Maiden England '88 is a fantastic addition to the sacred pool of Iron Maiden live albums. Rough and ready as it is, it serves as a firm reminder of why Maiden remains one of the last heavyweight, arena-headlining metal bands.
From 1980 to 1988, Iron Maiden displayed the kind of dedicated work ethic that puts most bands these days to shame. Every year the band released a more adventurous album than its last, and then undertook an increasingly punishing tour. The result was success, success, and more success, in chart placings worldwide, audience numbers, and frequent critical acclaim, although it wasn't without its costs.
Over Maiden's first eight years as a recording band there were notable changes in its ranks. Vocalist Bruce Dickinson replaced Paul Di'Anno, drummer Nicko McBrain replaced Clive Burr (RIP), and guitarist Adrian Smith replaced Dennis Stratton. The band's definitive line-up was sealed on 1983's Piece of Mind, and of Maiden's first seven studio albums, including classics such as 1981's Killers, 1982's Number of the Beast and 1984's Powerslave, are enshrined in metal's hallowed halls. However, it's 1988's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son that represents the peak of the band's creative powers, and the apex of its ambitions in its first decade of recording.
Rather fittingly, given its conceptual portent, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son also served as an omen, pointing to Maiden's impending downfall. The band’s latest live release, Maiden England '88, captures the band at the tail end of its eight-month global excursion in support of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. The worldwide tour for the album included a first for Maiden: headlining the Monsters of Rock festival at the famed Donington Park in front of more than 100,000 fervent metal fans. However, what that tour cycle is most remembered for is Maiden's two sold-out shows at Birmingham, UK's NEC Arena on 27 and 28 November 1988, where the band performed in front of its largest ever indoor audience at that point, and recorded the VHS release Maiden England.
Originally released in 1989, Maiden England was subsequently re-issued as a limited edition VHS/CD version in 1994, albeit in a truncated form. Maiden England '88 is a double CD released to accompany the band's long-awaited reissuing of Maiden England on DVD, and the bonus for fans on this CD version is that it contains the complete audio of the show, including live versions of five tracks from the show that have not been previously released ("Can I Play with Madness" and "Hallowed Be Thy Name", plus encore songs "Run to the Hills", "Running Free", and "Sanctuary").
Maiden England '88 is an essential purchase for any Maiden fan--and of course rabid Maiden aficionados will be buying both the DVD and CD versions because, well, that's what we’re compelled to do. However, no discussion of Maiden England '88's import can really occur without a little fore and after context, because the album isn't just an electrifying celebration of what makes Maiden one of the best live bands in the world, it's also an album that was recorded at the beginning of Maiden's slow fall from grace.
Maiden's descent to less successful pastures was marked by one of its very best albums: Seventh Son of a Seventh Son followed on from 1986's Somewhere in Time, on which Maiden's first overt forays into the '70s progressive rock much loved by bassist Steve Harris were indulged. By the time the band entered the studio to record Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, the guitar and bass synth experimentation of its predecessor came to full fruition, resulting in a full-blown concept album, based in part on Harris' reading of Orson Scott Card's novel, Seventh Son.
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son is, undoubtedly, a seminal work in Maiden's canon, even if the crux of the tale therein isn't exactly comprehensible for its entire duration. It was the first Maiden album to include up-front keyboards, and was a far more collaborative effort following the troubles recording of Somewhere in Time,which saw no songwriting credits from vocalist Bruce Dickinson. Seventh Son of a Seventh Son debuted at Number 1 on the UK album charts, Number 12 on the US charts, and placed equally high throughout the world. Filled with progged-out mystical metal romps, such as the nine-minute title track, "The Evil that Men Do", and "Infinite Dreams"--as well as leaner, more straight-ahead tracks such as "Can I Play with Madness"--Seventh Son of a Seventh Son received mixed reactions on release. Not everyone was enamored with Maiden indulging its prog-rock predilections, although the positive responses far outweighed the negative. Now, of course, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son is rightly recognized as one of Maiden's (and metal's) masterworks.
For all the album’s success, it ultimately signaled the end of an era for Maiden. Guitarist Adrian Smith, whose harmonizing, twin-guitar attacks with Dave Murray had come to define Maiden's sound, exited the band during pre-production for 1990's No Prayer for the Dying. Dickinson departed after 1992's Fear of the Dark, with a final goodbye tour riven with inter-band tensions. Maiden brought in a replacement guitarist in Janick Gers, and new lead singer in former Wolfsbane frontman Blaze Bayley, but the good ship Maiden was rapidly sinking into an unimaginative mire, and it didn't help that the '90s arrived to cut the knees from under many of metal's former titans.
