Review Summary: One of the most unique albums ever...
By the time 1995 had swung around, Bruce Dickinson already had two albums under his belt: Tattooed Millionaire
, which was released in 1989 and featured Janick Gers on guitar (ironically enough, Gers and Adrian Smith were best buddies and Gers succeeded Smith the following year), and one released not long after he departed Iron Maiden
, Balls to Picasso
in 1994. While Bruce was having fun making music on his own, at the same time, he wanted to start a new band of his own. The band that would be was named "Skunkworks", a four piece progressive rock outfit that sadly was short lived. Conflicts in the studio's marketing and Bruce's intentions prevented this band from truly taking off and as a result, the album they recorded together would have to be released under Bruce's name the following year. Sadly, not making matters much better was the fact that the band as a whole would cease to exist after the tour supporting it ended.
Says Dickinson on the project: "I was devastated by the Skunkworks thing. Skunkworks was a record which I tore myself apart to make and nobody seemed to give a ***.
" The album also failed to make an impression in sales and people still wouldn't forgive poor Brucey for leaving Maiden.
As for the album itself, Skunkworks
is probably one of the most startlingly different albums you're bound to hear. For one, it's not only a departure from Maiden but a departure from the two albums that preceded it. None of the songs on it can be considered metal, and I doubt that even Bruce himself would try to advertise it as such. The album has a progressive-alternative rock sound to it, and it's funny that I mention the "alternative" part, as this was released the same year that Metallica had dropped a big steaming Load
on our ears. It may seem unlikely for Bruce to have turned to such a direction when, time after time, he touted himself on his position in Heavy Metal, but do bear in mind, that he had the idea to make Maiden's follow-up to Powerslave
an acoustic album. Like most Maiden fans who weren't used to Bruce's solo works, I too thought his voice would ostensibly be only fitting for Heavy Metal.
When I first heard the album, I did indeed like it, but I wasn't blown away by it, like I was by Chemical Wedding
. For two weeks on end, I listened to it everywhere I went; to school and home from school, while opening at work, while doing some shopping while on the go, while talking to friends on Facebook and so forth. But it still wasn't clicking with me, and I realized there was only one thing I could do, which is what I do with all complicated albums: listen to it in the pitch black darkness and compete silence, with a pair of headphones.
Right off the bat, you'll notice how different Skunkworks
is from its predecessor. The opening track, "Space Race" begins with a few soft guitar chords before we transition into an alternative track with a very unique time signature and some truly great guitar riffs. The song's lyrics are an attack at NASA for their part in the Cold War-era space race, however it also deals with the human desire to just escape and have fun in our lives. "Why are we running in the space race"/Why are we acting like we own the place"/Just wanna feel the starlight in my face/Reach out my hand and touch beyond..."
. This chorus also sports Dickinson's iron voice, and makes for a good way to get the album running.
The album has many highlights, and showcases a lot of sides you never thought Bruce had. "Faith" showcases a more grungy/bluesy side of Bruce, and you'd think this wouldn't fit his voice, but when you hear his vocal delivery in the chorus, you're immediately proven wrong. The lyrics are a tad confusing and are a bit on the more ambiguous side, but his voice suits it, and there's some truly great guitar work in it, with a killer solo from guitarist Alex Dickson. "Inside the Machine" is the closest this album gets to sounding remotely metal, and might be the best on the album for me. It's insanely catchy and fast paced, and has a chorus worthy of singalong. It's this song where the album's prog influences are most apparent, with some shades of Porcupine Tree and a touch of alternative rock thrown in there for good measure. The most unique track, however is "Headswitch". It's the only track on the album under three minutes, and the only song ever where Bruce doesn't sing in a high register in the main vocal melody. There's two vocal tracks overlapping each other singing the same melody, which adds a creepy feel to an otherwise catchy song. The lyrics are about genetic mutation, with some truly nightmarish imagery courtesy of Bruce and co, including this particularly disturbing outro: "Like father, like son/Chop off the head and the body lives on/Heaven that made you has screwed you and laughed/Falling from grace leaves a cold, empty space in the sky.
" "Meltdown" is a heavy and crushing tune about being being torn away from people you need most, and Bruce channels his raspy register that he used during the 90s Maiden period at times.
The album isn't always perfect- there are a few small places where it falls short; for one, a few tracks do repeat their choruses too much (like "Solar Confinement", for one), and there are a couple filler tracks that the album would survive without (namely "Octavia" and "Innerspace"). Yet, nonetheless, Skunkworks
remains an important part of Bruce's musical history and an essential for fans of progressive rock and metal. It took me two weeks to completely fall in love with it- but when I did, it became an album I had in repeat for days on end.
As a side note, the 2005 rerelease from EMI to coincide with the release of Tyranny of Souls
has an extra disc full of goodies. There's live versions of tracks from the albums and even a live version of the Maiden classic "The Prisoner" performed on the Skunkworks tour, a few b-sides from the sessions, and a couple joke tracks that are absolutely hilarious and are enough to justify the double dip. "Americans Are Behind!" is a hilarious bit of spoken word, with time zone/negative stereotype humour set to a catchy beat. "Well I called them on the telephone during office hours/I'd spoken to their answer phone, some silly mumbling cow/She said, (twangy voice) 'I'm sorry! We're not open yet, but have a nice day!'/But it's gone noon, they're still in bed. They're far behind in the USA.
" And to further rub the salt in the wound, he ends the track with a poorly done British accented, "Precisely!". "I'm in a Band With an Italian Drummer" is an insanely funny spoof track with rapped verses and even some touches of poor Italian at the end. "He's really Italian, he's hung like a stallion/His cock's too long to fit in this song/He shaves his legs, always thinks about sex/His hands have blisters, don't trust him with your sisters/He talks baloni and eats rigatoni/His name's on his sticks, he's got smelly armpits/When he plays his drums, it sounds like this: (jackhammer sound)
". Too funny!
In short, this album is truly a unique disc and while it may take a little while to get into, each listen is as rewarding as the last. Recommended!