Review Summary: 'Fear' is the Key...to relevancy, that is.
Iron Maiden's contribution to the rock and metal scene, both present and past, can hardly be overstated. From humble beginnings in the late 1970s, the band became an international juggernaut, dragging an entire movement into the limelight along with it, and earning themselves a well-deserved spot in the pantheon of living rock'n'roll dinosaurs thanks to a four-decades-and-counting career built on the back of an easily identifiable and seldom compromised trademark sound.
Still, even the most glowing career inevitably has its lows, and when musical trends shift, even the most veteran artists can find themselves struggling; Maiden was certainly no exception to this, having found themselves (along with so many of their contemporaries) struggling to fend off the grunge movement's all-out assault on anything and everything which even remotely resembled stadium or arena rock. Admirably, the band's response was not to shift or re-think their sound, but to double down on the elements which made it unique; 1990's No Prayer for the Dying
saw the discreet keyboard additions of commercially-drivern predecessor Seventh Son of a Seventh Son
replaced with an extra serving of aggression, and song structures which were straightforward to the point of being simplistic. The message was simple: Iron Maiden did not intend to sell out, or even change in the slightest.
Unfortunately, this tactic backfired, with No Prayer
receiving a lukewarm reaction from fans and critics alike, its lack of timeless classics (the album yielded a single minor addition to Maiden's hit library) perceived as an indication that Steve Harris and Co. were losing their touch. Once again, the band's reaction was to double down on one aspect of their music, though this time, on the opposite end of the spectrum – where No Prayer
was direct and no-frills, its successor took on a markedly more complex sound overall, with the band making an apologetically conscious effort to veer away from the previous album's big, dumb choruses and towards something a little more cerebral. This would, in turn, lead to longer and more layered compositions, which would eventually turn the resulting record into Maiden's first-ever double album.
That distinction is only one of the many noteworthy milestones surrounding 1992's Fear of the Dark
, an album more notable for its historical context than for most of its content; in addition to being the group's first double-LP, the band's ninth album also plants the first seed for what would soon become a full-fledged shift towards a more prog-metal adjacent sound, and – more importantly – marks Bruce Dickinson's last collaboration with the band for almost eight years, as the singer temporarily moved on to other projects. Shame, then, that his then presumed swansong with the band should turn out to be such an underwhelming album.
In fact, there is a good reason why even most die-hard Maidenheads are hard-pressed to name more than three songs off this album – namely that, while those three songs undoubtedly deserve their status as cult classics, the remaining three-quarters of the album are a variably painful slog through the worst of interchangeable prog-leaning Iron Maiden mid-tempos, broken up only by the occasional burst of mild excitement (the chorus to Wasting Love
and the decidedly average Chains of Misery
are elevated simply by virtue of radiating a modicum of emotion amid such dreary company.) Fair-to-middling though it was, No Prayer for the Dying
at least had choruses; by Fear of the Dark
spends most of its running time striving
for choruses, without ever quite getting there (cinematic Western spaghetti guitar leads should never be the sole motive of interest in an Iron Maiden song.) Even Dickinson appears subdued, rarely letting his voice leave the confines of the raspier mid-range tone he adopted in Prayer
or unleashing his trademark soaring wail. When combined with the uninspired songwriting, this causes large swathes of the album to fade into background music status, something which – again – should never happen in a classic-period Iron Maiden album.
This status quo is rendered all the more frustrating by the realisation that the band can
, indeed, still write excellent heavy metal songs. The title track needs, of course, no introduction, having earned its spot on any list of the best metal songs not only of the 90s, but of all time - even if it does sound a little oddly subdued without a rabid live crowd singing along to its every second. Elsewhere, Be Quick or Be Dead
is the usual frantic, hard-hitting, balls-to-the-wall Maiden opener, with sung in a thrashy 90s Rob Halford rasp, suitably followed up by hidden gem and Mo Prayer
holdover From Here To Eternity
; Afraid to Shoot Strangers
completes an excellent opening salvo by demonstrating Maiden's proggier formula done correctly,
Sadly, as noted, it is all downhill from there, as subsequent songs stray far too close to one another while showing too little personality to stand out from the pack, eventually resolving into a single, faceless atmospheric mid-tempo lump in the middle of the album, which completely squanders some worthwhile lyricism around themes which deserve this type of discourse, such as AIDS, violence or domestic abuse. And while the bookends are more than good enough to keep this album's head above the water, they have also contributed to the now three-decade-old myth that it is a shining beacon in Maiden's otherwise hit-or-miss '90s career, when in truth, it is fortunate for the remaining material that they exist; for, without them, this album would be left precisely where it most Fears to be - in the Dark.
Be Quick Or Be Dead
From Here to Eternity
Afraid To Shoot Strangers
Fear of the Dark