Iron Maiden

Almost 40 years!

Actually I went back and read the ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ because of Iron Maiden, didn’t pay much attention to that chapter during middle-school years. Nor would I have bothered about Aldous Huxley’s works or the Greek mythology of Icarus, or paid attention to Winston Churchill’s famous WWII speech. The list is endless. Folklore, history, culture, mythology – Iron Maiden discography was probably better than all the high school textbooks, combined. So, if not for this band, some of us metal-heads might be even less civilized. Guess its music at its entertaining-enlightening best.

The band also fits the ‘gateway drug’ definition, accessible and yet heavy. Extended exposure simply leads to obsession with heavier sounds. Steve Harris bassline along with that dual guitar harmony, quite an enticing blend of grind and melody – innocent minds hooked forever.

Listening to “Strange World” or “Running Free” is actually like time travel, to simpler days, when we weren’t buried beneath ten thousand metal sub-genres. I am not advocating romanticism for good ol days. But, sometimes it’s just healthy to head-bang to “Wrathchild”, instead of three dozen time signatures per sec inhumanity.

My first Iron Maiden concert was probably the most brutal one too, took a lot of bruises to reach the second row. Not to mention, the dizziness due to tropical summer and alcohol induced dehydration. But, even during the encore, the energy was off the charts. Not every day you get to hear a thirty five thousand strong coordinated chant — “Hallowed Be Thy Name” — “Hallowed Be Thy Name”…. Steve Harris and Bruce Dickinson both just stood there, stunned at this spectacle. You can tell this was unique; these heavy metal veterans were completely overwhelmed by the response. At least for me, in spite of the countless concerts over the years, this remains one of those vivid heavy metal moments.

De-fexxx666 [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons

Progression

Might sound like a cliché, but progression is the only constant in life, and this is especially true in music. In fact, incessant change is the norm in prog. For instance, Dream Theater used to define progressive metal. But it’s safe to say that benchmark is now comfortably buried — under layers of odd time signatures, robotic precision and polyrhythms.

But change is also an obvious broader pattern, manifesting over time and at numerous levels.

Both artists and their listeners tend to evolve, often in different trajectories. We are all simply wired differently and more importantly — we constantly learn. At least most of us do. In that sense, it’s also impossible to listen to the same song twice – because each iteration would be perceived through a slightly different neural filter.

Nothing illustrates this more than going back and listening to our decade old favorites. This will inevitably reveal a new facet to the very same sound, something which was never obvious before. Essentially, artistic experiences tend to forge new sets of mental connections, and this way we progressively develop our own individual palate.

A fellow metal-head and a Progarchy reader had recently managed to summarize her own progression, and that also in just about six artists. This sort of prompted me to jot down and share my own seven song list. Needless to say, Powerslave to Funeral Fog took a few years.

Brave New World

Superficial differences aside, ‘Brave New World’ is quintessential Iron Maiden. Those references to English literature, sober yet deceptively dark overtones, and compositions bordering on progressive metal. Not to mention the galloping bass lines, rich melodic riffs and vocals absolutely operatic – all essential Iron Maiden signatures.

For a song named after the early 70s British horror flick, The Wicker Man might seem deceptively upbeat. But, Brave New World is straight disturbing —“Dying swans twisted wings, beauty not needed here.” — seems to mirror Aldous Huxley’s own dystopian vision. Accessible, and threateningly catchy choruses – “Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, you’ve got to kill to stay alive” – illustrates just one of those reasons why Iron Maiden is still that dominant heavy metal life form on this planet.

How a whimsical – “Is this a new reality. Something makes me feel that I have lost my mind” – effortlessly regresses into more horrific hues – “Lost in a dream of mirrors, lost in a paradox. Lost and time is spinning, lost a nightmare I retrace” – is baffling.

Azazel — The fallen angel, sets the tone for a mercilessly melodic Out Of The Silent Planet. Lyrics are not exactly C. S. Lewis’s fiction, but it’s a blend of catchy riffs and vivid imagery. “Withered hands, withered bodies begging for salvation. Deserted by the hand of Gods of their own creation.” — anticipating an eventual apocalypse — “Nations cry underneath decaying skies above. You are guilty, the punishment is death for all who live.” Finally, leaving the listener reeling with a devastating chorus – “Out of the silent planet, dreams of desolation. Out of the silent planet, Come the demons of creation”.

A markedly refined take is reserved for the end. Actually, any civilized mind would have already pondered —“When a person turns to wrong, is it a want to be, belong? –– “But what makes a man decide, take the wrong or righteous road” — indeed “There’s a grey place between black and white.” More decisively — “But everyone does have the right to choose the path that he takes”.

The artistic sensibilities that shaped Iron Maiden are all being subtly explored here – “We all like to put the blame on society these days. But what kind of good or bad a new generation brings. Sometimes take just more than that to survive be good at heart. There is evil in some of us no matter what will never change.” Essentially, where others adopt contentious naive stands, Iron Maiden simply enlightens, illustrating that not so thin line separating the rare eminent from the mediocres.

