Review Summary: The peak of Maidens achievement, which is only recently being challenged.
In retrospect, this was the end of an era for Maiden. After this seminal release, Adrian Smith left and the 90s loomed. Cue the biggest regression of a band in history, which is only just being rectified in the noughties as we speak. However, what better way to sign off their remarkable decade, than a progressive album combining all the genius of Powerslave and Piece of Mind with the experimental Somewhere in Time?
The thing that stands out most for me about the CD is how tight it is. 8 tracks, 8 killers. A problem I have found with even the most renowned Maiden albums is their liability to contain a few filler tracks. Not on this album. A concept album of epic proportions, it doesn't allow anything that isn't essential to be heard.
The story of the album, from what I can gather from the lyrics, is as follows. Mother saves son despite the Devil's best wishes, or at least has son, who will grow to be insanely powerful due to his being the 'Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.' Over the course of the album, he is tormented by dreams, realises his power, becomes sickened by humanity as he fights with his brothers and good and evil fight for his soul, and dies/kills himself before he causes the destruction of abolutely everything.
While the plot might sound like a self indulgent fantasy epic, it provides the perfect foil for the epic music. Moonchild is the perfect opener, seemlesly gliding from sublime acoustic ballad into sharp edged rocker. Narrated by te devil, it is surprisingly sinister, and right from the off shows how the synths have been utilised to enhance the music rather than detract.
Of the four top ten singles (a great feat considering this is a concept album from a metal band), the only one potentially annoying is Can I Play With Madness, and this is only due to the upbeat feel caused by its major tonality. The storming riff and iconic solo though make the track a classic. The other three, Infinite Dreams, the Evil That Men Do and The Clairvoyant are at no risk of such quibbles. Magnificently deceptive riffs (just listen to the Evil That Men Do's verse riff) give way to chorus' most bnds would kill for. That every one of them is as welcome live as Hallowed Be Thy Name belies their quality.
And the rest? Well, only the Prophecy feels slightly contrived, but remains a brilliant track, with Bruce's sometimes questionable vocals making the track exquisite. Otherwise, Seventh Son of a Seventh defines epic (try out the orchestral mid) and Only the Good Die Young could quite easily have made the fith single, with its tragic lyrics and pounding chorus rounding off the album perfectly.
The band, to a man, put in the performances of their lives. Exemplary playing from Smith and Murray, who by now might as well be connected at the hip their understanding of each other's playing is so amazing (just listen to the twin guitar melodies and solos), typifies all songs on this album. It is made all the more remarkable by the fact that their playing is not overshadowed by the addition of the synth. In fact, I feel it has never stood out more. Steve Harris meanwhile, in both songwriting and his bass, excels even his god like standards, and his bass fills the mix with a thudding and complete sound.
Nicko and Bruce on the other hand, the only members whose performances have been called into question over the years, are both faultless. Bruce fills the record with charisma, and is pitch perfect. If you want to see how good his vocals are by comparison, all you need to do is listen to the next Maiden record, No Prayer for the Wicked, and wonder how on earth he regressed so much. Nicko keeps the rhythms driving and precise, but not to the extent that it feels like a click track orchestrated the songs.
All the Maiden trademarks are on this album, but it is here that their momentary evolution is best exemplified. It only makes their sudden regression all the more shocking, and this pinnacle of their achievement thus far, all the more special.