Iron Maiden's never really changed, so neither has the band's importance | Music Essay | Indy Week

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Iron Maiden's never really changed, so neither has the band's importance

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Iron Maiden's greatness exists as a foregone conclusion. Pioneers of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and one of the most influential bands, metal or not, of all time, Maiden set the template for generations of headbangers to come. Bands they influenced, from Metallica to Corrosion of Conformity, have become influential themselves.

From the outset, Maiden seemed destined—or at least determined—for greatness. In the new book, Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, former Maiden vocalist Paul Di'Anno remembers the band's 1981 U.S. tour, opening for Judas Priest—one of Maiden's few substantive rivals for metal-legend prestige. They were trying to be the better band.

"[Priest] wanted us to come over [to America] with them because they weren't selling tickets, as we were the new boys and everybody wanted to come and see us," he says. "An interviewer said, 'How will it be with you and Judas Priest?' and somebody in our camp said, 'Ah, it'll be no problem. We'll kick their asses. They're all old men.'"

Three decades later, of course, Iron Maiden are now the old men, with members all in their 50s. The English heavy metal titans have played on six continents; in the '80s, they even took their show deep within the Soviet bloc. Their legacy was cemented long ago. When the band makes its first-ever appearance in Raleigh next week, it's unlikely there will be many new converts among the throngs.

Despite the scores of old bands now cashing in on past successes, Iron Maiden's ongoing Maiden England Tour doesn't feel like pandering for nostalgia from an over-the-hill band. That's because Iron Maiden has remained Iron Maiden, changing only gradually in the last 40 years and aging gracefully. Despite some personnel turnover, the band has existed with little interruption.

And while they'll never claim the most varied or daring catalog, few can argue Maiden's overall consistency. 2010's The Final Frontier, Maiden's 15th studio album, is a solid entry in a classic catalog, neither the best nor the worst. Countless younger bands—from local figures Widow or Colossus to national acts Volture or 3 Inches of Blood—aim to rebottle Maiden's lightning. But the veterans are keeping pace, if not still besting the disciples.

When bassist and principal songwriter Steve Harris founded Iron Maiden in 1975, the band was a scrappy upstart fueled by prog-rock ambition and punk speed, an inspired new addition to the NWOBHM army that Judas Priest had largely started. Alongside peers that included Saxon, Diamond Head, Angel Witch and Def Leppard, Iron Maiden helped forge the shape, style and sound of heavy metal to come.

"The New Wave of British Heavy Metal is super important because, number one, it really helped define heavy metal," critic Martin Popoff says in Louder Than Hell. "You had a uniform, you had four or five songs on every record about how great it was to be metal, no ballads, the playing was elevated. If you could go back and find shreds of things that define heavy metal along the way, this was a place where all of them came together."

But Maiden managed to be both influential (a la Venom) and commercially successful (a la Def Leppard), a relative rarity. With their unrelenting speed, complex songwriting and iconic imagery (the band's ghoulish mascot, Eddie, has appeared on every album cover and T-shirt), early albums Iron Maiden and Killers made an immediate impression. Di'Anno's gruff vocals and the band's unrelenting speed set a lasting template and suggested an early punk-metal fusion. They picked up a following in the UK, and their ambitions expanded accordingly.

Soon after the dynamic Samson singer Bruce Dickinson replaced Di'Anno, Iron Maiden became international stars with 1982's The Number of the Beast. On Beast, the band established what would become the classic Maiden sound: harmonic guitar solos spinning off of punkish riffs, prog-like time changes led by Harris' hyperactive bass lines, and Dickinson's raw, operatic voice. Charting in a dozen countries and reaching No. 1 in the UK, The Number of the Beast eventually went on to sell more than 14 million copies worldwide, more than 10 percent of the band's total estimated worldwide sales. It also kicked off a string of unimpeachable albums: 1983's Piece of Mind, 1984's Powerslave, 1985's Live After Death, 1986's Somewhere in Time and 1988's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.

But Iron Maiden was never a proper hitmaker. Their songs were too long and too loud for radio, and they were dogged by misplaced accusations of Satanism. Maiden built its audience, mostly, through relentless touring. They had a memorable mascot and a stage show filled with props and pyrotechnics, bringing a new and exciting element to the genre.

"There weren't a lot of heavy metal bands outside of Alice Cooper that had that huge focus on that area of presentation, and that was something that hooked people early on," says Decibel editor Albert Mudrian in Louder Than Hell. "The band was going to sell a lot of shirts no matter how many records they sold, just because they had a great logo and this great presentation."

The horror-comic likeness of Eddie made for savvy merchandising. The wardrobes of zombified caricatures emblazoned on most metal bands' merchandise even now speaks to the continued success of that model. But for Maiden, the influence of dark fantasy was more than a marketing trick. Maiden's preoccupations with fantastic storytelling had deep roots in literature and film.

Powerslave, for instance, provided an adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," while Robert Burns' poem "Tam o' Shanter" and the film Damien: Omen II inspired "The Number of the Beast." Coincidentally, it parallels Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic horror tale "Young Goodman Brown." Like Led Zeppelin's Tolkien fandom and, later, Mastodon's Melville adaptation, Iron Maiden drew from the high drama of their literary interests to make deceptively high-minded music. Just as comic books recently have been awarded a critical reassessment as serious artwork, so too has heavy metal. Iron Maiden serves as a foundation for such.

The escapist thrills of Maiden's literary fuel lent themselves to powerful visual presentations on stage. With tours themed by the band's latest album, the stage sets, giant Eddie puppets, props and pyrotechnics served as mechanisms for live storytelling. From Elvis' hip gyrations and Jerry Lee Lewis' flaming piano to Alice Cooper's on-stage executions and Ozzy's bat biting, theatricality has historically been a major part of rock 'n' roll's larger-than-life appeal. In metal, this is especially true—and Maiden is at least partially to thank. The continued spectacle has helped Maiden remain a major concert draw.

After Dickinson left the band to pursue a solo career, Iron Maiden slogged through much of the '90s with the comparatively dull Blaze Bayley. When Dickinson rejoined the band in 1999, Iron Maiden entered a new period of surprising creative fertility. They released four new studio albums, seven live albums and five hits compilations, all of which played to their strengths. These new albums didn't threaten to dethrone the classics, but they didn't embarrass Maiden's legacy, either. When Iron Maiden finally comes to Raleigh, then, there's no reason to suspect diminishing returns.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Cast in iron."

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