How Number Of The Beast set Iron Maiden on the road to heavy metal glory
With Bruce Dickinson in their ranks, there was no stopping Iron Maiden with their now-iconic album, The Number Of The Beast…
“The people who figured some of this stuff out, they should be immediately working for the government as codebreakers – they’re so good!”
Bruce Dickinson is feeling very pleased with himself. Even more so than usual. Over the past six weeks or so, there’s been a trail of breadcrumbs left by the Iron Maiden singer and his band leading to… something. Some cryptic Twitter stuff. A few unusual phrases. The odd well-placed T-shirt. Clues, but no clue as to what. We now know the solution to the puzzle is the epic, animated video for The Writing On The Wall, the Irons’ first new song in six years, released last Thursday, but at first, the clues were so subtle that even noticing they were hints at all took a sharp wit.
At England’s Download Pilot in June, black and white posters for something called Belshazzar's Feast plastered around the festival’s main arena were at first assumed to be an enterprising young band making their own luck at the first big event of the summer. But then shirts started appearing, on the chests of Frank Turner (a notable Maiden superfan) and, more smoking gun-ingly, Bruce Dickinson (a notable Maiden frontman).
Things began appearing on the internet, like a Twitter account, @bels_feast, which only followed 16 accounts (the number of albums Maiden have done), all punning on titles. The Killers was an obvious nod to the band’s second album; We Rate Dogs for The Number Of The Beast was genius.
Details on the poster, meanwhile, suggested something happening in July, with many reading the numerals XVII – correctly – to indicate Maiden’s 17th album. The letters ‘WOTW’, meanwhile – Writing On The Wall, also the name of Belshazzar's Feast in the Biblical book of Daniel – had appeared on the band’s latest tour poster.
Quite literally, the writing was on the wall. How clever. How crafty. How accidental.
“It was all a mistake!” laughs Bruce. “My partner saw something online about the Mexico live album [last year’s Nights Of The Dead, Legacy Of The Beast: Live In Mexico City] and said, ‘You know Writing On The Wall’s on the album artwork?’ And I went, ‘Fuck off. Really? Shit, it is, too.’”
This was caught and scrubbed from the cover, but if you got the vinyl edition with the poster, it was still there. It went largely unnoticed, but it was still enough to cause concern in the Maiden camp that they’d let the cat out of the bag early. Because, in a top-secret happening, very few outside the band even knew Maiden had been in the studio. “We were worried that was a leak about the album,” continues Bruce. “Because it had been done for fucking ages.”
The album is Senjutsu. If you want an idea of how long it’s been sat on for, Bruce has to furrow his brow and count back using his fingers to get to when it was done – eventually landing on spring 2019. It was so long ago that, upon completion, Maiden took a couple of months off, then headed off on the North and South American stretch of their Legacy Of The Beast tour. The last time the band – Bruce, bassist Steve Harris, guitarists Adrian Smith, Dave Murray and Janick Gers, and drummer Nicko McBrain – were all in the same place at the same time was on October 15, 2019, when they ended the tour at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, Chile.
The plan was, obviously, to have it out by now. But even in the world of Maiden, where things are plotted into the diary a good year in advance, COVID put paid to the best laid of plans. Having already shifted the album back, there was potential for things to get stuck in an even longer timeline. The frustration with not being able to just do it is clear as Bruce – a man not exactly given to wasting time when things could be cooking – explains the delay. Eventually, things were looking like that tack might mean the album not seeing the light of day for another year. Enough. “We can't wait till next summer to release this album,” he says. “It would be ridiculous.”
Admitting defeat on the singer’s original idea of having a big, movie-styled premiere in a cinema for the album’s opening throw, the Belshazzar's Feast wheeze was a good way of making it an event in a world where events aren’t easy. And realising that being stuck thousands of miles apart meant they themselves couldn’t be in the video – Bruce is in London and Janick is in Newcastle, but Steve is in the Bahamas, Nicko in Florida, Dave in Hawaii, and Adrian is, Bruce reckons, somewhere in either America or the UK – the singer realised the solution was just the problem in different clothes.
Wanting “something epic that people would not expect us to do, because we haven't done a video that's worth talking about for a long time”, he hit upon the idea for what would become The Writing On The Wall’s animated featurette: take the actual band and the performance element out of the equation, and you can do literally anything else, and do it as big as you like.
“I said to Rod [Smallwood, Maiden manager], ‘Have you seen the video for Deutschland by Rammstein?’” Bruce explains. “That, to me, is a groundbreaking video. That's astonishing. Now, I'm not suggesting we do that, because we're not Rammstein. But think of what we could do that would have the equivalent impact for us. So, I wrote storyboard for the vid, tweaked it a little bit, and gave it a happy ending. Well, kind of a happy ending – Adam and Eve start again, but with Eddie going, ‘I'll still get you in the end.’”
