The Big Review: Download Festival 2022
Download Festival is back at full-scale for the first time since 2019! Here’s all the action from Donington Park…
Over 45 years since a rabble of London rockers first came together under the banner on Christmas Day 1975, the name Iron Maiden has become utterly synonymous – perhaps even more so than those of Metallica, Judas Priest or the mighty Black Sabbath – with heavy metal culture. Purveyors of epic bombast, playful darkness and rollicking intrepidity, their 16 albums thus far have seen variations in style (moderate) and quality standards (sometimes lurching), but the promise of adventure and fist-pumping good times has always been delivered upon.
Having dropped at least 10 5/5-worthy albums over the last four decades, the process of whittling their peerless catalogue of 165-odd songs down to a shortlist of just 20 has been even more painful than most. We’ve approached the task with a view to encapsulating that overarching history and paying tribute to the often-transformative live performances by the band’s current (definitive?) line-up: bassist/bandleader Steve Harris, vocalist Bruce Dickinson, guitarists Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers, and livewire drummer Nicko McBrain. Of course, we’re well aware there are stone-cold classics missing here. Let us know your picks in the comments...
There are many excellent songs – Empire Of The Clouds, The Red And The Black, If Eternity Should Fail – on Iron Maiden’s sprawling sixteenth LP, but the towering title-track is arguably the clearest showcase of their late-career greatness. A classic 10-minute Steve Harris/Janick Gers composition that builds from its eerily mournful intro through numerous soaring crescendos, there are elements of the epic 1980s scope of songs like Powerslave and Mother Russia at play, but they’re deployed with the balls-out bombast of musicians with nothing left to prove. Beyond that, Bruce Dickinson’s dramatic, career-best vocal delivery laid to rest any lingering doubts following his treatment for throat cancer earlier the same year, while the Mayan-inspired lyrics – reckoning on legacy, legend and immortality – came loaded with additional poignancy.
Overshadowed by the galloping brilliance of subsequent Piece Of Mind single The Trooper on release, the more deliberate pace and mythological scope showcased in Flight Of Icarus feels ripe for reconsideration. Retelling the Greek legend of Daedalus’ son Icarus, who gained the power of flight with a pair of wax wings but met his demise after soaring too close to the sun, it could be seen as a commentary on the hubris of teenage rebellion and the wishes of some parents to ground their flighty offspring. Despite Harris’ apparent protestations to its awkward tempo, the song features one of the band’s greatest chorus-lines (‘Fly on your way like an eagle / Fly as high as the sun!’) and feels custom-built for audience participation, with 1985’s Live After Death recording proving truly definitive.
Possibly the most underrated Maiden song of all. An eight-and-a-half minute beast tucked away at the end of 1986’s Somewhere In Time, Alexander The Great suffered from following in the wake of the insurmountable epics of 1984’s Powerslave, but its shapeshifting cutting-edge – fitting oddly with the history lesson about the all-conquering King Of Macedonia – deserves celebration in its own right. That tempestuous break around the four-and-a-half minute mark and the instrumental pyrotechnics that follow are among the band’s most dramatic musical moments. Could’ve done with a shout out to the War Elephants, mind...
The greatest comeback in the history of heavy metal, 12th album Brave New World is awash with sweeping composition, astonishing musical statements and no small amount of sentimentality. Blood Brothers is the prime example. Having welcomed Bruce and Adrian back into the fold – cementing the air-raid-siren vocals and 18-string guitar-attack of their post-millennium output – there was plenty for fans to read into in rich lyrics pondering the nature of brotherhood and the broader meaning of life. Steve has confirmed that the song was heavily influenced by the loss of his father, and the sense of heartfelt, intimate emotion at play here is unmatched in the rest of their catalogue.
‘Woe to you, oh earth and sea, for the Devil sends the beast with wrath because he knows the time is short. Let him who hath understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six…’ Tapping directly into the high dramatics of The Book Of Revelations, the title track for Maiden’s world-beating third LP will forever stand as one of heavy metal’s most iconic moments, as well as a high watermark for swashbucklingly populist peak NWOBHM. Predictably, the Satanic imagery invoked the ire of religious groups on both sides of the Atlantic. The band have since confirmed that there was no occult intent, though, with the song merely recalling a dream Steve had after watching middling 1978 horror sequel Damien: Omen II.
There was a tension running through the first two Maiden albums; between the grandiose, fantastical tendencies of Steve Harris’ songwriting and the pronounced punk influence exerted by original singer Paul Di’Anno. Although ultimately unsustainable, it did give rise to some absolute bangers, with Paul winning out on this angsty ode to teenage escape. ‘Just 16, a pick-up truck,’ he sings. ‘Out of money, out of luck / I've got nowhere to call my own / Hit the gas, and here I go!’ Although not an obvious fit with Maiden’s subsequent more grandiloquent fan-favourites, it’s still frequently deployed as a high-octane live counterpoint to more winding later offerings.
