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Cleaning the garage calls for cranking Iron Maiden loud and this has always been my favorite of their many, many albums. So, for my second Colossus Music review, probably around the 70th time I’ve listened to this album since the release in 1985, I will take a look at Live after Death. Admittedly, Iron Maiden listening for me peaked that year, although I come back to this album, or at least the first four tracks repeatedly when I need a good Maiden fix.
A quick word on live albums, especially double live albums, none of which have ever been better named than Nugent’s Double Live Gonzo! If the album perfectly captures the experience of seeing the band, you’re going to take a break at some point to grab a beer or hit the head, you’re going to get distracted and lose your own focus, but you’re going to spend most of the time singing along or banging your head to the best tracks. So, while a studio recording might disappoint a bit with a track or two or three that seems like maybe it could have been left off, live albums almost by definition will have a few of those tracks, especially double live albums.
Iron Maiden’s distinct sound doesn’t start with Bruce Dickinson’s voice, but I can’t imagine another singer in the role. He nails the heavy metal shouting, the hard rock ballad-y crooning, and the spaces in-between. Let’s be honest: some of the lyrics make you think of Spinal Tap – there is a fine line between “Flight of Icarus” and “Stonehenge”– so Dickinson needs to deliver in a way that doesn’t make you think of leprechauns or David St. Hubbins. And, mostly, he does. “2 Minutes to Midnight,” “The Trooper,” and “Revelations” all contain lyrics on the right side of deep and earnest and still metal. Dylan’s “Masters of War” had less volume, but no less righteous anger than:
“The body bags and the little rags of children torn in two; And the jellied brains of those who remains to put finger right on you; As the Madman play on words and makes us all dance to their song; To the tune of starving millions to make a better kind of gun.”
And being a live album from the mid-1980s, Dickinson gets to call out, “let me see your lighters out there.” Faint blue cellphones’ glows have nothing on flickering lighters.
Iron Maiden’s distinct sound blends Black Sabbath, Rush, and Van Halen, and yes that makes sense. They’re loud and heavy, as thunderous as anything from the early Sabbath days. Maiden echoes Rush, especially when the bass, drums, and guitar synch perfectly, following the same riffs and rhythm. Listen to ‘Revelations’ – starts like a Black Sabbath song, you can almost imagine Ozzy singing it (almost). Then at the 1:20 mark it sounds like Rush’s 2112, so much so I had to look up when that album was released (1976, way before Maiden’s Piece of Mind). We get Van Halen moments in the guitar solo and plenty of Maiden’s signature speed. And with one minute left, Maiden nails the heavy metal mid-tempo anthem sound, closing with a nod to Led Zeppelin (so, yeah, ‘Revelations’ is an essential track).
One complaint: ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ clocks in at over 13 minutes and maybe some Maiden fans love it. I don’t. Strikes me as just over-indulgent, a way to show off admittedly impressive musical talent.
Live albums, as mentioned above, carry their own complications, including getting enough of the crowd’s excitement and participation without making the white-noise roars and cheers distracting and annoying, especially at top volume (and you can’t listen to Maiden quietly). Plenty of productions get it right, although none as perfectly as U2 playing “I Will Follow” in Boston and Bono calling out to Boston to “lift me up on your shoulders” and the crowd missing it the first time, then roaring the second. On Live After Death, everything sounds raw without sounding under-produced, pretty much the way you would want it to sound if you were there….and that’s the point of a live album, right? Having never seen Maiden live, I can’t say how much the theatrics of being there, the Eddie figure, the pyramids, the pyrotechnics, all that, play into the sound, but listening to this always makes me regret I didn’t catch them in concert back when I cared about them a lot. (Do yourself a favor and go to YouTube now and watch this concert. The hair, the spandex, the head-banging – unreal great)
Churchill’s speech provides the intro and the next four tracks define Iron Maiden. “Aces High” blisters. “2 Minutes to Midnight” and “The Trooper” stand as metal hall-of-fame tracks. And “Revelations” remains my favorite across this album, in large part because, as explained above, Maiden manages to blend so much hard rock and metal essentials into one song, including over-the-top serious-as-only-metal-can-be lyrics. “Run to the Hills”, “22 Acacia Avenue” and “Die with Your Boots On” round out the full Maiden package, while I can honestly do without some of the other tracks, including “Rime” and “Powerslave.” If you’ve got the vinyl, play side one again and again. (Ok, so I wrote this and put it on the shelf for a few days and then found myself singing parts of “Powerslave,” so maybe that track stands up better the more I listen to it. Crazy how some songs stick in your head even when you think you don’t want them to)
Listening to this album in full again deepened my appreciation for Iron Maiden’s best stuff, but reminded me that sometimes they just missed. This album, now 33 years old, helps me understand why they’ve lasted more than three decades on the strength of their music, their concerts, their fans, just the raw power in these songs.
Side One holds its own with any other single side of any other metal album. The rest includes five tracks I like or love. Maybe that’s too much that doesn’t move me to give it such a high rating, but I can’t listen to that first side without wanting to listen to it again. And again. Maiden reached peak metal here and that can’t be diminished or dismissed.