Enlisting the work of animators Mark Andrews and Andrew Gordon – formerly of Pixar, both massive Maiden fans – the result, as you’ve seen, is killer. And as you’ve seen, it’s rammed with Maiden-related references – albums, songs, lyrics. Bruce reckons it’s possible to get into triple figures trying to catch them all, details that – like the video for Deutschland – insist on repeated viewings. But there was also one crucial thing missing: the reason why the main character ends up at the feast in the first place.
“There was always supposed to be an invite to the party [in the clip], but we discovered they'd forgotten about it,” says Bruce. “The production company were like, ‘Well, it doesn't have to be there, does it?’ Well, yes, it does. Without it, it doesn't make any sense. Like, why is this bloke in the desert? I hate to be obvious, but you do need to know that – it's the ‘once upon a time’ moment, it's the ‘in a galaxy far, far away’ bit.”
This is where the flyer came from. Inserted at the beginning so that they didn’t have to do too much re-editing, Bruce wanted something that looked “like a rave poster”, an invite to Belshazzar's Feast where the apocalyptic action goes turbo. And the whole thing snowballed into a guessing game right up to the point where the answer was finally revealed.
And now there’s more to the story – after all the hold ups, all the staying in, all the shadowy movements, Senjutsu is coming out on September 3. In his enthusiasm, Bruce talks about it in terms not just of a new record, but as a new start, a line in the sand for everyone. Admitting that he’s bored off his arse of staying in and that “I’ve watched absolutely everything on Netflix now”, for him, getting back into Maiden-world means getting back to normality.
“The sooner the world gets back to being sensible, the better for everybody,” he says. “We want ‘Maiden is back’ as part of that.”
Today, according to Bruce, of the people who made Senjutsu, only he and Steve Harris have actually heard the final, finished, mixed and mastered product. The only reason he has a version of his own is because he copied Steve’s off his laptop when he was round at his house last year working on mixes for the Live In Mexico release.
“Nobody had one,” says Bruce. “Management didn't have one. I think Steve had a copy on one laptop and one was locked away in a vault somewhere, and that was it. Obviously, we were thinking it’d escape and somebody would hear it. So to have kept it under wraps for this long is pretty good, really. The last time I heard it was when Steve was mixing the Mexico live album. He hadn't listened to it for ages, so we put it on and both went, ‘This is really good… wow!’”
Security remains tight. When Kerrang! is played the full thing at the London offices of Iron Maiden’s management, it’s done from an unmarked vinyl test pressing. Partly, this is because of “Steve’s never-ending quest for sonic perfection”, as one of their team puts it, with the black-circle master being the most finely-tuned version that exists in the world. The other reason is much more pragmatic: it’s hard to leak an LP (three LPs, actually) onto the internet.
The length is epic – 80-plus minutes, with the last two mammoth songs taking up a side of vinyl each for their near-half-hour duration – while the music and the themes are grandstanding metal drama of a form only Maiden can do quite so engagingly. Shades of prog, folk, blues and soundtrack influences pop up all over the place, all identifiably part of Maiden’s 41-year-old tapestry, but marking their very own shapes on it.
Working with longstanding producer Kevin Shirley at Guillaume Tell Studios in Paris (the same place they made Brave New World and The Book Of Souls), Senjutsu’s creative process was, for such an almightily-presented indulgence of a listen, very loose. A double-album wasn’t even really planned until they realised that’s what they had on their hands. Even the suggestion that making something so dense and occasionally challenging was a tonic to a historical tour is casually shrugged off. Really, there was no plan apart from ‘album’.
“We had no clue, absolutely no idea, what the album was. We didn't go in there with any set idea or preconception,” says Bruce. “We had a few ideas. We went into the studio and tried them out, and when they worked, we just recorded straight away. So while we were rehearsing, everything was being recorded – the tape was rolling the whole time.
“Steve would literally lock himself away for two or three days, and we'd all turn up and play pinball,” he continues. “And then he'd say, ‘I think I've got one, chaps. Oi! Everybody in the studio!’ Boom. The stuff I wrote with Adrian was a bit more conventional – we’d stand around and play guitar and sing and do that until we thought we had something. Then we'd rehearse it and put it straight down. It’s more organic, if you like. Steve tends to be quite detailed and meticulous in exactly how he wants it.”
Things weren’t entirely smooth, though. Namely, in the middle of everything, Bruce managed to snap his Achilles tendon. Such a thing takes about a year to heal properly, and in the early stages requires crutches and being able to put up with a lot of pain. Not a man to take such things lightly, he simply powered through where he could, both in the studio and onstage.
“I did the last couple of tracks of recording on crutches, in a boot – one of those big boots you have to wear to immobilise your leg,” he says. “So, I bust it at the end of April. Thirty-six hours later I was on the slab having it stitched back together. And then 24 hours after the operation, I was in the studio, singing, with my leg the size of a fucking balloon.