Image Attribution:
By Raph_PH (IronMaidenO2_270517-24) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

On a Roll – 2015 Prog In Review

So you’re watching a baseball game. The pitcher for one of the teams has yet to give up a hit. In fact, he’s retired every batter that he’s faced, giving up not so much as a walk. And even as the game stretches into the latter innings, he’s not getting tired. He’s struck out six batters in a row and is just completely shutting down the opposition in a manner reminiscent of the way noted Rush fan Randy Johnson used to do. You look at that guy and think “man, he’s on a roll.”

Maybe it’s a team that has won a number of games in a row. Maybe it’s a business leader who has led his company into the stratosphere with one popular product offering after another.

Or maybe you are a fan of prog rock. In fact, you probably are just that if you’re reading this. You look back a few years ago, at 2012, and realize it was a good year, producing a number of excellent albums, including Echolyn’s “Windowpane” album, Glass Hammer’s incredible Perilous, and Gazpacho’s March of Ghosts (highly underrated if you ask me). Then 2013 comes along, and you think, “what an amazing year,” as your album collection grows with releases such as Ayreon’s The Theory if Everything, The Tangent’s magnum opus Le Sacre Du Travail, and Haken’s outstanding The Mountain. There is no letup at all in 2014, more new releases, many of them are “must haves”, such as IQ’s The Road of Bones and Cosmograf’s Capacitor among them. And now, here we are in 2015, and you’ve been deluged with more incredible music in what has been yet another great year in prog. And you think, “man, prog on a roll!”

Indeed it is.

Each December for the last several years, we at Progarchy have gushed about the abundance of great prog music coming out and the health of the current prog scene. We are getting to be like a broken record. But can you blame us? And would you rather it be different, like the early 90’s or so when the prog light was a dimly flickering candle?

What else can I say? Well, I can start talking about the albums.

Album of the Year:

In a year of stellar releases, my hands down album of the year with a bullet is Riverside’s utterly brilliant Love, Fear, and The Time Machine. I simply cannot overstate how much I love this album, or how good it is. Riverside has tamed much of their heavy metal side, moving in more melodic direction – while still retaining the dynamism and overall sound Riverside-coverthat is unmistakably Riverside. While the album still has some of their trademark moodiness, the darkness has been replaced with a mature, tempered, and realistic optimism that grows throughout. This album was quite a leap for Riverside in terms of direction, and yet they pulled it off flawlessly.

Other Notables:

Most others have put Steven Wilson’s Hand Cannot Erase at the top of their album of the year charts. I can’t do that, and I’m probably not quite asSteven_Wilson_Hand_Cannot_Erase_cover

much of a Wilson fan as most of the hardcore proggers are today. That being said, this was a pretty good album for me, if a bit depressing in subject matter. But musically, Wilson and his band are firing on all cylinders. Home Invasion/Regret #9 stands out as my favorite track on the album, although you really have to listen to the whole thing to get the gist.

One of my new discoveries this year was Nad Sylvan, and his excellent solo album Courting the Widow. Sylvan’s album builds on the album_coverclassic/symphronic prog sound of an earlier era, and yet sounds fresh and modern. It works especially well since Sylvan’s natural singing voice seems to be a perfect mix of Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, making it no mystery as to why Steve Hackett selected him as a touring vocalist. Standout tracks on this album include the title track, Echoes of Ekwabet, and the excellent epic, To Turn The Other Side.

Gazpacho didn’t wait long after their release of Demon in 2014, coming back this year with an equally strange album Molok. Like its predecessor,

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this album is very strange – but don’t mistake that for a lack of quality. All the Gazpacho trademarks are there, the meticulous subtlety, the unusual structures that take time to reveal themselves, and the thin veneer of simple riffs on top with a staggering complexity underneath. Conceptually, this album is not easy to explain, and it’s best to read the band’s explanation put up on their Facebook page. It’s hard to pick out a favorite track since the album has to be taken as a whole … although Molok Rising provides a strong and satisfying end to the album.

Everything Arjen Anthony Luccassen touches turns to awesome, and The Diary by his project with Anneke van Giersbergen, The Gentle Storm. This Gentle Stormwas really two albums in one, a heavy version (Storm) with all the songs “metaled up” by Arjen, and a lighter version (Gentle) which relied more heavily on acoustic instruments and folky sounds. Both are excellent and it’s tough to pick on. Shores of India seems to work best in the Gentle form, while The Storm, appropriately, seems to work best in the Storm version.

