Review Summary: There's a great album inside of here, somewhere.
Like it or not, Fear of the Dark
is an important chapter in the mighty metal band's history. It marked the end of an era, an ending nobody saw: Bruce Dickinson
would be recording his last album with the band for eight years, before he pursued a solo career. Of course, nobody knew it at the time, and it wasn't announced until the album's tour came to a close in Fall 1992; but many even speculated that as grunge bands such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and the explosion of hip hop began, Maiden had gone as far as they could go. That, or they could take the Metallica route and pop-ify their sound, continue selling out stadiums, and gain plenty of radio attention.
But if you were to suggest that to Steve Harris, he'd laugh right in your face. In fact, he even confirmed this in an interview:
"As soon as someone else said 'You're good but you should go more commercial' or 'You're good but you should cut your hair' we said 'Oh, all right', and walked out."
Fear of the Dark
is a testament to Steve's insistence on staying true to the Maiden name, and predictably, it sounds exactly like you'd expect a Maiden album to sound like. Of course, it's different from their eighties sound, but it still has the nooks and crannies that make a Maiden record a Maiden record. Problem is, the band were still somewhat stuck in a rut that they fell in with their previous album, No Prayer For the Dying
. Obviously it's an improvement, and it has a number of tunes that could be considered classics, with no tracks I'd dream of calling bad. But for every track that's a classic, there's a track that, while good, doesn't leave a lasting impression.
The album's opener, "Be Quick or Be Dead", gets everything going in an energetic manner. Opening with a drumroll, a riff that would make Adrian Smith proud, and a soaring screech that welcomes the listener into its fiery grip, "Be Quick or Be Dead" is a mighty badass mofo of an angry tune. Bruce's vocals are suitably harsh and raspy, and the lyrics are an attack at the British government for allowing political scandals to happen at the time (including the collapse of the BCCI). Bearing two solos and a fast pace, this quickly became a classic in the hearts of Maiden fans everywhere, and it isn't hard to discover why. Other classics include "Afraid to Shoot Strangers", an anti-war power ballad that is a true tearjerker that places the listener in the mind of a soldier at war, with a heavy middle section and lyrics that even ponder the thought that while war is hell and people die, sometimes it's the only way to to about things. The song attracted criticism from marines for the line: "But how, can we let them go on this way?/The Reign of terror, corruption must end/And we know deep down there's no other way/No trust, no reason or no one to say
", as it glamourized war to them, but to me, I always took it as the loss of hope and the acceptance that war will last as long as the earth does. "Chains of Misery" is a fun tune that deserved to be a hit, with 2nd person lyrics and a catchy chorus that has the power to make you sing along, and "Judas Be My Guide" is one of Maiden's catchiest tunes in their career, a song that ponders the popular belief that Judas went to hell for betraying Jesus. Arguably it's pretty chirpy for a song with quite the subject matter, but it works and would have been great live.
And of course, I had to reserve a separate paragraph for the eponymous track, which has remained a staple for all but one tour since 1992. At seven minutes, "Fear of the Dark" is a fun and catchy singalong tune with lyrics about a man who suffers from nyctophobia, but it goes much deeper than that- he's under the impression that someone is watching him, even when he admits he knows that there isn't. But the lyrics are clearly an afterthought when the music is this impressive and, dare I say, epic. It's no wonder people even sing along to the SOLOS at the show.
And for the rest of the album? It's good, but only just. Inside of this album, there's a great album just waiting to claw its way out. None of the remaining tracks are bad, but they don't have any classic power. I do indeed like songs like "From Here to Eternity", "The Apparition", and "Weekend Warrior", all considered to be among the worst of Maiden's catalogue. "The Apparition" is my favourite of the three mentioned, with a catchy beat and lyrics about a ghost who notices the man in the home he haunts is lonely and depressed, and decides to make his energy apparent to the man to give him some much needed advice to lift him from the glut he's in. It's quite clever and Jan's solo is blazing and electric! "Weekend Warrior" is, alright, it's a bad tune. But I like it. A song written by Dickinson in response to soccer hooligans who are high on themselves and under the impression that they are the best on the field when they go to the field for a weekend and play with their mates, but they're nobody when Monday strikes and it's back to work, essentially he's telling them that there's a life outside soccer. "Wasting Love" is decent, but it's an admittedly cheesy tune. The lyrics are about sex addiction and its life destroying effects. This is a song I feel can be a classic if it wants to, but it just settles for being decent. Same problem strikes "Fear is the Key", which should be a great tune. A song where Bruce expresses anger at the world for mourning celebrities yet completely disregarding folks like the copious amounts of gay people at the time who were blamed for the spread of AIDS, millions who die in Africa of starvation and war crimes? This is a great idea! In fact, "The kids have lost their freedom/And nobody cares 'til somebody famous dies
" is one of the best lyrics written by the band, and is completely true. But, it plays things way too safe and while there's one truly great part, it feels like it deserves to be in a better song.
At the end of the day, when you finish listening to Fear of the Dark
, you think, "This album is good. A lot of songs are good, but only just good. So what's stopping it from being great?". Nonetheless, it's undeniably still preferable to 90% of what was playing on the radio at the time, and pretty much all of what gets airplay today, and admittedly, it's a decent album for Bruce to call his swan song, before 1999 at least. But as said in "From Fear to Eternity", "but like all dreams, they come to an end".
In 1993, tensions would rise amongst Bruce and the rest of the band. They would go on tour to bid Bruce farewell, but by that time, Bruce already just wanted out of the band. It was evident in his performance, how he was a non-entity, spent half the concerts backstage, and gave a tired vocal performance. The tour would culminate in a 1993 concert, a special event for fan club members only, titled "Raising Hell". It was both a concert and a magic show, made available for pay-per-view. Paraphrasing a quote from Bruce, Bruce was glad to be out of the band as soon as the concert was over: "It was really weird. After the show, I went home, drank a couple beers, then went to bed."
Still if you can look past the history, this album is worth a purchase for the classics on it alone, and its place in Maiden history. Definitely recommended, but with a grain of salt.