There is a sound that Iron Maiden makes that no other metal band I've ever heard can make. It's this galloping "duh-duhduhduh-duhduhduh" motif that sounds like an armored panzer division on the march. Maiden uses this sound in most of their songs, albeit in various speeds, and yet, it never really seems to get old, mostly because no other band can do it quite like them.
It's debatable which one is best, but there's no disputing the impact of Maiden's first five albums on metal. They pretty much define what power metal is. The first two - "Iron Maiden" and "Killers" - were made with singer Paul Di'Anno, who was replaced by one of metal's great characters, fencing enthusiast Bruce Dickinson. Dickinson then fronted the band through the peak of their commercial popularity, with 1982's "Number Of The Beast," 1983's "Piece Of Mind" and 1984's "Powerslave."
"Number Of The Beast" may have more hits, but for me, "Powerslave" is more consistent. There's only 8 songs but every one of them is top notch. "Powerslave" begins with the propulsive "Aces High," a narrative of an aerial bomber in the middle of a dogfight. The track gets the album off to a rollicking start and it never lets up.
Next up is the politically charged "2 Minutes To Midnight," one of the band's biggest hits. The title is a reference to the Doomsday Clock, which counts down to the probability of nuclear war. Dickinson's lyrics don't mince words: "We oil the jaws of the war machine and feed it with our babies," "As the madmen play on words and make us all dance to their song." It's easy to see why the song is one of the most popular in the band's ouevre. It has the driving guitar riffs and solos but with a memorable hook in the chorus.
"Losfer Words (Big 'Orra) is the last instrumental that Maiden has done and serves as a transition between the almost pop-metal sounds of the first two songs to the darker and more progressive stuff that follows. Nonetheless, it's a strong track that showcases the band's virtuosity. I have zero idea what the title means but does it really matter?
"Flash Of The Blade" was written by Dickinson and clearly references his love for fencing and swordplay. The lyrics are a bit ridiculous, with goofy nods to iron masks and dragons but Dickinson sells them with his absurdly high singing range and the ringing guitars of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith.
Another song with swords as a theme is "The Duellists," which is about the old custom of challenging someone to a duel. This track gives one of the best demonstrations of that signature Iron Maiden sound I talked about early. The rhythm chugging along while Smith's guitar wails over top of it, adding extra depth to the story being told in the lyrics.
Things keep rolling with another fast track, "Back In The Village," another anti-war song, which seems to be about a soldier's flashbacks to killing villagers in war. The song is highlighted by Dickinson's rapid fire shouts at the end.
The album closes on a high note with the best examples of the signature Maiden galloping rhythm, with the title cut, a song about Egyptian pharoahs or some such nonsense. The lyrical content is unimportant though compared to how the whole band interacts on this track. Dickinson's singing is right in lockstep with the rhythm section and Smith's guitar keeps up the motif, especially with the Egyptian-theme on the pre-chorus. The song then does an abrupt U-turn into a fierce instrumental section before coming back to the main riff. "Powerslave" is definitely one of Maiden's more underrated cuts. It show off the band at its finest: the dueling guitars, Dickinson's powerful yelp, the goofy mysticism and of course, that rhythm section.
But the band then saves its best for last with the 13-minute "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner," a song based on the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem of the same name. Theoretically, there's no way a song like this should work. It sounds like something straight out of Spinal Tap. But work it does. After five-minutes of pure Maiden-ness, the song cuts to a atmospheric, watery guitar solo, augmented by Dickinson's spoken word passage before kicking it back up again. The song really is an impressive feat and even though it's 13-minutes long, you don't really notice that. The song would foreshadow some of the more progressive experimentation the band would use on later releases. One of the best things, to me, that you can say about a song is that there isn't anything out there quite like it and in the case of "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" that's true. You'll never hear a song like this before or after.
I debated in my own mind which Maiden release I wanted to do for this series. While its impossible to do a series called "Metal Classics" without Iron Maiden, it's equally hard to pick which Maiden album to do. I suppose I dig "Powerslave" the most because it's an album where you don't skip tracks. You can put it on "Aces High" and just sit back and listen for the next 50 minutes. It's also, to me, the best demostration of who Iron Maiden is and why they are the preeminent power metal band to ever exist.