Saturday, February 27, 2010

Iron Maiden - Fear of the Dark (1992)

Fear of the Dark is the 9th album of UK heroes Iron Maiden, and in my opinion the best they would release in the 90s. It's one of the band's longer efforts, clocking in at nearly an hour, with a dozen tracks, most of which are at least catchy, if not entirely at the level of the previous decade. The album compensates slightly for its predecessor No Prayer for the Dying, which seemed to thrive on filler, with only a few truly memorable tracks, but Fear of the Dark too seems to take the same excess tongue lashing from fans. It's a little more rock than the previous albums, and about half the songs are laid back and accessible (this might explain some of the loathing), but I'm honestly surprised that a few of them haven't been given a little more attention through the band's set lists over the years.

This was the last album before Bruce Dickinson would split from the band and be replaced by Blaze Bayley for Maiden's most miserable albums, but this possibility was not set in stone at the time, so there is no sense of emergency or desperation here. It's just business as usual, with the same penchant for catchy guitar melodies, carefully crafted leads that never hinge on excess, busy bass that feels central to so many of their compositions, and a top shelf performance from Dickinson. And in 1992, a year in which death and black metal were still taking off, and 'alternative music' and grunge rock were the orders of the day, Fear of the Dark feels somewhat like refreshment, from a band that many people were probably tiring of as they turned towards the next shiny audio bauble. Among such shifts in trend, the album often feels like a statement that the guard will NOT be changing via metal's highly successful dignitaries...oh, what sweet irony!

"Be Quick or Be Dead" is a fine opener to the album, a fast and memorable track which recalls the uncouth power and ribaldry of something like "The Trooper" or "Aces High". Dickinson spits some of his nastier vocals, with a clipped pitch to his voice that sounds like he had just dialed the Beast's number again and was feeling slightly possessed. I enjoy the riffs, I enjoy the way the vocal echoes off in the chorus, and the verse rhythm is pure old 80s barbarity. It's followed "From Here to Eternity", which feels a little like a Dire Straits or ZZ Top track at first, with a decent hard rock kick to the verse and then another obvious chorus with backup vocals that felt a little like AC/DC. This wound up being one of the more popular tracks from the album, at least so much that Maiden would include it on live shows and albums, and I have to say that I'm somewhat less impressed by this than numerous other pieces on the album. Another of the staples is "Afraid to Shoot Strangers", which is a cooler tune with a morose intro section laden in subtle synths and flowing, catchy clean guitar melodies. It feels like a lullaby about the Gulf War gone wrong, but the chorus remains quite atmospheric due to the guitar line that weaves through it, and the track does pick up for some solid driving metal.

"Fear is the Key" has a thundering step to it that feels a lot like a rambling Zeppelin rhythm, but I personally enjoy the vocals here and the message of lost rebellion and youth. The mystical wall of melody that opens and recurs through the track is also quite nice. "Childhood's End" sadly doesn't seem based upon the fantastic Arthur C. Clarke science fiction novel, instead a lament for the poor and suffering of the world. However, it's probably my favorite track on this album, with glorious, cascading melodies that storm behind Dickinson's highly memorable chorus line (though the lyrics are rather weak). Very surprised this song did not take off and become a single or a live standard. Had "Wasting Love" come out a few years earlier, it might have run headlong against popular hard rock power ballads like "I'll Remember You", "Heaven" or "Fly to the Angels", but here it feels a little cheesy until the chords crash in.

The latter half of the album begins with "The Fugitive", an average song with some of the similar, simple and expressive chords that Maiden used to make a name for themselves in the decade prior. Not sure if the lyrics were inspired by the book or film, but alas, they're pretty weak, though the progression of the song does seem to build an urgency that might be shared by one on a run from whatever institution is narrowing in on him, and there's a cool groove buried after 3:30 where the solo begins. I found "Chains of Misery" rather amusing, for all its swagger, vocal hooks and the little guitar fills in the pre-verse and chorus. "The Apparition" seems a little too light hearted, or playful, but the riffs aren't all that bad and it has a nicely wailing solo with some melodies catapulting beneath it, alongside the bass.

"Judas Be My Guide" is a hidden gem, with excellent, flowing guitar melodies that recall the same fire that I loved about so much earlier NWOBHM, simple and blues-based and scurrying off into the night. The chorus is fantastic, not unlike something from an early Queensryche album. "Weekend Warriors" is one of the most loathed tracks on the album, an homage to football hooligans which I also felt could be about corporate paintball matches...but either way, it's acoustic opening makes it sound like a Traveling Wilbury's song, and then it rocks out like mid-80s party Priest. In fact if I close my eyes I could almost envision Halford sharing the vocals here just they did on "The One You Love to Hate". Maybe they should try it some time! The chorus is really not all that bad, and in fact this is not one of the least memorable tracks on the album, so I believe the negativity leveled at it is slightly blown out of proportion. Though believe me, the last thing I want is an Iron Maiden that sings about sporting events. The 7+ title track serves as the finale to the album, and though it's not bad either, it simply isn't one of the most striking tracks in my opinion, so naturally it becomes the one Maiden plays most in their sets and live albums. Go figure.

Fear of the Dark is nowhere near as lousy as the fans and media of the day tried to spin it, they will simply too busy with their tongues and noses up Kurt Cobain's rear to realize that it's just another Maiden album, with a bunch of good songs that, while not about to set the record straight, have a lot of appeal for me even after nearly two decades. The lyrics are among the band's weakest, and there are a few songs that could be clipped. But this is certainly stronger than No Prayer for the Dying, the humdrum X Factor or the abominable Virtual XI, and I listen with anticipation to at least half the songs every time I hearken back to it.

Highlights: Be Quick or Be Dead, Childhood's End, Chains of Misery, Judas Be My Guide

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (whispers in the night)

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