As Backseat Mafia’s ongoing series of Buyers and Beginners Guides demonstrate, picking your way around a discography of a well established musical act can be full of pitfalls and delightfully distracting cul-de-sacs. Even those well versed with the vagaries of music fandom can fall foul of not starting off with the right albums, or getting too distracted by the more well received elements of an act’s output at the expense of great albums with more selective appeal.
A couple of months ago I found myself investigating the output of Iron Maiden for the first time beyond their well-selected Edward the Great compilation. Having already realised that I had a general preference for their work with Bruce Dickinson as frontman, I decided to focus my efforts on seeking out their 80s albums from 1982’s The Number of the Beast onward. As Dickinson’s debut with the band found the NWOBHM quintet re-energised, the enthusiasm and optimism of that album crackles, regardless of the song quality being a bit of a mixed bag. My next stop was their final album of the decade, 1988’s more complex and multi-layered Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, on which the band had fully engaged with synthesisers and the concept album. Despite not being a full on metal head, I enjoyed both albums, and then sought advice from a friend on which of their 80s albums to attempt next. Taking into account his prior knowledge of my tastes, my friend pointed me in the direction of 1983’s Piece of Mind.
Piece of Mind was an important album for Iron Maiden, if for no other reason that it was the album on which many consider the band’s definitive line up finally coalesced, with drummer Clive Burr being replaced by Sooty and Sweep enthusiast Nicko McBrain, thus increasing the band’s charisma ten fold. McBrain makes his presence felt immediately with his enthusiastic percussive thrash opening “Where Eagles Dare” and kicking off the album. Despite their definitive drummer only just being put into place, by this point in their career Iron Maiden were a well drilled act and bandleader Steve Harris had established himself as more than capable of penning a toe-tapping hard rock number. As a result of this Piece of Mind contains a number of songs which fans of the band consider the band’s best, with “The Trooper” being one of Iron Maiden’s most well regarded singles.
As is often the case with New Wave of British Heavy Metal, there was a certain amount of emphasis on preposterous macho chest beating on Piece of Mind, in particular with songs titles like the aforementioned “Where Eagles Dare” and “The Trooper”, as well as “Die With Your Boots On”. Of course, Iron Maiden has continued to mature and evolve in the past 35 years, but at the time, this was exactly the type of thing that the denim and leather wearing hordes got excited about. Not exactly sophisticated stuff, but it certainly gets the blood pumping with Harris’s galloping bass, McBrain’s barely containable drumming, the twin riffing of Adrian Smith and Dave Murray, and Dickinson hollering over the top of it all. It’s not always particularly deep or meaningful, but it is Heavy Metal being performed by some of the masters of the art.
The thing is, without the morale boosting enthusiasm of Number of the Beast, or the conceptual framework of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son to hang the songs from, Piece of Mind is simply a collection of Heavy Metal tunes. While there are no outrights duds in the album’s nine tracks, there is equally not much outside the hits which raises it above being just an album by a decent Heavy Metal band. Iron Maiden have recorded many worse albums than Piece of Mind (much much worse), but I also hesitate at including it among their absolute top draw albums. Maybe it’s an album that takes a bit more time to acclimatise to, but for me, at the moment, as someone who is still finding their way with Iron Maiden, it’s an album I consider to be good rather than one of their greats.
So where next on my exploration of Iron Maiden? Powerslave or Somewhere in Time seem to be the most obvious next calls, but if I see Live After Death, I might not be able to resist starting my exploration of their slightly bewildering line up of live albums.