“It was a month in a boot. It took it off and then I had another two weeks of rehab. Then I had four months to try to learn to walk again before the tour. That tour of America and South America, all those big shows, I couldn't walk properly, so I just faked it. Nobody figured it out. I was running around, but I was running around differently. I learned to move without using my calf muscles, which is difficult, but I couldn't do it anything conventional. So I couldn't jump, and I couldn't run, and walking quickly was an issue. But if you walked like a crab, it was alright!”
Almost as important as all of this, of course, is that new Maiden means a new Eddie – in this case a deadly Samurai warrior. You’ll have already seen him burst forth in the video for The Writing On The Wall, itself an Easter egg of sorts for the album. He ties in with its title-track, a Japanese word that roughly means ‘strategy and tactics’, or ‘the art of war’. It's the idea of seeing where your opponent is putting their energies and using that to build your winning response. And just as importantly, as Bruce puts it, “It's just a really good excuse for a Samurai Eddie, which I think is cool.”
“Steve came up with the first track and said it was called Senjutsu,” he says. “He said it was Japanese for ‘the art of war’. And I went, ‘You sure?’ So I looked it up on the Google Bible, and it seems there's a few different meanings for it, but we'll go with ‘the art of war’.
“I'm not sure what war [though],” he continues. “I looked at the lyrics and I thought, ‘This sounds like someone’s been binge-watching Game Of Thrones!’ There's northern people coming down from the grasslands, there’s a wall, and they’ve got to protect the wall at all costs… I said, ‘Are you talking about the Great Wall Of China here? In which case we're mixing our metaphors a lot.’ And Steve went, ‘No, not the Great Wall Of China. It's just a wall.’ It doesn't matter, really – it's a good story, and a great vocal to sing on.”
War pops up a lot. And although Bruce says it’s “absolutely not” a concept record, the words to Senjutsu (the album) nevertheless have a high body count, even by Maiden standards. Away from battle, there’s songs about a time machine (The Time Machine) and a mystical parchment (The Parchment), but there’s also the self-explanatory Churchillian surge of Darkest Hour, Stratego (in which Bruce sings ‘Teach me the art of war’), and the enormous Death Of The Celts. All very gung-ho, all very Maiden, all very defiant and bold.
But the breadth of the album is shown on its final track, the 12-minute Hell On Earth, where mankind’s oldest way of sorting out its problems is touched upon not in terms of courage and glory, but in the cold, dark reality for those caught in it. Steve’s lyrics talk of ‘armed children’ who are ‘fighting in the name of God’ – not so much George RR Martin, more Ken Loach. But it also speaks to a more general, world-weary sense that everything is going wrong, and with it we are losing something of ourselves. Bruce calls it, “The usual shit grumpy old men complain about,” but there’s also a less flippant heart there, too.
“It’s about the shit state of the Earth,” he says. “It’s almost nostalgic for something other than the situation we find ourselves in right now. It was all written pre-COVID and lockdown and everything else, but [it also deals with] seeing the way the world is going, how things are depersonalised and trivialised. [There’s now] so much choice, you don't know what to do with yourself…”
Many times across our conversation, Bruce enthusiastically reiterates how good he feels the album is; how he can’t wait for people to hear it. And you believe how much he means it: he himself is genuinely impressed, having had some distance on it. It is a genuinely impressive work, too, just as The Book Of Souls was – not just good, but a record that shows Iron Maiden working at and succeeding in staying creatively fresh. Bruce’s hopes for it are that, “When they hear the album, people will go, ‘Fuck me.’”
His confidence is so high that at one point he leans in and, though he doesn’t actually say it with a nudge and a wink, nudge-winks to us: “It's a really amazing record. It probably wants to be played in its entirety live. That'd be quite ambitious, wouldn't it?”
Maybe, maybe. And that’s the other thing here: Iron Maiden, 41 years since their debut and 17 albums in, still want to challenge, to do it differently. They want to treat their fans intelligently, as people who like them for what they do, not just for what they have done. That takes guts. It also takes having the courage of your convictions in your own work. But, really, for all the surprises and paper-trails and suggestions of playing double-albums live, it’s not that different. It’s just Maiden being defiantly, reliably Maiden.
“The key to doing the surprising bit is not to try to surprise people,” says Bruce. “It's when you try to be Iron Maiden, that's when the danger appears. By definition, anything we do that we’re passionate about – it's going to be Iron Maiden. But when you try and think it too much, then you're in danger of backing yourself into a corner and recycling your own cliché. No. Leave that to karaoke bands.”
That Iron Maiden refuse to be just that is the least surprising thing of all. Here’s the news: they’re back, and they’re still brilliant. And you don't need to be a codebreaker to see that.
Iron Maiden's Senjutsu is released on September 3 via Parlophone Records.
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