There was a time when music, in all its forms, could only be heard live. Even when recording sounds and recreating melodies in an average living room became a viable option — thanks to the unwieldy phonograph that later transmogrified into the low-tech gramophone — connoisseurs of music saw this as a cheap substitute for live performances. Today, of course, the reverse applies to most musical genres: live shows are generally inferior to studio recordings — except when it comes to rock music or heavy metal.
Consider Iron Maiden. Their albums mostly are a prelude to a world tour. Once the tour ends, the band hits the studio again because it needs songs to play during the next tour. The fans themselves buy the band’s albums in order to memorise the musical phrases and lyrics, the better to prepare themselves for the grand sing-along at the gigs. That’s the be all and end all of a Maiden album.
Their latest studio album, The Book of Souls, is one of the biggest metal releases in a long time. And the question it poses is: when’s the album tour? Every musical act has a specific sound and if you want to sell your albums, you’ve to stay true to that sound. Maiden’s sound is dramatic, operatic: lots of choruses and a capellas bits; many occasions to headbang with your fist (devil’s horns) raised in the air and an agonised expression on your face; and indeed some soulful phrases that would make the crowd wave their glowing little lighters in the air. You get the whole deal in The Book of Souls, another album that seems to have been written with the live audiences in mind.
If I take the Iron Maiden discography, put all their songs in a little jar, shuffle the contents and rearrange everything in a random order, things will still make sense. All songs would be a good fit on any of the albums. Listening to The Great Unknown, a number on the new one, I am hearkened back to the days of Powerslave and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, which, by the way still sound excellent (since I heard them played live once).
When I was a college student, Maiden appealed to me more so than some of the other heavy and thrash metal bands because the band seemed slightly less crass than others, and more cerebral in a sense. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (a song on Powerslave) by Maiden preceded my encounter with Coleridge. I still consider it one of their best songs, mainly because the band seldom plays it live (it’s too long and musically complex for that). So on the new album, the track called The Red and the Black raised by hopes somewhat (it’s the title of a great novel by Stendhal), which were soon dashed, for the parallel, after listening to the song — “Suppress the demons that plague the night” — seems farfetched at best. But you never know, at the next Maiden gig, you may still see a giant blow-up Stendhal figure that Bruce Dickinson, Maiden frontman, fights to the death with a sword.
Slayer and Iron Maiden are playing music as if we’re back to the golden ’80s once again — when Slayer released its first album, Show No Mercy, and Maiden reached the capstone of its career with The Number of the Beast. While this is great going for both bands, it outlines the general problem with metal in this day and age. The point is that we’re not in the ’80s anymore, as much as some of us would like to be.
The imagery of swordfights and ruination leads me to the second biggest metal release of the year (although the more hardcore thrash metal type may take issue with the word “second” here). Slayer has a new album out: Repentless. When will these metal bands run out of the large but limited reservoir of Biblical and doomsday synonyms that they so admire? How come no other metal band has called one of its albums “Repentless” yet? Perhaps because “repentless” is not a word that exists in the dictionary of English language. The legitimate term is “unrepentant”, but I am sure some metal band has already called one of their albums that. So good work, Slayer.
In Repentless, we come straight to the point. The album begins with an acoustic overture that gets dirtier and heavier, and then suddenly you’re slam in the middle of the title track, Repentless, which hits you like jackhammer of sounds (now you know why we call it thrash metal!). Tom Araya’s vocals still sound like he isn’t the greying middle-aged man he actually is. And the lyrics. Oh the lyrics: “Arrogance, violence, world in disarray/ Dealing with insanity every f***** day.” It’s like the words were written by someone going through a difficult adolescence.
One thing has to be said about both these albums, though. They signify a return to the roots for both Slayer and Iron Maiden. Metal fans everywhere are always concerned about their beloved bands selling out or making a Faustian pact with the hairdresser, as Metallica, when they got rid of their long locks, had famously done. But they can rest assured that Slayer and Maiden, at least for the time being, are giving out no such indications.
They’re playing music as if we’re back in the golden ’80s once again — when Slayer released its first album, Show No Mercy, and Maiden reached the capstone of its career with The Number of the Beast. While this is great going for both bands, it outlines the general problem with metal in this day and age. The point is that we’re not in the ’80s anymore, as much as some of us would like to be. I am one of those still waiting for metal bands to follow the evolutionary trajectory that jazz, blues and hip hop traced over many decades — not by mimicking the past but by adapting to the present. And so the two great metal albums of the year — possibly of the decade — leave me sonically satisfied but yet disappointed as someone who cares about music.