I was born and raised in a small town in New Zealand called Te Puke. It was a great town to grow up in, nestled in the middle of the sunny Bay of Plenty, a smorgasbord of beaches on the coast - Mt Maunganui, Papamoa, Pukehina, Maketu, Little Waihi - and a plethora of lakes only a few miles to the south - Rotoiwi, Rotoma, Blue Lake, Tarawera. Sandwiched between two small cities - Tauranga and Rotorua. Te Puke was also home to about 5,000 souls and with in excess of 10 local churches, it was perhaps one of the most evangelized towns in the country.
The late 80s and early 90s were my formative years, and I grew was raised in a family who ran a youth group in one of these churches. This was an era where the local church - and perhaps the church in general - emphasized some subject matter a lot more than is commonly heard today. For one, there was a consistent reminder of impending apocalyptic end time events. Movies like Thief in the Night kept a healthy respect of how the world could turn against you on a dime. Were you prepared? The fantasy role playing games that we had grown up with were found as inherently evil, and this compelled us to burn our Dungeons and Dragons sets. And then there was rock music. I remember a time where bands like Petra - playing songs with names such as "Praise Ye The Lord" - were even called into question. It was the evocative African jungle rhythms. The minor chords. The lack of respect. The tritone. Praise and worship music was welcome in our house. Christian rock music did end up surviving the cut after some healthy discussion on the topic. But secular music - not a chance. An evil and corrupting influence.
So armed with an education from books such as "Devil's Disciples: The Truth About Rock Music" and videos such as "Hells Bells: The Dangers of Rock and Roll", I was jolted to attention when a teacher's son came to the Te Puke High School staff barbecue in a Number of the Beast tee-shirt. I couldn't believe how evil he, that tee-shirt, this band named "Iron Maiden", and the world in general had become. I remember being careful to give the tee-shirt a 2-metre radius - there was no way could I risk touching that shirt of perdition. (Stuart Fox - if you're out there - I'm sure you're a great guy - no hard feelings, mate!)
My second Iron Maiden encounter ensued when I was 12 years old in my 3rd form science classroom, as one of the more rebellious nerds (apologies this short description really doesn't do you justice Robert Graham - you're much more than that!) produced the album sleeve for "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son". Repulsed by the undead thing holding his own ripped heart out (I later learned it was actually a child, not his heart at all), I was again careful to make minimal physical contact with this accursed lyric sheet. I began to read the lyrics of the first song on the album "Moonchild". Two lines struck me before I had to stop: "Seven holy paths to hell" and "Be the devil's own, Lucifer's my name". Just further confirmation of my initial tee-shirt-based impressions of this band: they were evil squared.
My third and final high-school Maiden-related memory was when a friend told me that a friend told him that he had it on good authority that Iron Maiden did altar calls at the end of their concerts for people to give their souls to the devil. I have no further questions, your honour - case closed! And so it was cut and dried: On the scale of evil from 1 to 10, 1 being Amy Grant and 10 being AC/DC, these guys were about a 13. Top shelf of the evil bureau! And so life continued...for twenty years...
Until the day when colleague of mine and Iron Maiden aficionado Andrew Davey handed me Maiden's 2010 album The Final Frontier. Mostly out of politeness I spun it up, expecting further moral and spiritual problems with the lyrics. After hearing Satellite 15 - and being a sucker for long, building intros - I thought this was rather palatable - but of course this was largely an instrumental. When the actual lyrics started, it would probably be over for me. So then I hear "The Final Frontier" - a song about a spaceman frontier guy missing his family, and in a kind of 80s metal style that I was rather partial to. And where was the evil? My curiosity piqued, I started to explore some of their previous material. Two things struck me as I listened to the Iron Maiden back catalogue:
Very quickly I was becoming a fan. Of Iron Maiden. Whoddathunk?!?!?
And so there I was. Listening to Iron Maiden. Enjoying it. Wondering if this was all "just some strange illusion"! I still didn't like their Eddie-based imagery, and wasn't going to give Moonchild a second listen, but I did give them a good piece of air time, enough to form some opinions on their music:
The 80s rock and metal genres were really my native musical language, and elements of Maiden's style seriously struck the proverbial chord with me:
A good number of their songs, such as Phantom of the Opera, have all four elements!
Iron Maiden's style manages to walk a perfect balance for me between being too dissonant or avant garde on one side, and being too trite and cliched on the other. The right mix of variety and familiarity.
Iron Maiden fans tend to have very strong opinions on the merits of the three singers to front the band: Paul Di'Anno vs Bruce Dickenson vs Blaze Bailey. Personally, I did like the sound of Di'Anno's voice best out of the three. Di'Anno has a little more bite than Dickenson's wail when reaching high notes - but he still maintains an exceptional range. One thing we can all agree on - is that while Blaze tried hard, he had rather difficult boots to fill.
My favourite Maiden album is almost a dead-even tie between Piece of Mind and Somewhere In Time. The first half of Piece is - well - a master Piece! The rest is pretty good as well. Where Eagles Dare, Die With Your Boots On, The Trooper, To Tame a Land, the list goes on. Somewhere In Time is epic in its grandeur, and probably just takes it as my favourite. Soaring vocals, brilliant synth guitar tracks, and a pile of great songs in the classic Maiden style - just has winner after winner: Caught Somewhere in Time, Sea Of Madness, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Stranger in a Strange Land. And all the others as well.
