summary of the whole album and the entire story of the seventh son. It's another long epic chock full of dramatic key parts, blistering solos, time signature shifts and vocal acrobatics that finishes the pack in the way that only Maiden can.
So now that you have an impression of the stories behind the songs, it's time to pick up the pack and add some stories of your own, like “the time I choked on the last note of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”” or “the time I nailed that one solo in “Seventh Son” “. Up the irons!