[17 June 2002]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
I’m likely not the only Iron Maiden fan who lost track of the band after 1992. In the four years that followed 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album, their last in a string of eight spectacular albums during the 1980s, Maiden simply lost all the magic they had during their peak years. 1990’s No Prayer for the Dying was an embarrassment, and 1992’s Fear of the Dark was only a slight improvement. The Iron Maiden I loved during my teen years seemed old and tired, and metal fans like yours truly simply grew up. New musical obsessions grew, and Eighties metal was virtually forgotten. After Fear of the Dark, vocalist Bruce Dickinson left Maiden to pursue a solo career, and the mid-1990s incarnation of the band, with new frontman Blaze Bayley, simply didn’t sound right at all.
Then, a few years ago, several things happened that reignited my long-dormant passion for the band. First, in 1998, the band re-released their catalogue on CD, with improved sound, improved artwork, and CD-ROM features on every disc, making them, in my opinion, some of the best CD reissues I’ve ever seen. And in 1999, while I was rediscovering great albums like Number of the Beast and Piece of Mind, the band announced their new lineup, including the return of departed band members Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith. Now a six-piece band (including bassist Steve Harris, guitarists Dave Murray and Janick Gers, and drummer Nicko McBrain), the new Iron Maiden embarked on a very successful reunion tour. Late that year, it was revealed that they’d been in the studio, and the resulting album, Brave New World, turned out to be one of the more pleasant surprises of 2000, and the band’s best album in 12 years.
So the band headed back on the road in support of the new album, wrapping up their successful run in January, 2001, headlining one night of the huge Rock in Rio festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in front of 250,000 adoring fans (for those with foggy memories, the 2001 Rock In Rio was where the world learned of Britney Spears’ pottymouth). The show was filmed for a future DVD release (which comes out this June in the UK, July in North America), but to whet the appetite of their fans, Iron Maiden has put out Rock In Rio in CD format, their fifth official live release. So where does it rank among live Maiden records? Well, it’s much better than the awful A Real Live Dead One and the tepid Maiden Japan EP, a notch above Live At Donington, but unfortunately, nowhere near as brilliant as 1985’s Live After Death, the most intense, well-produced live metal album ever created.
Rock in Rio is an album mainly for loyal Maiden fans; more specifically, fans who liked the Brave New World album (as narrow a target market as I’ve ever come across). Never one to become a “greatest hits” band, Iron Maiden have always played sets that heavily promoted their most recent album, and on Rock in Rio, there are no less than six new songs. That’s enough to irk longtime fans who still yearn for the old stuff (it caused a furor in discussion groups), but the songs are fresh enough that they fit very easily into the setlist. “The Wicker Man” is a blistering opener, and taut “The Mercenary” similarly holds its own. Lengthier tracks like “Ghost of the Navigator”, “Brave New World”, and “Blood Brothers” show the band is still capable of quality new material of the epic variety. Best, though, is the nine-minute “Dream of Mirrors”, which builds up to a frenzied, galloping beat, tailor-made for a massive stadium show.
The rest of the 19-track set is full of selections that reach back into Iron Maiden’s glorious past: “Wrathchild”, “2 Minutes to Midnight”, “The Trooper”, “The Evil That Men Do”, “Sanctuary”, and “Hallowed Be Thy Name” are all time-honored classics, and are performed impeccably, as are the live staples fans have come to expect, like “Iron Maiden”, “The Number of the Beast”, and the ubiquitous “Run to the Hills”. The two best tracks, by far, are the overlooked gems from the Blaze Bayley era “Sign of the Cross” and “The Clansman”, which are given the Bruce Dickinson treatment for the first time ever on record. Their performance of “The Clansman” is spectacular, and will have the more jaded listeners stifling the urge to yell along, “Freedom!” during the chorus.
Speaking of our “Bruce Bruce”, nobody can get a huge stadium crowd going like Dickinson can. For the entirety of the performance, he’s in classic form: great vocal range, total command of the crowd, and full of facetious pomposity. Usually his comically surreal between-song monologues are truncated on live Maiden albums (I once heard him go on about penguins during a show years ago), and I’m unsure how much of his babbling has been edited here, if at all, but there are still fun moments, like his invoking Alfred Lord Tennyson in one introduction: “Into the valley of death rode the 600 . . . cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them, volley’d and thunder’d, The Trooperrrrr!!!” I mean, what’s not to like about that?
The rest of the band is in solid form. Bassist Steve Harris contributes his typically frenetic musicianship, which has to be seen to be believed. Drummer Nicko McBrain, owner of the fastest right foot in rock music, is in great form, as are Adrian Smith and Dave Murray, two unspectacular, but very steady lead guitarists. I’ve never been a fan of guitarist Janick Gers; he’s too much of a ham and a sloppy soloist, and his butchering of Smith’s original solo parts in “2 Minutes to Midnight” and “Hallowed Be Thy Name” are guaranteed to offend older fans.
As for the production quality, I like its raw, warts-and-all feel. No overdubs were added, which is great, but the overall sound is too muddy for my liking. It’s only slightly better than a soundboard recording, and often it’s too hard to hear all three guitarists (hint to listeners: Murray is in the left speaker, Gers in the right, and Smith in the middle). Maiden’s six-man lineup would have benefited from the same meticulous recording treatment that was used by Martin Birch on Live After Death, but fortunately, the energy of their performance saves the album.
The primary source of that energy on the record is the Brazilian crowd. For the entire show, they sing along with every word, incredibly on the newer songs as well. When a quarter of a million people sing every line of songs like “Fear of the Dark” and “The Trooper” in unison, it sends chills down your spine. Now those are devoted fans . . .
Rock in Rio also has a couple of multimedia features, excerpted from the upcoming DVD: a full performance of “Brave New World”, and an enjoyable short “Day in the Life” documentary, showing the band’s preparation for the show, as well as the aftershow gathering. The version of Quicktime 5 needed for viewing these pieces has proven very finicky for lots of fans, including yours truly (which begs the question, What was wrong with Quicktime 4?), but once you work the kinks out, the picture quality is excellent.
So, the bottom line: if you’re new to Iron Maiden, buy Live After Death before anything else. For all the fans who grew up with the band like I did, either pick this CD up, or hold out for the DVD. It’s great to hear the band playing with energy again, and Rock in Rio simply overflows with it.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/ironmaiden-rock/