Thursday, February 7, 2013

Iron Maiden - Fear of the Dark

A failed experiment is still a good result

I know this probably sounds strange, but Fear of the Dark was actually my introduction to our gods that are Iron Maiden. I mean, I knew about the other albums, I knew the choruses to "Run to the Hills" and "Number of the Beast" from a young age like every child with good parents should, but I'd never heard of albums like Seventh Son of a Seventh Son prior to my pre-teen years.  I've mentioned it a thousand times before, but my early taste in music was largely the work of my mother.  She was less into Maiden than she was, say Dio and Metallica in the 80s, but an appreciation was there nonetheless (likely due to the fact that Iron Maiden was and is utterly ubiquitous in the scope of metal fandom).  I was born a little over a month before No Prayer for the Dying came out, so the fact that Fear of the Dark was the only Maiden album I could find in her CD stash during one of my 11 year old raids makes sense considering it was around that time she'd stopped buying tapes and recovered from taking care of an infant.  I remember looking at the cover art and thinking "Well this is weird, didn't their mascot have long hair?" (a full eighteen years after his first haircut, of course), and figured oh well, it's probably cool so I'll just take it up to my room and listen to it while I do my homework.

Long story short, I didn't think it was great, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  Now, eleven years later, my opinion has actually managed to soften.  Seriously, the more I listen to this album, the more I like it.  I'd always claimed that this was the last Maiden album worth listening to, but I didn't consider it one of their "good" ones until recently.  Everybody knows the dichotomy of last two albums of Dickinson's first run (NPftD was bad because it was homogenous and bland while FotD was bad because of wildly inconsistent songwriting and an identity crisis), and maybe I'm just a total fanboy, but I actually really like some of the songs that don't sound like Iron Maiden.  I honestly really dig "From Here to Eternity" and "Fear is the Key".  No joke.

Maybe I'm not very harsh on this album because I have a nostalgic tie to it, I won't deny that that is a strong possibility.  But let's face a sad truth about the band really quickly; as great and near flawless as those seven albums from the 80s are, we've heard them all no less than four squillion times by now.  In 1992, we'd already heard them two trillion times.  We know who Iron Maiden is, we know what they sound like.  And whether or not this album was a musical success, I give it a ton of respect for at least attempting to do something drastically different with their formula for a change.  I mean yeah, Somewhere in Time and Seventh Son introduced light synths and took on a much more grand atmosphere, but they still fell in line with what the band had been sounding like since 1983.  Even No Prayer was basically just ten filler tracks in a row, with only the odd moment of their past brilliance here and there (Say what you will, I love both "Tailgunner" and "Holy Smoke").  But now we've reached 1992, and you know what?  This is new.  This is something entirely different.  I mean yeah, "Weekend Warrior" is an awful butt rock song and "The Apparition" is annoying but damn at least they're not "The Assassin" or "Hooks in You".  Most fans agree they ran out of good ideas when the 80s ended, but at least here they're new bad ideas instead of incredibly safe, faceless ones like the previous album.  Sometimes they strike out, but at least they're swinging for the fences.

And when they connect, they really strike gold.  The title track is a classic and a live staple, everybody knows that, and it's definitely deserving of the honor with which it's been bestowed.  When the band does one of their tours where they say they'll only play old songs that everybody already likes, "Fear of the Dark" is the only track from the 90s that will consistently find itself in the setlist.  It's a big, anthemic number, with a great buildup, excellent singalong melody, and a dark overtone that few of their songs really capture.  It's the "epic" of this album, and like most of its predecessors, it's easily one of the highlights of the album and one of the band's best songs.  I'm also a gigantic fan of the opening track, "Be Quick or Be Dead".  The fact that this isn't a live staple is proof that there is no God.  This is the closest they every got to recapturing the high speed magic that is "Aces High", with the only real difference being the fact that the vocals are more subdued here.  I love it when Maiden really cuts loose and delivers a high-octane barnburner like this, and really wish they'd do it slightly more often than "once every six years".

