Review Summary: An astounding album of magnificent scope, but with a few (admittedly very good) filler tracks which reduce its impact slightly.
Number of the Beast launched Maiden into the big time, but as we know today, no matter how good your breakthrough album is, you've got to back it up or you will fade into obscurity and become a forgotten name people can't quite remember. Maiden first proffered piece of mind, proof that they were not by any means likely to be going anywhere. But it was Powerslave, and the beyond gargantuan World Slavery tour that followed, that proved Maiden had truly arrived and would remain one of the seminal bands of the 80s.
It marked a huge step forward for Maiden, and whilst remaining very loyal to the Maiden sound prior Somewhere in Time, was possibly the most ambitious album they have released musically. The reasons for this are the closing two tracks more than anything else. Up until the title track, what Maiden has produced is an excellent hard rocker, which does admittedly not stray too far from the format used for NOTB and POM. Then we have Powerslave, a ludicrously heavy song which practically bleeds sand. The Egyptian influenced song is a massive journey, despite being a mere six minutes 47 seconds, and has possibly Bruce’s finest performance to date on record.
But to view the next track in its right light, we need to put it into context. Before Powerslave, the longest song Maiden had recorded was to Tame a Land, clocking in at 7 minutes 25. So, listeners at the time might well have been forgiven for asking where on earth this epic song based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic poem had come from, and why was it twice as long as anything Maiden had done before?
All would have been answered on one listen. Because Rime of the Ancient Mariner was, and still is, Steve Harris' finest hour (well, 13 minutes), in which he pulls out pounding riffs and haunting echoes, puts them next to each other and fashions a masterpiece. Taking enough of Coleridge’s original poem to remain credible and help English students bluff their way through a course pretending they'd read it (trust me, its all there), it somehow tells the story in more engaging fashion than the poem and continually varies the music to meet the mood of the poem. Brilliant.
But an album is more than two stellar songs. What is the rest of Powerslave like, and does it live up to the finale? Well, yes and no. The singles from the album, Aces High and 2 Minutes to midnight, both satisfy the need to for hard edged rockers. The former, yet again evidence of the albums ability to evoke a place or time, creates images of fighters soaring through the air, fighting for king and country, accompanied by the equally soaring chorus and Adrian Smith’s bizarrely effective guitar work. The latter, with its sly riff and blues influence, portrays the band as a much more sarcastic beast, with its video of self indulgent evil leaders and wry lyrics. Losfer Words (Big ‘orra), odd title aside, displays the guitar qualities of Murray and Smith brilliantly, and has the honor of being the last Maiden instrumental.
The middle of the album though, is pretty unspectacular. It is of a remarkably consistent quality, but no the quality of what bookends it. None of Flash of the Blade, The Duelists or Back in the Village will make you sit up and marvel at the creative inventiveness of the band. There are even some annoying moments in them, such as Flash of the Blade’s backing vocals in the chorus, and Back in the Village’s lack of a memorable chorus altogether.
Production on the album too is not the best Maiden has produced. Aces High might be a spectacular song, but suffers from lack of low end during the main riff in a way the Trooper did not. When listening to later material where synths become prevalent, it is remarkable how much of a difference they make filling the sound.
These problems though, are not nearly enough to stop the album becoming one of Maidens finest. Though it has too many problems to be a stone cold classic, it remains one of Maidens best and most ambitious moments, with songs such as Powerslave and Rime of the Ancient Mariner displaying the full scope of Maidens capabilities.