I’m going to go slightly off script here into the realms of heavy metal, because my list would not be complete without a mention of Iron Maiden’s stunning album, The Book of Souls. Why am I only slightly off script? book of soulsBecause this album is the proggiest thing Iron Maiden has ever done, even though it retains their previous heavy metal elements. While this album is excellent from start to finish, the boys of Maiden are at their strongest here when they are on their proggiest – the 10 minutes plus title, track, the 13 minutes plus The Red and the Black, and the closing, 18 minute epic, Empire of the Clouds. For the shorter, more familiar Maiden, Speed of Light is a particularly strong track. I’ve always defended the members and the music of Iron Maiden as being more intelligent and thoughtful than that of their heavy metal peers, and this album is the best evidence yet of that. This is truly a crowning achievement on an amazing career.

Moving back into prog-proper territory, Andy Tillison and his band The Tangent followed up 2013’s outstanding Le Sacre Du Travail with an equallytangent1 excellent release, A Spark in the Aether. One of the things that really comes through on this album (and makes it so excellent) is that is sounds like Tillison was having tongs of fun in making it. The joy really shines through on one of my favorite tracks, Codpieces and Capes, a celebration of prog’s glorious past. Even better is The Celluloid Road, Andy’s insightful look at America through the lens provided in film, i.e. movies that is. It’s the highlight of an album full of highlights. Oh, and speaking of America …

Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue:

This year was an exceptional year for prog from this side of the Atlantic, Echolyn Coverbetter than I can remember in some time. For one, Echolyn returned with I Heard You Listening, which more or less picks up where they left off in 2012. There were no bad tracks on the album, but Messenger of All’s Right, Different Days, and All This Time We’re Given were especially strong.

District 97 returned with their eclectic and somewhat heavy brand of prog, bringing us In Vaults. The early part of this release starts out sounding similar to their previous release, Trouble With Machines, but gradually District-97-In-Vaults-e1433201699982evolves into new territory. I absolutely love the leadoff track, Snow Country, and am also partial to A Lottery and On Paper. The playing is top notch throughout. But what I like best about this album is the outstanding vocal performance of Leslie Hunt, who continues to make a strong case for the title of First Lady of Prog. Whether it’s her breathy jazz phrasing, her power vocals, or something in between, she hits it perfect every time.

Our favorite boys from Joisey, 3rd Degree, came out Ones and Zeros: Vol. 1. 3rdegreeI’m hoping that the Vol. 1 part of the title is an implicit stating that there will be a Vol. 2, because I definitely want more of this. A concept album that explores our relationship to technology (the digital world in particular), the lyrics are both clever and insightful. This one will be interesting to come back to five or ten years hence to examine the lyrics/concept in the context of how times will change.

The Ted Leonard era of Spock’s Beard continued apace with The Oblivion Spocksbeard_theoblivionparticle_coverParticle. I won’t mince words here – I think Leonard is the best vocalist Spock’s Beard has ever had, and I love where they are going with him at the mike. Bennett Built a Time Machine is an excellent track, and I love Minion as well (would have liked the move Minions to have worked a little prog into their soundtrack with this one …). They musicianship is as stellar as ever, and combined with Leonard’s voice, the Beard sounds as good as ever to these ears.

One final entry here is Dave Kerzner’s New World. Now technically, this david-kerzner-new-world-deluxealbum was initially released in 2014, but after many had already compiled their year-end best-of lists. It didn’t seem fair to me that such a fine album wouldn’t make the cut simply because of the timing of its release. So I’m going to include it here as a 2015 release and put it on my list – and on the merits it most definitely belongs.

And no, I haven’t forgot about Glass Hammer’s highly acclaimed Breaking of the World. But I must confess I haven’t gotten around to listening to this one yet. So much prog, so little time.

So another great year is almost in the books. What will 2016 bring? Well, if current trends continue, it’s going to be a pretty good year. For one, we will probably get the DVD of The Theater Equation, and I’m very much looking forward to that. Let’s just hope things stay where they’re at – on a roll.

Science Fiction, Prog, and Prog Metal: A Lecture

Arjen, Lego Style
Arjen, Lego Style

I had the great privilege of lecturing for John J. Miller’s college course, Hon252, THE GOOD, THE TRUE, AND IRON MAIDEN.  If you’re interested, here’s my lecture on “To Tame a Land,” and the connection between science fiction and progressive music.  From Yes and ELP to Cosmograf and Aryeon.

iron miller

The prog of the future!

Whoa, does this ever look awesome…

prog

And how about that headline at the top center?

“Steve Harris: ‘I remember the day Gabriel left Genesis. I was devastated.’ Iron Maiden man reveals his prog rock heart!”

Indeed. You can heart that prog heart beating loud and clear on the new Iron Maiden album, The Book of Souls.

In my humble opinion, it is the greatest achievement of Iron Maiden’s career.

The songs are uniformly excellent, from start to finish, and there’s so much prog splendor in the instrumental attacks that you can scarcely catch your breath.

If you haven’t heard it, download it today and make it part of your regular playlist!

It’s awesome. And now it’s very cool to know that the inspiration of Genesis had a remote hand in it…