There’s a strong case to be made that 1988’s Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son is Iron Maiden’s most complete release: an intriguing concept album chronicle, featuring their most dynamic songcraft woven into a staggering whole. Only a few of its constituent tracks are really competitive as solo offerings, however. The Evil That Men Do is chief among them, whipping from airy intro through a galloping midsection to its lung-busting climax over an economic four-and-a-half minute runtime. Inspired by the amaranthine quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – ‘The evil that men do lives after them, the good is often interred with their bones...’ – the lyrics hold an under-appreciated profundity, too.
Often paired with outstanding two-minute intro The Ides Of March, Wrathchild marked the crossover apex of the Paul Di’Anno era, as the blend of punk and metal congealed into a punchy three-minute hard rock nugget. Telling the tale of an angry young man out to find his absent father – and seemingly to enact some sort of violent vengeance – it even manages to combine the then-singer’s preferred social realism with the sense of timelessness preferred by his bandmates. ‘I was born into a scene of angriness and greed, and dominance and persecution,’ it unloads. ‘My mother was a queen, my dad I've never seen, I was never meant to be.’ Like Running Free, it remains an adrenaline-bubbling live staple.
The revolutionary feel of Iron Maiden’s signature single – the first to drop from The Number Of The Beast – has been dulled somewhat by overfamiliarity. Taken on its own terms, though, the introduction to deep-lunged ex-Samson singer Bruce Dickinson brims with climactic pop-metal invention. It’s got a politically righteous message, too, written from the perspective of Native Americans (‘We fought him hard, we fought him well / Out on the plains, we gave him hell...’) and the European settlers who usurped their lands, ‘raping the women and wasting the men’. This was a pivotal moment in Maiden’s ascendancy from NWOBHM leaders to international superstardom.
Adventurous tales of the heroism and tragedy of warfare are utterly integral to the Iron Maiden songbook, but few hit with the sheer emotional force of Paschendale. Dance Of Death may have been a divisive album for some fans, but none could deny the rattling poignancy and overdriven, near-symphonic grandeur at play across these eight-plus minutes of battle-scarred sound. Unfolding like some lost war poem set to an exquisite metallic suite, we are taken through the cataclysmic Battle Of Passchendaele – one of the most brutal of the First World War – over three escalating movements which transition from youthful bravado through artillery-battered chaos to the ultimate resignation of a generation of young men lost in the trenches. It is, by a distance, their finest song of the last quarter-century.
The subject of impending Armageddon has been a rich creative source explored extensively throughout the history of heavy metal, but never with more snarling swagger or momentous panache than on the lead single to 1984’s Powerslave, the title of which references the Bulletin Of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock. The brainchild of Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith, Two Minutes To Midnight’s combination of gouging riffage (echoing, oddly, Riot’s Swords & Tequila) and arena-baiting chorus (‘2 minutes to midnight / The hands that threaten doom / 2 minutes to midnight / To kill the unborn in the womb!’) still feels as unstoppable as an atom bomb.
Although the band had flirted with epic song structures before, it wasn’t until 1984’s outstanding Powerslave LP that they finally broke the shackles and allowed their visions to really sprawl. At almost 14 minutes, that record’s massive closer remained their longest song until 2015’s (18 minute) Empire Of The Clouds. Crucially, Rime Of The Ancient Mariner wasn’t just some directionless seadog’s ramble. Retelling Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 18th Century poem of the same name – revolving around a lost ship, the curse of the Albatross, and a visitation by death himself – it takes us on a journey to the bottom of the world, through a creaking central bridge that’s truly evocative of being lost at sea, and on to the lingering tragedy of the tale’s end. Over 35 years hence, it remains a staggeringly ambitious, imperiously executed benchmark for metal storytelling.
Featuring a slashing intro so iconic Maiden decided to rip it off themselves for 2015’s Shadows Of The Valley, the lead single for 1986’s Wasted Years felt like a significant detour into melodic, radio-friendly territory for a band who’d built their reputation thus far on edgier, more awkward fare. Written entirely by guitarist Adrian Smith (who also performed lead vocals on B-side Reach Out), its overtly sentimental message to sit up and seize the day (‘Face up... make your stand / And realise you're living in the golden years’) in the face of the homesickness and alienation of life on tour – along with its higher-pitched delivery – could’ve driven the track into '80s cheesiness. Instead, it stands as the most purely affirmative hit in their arsenal.
