Happy Iron Maiden Day, everyone! It’s Friday, September 4th, the street date for Iron Maiden’s 16th studio album: The Book of Souls. To commemorate this event I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the Maiden catalog and rank the studio efforts put out by the band. Obviously, for a band to have a 16th album means it’s been around for a long time and Maiden has certainly withstood the test of time. At one point it seemed like the group would not be able to emerge from the 80s, overtaken by grunge and other forms of “new” metal, but the group came back strong and in more recent years has enjoyed some of its greatest success thanks in large part to its stunning stage shows. I have, to my own surprise, never blogged about Iron Maiden in any extensive way which is kind of odd for a blog centered on nostalgia with some musical presence (though admittedly, this has become more of a video game/animation blog than a music one) so it makes sense to do a big blow-out here. After I compose and post this, I’ll most likely head to the store to grab a copy of the new album and race home to digest it. If I can find the time, I’ll look to post a review as a supplement to this topic. Now, onto the rankings!
15. Virtual XI (1998): In 1995, Blaze Bayley had the unfortunate task of trying to replace a heavy metal legend as frontman for one of the biggest metal acts of the 80s. Bayley is a capable vocalist, but his talents are not particularly suited for the Iron Maiden sound. Worse still, the band did not seem to try to augment its sound to suit Bayley in the least, resulting in two rather poor albums. Only one song, The Clansman, has survived the reunion and even that has been brushed aside in favor of older songs and new ones. Not all of that can be blamed on the vocalist, of course. The songs in general are just rather bland and represent a low point for the band creatively. This was really a continuation of the malaise that affected the group in the 1990’s that wouldn’t be rectified until 2000’s Brave New World.
14. The X Factor (1995): I could basically cut and paste the synopsis for Virtual XI here as well, right down to only one song making it to the stage post-reunion, “The Sign of the Cross.” The X Factor is the marginally better of the two Blaze albums as there is a slight uptick in energy. Some of the songs though, such as Man on the Edge, sound like they were written with Dickinson in mind and then handed to Bayley and they suffer for it. Both Blaze albums are for Maiden completists only.
13. No Prayer for the Dying (1990): Iron Maiden entered the 1990s with a dud. By now, the Maiden formula had been well established: fast songs, catchy leads, galloping bass lines, and soaring vocals. The problem being that variety was becoming hard to come by as the band chugged along like a machine for the duration of the 80s. An album would drop, followed by a huge world tour and then a trip back to the studio. It was a pace no band could maintain. Come 1990’s No Prayer for the Dying, that heavy workload was starting to show. The production on the album sounds like it was handled in a quick, lazy, manner and Dickinson’s voice is throaty and weather-beaten. There’s little imagination in the songs from both a structural standpoint and lyrically. The result was the worst Maiden record of the Dickinson era and none of the songs are played live any longer.
12. Iron Maiden (1980): Debut records seem to go one of two ways: they’re either really good or really forgettable. Count Iron Maiden’s debut album amongst the forgettable ones. Most of that is due to poor production and the band not quite yet finding its sound. The band feels like it’s being held back and that’s really easy to see now since we can compare the studio tracks from this album with the live versions. Paul Di’Anno, Iron Maiden’s original vocalist, brings a kind of punk sound to the band that may sound like a poor fit to those who grew up on Dickinson’s Maiden, but it actually works in some places. “Prowler” is a nice opener that suits Di’Anno but a slower tempo track such as “Strange World” is a poor fit (the song as a whole really feels like a poor fit for Maiden in general). The slower parts of “Charlotte the Harlot” also sound off, but then again, the song is unspectacular. Out of all the tracks on the album, only the title track, “Prowler,” and “Phantom of the Opera” are really memorable. “Running Free” was a concert mainstay for a long time and I never really understood why as it’s a rather boring tune. “Sanctuary” isn’t very good on the album, but is an example of a song sounding better when the band plays it live.
11. Fear of the Dark (1992): The last album before Bruce Dickinson departed the band, Fear of the Dark was more of the same when compared with its predecessor, No Prayer for the Dying. Boring compositions, poor production, and Dickinson’s voice sounding shot after years of touring. As a whole, the songs are better than the ones on No Prayer, but that’s not saying much. The saving grace for the album is its epic closing title track, but numerous live renditions recorded since illustrate how poor the production on the studio version was. It’s the only song from the album that’s still played live.
