Updated: Apr 20, 2020
With this review, Iron Maiden become the first band to have not one but two retrospective reviews dedicated to them. In truth, anyone who knows me will not be surprised, and given that this week marked the 40th anniversary of their debut's release, it seemed fitting that this should be today's review.
Iron Maiden's self-titled debut is certainly an interesting one. Essentially a best-of comprising their top songs from the previous five years, it has all the hallmarks of a great Maiden album, without quite being the full package just yet. A number of factors weighed this album down during its production, and as a result it falls just short of being up there with the best. At least they didn't peak too soon.
There are glimpses of the Maiden we'd all come to know and love. 'Remember Tomorrow' has the start slow, speed up later format, and 'Phantom of the Opera' is the first of the classic Maiden epics that would become one of their trademarks in years to come.
However, for the most part, this is a different Iron Maiden to the one that would dominate the world. The songs are shorter, snappier, and as much as Steve Harris hates this comparison, punkier. Five of the eight songs come in at under or around four minutes long, each of them looking to deliver a fast and immediate slice of punk-metal. Compare that to The Book of Souls, their latest album, on which the AVERAGE song length is 8:22. It's a world away.
Harris always wanted to go in that direction, a fact made clear by 'Phantom of the Opera', but he wasn't there just yet, and more importantly, neither was the band. Only two of the members who were on this record survive to this day, Harris and guitarist Dave Murray. It's difficult not to realise that personnel was one reason behind the limitations of Harris' writing; indeed, he has said as much since. Guitarist Dennis Stratton left over musical differences following this album, nothing more needs to be said there. Di'Anno would be fired due to drug abuse after follow-up album 'Killers', and though Harris liked his voice, his raspier tones limited the scope of what the band could do. Harris has also said writing became easier when Nicko McBrain replaced Clive Burr, simply because McBrain is a technically superior drummer.
But given that the band were more technically limited on this record, they did a fine job. 'Prowler' remains one of the most immediate opening songs they've done, and still has one of the best solos they've ever put to tape. 'Running Free' and 'Iron Maiden' are live staples to this day, and 'Charlotte the Harlot' was the beginning of a saga of songs they recorded on various albums from 1980-1992. Shoutout to 'Transylvania' too, one of their only instrumental tracks and a rollicking good time.
The most notable song on the record, if not the most famous, is undoubtedly 'Strange World'. Though the band's sound would later develop, this remains a completely unique song in ther catalogue. A slow, ethereal track with a vibe that's difficult to place, it fittingly sounds almost alien. Di'Anno nails this one, giving a heartfelt performance, and the guitar work is just beautiful. It's very underrated, even within Maiden fan circles, and it's a shame they never quite revisited this side of their sound.
On the flip side, the real let down of the album - and you can ask the band because they've said it themselves - is the production. With Wil Malone proving to be absolutely useless, and the band too scared to ask established rock production legend Martin Birch to do it (he would later produce all of their records from 1981-1992), they ended up basically doing it themselves, and unfortunately it shows. The guitars don't sound metally enough and there's a certain hollow feel in the music, like something's missing. It's unpolished and, sonically, sounds almost amateur.
That it still reached #4 on the UK charts and brought Maiden huge domestic success is a testament to the songs on the record, then. Bad production kills many records, but on this one, the strength of the songs enables the listener to look past it. From the opening chords of 'Prowler' to the typically OTT ending of 'Iron Maiden', it's a great record. Is it one of Maiden's best? To some in their fanbase, it is their best and the Di'Anno days mark the band's high point. For me, it's a stepping stone and though some of the ingredients are there, it's not quite up there with their elite records.
A bloody good way to start though.
(PS - Sanctuary, a non-album single in the UK but on the US release, is also a tune.)
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