[9 June 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If there’s one band that’s the least suited for a “best of” album, it’s Iron Maiden. Sure, the UK metal giants have released a bevy of singles over the past 30-odd years, but many of their most popular songs are album cuts that tend to run anywhere from six minutes to 14 minutes in length. With 15 studio albums, there are simply far too many great songs to whittle down to one or two CDs worth of music that accurately summarizes the band’s esteemed career. Still, the band and its labels keep on trying to lure the casual fans with compilation after compilation. While none of the last five collections have been perfect, 2008’s Somewhere Back in Time is arguably the best because it focuses strictly on Iron Maiden’s 1980-1988 era, and the new From Fear to Eternity follows that CD up with a detailed look at the band’s output over the last 20 years.
Skeptics might wonder why on earth anyone would want to chronicle the latter-day work of a band whose best music was made in its first ten years, but as Iron Maiden has proved over the last decade, they’re still capable of making great music. In fact, their last four albums comprise a late-career peak that few, if any, bands that have been around for that long can boast. So although the idea of a compilation album still doesn’t exactly work for this band, and the “best of” album is sure to die in the wake of iTunes, gauged strictly as a mix CD From Fear to Eternity is a very good examination of an underrated yet very productive period.
Being a compilation that spans Iron Maiden’s body of work from 1990 to 2010, like it or not we’re forced to revisit Maiden’s early-‘90s output, which if it wasn’t disastrous, was less than stellar. 1990’s No Prayer For the Dying and 1992’s Fear of the Dark rank as Maiden’s worst work, the band sounding exhausted after ten years of relentless recording and touring. Still, we get a surprising six selections from that period on this two-disc set. While “Tailgunner”, “Afraid to Shoot Strangers”, and “Be Quick or Be Dead” are decent inclusions, the evangelist-baiting novelty “Holy Smoke” and the tacky “Bring Your Daughter… To the Slaughter” remain two of the biggest embarrassments in Iron Maiden’s discography. Of course, “Fear of the Dark” has gone on to be a fan favorite despite being one of bassist Steve Harris’s laziest songwriting efforts, but the band made a smart decision including the live version from 2002’s Rock in Rio. Sung along by half a million Brazilians, the song sounds so much better, and it has gone on to become the definitive recording of the song.
Interestingly, the controversial two albums with Blaze Bayley, 1996’s The X Factor and 1998’s Virtual XI, are represented by live versions sung by Bruce Dickinson after he rejoined the band in 1999. While Bayley was able to hold his own on those two maligned records, Dickinson outshines him in every way, as the three included performances attest. Dickinson’s renditions of the epic “Sign of the Cross” and the anthemic “The Clansman” reiterate how well those songs hold up against the band’s most popular material, while “Man on the Edge”, originally released on the “Wicker Man” single in 2000, is a welcome addition.
The majority of From Fear to Eternity is represented by the band’s last four albums, and deservedly so. From 2000, Brave New World‘s “The Wicker Man” and the title track are late-period Maiden classics. 2003’s Dance of Death gives us the catchy “Rainmaker”, live favorite “No More Lies”, and the engaging war epic “Paschendale”. From 2006’s A Matter of Life and Death, the enigmatic “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg” and the passionate “These Colours Don’t Run” are two more high water marks, while 2010’s The Final Frontier is best represented by “El Dorado” and the reminiscent “Coming Home”.
As usual, there will be gripes about what was and was not included. For example, “Holy Smoke” and “Bring Your Daughter” should have been replaced by 1992’s “From Here to Eternity” and the live version of “Lord of the Flies” from 2006’s Death on the Road. But just like you can’t please everyone at the same time, you simply can’t make a perfect Iron Maiden compilation. Nevertheless, this collection is a lot stronger than many people will give credit for, and if anything, it shines the spotlight even more on the last ten years, which have seen the metal legends approach the end of their career on a high note.