Today’s album is widely-regarded as the magnum opus of a legendary singer’s solo career. This crown jewel of an album, coupled with the low-water mark his former band was at in the late 90’s, would result in a reunion and a new legacy.
Bruce Dickinson – The Chemical Wedding
Released September 25, 1998 via Air Raid Records UK
My Favorite Tracks – The Tower, Chemical Wedding, The Book Of Thel
The Chemical Wedding was Bruce’s 5th solo outing and his 4th since leaving Iron Maiden in 1993. Former Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith was also along for the ride, having joined with Bruce the year prior for the Accident Of Birth album. Helming the console for production and also picking up a guitar was Roy Z, whose Tribe Of Gypsies bandmates would also fill out Dickinson’s solo band.
The album’s lyrics and themes were inspired by the works of English poet and painter William Blake. Blake’s painting The Ghost Of A Flea was used as the cover art. The marriage of Blake’s themes of religion and nationality along with heavy metal would create a stunning and unique record. At a few points where Blake’s works were directly read as song intros, English shock rocker Arthur Brown provided the narration.
King In Crimson
Things open with a banger. The guitars are low and heavy and Bruce builds through a powerful pre-chorus to deliver the to-the-point chorus. Adrian and Roy Z are all over this track with an extended solo section. This is one of the songs from the album that one really wonders what it would have sounded like with Maiden.
A more atmospheric and brooding tune, the title track evokes images of marriage and death. It’s unclear what a “chemical wedding” actually is but it sounds pretty messed up. Bruce again stays quiet through the verses then goes air raid siren on the chorus. Play to your strengths, so they say, and Bruce does just that.
A bass line opens the track, reminiscent of that band. The song goes into another metal outing that sees Bruce attacking the vocals from the get-go. The lyrics possess a ton of symbolism that some speculate is derived from tarot cards. This blend of heavy metal and spooky, mysterious symbology persists throughout the record and creates a vibe that transcends the cliches of heavy metal songwriting.
The heaviness ratchets up a few notches on this slamming tune about the Devil. Satan is out on the prowl here, seemingly attacking people through their dreams in the vein of Freddy Kruger. The pre-chorus offers a bit of a melodic reprieve before the band tears through the heavy as hell chorus. This song also got a video with Arthur Brown fittingly in the role of Satan.
The Book Of Thel
Directly lifted from a William Blake work, both Blake’s story and Dickinson’s song ponder the inevitable loss of innocence and the bleak ultimate fate of life. The song tears through the twisted tale of Thel discovering her terrible destiny.
Gates of Urizen
More from Blake’s mythology here, Urizen is a powerful figure that represents one aspect of a central god who later fell and created the material world out of spite. The song offers a vague recounting of being at Urizen’s gates and a dark transformation happening. Despite the heavy subject matter the song is one of the lighter offerings on the record.
Most Dickinson-related fare requires an epic and Jerusalem serves that purpose here. Tied to Blake’s most ambitious and ponderous work of the same name, Dickinson sings of Jerusalem being re-established in England. The lyrics hold to Blake’s vague work, not offering a clear picture of whatever symbolism is delivered here. The band are up to the task of bringing a lush soundscape to this epic tale.
Trumpets Of Jericho
Here Bruce takes a story from the Bible, one where soldiers march around the outer walls of the city of Jericho until the walls crumble. In this song the unconventional siege tactic doesn’t work, because nothing about science indicates it would work, and the walls remain. The tune discusses the feeling of futility after being unable to break the walls down.
This song makes use of a well-worn topic in heavy metal – the literal use of metal to create engines of war. Soulless metal monsters storm the landscape and devour humanity in their jaws. The creations here seem to be made of humans now repurposed as war machines. The song’s heaviness matches the weight of the subject matter.
The album closes with a very trippy and atmospheric number. The meaning is somewhat unclear but the protagonist seems to be rejecting the ills of civilization, it is a last stand against death and decay. As the song winds to its conclusion it offers the chorus of the title track as a reprise.
The Chemical Wedding was a critically acclaimed success for Bruce Dickinson. It is widely considered his solo masterpiece. Commercial success was more elusive for this traditional metal album in 1998, just as it was for Bruce and Adrian’s former bandmates toiling in obscurity. Less than 6 months after the release of this album, Bruce and Adrian rejoined Iron Maiden for a reunion that kicked off a new legacy for that group and an era that has now lasted 23 years.
It is believed by many that The Chemical Wedding was the catalyst for the reunion, as Bruce and Adrian were outshining Iron Maiden’s maligned output of late 90’s. It seems to have been a more practical decision involving finances but this doesn’t stop fans from ranking this record highly, even slotting it ahead of some of Maiden’s classics. Many wonder what this album would have sounded like backed by Iron Maiden, though that discounts the influence of Roy Z. Rather than ponder what-ifs, the reformed Maiden pushed forward with creativity on their own terms. We get occasional live samples of what Bruce would sound like on the Blaze Bayley material, but The Chemical Wedding stands on its own as a Bruce Dickinson classic.