So many great songs. Here's my top ten for today (tomorrow will be different!), most favourite first:
Always hard to discriminate, but I'm putting this down as my favourite. The title but not theme is taken from the movie "They Died With Their Boots On". Starts with one of their best harmonized guitar intros. The pre-pre-chorus (if I can call it that - the "no point asking" bit) modulates - clandestinely and brilliantly - from Em to a C mixolydian mode, and the pre-chorus "If you're gonna die..." cycle through tone apart chords (Bb, C, D, Em) is the perfect build up to the chorus. What makes the chorus awesome is use of bass pedal (held E) while the rhythm guitar runs the full gamut of metal power chords over the top (Em, B, D, Am, C, G, C, D, Am, G, F#m, Em). The guitar solos, particularly the second one, are also beautifully placed and executed. A perfectly crafted piece of art!
All the classic Maiden elements - slow harmonized guitars to start with, galloping verse, and I particularly love how the chorus uses the sharp harmonized guitar arpeggios across the long-held notes in the vocals. In fact this one's all about the harmonized guitar work - it's loaded with it, and it's all class. Also employs the snare flurry followed by brief silence - another signature Maiden technique. It even pulls out my favourite cyclical pop chord progression of I-V-VIm-IV for a few bars of solo. I'm not a distance runner at all, but if I was, this would be in my ear an awful lot: "run...on and on..."
Brilliant harmonized opening riff and then non-stop gallivant for the rest of the song. Twice as epic with the Winston Churchill speech preceding it in their live concert. Best guitar dive bombs ever in the chorus! Even though it's number 3 on my favourite list, I can't believe the producers let Bruce get away with the sloppy vocals in the verses - particularly the second. Just laziness not to hit the top note of the runs correctly - and it's not like he couldn't - he's a phenomenal singer. Always slightly bugs me. Live shows you can pull that sort of shortcut out (and he does) but the studio is the studio. But let's end positively - it's still an awesome song - super solo too!
Die-hard fans often pan this because it's too "poppy". However I like pop, and I like the beautiful harmonized vocals in the chorus, and the simple yet effective Mixolydian riff using the open D string prolifically. And it's got that favourite progression of mine again for the first and third lines of the chorus - this time starting on the minor: VIm, IV, I, V.
From the cool drum intro to the great instrumental passage with the nice machine-gun-like four-quaver E chords in time with snare drum, interspersed with other chords in between - superb effect! The drumming is Nicko McBrain's first studio contribution to the band and I'm not sure he's ever topped it.
Love the harmonized vocal in the chorus, as well as the riff in the verse. Also some "sticking it to the man" Braveheart-style lyrics. Based off an interesting and quirky TV series of the same name.
Awesome rollicking verse, and my pick of the Di'Anno era. Although that amazingly heavy bass riff of Wrathchild really works for me as well. As does the ingenious use of harmonics in the Killers riff.
There's a reason that they play this at every concert. Too good to leave out of any set list. The perfect mix of desperate lyrics set to desperate music.
Fantastic opening riff, and fantastic post-chorus riff. One of the many great gallops in the Maiden catalogue.
An absolute epic out of the modern era. Love the SOS signal on the guitar - genius! Only problem with this is that every time I play it, it seems way too short at a mere 18 minutes.
People hate this song - I love it. My favourite of the Blaze era. Very Mixolydian and straight-ahead AC/DC-style rock. Just needs Dickenson to wail out the melody an octave higher for the last set of repeated lines. This choice is probably a bit of a stitch up - it really should be Stranger in a Strange Land. And it's 11 in a top 10 list. Deliberate. This list goes to 11.
That list doesn't even include the plethora of other great songs that are Afraid To Shoot Strangers, Caught Somewhere In Time, Deja Vu, Infinite Dreams, Total Eclipse, Heaven Can Wait, Sea Of Madness, Wasted Years, Speed Of Light, The Final Frontier, Where the Wild Wind Blows, Stranger in a Strange Land, To Tame a Land, Back In The Village, The Trooper, Different World, Run to the Hills, Wrathchild, The Thin Line Between Love and Hate, or Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
There are probably others.
Given their album imagery and my aforementioned initial experiences with Iron Maiden, I was surprised how mild the lyrics to most songs were. Here are some of the recurring themes I picked up on.
Arguably the one thematic staple for a heavy metal band, and Iron Maiden give death a thorough examination. Even the album titles:
Death is one of life's great mysteries - and I think it is actually healthy to explore and contemplate this mystery. My favourite death-themed song of theirs is "Hallowed Be Thy Name" - a song where a prisoner condemned to the gallows contemplates where his life has gone wrong, what his impending death means for him, how God could let him die, and his belief in a soul persisting beyond death. Epic guitar solo and title borrowed from the iconic Lord's Prayer itself.