Inspired by Seventh Son, the first volume of renowned American novelist Orson Scott Card’s Tales Of Alvin Maker series, the title track and narrative centrepiece of Maiden’s superb seventh album is a prog-metal epic for the ages. Unfolding across ten minutes of sumptuous sound, we are introduced to the titular offspring whose arrival has been so eagerly anticipated by his siblings and whose second sight/folk magic will prove integral in the ongoing battle between good and evil. Like an expanded counterpart to Phantom Of The Opera, it is a song of two distinct halves, with the breathless first movement opening up into the cosmic instrumental grandstanding of the second.
On the face of it, the idea of a creeping seven-minute rumination on the fear of the dying of the light seems like a stretch, even for the mighty Maiden. Execution, however, is everything. On their final album before Bruce’s 1994 departure, Fear Of The Dark pre-empted the arch lyricism, even higher theatricality and emphasis on sweeping melody that would characterise their output following his post-2000 return. It reached another level in the live arena as tens of thousands of fans joined in to deliver that unmistakable opening melody with truly elemental force. As such, the 2002 Rock In Rio version, featuring a crowd of 250,000, is its the definitive recording.
‘We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!’ In lesser hands, the deployment of Winston Churchill’s rousing 1940 speech would feel cheap at best and manipulatively jingoistic at worst. Bolted on to Maiden’s most openly adrenalised, shamelessly high-flying four-and-a-half minutes, however, it has been enveloped into metal folklore. Taking the perspective of an RAF pilot behind the controls of a Spitfire during The Battle Of Britain, listeners get a whirlwind transportation into the world of roaring engines, rolling evasive manoeuvres and rat-a-tat machine gun fire. The soaring chorus-line (‘Run, live to fly / Fly to live / Do or die!’) has taken on even more authenticity with Bruce’s own subsequent winged exploits.
If Running Free and Wrathchild are emblematic of the Harris/Di’Anno dichotomy across the first two albums, Phantom Of The Opera feels like the bassist wrangling full control for his first shot at the kind of high-pomp epic his band would become known for. Beyond the clattering, lo-fi production of a band who’d only recently graduated from residencies in the back rooms of London pubs, we had a musical vision befitting the 1910 Gaston Leroux novel after which it’s named – and the West End musical which would follow a full six years later. From its spiralling opening riff through a prancing middle eight (‘Keep your distance, walk awa-a-a-ay!’) to that scrambling, guitar-loaded denouement, it was early proof that fans had stumbled upon a band worth following to the ends of the earth.
Bruce Dickinson’s fingerprints are all over the title track to the album that would cement Maiden’s place as Metal Gods. Taking us inside the mind of an arrogant Egyptian Pharaoh in his final hours, we see the dramatic struggle between the life’s teachings that have led our narrator to believe he is a deity, and the crumbling realisation that he, just like the subjects over whom he has ruled, will ultimately be ‘a slave to the power of death.’ From the panicked urgency of Bruce’s breathtaking vocal performance through that near-psychedelic interlude to Dave Murray’s desperate guitar solo, it’s a monumental composition fit for (the passing of) a king.
‘You'll take my life but I'll take yours too / You'll fire your musket but I'll run you through / So when you're waiting for the next attack / You'd better stand there's no turning back!’ At a time when many in the mainstream media were fixated on their devilish imagery and the horror movie antics of Eddie The Head, The Trooper tapped into the true derring-do at the heart of Iron Maiden’s central players. Inspired by Lord Tennyson’s poem The Charge Of The Light Brigade, we take the perspective of a doomed Cavalryman during the Battle Of Balaclava in the Crimean War, barrelling towards his demise amidst the rain of musket fire and falling bodies. Delivered with such runaway momentum it forgets to include an actual chorus or any mention of the titular Trooper; the harmonised guitars, barked vocals and new drummer Nicko McBrain’s tumbling percussion ensure there’s not a second to spare in Maiden’s most immediately gripping work. The almost-as-heady beer they produced in its name isn’t half bad, either...
Arguably the greatest song in all of heavy metal. From that opening chime, there is a combination of high drama, foreboding and wonder about the closing seven minutes of The Number Of The Beast that could only ever have come from Iron Maiden. Telling the tale of a condemned prisoner – simultaneously the most anonymous and most memorable of their catalogue’s many ill-fated protagonists – we experience the claustrophobia of prison (‘I'm waiting in my cold cell, when the bell begins to chime...’), the crazed bargaining as dawn grows closer (‘Can it be that there’s some sort of error?’) and the haunting will for some sweet hereafter (‘Mark my words, believe my soul lives on / Don't worry now I have gone / Gone beyond to seek the truth, yeah, yeah!’). Powered by Bruce’s operatic, almost staccato delivery, Clive Burr’s perfectly weighted percussion, and Adrian/Dave’s dual-guitar attack, Steve’s staggering ambition was perfectly realised. Hallowed, indeed.
Download Festival is back at full-scale for the first time since 2019! Here’s all the action from Donington Park…
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