Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is 'A Matter of Life and Death' by Iron Maiden.
Appraising a classic Iron Maiden album usually constitutes a journey back to the '80s when the NWOBHM giants conquered the world with a series of albums that changed metal as we know it. From 1982’s magnum opus 'The Number of the Beast', to 1988’s epic 'Seventh Son of A Seventh Son', one needn’t look any further for a steady supply of classic material.
But what of the band’s second coming? Following a rather lacklustre string of releases in the '90s, the return of both Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith to the band heralded a new beginning for the now six-piece behemoth. Their continued success on stage is matched in equal measure by the fairly consistent output from the studio.
Loyal fans of the ‘classic’ era will no doubt baulk at the thought of selecting an album from this period over, say, 'Powerslave', but this selection satisfies the 10-year rule for the GoldenVault, and has the quality to match. So please. Holster your outrage now.
The band felt so strongly about 2006’s 'A Matter of Life and Death', that they took the 10-song, 72-minute colossus and performed it in its entirety on tour, with only a brief run of classic tracks to close the show. A move like this would usually be open to accusations of self-indulgence if not for the thematic consistency and overall quality of the record.
The threads holding these songs together are fundamental questions about the cost of war and the thin lines of morality. The band do not refrain from asking hard questions. “It brings upon us more of famine, death and war/You know religion has a lot to answer for”, sings Dickinson in For The Greater Good of God. You can just visualise the bible bashers preparing the flames, but just like Sabbath before them, it is not ‘satanic’ to ask a question or to tell a story.
Elsewhere The Longest Day contains the closest thing to musical onomatopoeia that you are likely to find. The band rally around Dickinson’s vivid lyrical detail to create an atmosphere worthy of the horrors of the D-Day landings in Normandy. The psychology of the soldier is captured best in the chorus: “Oh the water is red with the blood of the dead/ But I’m still alive, pray to God I survive”.
The musical arrangements are perhaps the most complex and adventurous the band have ever done. The average time per song is over 7 minutes which leaves plenty of room for thematic exploration. The band had awarded Nicko McBrain the Man of the Match award for his contribution on drums. From keeping the ship steady during the turbulent rhythmic waters of Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, to maintaining the solid backbone that gives The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg its menacing edge, his drumming is crucial.
Janick Gers leads the way on The Pilgrim, which explores more exotic, Eastern flavours. Contrasting with Gers’ frantic, fast-paced guitar work is Adrian Smith, who’s careful guitar work usually generates the most melodic, and thus memorable solos, including on the opening two tracks. Dave Murray’s fingerprints are left all over Benjemin Breeg with a fluid, effortless solo over the bone-crunching selection of bar chords used throughout the song.
The Smith/Harris/Dickinson songwriting team is well represented throughout, but the presence of Steve Harris, as ever, is felt on every track. Nowhere is this felt more acutely than in the albums creative apex, The Legacy. What begins as a strange, nursery rhyme styled exploration of the mental state of returning war veterans, soon enters a vortex of melodic layers and harsh reflections on the condition of mankind. “Why can't we treat our fellow men, With more respect and a shake of their hands?/But anger and loathing is rife, The death on all sides is becoming a way of life”. This is an emotional finale that perfectly encapsulates the bleak tapestry of war and suffering that is explored throughout the album.
Iron Maiden are known for their epic tales and explorations of the mystical and the occult, and while there are plenty of war songs found throughout their back catalogue in various forms, nowhere have they been as successful at conveying the darkness of the subject matter than on “A Matter of Life and Death”. Even the album cover, which sees Eddie leading a team of skeletons towards war, with its dark green hue and nauseating sense of toxicity, is an appropriate visual representation of the ravages of war.
Over time, an album's reputation becomes insulated under its ‘classic’ blanket. Because of this, to even mention 'The Number of the Beast' and 'A Matter of Life and Death' in the same sentence is to invite ridicule. It is sacrilege to even suggest that anything a band has done since its ‘classic’ era is worthy of this status. But why? By all conventional measures, excepting preconceived notions of legacy and influence, 'A Matter of Life and Death' is at least as good as anything that came before it over the previous twenty-plus years. Or, dare we say it, even better?