Those are the only two truly classic songs, unfortunately, though most of the rest at least rank as "good" at the very least.  "Afraid to Shoot Strangers" is one of the fan favorites and one of the two songs most people can admit to liking from this album without getting weird looks.  Personally, I can't fully get behind it.  Of its nearly seven minute runtime, I can only say I adore a little over half of it.  That long, moody buildup just goes on for far too long and does nothing to build up the rest of the song.  I love how the main melody manages to sound remorseful, I love how the fast part is basically just the big epic release from "Hallowed Be Thy Name", I love the ludicrously over the top guitar solo, I love everything about it except the first two and a half minutes.  "Judas Be My Guide" is another great one that deserves more love than it gets, it does a fantastic job of conjuring the atmosphere from Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and combines it with the hard-hitting straightforwardness of Powerslave.  It's not as good as "Be Quick or Be Dead", but it's another one of the forgotten songs that would be more fondly remembered if it were placed on a different album.

Now, here's where I get hypocritical, did you notice something about those four mostly-great tracks I mentioned?  Every last one of them was compared to something the band did in the 80s, right after I spent all that time going on about how I respected them for trying new things.  That's because even though I respect and support the band trying something new, there's really no denying that what they did in the 80s was the pinnacle of their career, so when they reach back to that, obviously it's going to be more effective than their newer, more commercial approach.  There are two tracks that really exemplify this idea, and those are "From Here to Eternity" and "Weekend Warrior".  The former is good, because it has a lot of energy and a fun, catchy chorus, whereas the latter sucks because it sounds like a phoned-in Van Halen b-side that the band didn't even fully believe was good enough to be on the album.  "Weekend Warrior" is pretty much the Scrappy Doo of Iron Maiden's career, because it really kind of knocked the band down to its knees, castrated it mightily, and they've since been trying to recover, and never fully succeeding.  Yeah, yeah, I know the near-perfect title track follows it, but let's just agree that "Weekend Warrior" is a big, steaming pile of spunk that the band pretty much chokeslammed their own career into.

There are a few other strange experiments, like the country-style groove that might as well jump out of a closet while yelling "BOO" in "Fear is the Key".  Despite clashing horribly with the great, mid paced brooding of the opening riff, I still really like this song.  It's Maiden trying something new, it only halfway succeeds but it's a valiant effort if nothing else.  "Chains of Misery" and "The Fugitive" are two other kinda bad butt rock songs that work for what they are, despite really not being inspired or anything.  I know it's kind of a cop out to do what I've been doing here (just pointing out certain tracks and explaining what they sound like in comparison to the rest of the album), but with something as wildly inconsistent and all over the board as Fear of the Dark, there's really no other way to do it.  The only real constants throughout the album are the fact that the choruses are all normally pretty weak (barring "Be Quick or Be Dead" and "Fear of the Dark" of course) and the guitars really don't do anything to stand out amongst the pack, a giant rarity for a Maiden album.

The more I listen to this, the more I like it, but at the same time this is an album I "respect" more than I "love".  If No Prayer for the Dying was the band half-hearting a ton of filler tracks because they'd used up most of their good ideas, then Fear of the Dark is the result of the band just throwing out a bunch of random shit and anything they could think of in a haze of incense smoke and surrounded by scores of empty beer cans.  Only a couple of these ideas really stick, but I applaud the band for trying, if nothing else.  For most fans, this is probably skippable, if only due to the fact that there are only a handful of bona-fide Iron Maiden classics, but if you're okay with an interesting failure, then this is definitely worth checking out.  I don't consider this a failure, since I actually like a lot of the songs here that are crapped on ("Fear is the Key", "Childhood's End", "From Here to Eternity"), but I do understand that this was the last stumble before falling flat on their face for the next twenty years.

RATING - 73%

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