A tiny handful of songs on the sordid side of sexuality
Outside of these, there is a distinct lack of the sort of "You Shook Me All Night Long" and "I Was Made For Loving You Baby" style songs. Which are thematically a dime a dozen, so is quite refreshing that Maiden avoided that sort of lyrical rut, deciding to explore other material.
"The only place where you can dream, living here is not what it seems."Another strong theme is the question about reality, about whether there is a greater reality that makes this current one seem illusory (Hallowed Be Thy Name), about confusion between being in a dream or awake state (Heaven Can Wait, Number of the Beast, Dream of Mirrors), about reality being already experienced (Deja Vu), and about alternate realities (Strange World).
- Strange World, Iron Maiden, Iron Maiden
It's quite interesting hearing songs rooted in historical events:
Obviously contemporary literature and cinema was a thematic influence for them, with a lot of material out of the 60s and 70s - a bit before my time!
The meaning of life is a monumental ocean to explore, however the size of the task is no reason to shy away from the plumbing the depths, and Iron Maiden have quite a bit to say on the subject.
"There's got to be more to it than this
Or tell me why do we exist"
- Infinite Dreams, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, Iron Maiden
This realization is great! To insist that there must be a bigger meaning to our existence.
"God give me the answers to my life
God give me the answers to my dreams
God give me the answers to my prayers
God give me the answers to my being"
- No Prayer for the Dying, No Prayer for the Dying, Iron Maiden
No Prayer For The Dying contains a cry to God to fulfill answers to the author's "life" and "being". And God is the perfect destination to direct these big questions to. Proof: just replace the word "God" in those lyrics with anything else: "science", "money", "Dad", "career", "fame". Not only does it sound immediately implausible, but comically so. You would do well to echo this call to God for answers in your own life!
"But wouldn't you like to know the truth
Of what's out there to have the proof
And find out just which side you're on
Where would you end in Heaven or in Hell?"
- Infinite Dreams, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, Iron Maiden
Who wouldn't like to know the truth? Many of us echo those immortal words of Pontius Pilate uttered two millennia ago:
What is truth? In particular, questions of us persisting in heaven or in hell.
Maiden also have a good deal to say about the afterlife, in particular about heaven and hell:
"All of my life I have believed
Judgment of Heaven is waiting for me"
- Judgment of Heaven, X Factor, Iron Maiden
"There'll be penance to pay when it's judgment day
And the guilty'll bleed when the moment comes"
- Sign of the Cross, X Factor, Iron Maiden
These lyrics off the Sign of the Cross album echo the idea of an impending judgment day presented in the Bible:
"...each person is destined to die once, and after that comes judgment."
- Book of Hebrews, chapter 9, verse 27
"They'll be coming to claim, take your soul away."
- Sign of the Cross, X Factor, Iron Maiden
Again a strong parallel with the destiny of those who do not know God, as revealed in this passage of the Bible:
"...those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction."
- Book of Second Thessalonians, chapter 1, verses 8 and 9
A good number of people both with and without faith tend to skirt around the topics of heaven and particularly hell. Not so Iron Maiden - they climb right in. The "prophet" makes this statement in Can I Play With Madness:
"He said, 'do you wanna know the truth, son?
'Lord, I'll tell you the truth'
'Your soul's gonna burn in a lake of fire'"
Can I Play With Madness, Seventh Son of a Seventh son, Iron Maiden
Another lyric strongly echoing this Bible passage:
"Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done...And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."
- Book of Revelation, chapter 20, verses 14 and 15
Could I - should I - a follower of Jesus Christ - be found listening to Iron Maiden? At high school, it was literally the last - and I mean that as in the actual very last - band that I thought I would ever voluntarily listen to. Evil off the scale.
And yet here I am, having listened to all of their music and having enjoyed a great deal of it. And traveling this sonic and spiritual journey has led me to contemplate some of the bigger life questions that Iron Maiden songs proposed. Yes - there was entertaining music, but "there's got to be more to it than this", and perhaps that "more" was for me to share in some of these big questions with the fellow sojourner. If that sojourner is you, then perhaps Iron Maiden wrote these lyrics for you:
"Look for something that is hard to find
Searching somewhere deep inside your mind
Hope you find just what you're looking for
Heaven's waiting with an open door"
- When The River Runs Deep, The Book of Souls, Iron Maiden
Heaven is indeed waiting with an open door! But you have a door to open as well. In the words of Jesus:
"Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends."
- Book of Revelation, chapter 3, verse 20
Should you contemplate opening that door, then you have my sincere encouragement. Let me borrow this line:
"And I will pray for you..."
- The Evil That Men Do, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, Iron Maiden
I have come to understand that meaning in life - a topic that Iron Maiden references time and again - comes with discovering the God who made you, through His Son:
"He gave his life for us
He fell upon the Cross
To die for all of those
Who never mourn His loss"
- For the Greater Good of God, A Matter of Life and Death, Iron Maiden
And enjoying a friendship with God that simultaneously honours and blesses Him, or - in the words of Maiden - "hallows" Him, is perhaps the ultimate purpose of all. The Bible puts it this way:
"And this is eternal life: that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent."
- Book of John, chapter 17, verse 3
And Iron Maiden this way:
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, Hallowed Be Thy Name"