enned in on either side by fellow journalists strapped into
From page 52 of Classic Rock Magazine September 2006
listening consoles, Classic Rock now knows a little how battery hens must feel. Of course, poultry are rarely serenaded into productivity with anything as loud or heavy as Iron Maiden’s new album, A Matter Of Life & Death , but you get our drift.
Along with several other British publications we’ve come to Sarm Studios on the outskirts of Reading for a convivial yet decidedly securityconscious preview of the third Maiden studio release since vocalist Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith returned to the band – completed by bassist/founder Steve Harris, guitarists Dave Murray and Janick Gers, and drummer Nicko McBrain – in 1999.
Having completed the second of these records, 2003’s Dance Of Death , Maiden’s management dreamt up a novel method of presenting new music to the media, without danger of it falling into the wrong hands. A special playback bus rolled across
Europe. Journalists sat and digested the record under the careful scrutiny of band employees. These Fort Knox-style tactics worked to perfection, with no material leaking online ahead of release.
The routine is being repeated on a grand scale here at Sarm. For the past few days media from various territories have flown in, heard the album in close confines and been wheeled off with commando-like precision to different rooms for 30-minute grillings of the band members. Marshalled by publicists with walkie-talkies, the event must run like clockwork – and it does. As befitting one of the world’s biggest rock bands, detailed non-disclosure forms prevent anyone from blabbing about the record’s contents before a preordained date. To top it all, Steve Harris has also done a Japanese press tour of his own.
Their influence now at all all-time peak, even after a career of more than three decades, the entire world seems to want a bit of Iron Maiden. Fortunately, A Matter Of Life & Death matches the lofty expectations inspired by its title. In the past, Harris and Dickinson have good-naturedly joshed in interviews, each claiming to be a bigger Jethro Tull fan than the other. Now, exerting the freedom to do whatever they choose, Maiden are continuing the creative arc instigated by tracks like reunion offering Brave New World ’s epic Blood Brothers and Dream Of Mirrors , through Paschendale and No More Lies from Dance Of Death . A Matter Of Life & Death sounds little like the band responsible for Run To The Hills ; its weighty tones could even be considered a belated successor to 1988’s conceptual Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son .
Recent important releases from Opeth, Porcupine Tree and Dream Theater have all captured the rock community’s imagination, and with musicians who weren’t even alive when watersheds like Red saw daylight in 1974 now happily name-checking King Crimson, this is a great time for Iron Maiden to have made a record this deep, heavy and complex. Harris insists that if they did tap into some kind of prog-rock zeitgeist with nine-minute musings like For The Greater Good Of God , it was completely unintentional.
“I don’t mean to sound conceited, but although I read the music magazines we don’t pay much attention to what other bands are doing,” he begins. “Porcupine Tree have supported us, but the prog that influenced me is the music that was made and recorded back in the 1970s.” While the more traditionally inclined bass player sticks to his well-thumbed Nektar, Wishbone Ash and Genesis albums, Dickinson happily enthuses about the wave of so-called newcomers, regularly playing them on the radio show he presents for the BBC’s 6Music disgital radio station.
“That stuff’s right up my street,” confirms Bruce, who besides Maiden and an on-off solo career also finds time to work as an airline pilot. “I really had to force myself not to take any of it on board during the writing stage. I’m pleased that the lyrics, stories and tunes all came out so strongly.” Written in capital letters atop my album notes was the word ‘challenging’. Dickinson is chuffed to hear it: “Sometimes you just need to do something that’ll really blow the doors off, and this is exactly the record we wanted to make. There’s no point in us trying to compete with all the little pop-metal bands out there. I don’t need to name them. They won’t be around in three years anyway.” Perhaps the reason that Maiden sound so darned comfortable on the new album is that it came together so speedily and without fuss.
“I went to see Adrian [Smith] and in a single day we got half a dozen songs together – which turned out to be a good proportion of the album,” explains Harris.
Incredibly, although the group and co-producer Kevin Shirley (of Aerosmith, Black Crowes and Led Zeppelin fame) earmarked three months for recording, it was done in around eight weeks flat. Having deferred to Shirley on the past two albums, Harris receives a co-production credit this time. This might have caused problems in the past. Dickinson cited Harris’s seizure of the mixing board from long-time collaborator Martin Birch as contributing to his own departure from the group.
“Steve’s much more relaxed about all that stuff now,” responds Dickinson, “he lets Kevin get on with the stuff that he’s good at. Steve has strong opinions about lots of things, and he’s often right, so nobody begrudges him his name on the credits.”