10. Dance of Death (2003): I’m happy to report, that we’ve exited the realm of poor to sub par Iron Maiden albums and we’ve entered the “okay” range. 2000’s Brave New World was a true return to form kind of album for Iron Maiden. It marked the return of vocalist Bruce Dickinson as well as guitarist Adrian Smith. It also felt like it had a real fresh, quasi-modern approach to song writing and production. It was the album that made Iron Maiden relevant once more. When the band went back into the studio to record its follow-up, they pretty much just tried to copy the formula that made Brave New World great. As a result, Dance of Death feels like the B-sides for Brave New World. There’s some good stuff, but a lot of it just feels like filler. Hurting the album is that its three lengthiest tracks are more “miss” than “hit.” Some fans really dig “Paschendale” but I’ve always found it too boring, and I’m someone who typically enjoys long compositions. Dance of Death is an okay album, simply put. Whenever I return to it I’m usually left satisfied, but I’m also cognizant of the fact that I could have spent my time listening to a better Maiden album.
9. A Matter of Life and Death (2006): A Matter of Life and Death was a return to form in a bad way: the muddy production of the 1990s albums. For whatever reason, the band decided to forego traditional mastering and opted for a raw sound. That kind of approach would probably work for a punk band or maybe even a thrash band, but not for a metal band such as Maiden that made its mark with complicated lead work and soaring vocals. The oppressive sound does suit the subject matter, which is a bleak and cynical take on the world climate at the time. A Matter of Life and Death is a complicated release. It’s easy to see what the band was going for, but they just didn’t quite get there. That said, there’s some really strong compositions on this record such as “For the Greater Good of God,” “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns,” and “Lord of Light.” Unfortunately, a lot of the songs just don’t work well with each other. They’re just way too similar with seven out of the ten tracks basically starting and ending the same way: slow, sometimes acoustic, intro, crescendo into a fast part or gallop, a chorus that’s pretty much just the song’s title, quiet outro. It becomes exhausting by the album’s end. The album essentially feels like a series of singles. Maybe if they had broken up tracks 7-10 better it wouldn’t have been as overbearing. This approach makes A Matter of Life and Death the band’s most uneven release.
8. The Final Frontier (2010): Despite the album’s title, The Final Frontier is not the final album for Iron Maiden, which can only be considered a good thing. In comparison with its immediate predecessor, The Final Frontier is an improvement in almost every area. The production is stellar, the song structure more varied, and the album does an overall better job of blending new elements with some of the more traditional, old school, traits of Maiden’s past. The only major issue carried over is, once again, the arrangement of the backside tracks. Maybe the album could have been arranged better, though I’m not sure they could have avoided the redundancy effect. Really, some of the songs should just have their intro/outro portions removed. I feel compelled to point out that The Final Frontier contains Maiden’s best power ballad, the Dickinson penned “Coming Home.” That one easily has the best chance at becoming a set list mainstay going forward.
7. Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988): I swear ranking this album as seventh is merely a coincidence! Seventh Son has the distinction of being perhaps the only Maiden album to go from being underrated by the fan base to overrated. The presence of synthesizers on it and the previous album were controversial at the time and disliked by many, but the dredge that would follow seems to have made fans appreciate the lightness of the record in hindsight. The only thing holding Seventh Son back is the absence of a killer track. From track 1 to 8, this is a solid and entertaining record but when it’s over it’s over. Some of the tracks, like “The Clairvoyant” and “Moonchild,” have made a return to the stage but the album lacks a defining track. Even lesser albums, like Fear of the Dark, can’t say the same, making Seventh Son of a Seventh Son the classic example of a good, not great, album.
6. Killers (1981): The follow-up to the first Maiden record and only other featuring Paul Di’Anno on vocals marked a big improvement over the debut record. Everything felt faster, and tighter, and Di’Anno was at his best and comfortable with the material. The title track, “Wrathchild,” “Ghengis Khan,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “Purgatory” are among my picks for standout tracks. Unlike with the debut record, not many of these songs survived the transition to Dickinson with really only “Wrathchild” being a semi-common occurrence in set lists. That mostly feels like a reaction to a lot of these being tailored to suit Di’Anno’s vocals, particularly his falsetto. This is probably the most underrated album in the Maiden catalog, don’t sleep on it!