Much to everyone’s relief, both Smith and Dickinson returned for 2000's Brave New World. The subsequent revival of Maiden's career has made the band more popular than ever, and Maiden England '88's greatest strength is simply that it includes the band's classic line-up performing an equally classic album, at a time when Maiden still sounded enthused--right before it all began to slip away. Like fellow heavy rock stalwarts Rush, Maiden has been on the studio-album/tour/subsequent-live-album bandwagon for the past decade or so, with rousing fare such as 2009's Flight 666 and 2012's En Vivo! being released. With 11 live albums in total, Maiden England '88 is best appreciated in its correct position on the live performance timeline, as it fits neatly between 1985's Live After Death and the three live albums from 1993: A Real Live one, Real Dead One, and the bleeding raw triumph of Live at Donington.
In one sense, that's an advantageous position for Maiden England '88 to occupy. A Real Live one and Real Dead One were recorded on Dickinson's final tour before he left the band, and they are certainly lackluster and less energetic entries into Maiden's live oeuvre--even if they touch upon deeper entries in the band’s catalogue. Live at Donington stands alone as a powerful, warts and all record of Maiden live, and Live After Death is both Maiden's definitive live album and one of the greatest live albums of all time. Following Live After Death would be an unenviable position for Maiden England '88 in 1988, but given we're only hearing the complete concert now, it serves as a previously unexplored full document of a crucial period in Maiden's history.
The overall concert is impressive, and the 18 tracks included pack as powerful and stirring a NWOBHM punch as they did 25 years ago. The temptation to heavily remix Martin Birch's original recording must have been strong for Maiden's current producer du jour, Kevin Shirley, who blends in the newly added tracks seamlessly. However, while Shirley's tweaking has amplified the weight of the material therein tenfold, he hasn't excessively cleaned it up, and the album sounds visceral and live, right down to the occasional fuzzy note and sonic glitch, and Dickinson's rough-shot performance on a few tracks. Maiden England '88 is not the most technically proficient live Maiden album ever released, but it more than makes up for it in grit, grunt and sweat. And who wants pristine live albums anyway? Half the fun of a live Maiden CD is simply blasting it to ear-splitting volume, and screaming along.
Unlike many of Maiden's subsequent live albums Maiden England '88 isn't a greatest-hits package, and that is also one of its strongest features. The inclusion of "Still Life", "Killers", and "The Prisoner" is reason enough to for die-hard Maiden fans to dive in, an the album is the perfect '80s companion piece to Live After Death--with favorites omitted from one covered by the other.
Of course, what we're here for is the theatricality of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and "Moonchild", "Infinite Dreams", "Can I Play With Madness", "The Clairvoyant", "The Evil that Men Do", and a magnificently dramatic 10-minute version of "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son" are all included--as are scorching versions of older tracks "Iron Maiden", "Die with Your Boots On", and "Sanctuary". As far as Seventh Son of a Seventh Son is concerned, Maiden England '88 delivers exactly what fans want. Harris raises his machine-gun bass to thwack and slap on the epic gallops, Smith and Murray beautifully interchange the guitar lines and solos, McBrian wallops the hell out of his kit, and thousands of Birmingham fans sing along to every word--roaring to the heavens every time Dickinson invites them to "scream for me". Not that we needed a reminder, but if you're looking for a clue as to Maiden's enduring popularity and legacy, it’s all here.
Riotously good points aside, although Maiden England '88 is a significant entry in Maiden's discography--with the band at the height of its '80s live prowess, it's also worth noting that the album doesn't capture the best performance from the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son tour. Dickinson was poorly for the shows, and he struggles to hit the high register on tracks like "Hallowed Be Thy Name" and sounds decidedly off-key on more than one occasion on other tracks. Still, flu or not, Dickinson isn't regarded as one of metal's greatest ever frontmen for nothing, and he certainly attacks every song here with all guns blazing. And the frenzied audience gladly takes up some of the slack.
If there's anything to criticize, it's certainly not the album’s content, no matter its roughness. What’s missing is Derek Riggs' iconic artwork. The original cover art by Maiden's much-loved former artist has been replaced, and while that may seem a minor quibble, it does leaves a strong sense of something missing when endeavoring to capture the complete picture of Maiden's finest period of work.
For Maiden fans, the band's '80s era is rich with treasures, and those first seven albums contain everything that is (un)holy about traditional metal. To this day, releases like Seventh Son of a Seventh Son make lifetime fans out of anyone exposed to Maiden, and the fact that the band's career now stretches past 30 years, with over 85 million albums sold, comes down to those albums from 1980 to 1988. When Maiden passes on, and that's not too far off, we will obviously have the band's studio albums to comfort us in our grief. However, at the end of the day, Maiden is a live act. That's where the band built its audience, and it’s in the live arena that its fans worship most fervently to this day.
Maiden England '88 is a fantastic addition to that sacred pool of Maiden live albums. Rough and ready as it is, it serves as a firm reminder of why Maiden remains one of the last heavyweight, arena-headlining metal bands. When the stage lights and pyro finally fade on Maiden's histrionics, heavy metal will be a sadder place indeed. Still, until then... "Scream for me.... Scream for me!"