Last summer the band made what they admitted was a calculated ploy in playing before younger audiences at the Ozzfest in America and the UK’s Carling Weekend (Reading and Leeds Festivals). As everyone knows, the Ozzfest run ended in a war of sabotage, eggs and expletives with Sharon Osbourne. But while you might expect a song called These Colours Don’t Run – a phrase used by an under-fire Dickinson on stage that fateful day in San Bernadino – to have addressed the headline-making feud, Maiden have more class than to stoop to Get In The Ring levels.
“No, it’s not about that silly woman and her blue rinse,” declares Bruce, hooting with laughter at the very thought. “It’s about regimental colours – what it means to be a soldier and go off to war, which is what an awful lot of people are having to do at the moment. Forget the whole stupid fucking argument, I can imagine the crowd singing that chorus right now.”
On the day of our interview it was still uncertain whether Maiden would pull the album’s shortest track, the four minutes and 17 seconds of Different Worlds , as its first single, or adopt a braver policy. Harris favoured the latter option, and sure enough got his way. Clocking it in at more than seven minutes long, the Murray/Harris-penned The Reincarnation Of Benjamin Breeg was unveiled on August 14, a fortnight ahead of the album.
“For a band like us, it doesn’t matter if a song’s four minutes or 20 minutes – no bugger’s gonna play it [on the radio],” he chuckles. When asked about Benjamin Breeg, the normally helpful bassist for once lets us down. “There’s a website about him. It’s all about reincarnation, but you should check out the site.”
Another of the album’s most concise tracks is the five-and-a-half minutes of Out Of The Shadows . Exclusive collaborations between Dickinson and Harris are few and far between – Only The Good Die Young appeared on Seventh Son... , though there were three on 1990’s No Prayer For The Dying – but like submissions from guitarist Dave Murray they’re invariably worth the wait.
“Blimey, I can’t remember the last time that Bruce and I wrote a song on our own,” agrees Harris. “I’d have to go back and check what it was. We’ve written lots with others, but not so much just the two of us.”
Besides being an integral part of the album, might Out Of The Shadows also allay the continuing notion of some simmering feud between the singer and bassist?
“Oh God, do people still believe that?” enquires Bruce quizzically. “It’s one of those subjects that’ll probably never die. But... whatever.” Just like the good old days, Maiden have recorded cover versions as B-sides,
including Space Truckin’ by Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy’s Angel Of Death , a skiffle version of Tush by ZZ Top, plus a “very, very funny” (according to Dickinson) stab at the Focus classic Hocus Pocus with McBrain hollering like a loon to replace Thijs van Leer’s trademark yodel.
The band are so happy with A Matter Of Life & Death that, says Bruce, they’re even considering playing the entire thing during eight UK arena dates in late December (including two nights at London’s Earls Court) that will be witnessed by 90,000 people. The young yet highly rated Florida thrashers Trivium are supporting, something that Harris acknowledges should benefit both bands.
“Bruce took his kids to see ’em [at the Astoria in London] and came back raving about them,” nods Steve. “They’ve got lots of potential.” Talking of which, Harris tries but fails dismally to hide his pride when talking of daughter Lauren, who has begun a music career of her own. The 21year-old appeared at this year’s Download and has almost finished her debut album. Her dad’s support has extended not only to the occasional on stage jam, but also driving her and band around the country on some nationwide club dates.
“I did the whole tour with her, she’s been getting great receptions,” he beams. “It’s inevitable that she’ll attract attention because of me, but because the music’s more like Pat Benatar or whoever she’ll develop an identity of her own in time.”
Without putting too fine a point on it, Iron Maiden are at the opposite end of their career. Still among the finest live bands of their genre, their popularity has mushroomed since Dickinson and Smith returned. In a Classic Rock cover story last summer, Harris admitted: “Five or six years ago, we might’ve considered retiring, but now... no way.”
At around the same time, in a rare display of modesty, Dickinson also expressed satisfaction with the band’s progress.
“As long as the fans argue about whether Dance Of Death was as good as Brave New World , that’s cool,” he remarked. “At least we’re having a go [at making new music]. So many spineless bands [of our era] have just rolled over and played dead.” Be assured that A Matter Of Life & Death is more than just the latest album from a veteran band. Brave and accomplished, it should delay them having to dip into pension funds for a while. Maiden have said they intend to cut down on touring – certainly compared to their 80s heyday – but Steve admits some festival shows in 2007 are possible. Beyond that, he won’t speculate too far.
“I don’t know why, but I’ve always imagined that we’d do 15 studio albums,” the bassist concludes. “This one’s our fourteenth, so we’ve got at least one more in us.”