Review Summary: Bruce Dickinson's finest hour, realized by Maiden, and immortalized by a Record Store Day-exclusive picture disc that does justice to an amazing story.
Record Store Day, especially in recent times, has drawn equal amounts praise and disdain. If lots of people like it because it rewards the purchaser of vinyl by giving people weird and funky *** that only vinyl is capable of producing (swirly liquid vinyl releases, different shaped vinyl, vinyl made from wood glue, weird box sets, you name it), just as many dislike it because most people have to be up at stupid A.M. to get what they want, then there's the queue to get into the store, and some probably think that their exclusives going to collect dust in the end. The latter, while predominantly the product of an elitist mindset and hipster mentality, is strangely also not entirely unjustified. For every Pink Floyd: The Wall singles box set or 2013 remix of Nirvana's In Utero
, there's an A-Ha Take on Me
picture disc single (because people so want to own a single of a song that's only famous for its music video), or The Blacklist
soundtrack (well, there's Grandma's birthday shopping sorted). And then you have Iron Maiden. As of typing, they're on tour for a fantastic album, said tour is their biggest since the 1984 World Slavery Tour, it's being captained by Bruce Dickinson in a 747 Jumbo Jet, and amidst all this madness, they're rewarding their vinyl collectors with a special treat: an immortalization of their 2015 18-minute opus, "Empire of the Clouds", alongside an interview that details the making of this gorgeous piece of epic music, fronted by Bruce Dickinson, the man who made it possible, and Nicko McBrain, the man who helped Bruce shape it into the masterpiece it truly is.
Normally, especially since I raved about it at length in my review of The Book of Souls
, I wouldn't feel it necessary to go on about the song, but given that the song is basically an album in and of itself, it's worth mentioning: yes, the song deserves its own single release. Dickinson's 18 minute magnum opus is worth every second of its journey. From its subdued piano intro to the sorrowful coda bidding farewell to an empire who didn't quite make it to India, Bruce pours his heart into a magnificent performance on both the piano and his vocals. Bruce's voice stays in a consistently nostalgic tone throughout, gathering us around to tell us a story about a magnificent blimp that should have shaped the aviation indutry as a whole, but sadly went down in flames (quite literally too). Bruce's lyrics are equally as poetic as they are blunt; he makes extensive use of actual descriptions and conversations ("Said the coxswain, 'Sir, she's heavy! She'll never make this flight!'/Said the captain, 'Damn the cargo! We'll be on our way tonight!'"
), in addition to gorgeous imagery like "Mist is in the trees, stone sweats with the dew/The morning sunrise, red before the blue"
. The best thing is that for all its cinematic lyricism, or twists and turns in the music, the song never feels 18 minutes long. It zips by quickly, keeping your interest by giving an atmosphere of adventure throughout. By the time the ship has crashed, Bruce stands on the grounds where it was built and sings to us about how the Empire of the Clouds doesn't want us to stop dreaming just because they didn't make it, in a heart-wrenching delivery of "Oh the dreamers may die, but the dreams live on!"
. It's a truly magnificent, emotional opus that demands every second of your attention, and deserves it.
Once you are finished with side A, Side B begins with Nicko asking, "Do you want to hear our story about Empire of the Clouds" It'll take us 18 bleedin' minutes to tell it!" before he and Bruce get into a detailed, yet relentlessly entertaining story about this song's magnificent creation. At 21:07 in length, this interview is every bit as informative as it is entertaining, endearing, and even adorable and hilarious. Much of it comes from Bruce's keet-ish personality as he describes the songwriting process and how it came to be; from his winning an electric piano at a dinner held by Jamie Oliver, to writing the whole thing on said piano and its recording process that made extensive use of instruments not usually heard on a Maiden recording, one of which being a bowed gong- that is, taking a violin bow and scraping it against a gong to create a horrific "twisting metal" sound (namely, the eerie noise in the crash portion). Bruce even surprises us with a few tidbits of info- namely that the triumphant sounding section between the two morse codes was written for a Jon Lord piece that would probably have been made if Lord hadn't died, and said piece is called "Wedding of Earth and Sky", mostly as Bruce felt it sounded like something of a wedding march. This interview, combined with a listen to Maiden's 18-minute opus before it, helps make the song feel more special, and also is a testament to Maiden's dedication to their craft- truly something that has to be heard to be believed.
Which really is the best way to describe Empire of the Clouds
. It's one standout track given the recognition it deserves, through its re-release and also the packaging, which is meant to emulate the newspaper report after the actual R101 crash. Said packaging shows a terrifying new Eddie image burnt through a replica of a Daily Mirror issue on the R101, with a gorgeous gatefold featuring images from the crash (two of which belong to Dickinson himelf), including crash site photos, swatches of fabric from the airship, and even a retelling by a captain who survived the crash and lived long enough to tell the tale. It's haunting and adds to the nostalgic nature of the track. If anything detracts from this particular release, it's the picture disc format. A black vinyl would probably have been better, but given that this is meant to be a collector's item AND an exclusive for Record Store Day, I guess there's not much else to bitch about there. This special release is worth every penny and definitely a great way to recognize an artistic achievement by a dedicated songwriter.