Review Summary: A truly unique prog rock project spearheaded by the man himself, Bruce Dickinson.
Drawing from the name of Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development division, Skunkworks is an album (and in truth, a band) devoted to the experimental side of Bruce Dickinson's musical career. Moving away from the heavy metal sound which gained Dickinson popularity in Iron Maiden and with earlier solo albums such as Balls to Picasso, Skunkworks creates much more of a progressive rock sound from the first chords of opener "Space Race."
How much does that really mean? Well, this is still Bruce Dickinson. His voice hasn't changed since any of the previous records, and that means there's still plenty of the driving, powerful vocals that earned the man the nickname "Air Raid Siren" ("Meltdown," "Octavia"). However, on this album, there is more restraint exercised with the use of his voice, expanding to some tracks that see very rhythmic, lower range parts ("Headswitch," "I Will Not Accept the Truth"). This helps to illustrate one of the key points of Skunkworks: this is an album that was crafted for a fully fleshed sound, not as a showcase for Bruce's voice. Really, Skunkworks is an album that defines itself through lyrical and musical intricacies not seen anywhere else in Bruce's career.
Perhaps it's the absence of common Dickinson collaborators Adrian Smith and Roy Z that makes this album a beast of its own. The guitar parts of chief collaborator Alex Dickson generally take on a more subdued and moody, almost watery tone throughout the album - a grand contrast to the driving leads of Adrian or Roy. His solos are brief and, generally, less technical than either of the aforementioned guitarists, but always poignant and conducive to the flow of songs such as "Inside the Machine." While sometimes seeming minimalistic, it is through this consistent style that the overall pace of the album is able to vary from the quick, bop-ish pace of songs like "Back from the Edge" to the slow waltz of "Strange Death in Paradise" with relative ease.
This is an album which truly attempted to put a new spin not only on Dickinson's career, but on progressive rock as a whole through the integration of hard rock elements and, of course, vocal melodies only Bruce Dickinson could exact. However, there are a few downfalls - namely several songs where Dickinson repeats the same line over and over ad nauseum ("Solar Confinement," "I Will Not Accept the Truth") and a lack of any spectacular rhythm section presence.
Of course, those few flaws are not to say that the original release of Skunkworks was not a brilliant and overlooked project by Dickinson and company. Now, however, that travesty is almost twofold given that the remastered edition includes more than an EPs worth of unreleased tracks which are mostly as spectacular as the tracks on the album itself ("I'm in a Band with an Italian Drummer" is a joke, and a lousy one at that). This may not be Bruce at his absolute peak, but this is Bruce doing something excellent that is very different from the rest of his catalog. It's definitely worth more than a few listens.