Review Summary: It seems like Bruce Bruce got the far better end of the bargain after leaving Maiden in '93...
...since, while his former bandmates were floundering with the flat Blaze Bayley on vocals, Dickinson was working with fellow former Maidenite Adrian Smith and awesome guitarist/songwriter Roy Z on an album that would measure up to the best that his old band ever made. Yup, even when placed next to a giant like Somewhere In Time, The Chemical Wedding more than holds its own, due to its melding of Dickinson's powerful voice & Maiden's classic melodies with darker, more ambitious songwriting, not to mention its superior guitarwork, courtesy of Smith and Roy (who I wouldn't mind seeing in some Las Vegas show-act, come to think of it). Thus, The Chemical Wedding side-stepped a fate of becoming just another marginal off-shoot meant to keep its big name busy while he's away from his main band, but instead, holds up as a classic, immensely satisfying album by any standard you wish to use.
While I'm not really a fan of opening track "King In Crimson", which I feel is too blunt musically, without enough soaring melody in its mix, "Chemical Wedding" gets the album on the right track with its epic main riff, trippy, atmospheric guitarwork during the verses, and soothing, inspiring chorus. The irresistibly catchy "The Tower" keeps the album going strong from there, with more superb guitarwork (including great trade-off soloing between Smith & Roy) and another awesome, memorable chorus, and while "Killing Floor" skimps on the melody and becomes another disappointment, fortunately, it is the last such song on Chemical Wedding.
After that is "Book Of Thel", which I honestly think is better than any song Iron Maiden ever made, with its ominous, foreboding clean-guitar intro, hard, punishing riffage, constantly-driving tempo, awesome, extended breakdown section, and incredibly anthemic chorus, which I'm finding extremely difficult to get out of my head. After all that excitement, "Gates Of Urizen" serves as our comedown (in mood, that is, I'm not saying it's a disappointment), with a tragic, relaxed feel, peaceful, ethereal guitarwork, and vivid, mysterious lyrics that really show Bruce experimenting with his more artistic side.
And if all I've written so far hasn't yet convinced you that The Chemical Wedding is a great album, just know that every single song after "Gates Of Urizen" is a hit, from the epic "Jerusalem", to "Trumpets Of Jericho", to "Machine Men", which all help the record to close out as strong as it was (near) its beginning (sorry "King In Crimson"!). Production-wise, you gotta love the gritty-but-slick rhythm guitar sound here, which helps to differentiate Chemical Wedding's sound from anything Maiden ever had, and the two very accomplished guitarists here make everything they play sound great, from the the riffs to the solos, and from the heavy to the clean to even the acoustic stuff. While I may not understand most of (okay, any of
) the lyrics here, I find them all very poetic and intriguing regardless, and very suitable to the album's surprisingly dark mood. Vocals-wise, Dickinson sounds great as usual, from the more subdued, spoken-word-y parts, to his classic, soaring melodies, to the more aggressive work like during the verses of "Trumpets Of Jericho".
So, of all the solo-Dickinson records I've heard so far, this is the one that can hold up the best as its own compelling, cohesive experience overall, rather than just a collection of good songs that happen to be on the same disc (not that I don't enjoy Tyranny Of Souls or (about half of) Accident Of Birth, but they just don't impress like Chemical Wedding does). All in all, this is one damned amazing album, and Bruce needs to pull himself away from Maiden for just a few months, bring Roy Z and Adrian along with him, and give us another one of these. Seriously dude, you don't even have to go out and tour to support it, just so long as you give us another one. Pleeeeeeeeeease??