"Up Those Irons Just a Little Bit Higher." Ever notice that--- as lovers of music--- we never forget the first cd, cassette, or album that we ever bought?
For me, I was nine when I bought my first two cassettes. I had, in the past, been GIVEN tapes and albums, but this all about the pride of ownership. My folks had planned a trip to Florida. I wanted to have something new to pop into the old Walkman, so I mowed a few lawns to come up with the last minute expenses--- call it a "fundraiser", if you'd like.
One of those cassettes was Twisted Sister's "Stay Hungry"--- huge in its own day, but a release which didn't stand up all too well, after enough time went by. That having been said, "Burn in Hell" will always have a special place in my heart, but that's another story.
The other cassette was Iron Maiden's "Number of the Beast". Truth be known, I bought this tape solely because of the picture on it. I've loved horror films ever since I can remember, and the cover of "Number of the Beast" is adorned with a cartoonish devil, fire, and a skeletonized monster ( who we all know goes by the name of "Eddie" ). You can plainly understand why the choice would be so obvious for me.
So what's so damned great about "Number of the Beast"?
Not much--- provided that you aren't a Rock aficionado, or otherwise refuse to acknowledge the legitimate and invaluable contributions that heavy metal music has made to Rock over the past three decades.
Assuming that you fall into neither of the aforementioned categories, I am here to tell you that "Number of the Beast" did for heavy metal in the early 1980's what "Johnny B. Goode" did for Rock in the late 1950's--- that is to say--- utterly helped to define it, to shape it, to form it. To pour through the tracks of "Number of the Beast" is like attending a live demonstration of what pure, straight down the line heavy metal is. Even if the music does nothing for you ( perish the thought ), you would still walk away having knowledge of what heavy metal, in its quintessence, should sound like. There is a saying : "All roads lead back to Rome". When dealing with the lineage of heavy metal, Iron Maiden is unquestionably part of that "Rome", and "Number of the Beast" serves as one of the city's most critical blueprints. Another important thing to remember is that, while the band's first two releases were clearly interlaced with some elements of punk music, "Number of the Beast" was heavy metal from start to finish. It was also the band's breakthrough album, topping the U.K. charts, and becoming their first U.S. Top 40 release.
The album breaks out of the gate with "Invaders", a great rocker of a tune about the historic Viking raids that occurred toward the end of the eighth century A.D. "Invaders" showcases a decent musical glimpse of "what's to come" for the listener--- and, in 1982, would have laid to rest any anxieties that Iron Maiden fans of the time were feeling over the departure of lead singer Paul Di'Anno. Bruce Dickinson wastes no time in meting out a healthy dose of his often imitated, yet unmatchable voice. In short : he wails away with a range and vocal mastery that all of today's pop-princess pro tools could not yield up if combined. Fast, frenetic, yet precise--- the music churns as Steve Harris snaps out bass lines that make your head spin like a centrifuge.
"Children of the Damned" is the second course. This song--- much to the disappointment of PMRC activists and talk show hosts--- is in fact based upon the classic sci-fi thriller of the same name, and is not a veiled reference to devil worship. Here, Steve Harris seems to wisely play just below the surface of the music, bringing the gorgeous harmonies of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith's guitar work front and center. The song feeds off of its own momentum, building in a kind of emotional and sonic intensity--- a song which, for my money, is one of the greatest metal songs played in a ballad format that one could treat their ears to. To be sure--- slow--- but far from soft, and one of my favorites off the album.
Up next : "The Prisoner". "We want… information… information… INFORMATION… who are you? The new number two… who is number one? You are number SIX. I am NOT a number, I am a FREE MAN."--- so says the opening voice on this track, in a sound clip extracted from Patrick McGoohan's cult TV series of the same name from the late 1960's. To metal fans in the know, this sound clip is as familiar as the MGM lion's roar is to your average movie watcher. The music itself is nothing short of a heavy metal staple, and boasts a chorus line which arguably contains one of the most infectious shout-along melodies in the history of the genre.
"22 Acacia Avenue" : the next track marks what was the last song on the first side of the original album and cassette--- that's right, once upon a time, there lived these curious things called "albums" and "cassettes" that people played when they wanted to hear music. "22 Acacia Avenue" is part of what is known as the "Charlotte series", set in place as a sequel of sorts to "Charlotte the Harlot", from their 1980 self-titled debut. To summarize, the song deals with the life of a prostitute, the cost of vice, and the narrator's plea to turn the woman away from her debauchery. Steve Harris and Adrian Smith are right on top of their song writing game--- the rhythm section thunders away with a hungry energy, the guitars blaze at full throttle, and Bruce Dickinson's voice circles around the whole damned thing like a bird of prey.
Now for the title track, "Number of the Beast". ( ahem ) "Attention members of the lunatic fringe, this song is not--- I repeat--- IS NOT going to seduce you into performing acts of devil worship, nor will it make you commit suicide, although I have heard reports that, on one occasion, it did drive one rebellious child to refuse to eat all of his vegetables." Let's get something right out on the table--- you get Vincent Price to read from the Book of Revelations, at the opening of your song, and you're going to have to go OUT OF YOUR WAY to make the finished product come out like garbage. Period. Luckily, this legendary introduction was not put to record in vain. "Number of the Beast" boasts some solid riffing--- riffing that I believe furnishes one with a perfect glimpse into the classic NWoBHM style, and I frankly couldn't imagine anything other than what Clive Burr comes up with behind the drum kit being played for this song. It is beyond complimentary with Harris' bass line.
… and the hits keep coming in the form of "Run to the Hills". Music that is epic in both sound and feel, this song is quite possibly the "Maiden National Anthem". Opening up with a smattering of "showdown-shootout" percussion, mixed in with some gorgeous guitar string bending, "Run to the Hills" was the single that was released before the album… and with good reason. From a song writing perspective, it is probably one of the most commercially accessible songs the band has ever written. Lyrically, the song delves into another period of history--- one which narrates the merciless slaughter of the Native Americans at the hands of American colonists--- told from each side, that of the natives, and that of the soldier. With "Run to the Hills", we find yet another metal staple. If you purport yourself to be a fan of the genre, and could not identify this song within fifteen seconds, then your credentials are in DIRE question.
"Gangland" : the only song on the album which Steve Harris had no part in the authorship of and, interestingly enough, the song off of "Number of the Beast" that usually gets tossed by the wayside. How would YOU like to be the song in between "Run to the Hills" and "Hallowed Be Thy Name"? No thanks. All kidding aside, I believe that is a significant reason why this song is often treated like the illegitimate child of this record. That having been stated, I find some of the best percussion, contained in this record, on "Gangland". Pity it is often overlooked.
"Hallowed Be Thy Name" : the ESSENCE of heavy metal. No questions asked. If aliens landed on Earth tomorrow, and said to me "we want you to show us what heavy metal is", this is the first song they would hear. Every preconception that defines the sonic shape and structure of what classic metal is and does is contained in this song. I swear it. What you hear in this track is a crystallization of the direction that true-blue metal would take until the 1990's. With a haunting, gloomy start, and dueling harmonies, Bruce Dickinson weaves a tale of a condemned man, and the thoughts that race through his mind as his execution approaches. The music is timeless, memorable, and Dickinson, with awe-inspiring strength and range, spins the words as if a Poe narrative were being recited by an operatic madman.
Taken from the perspective of Rock, I give this record is a solid A-.
Taken from the perspective of heavy metal… A+… and how often do you think I'd do THAT?
Thus concludes my little piece. Hope you've gotten a thing or two out of it.
Iron Maiden - Number of the Beast
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