5. Powerslave (1984): If Killers is the most underrated Maiden album, Powerslave just might be the most overrated. This is mostly due to the album’s high points being really high, but the lows really low. This album contains perhaps my all-time favorite Maiden track, “Aces High,” and my most detested, “Back in the Village.” “2 Minutes to Midnight” might also be my pick for most overrated Maiden song as it always felt like a filler track to me but its inclusion in the set list over the years says otherwise. A far better song, “Flash of the Blade,” is criminally underplayed but the album’s title track has enjoyed a nice run. I also can’t talk about Powerslave without mentioning the epic at the end, the 13 minute “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which up until now, has remained Iron Maiden’s longest song. It is a pretty excellent tune, when it’s rocking, but it also feels like it’s long for the sake of being long. There’s a portion in the middle that could have, and should have, been trimmed down some as it derails the song’s momentum. I’m guessing the band disagrees with that take, especially now that it has returned to the live show and affords the band a nice break during the show.
4. Brave New World (2000): Brave New World was the comeback no one expected and few probably knew that they were anticipating. It was such a shock to hear Iron Maiden be relevant again that I almost didn’t believe it. “The Wicker Man” announced the band’s triumphant return, and heralded the return of Bruce Dickinson to where he belonged. While I could easily criticize the album for giving rise to the slow, fast, slow approach to song structure I so lampooned on A Matter of Life and Death, in 2000 it just wasn’t as noticeable or as overdone. Here’s one album I wish would be played more at concerts, but at least we have the DVD for Rock in Rio that included a ton of cuts from this album. The band plays the songs with such a contagious exuberance that makes it so easy to get into. This is a band making an album out of sheer enjoyment and it shows. Now please, pretty please, play “Out of the Silent Planet” on the next tour!
3. Somewhere in Time (1986): Sometimes after I finish listening to Somewhere in Time I’m left thinking it’s my favorite Iron Maiden album. I could also say that about each of the next two albums on this list, which speaks to how close I feel they are. Somewhere in Time is a true Maiden classic. While it contains equal parts greatness and filler, its high points really justify its ranking. The lead track, “Caught Somewhere in Time,” is one of Maiden’s best and I remain flabbergasted as to why it gets overlooked today while lesser, though still good, tracks like “Heaven Can Wait” are not. In terms of filler, “Deja-vu” is one the better tracks, a quick, catchy little number that would make a great B-side for a lead single. “Sea of Madness” is a weird track with odd time signatures for this era of Maiden, making it one of their most forward-thinking tunes. The only things holding the album back is the awful “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” which feels like a song that needed more work and the ho-hum closer (when compared to Powerslave’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) “Alexander the Great,” which tries too hard to feel like a Maiden epic.
2. The Number of the Beast (1982): Here we arrive at the album that made Iron Maiden a household name, inspiring protests and album burnings across the world. The Number of the Beast is a classic heavy metal album and the fact that it heralded the Bruce Dickinson era of Maiden makes it even more memorable. The holy trinity of “The Number of the Beast,” “Run to the Hills,” and “Hallowed be thy Name” represent three of Maiden’s finest compositions with “Hallowed…” being my pick as the definitive Iron Maiden song. A lot of Maiden’s modern tracks feel like a callback to “Hallowed…” though few have approached its perfectly constructed pace. The only thing that kind of bugs me about this album is that it chose not to lead with the title track. I have no idea how the band resisted that temptation, or why it did, as it would have ranked among the best album openers in metal history. I’m just thankful it was the first Bruce Dickinson track I ever heard because that’s an introduction I can never forget.
1. Piece of Mind (1983): Just narrowly edging The Number of the Beast, by the slimmest of margins, is the follow-up record Piece of Mind. If I were to rank every track on both records I’d probably pick “Hallowed Be Thy Name” and “The Number of the Beast” one and two, but the back-end of that list would feature more tracks from The Number of the Beast than Piece of Mind. And Piece of Mind has its own stand-out tracks to be proud of too. I’m talking songs like “Flight of Icarus,” “Still Life,” “Sun and Steel,” and “The Trooper,” Maiden’s signature gallop. Piece of Mind is the more complete record, and the only reason why it’s close is because the closing track, “To Tame a Land,” sucks. That song may be Maiden’s most boring and is just a toothless way to end an album. It’s to Piece of Mind what “Invaders” is to The Number of the Beast, a filler track placed inexplicably in a position of prominence. The only difference being there isn’t an obvious closing track on Piece of Mind that could have taken its place.
So there you have it, Iron Maiden’s fifteen studio albums ranked according to me. I am by no means the authority on the subject, but if you’re someone looking to get into Iron Maiden those top three albums I selected are rather hard to debate. Here’s hoping the new album, The Book of Souls, makes a case to enter the top ten. Considering the album tops 90 minutes it’s already risen to number one in terms of length and there will be plenty to chew on.