Bruce Dickinson 2024
Photo: John McMurtrie / FunHouse Entertainment

Metal’s Bruce Dickinson Remains Vital on ‘The Mandrake Project’

Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson overcomes creative and personal struggles on his first solo album in 19 years, The Mandrake Project.

The Mandrake Project
Bruce Dickinson
1 March 2024

Iron Maiden‘s longtime singer Bruce Dickinson has enjoyed a career renaissance in recent years, following a period that threatened his creative future. Diagnosed with throat cancer in December 2014, his life appeared to be in jeopardy before treatment made him cancer-free by May 2015. He resumed touring with Iron Maiden until the pandemic shut down operations once again. Then, in 2020, Dickinson’s former partner of 30 years died tragically in the home they had shared in London.

If one thing characterizes Dickinson, it is his capacity to bounce back. Iron Maiden’s well-received album Senjutsu in 2021 returned the metal legends to the top of their game. Besides touring with Maiden, Dickinson hosted a spoken word tour in 2023 and established his own craft beer with a German brewery. Now aged 65, Dickinson, ever the polymath, appears reinvigorated and ready for new adventures.

That spirit inhabits The Mandrake Project, Dickinson’s new multimedia venture, comprising an album, a comic book series, two live-action videos, and an upcoming world tour. Released on 1 March, the LP is Dickinson’s first solo set in 19 years, his seventh in total.

Several versions of the album, including double 180-gram LPs, a limited edition on blue vinyl, and three CD versions at different price points, are available. The comic book tie-in by Z2 Comics, with text by Tony Lee and illustrations by Staz Johnson, has one issue already published. Eleven more quarterly issues, bound into three graphic novels, will appear over the next three years.   

Dickinson wisely avoids making The Mandrake Project a direct parallel to the comics. A few songs on the album reference Dr. Necropolis and Professor Lazarus, two characters from the comics, but they work well enough out of context. Necropolis, incidentally, first appeared in the Iron Maiden song “If Eternity Should Fail” (from 2015’s Book of Souls), which Dickinson reworked for the new album as “Eternity Has Failed”.

The first single, “Afterglow of Ragnarok”, sets the pace of the first part of the album with its power metal riffs, hook-laden chorus, and prog-metal flourishes – much of it the work of Roy Z, Dickinson’s collaborator since 1994’s Balls to Picasso. “Rain on the Graves”, inspired by a visit to the burial place of the poet William Wordsworth (changed to William Blake in the video), carries a similar style through to the third track.

The mood shifts somewhat with “Resurrection Men”, in which Dickinson plays tremolo guitar and bongo drums – his first instrumental contributions to his albums. Later, the song kicks into a Sabbath-meets-Saint Vitus doom riff, a break from the frenetic gallop of the opening tracks.

Bruce Dickinson’s solo work has often shown his flair for different genres – from the classic rock of 1990’s Tattooed Millionaire to the grunge aesthetic of 1996’s Skunkworks to the atmospheric ballads of 2005’s Tyranny of Souls (his previous solo release). This tendency continues toward the end of The Mandrake Project, where the metal furor cools down.

“Face in the Mirror” is a ballad about alcoholism from the viewpoint of a downtrodden character who invites others to reflect on their moral shortcomings before judging his. “Shadow of the Gods” was conceived decades ago as a prospective vocal trio by Dickinson, Ronnie James Dio, and Judas Priest‘s Rob Halford. Dio’s death in 2010 scuppered the plan, so Dickinson performs the song on his own – although it seems a lost opportunity for him not to invite Halford to sing his part.  

The final track, “Sonata (Immortal Beloved)”, is The Mandrake Project‘s most significant departure from stylistic norms. Roy Z’s production dominates an arrangement reminiscent of modern progressive music by the likes of Steven Wilson. The song’s repeated tagline, “Love will tear you apart”, sounds like a sly reference to Joy Division. While it can be jarring to hear Bruce Dickinson’s familiar keening vocals in such a different context, the shift in style demonstrates his willingness to try new things beyond the conventions of metal.  

The Mandrake Project sometimes lacks the creative kick Dickinson’s Iron Maiden bandmates usually give him. Roy Z’s production is a little overdetermined as guitars, drums, and occasional woodwinds mash together in a digital workstation without much live ambiance. Dickinson’s lyrics suit the mood of the music, but gothic tropes, along with allusions to William Blake, Robert Johnson, and the New Testament, sometimes create an impression of metal by numbers.  

That said, Bruce Dickinson’s voice remains powerful against enough memorable hooks and solid riffs to satisfy long-term fans. The Mandrake Project is not the kind of record that is liable to attract new legions of followers. But for an artist this far into his career to still sound energized and committed, especially after the trouble he experienced before its inception, is a creative triumph worth applauding.

RATING 7 / 10