Last week I covered one of the most significant albums in heavy metal history. Let’s go 2 for 2 on that front.
Iron Maiden – Powerslave
Released September 3, 1984 via EMI
My Favorite Tracks – 2 Minutes To Midnight, Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, Aces High
This release marks Maiden’s fifth studio album and the one where the band truly became a worldwide phenomenon. The album and resulting tour would get the band in front of audiences across most of the civilized world.
And of course, it usually isn’t an Iron Maiden album without an epic cover. Powerslave does not disappoint on that front. Our friend Eddie was worked into a pharaoh sitting atop his throne and the Derek Riggs cover is one of Maiden’s most celebrated art pieces.
Discussion is a fairly easy task with eight songs coming in a hair over 50 minutes (and also I’ve heard this album a billion times), though the huge epic looms at the album’s close.
The album’s opener would also serve as the band’s long-time concert opener. Maiden’s sound was now dialed in and this energetic track showcases the rumbling bass, galloping guitars and soaring vocals the band are known for. The lyrics recreate British air forces during the Battle Of Britain in World War II. It is one of the most well-known and loved songs from the groups catalog.
2 Minutes To Midnight
It’s a song that employs the world’s simplest yet most effective rock riff and tells a tale of destruction through the military industrial complex. The title references the Doomsday Clock and the close setting to midnight, which would signify atomic destruction.
This also is my favorite Iron Maiden song. I don’t really know “why,” just that it is.
Losfer Words (Big ‘Orra)
This is an instrumental and (I think) the final one the band ever did. It’s a very nice song that certainly could have been something with vocals but does just fine on its own. It fits the sound of the album perfectly.
Flash Of The Blade
A two-song mini arc about swordfighting starts here. A young kid plays with his toy sword, then becomes a real swordsman after his family is killed in an attack. He sets out for revenge against the killers with his real sword skills as an adult. The chorus is a pretty clever twist on “live by the sword, die by the sword.”
A pretty simple premise – the song is about a sword duel. The two combatants fight in the lyrics through Maiden’s pummeling musical delivery. Both of the swordfighting songs sometimes get dismissed or overlooked but I’ve always enjoyed them.
Back In The Village
This song isn’t entirely clear but it is another reference by Maiden to the old British TV show The Prisoner. The band had already recorded the song The Prisoner on The Number Of The Beast inspired by the show and are revisiting the setting here. I’m not familiar with the show but here are a handful of direct quotes from it in the lyrics here, such as “I’m not a number, I’m a name,” also words worked into The Prisoner song.
The title track heads to ancient Egypt and visits with a dying pharaoh who is not happy with the premise of mortality. The pharaohs were considered gods, yet here this dude is about to kick the bucket. Probably a startling conclusion to a worshiped and revered figure. Maiden kicked the track length up a bit here to 7 minutes, though even Powerslave pales in comparison to the journey to come.
Rime Of The Ancient Mariner
We arrive now at the album’s close, but it’ll be awhile before we get to the actual finish. This song, a direct adaptation of Samuel Coleridge’s famous poem of the same name, clocks in at 13:45. It would be Iron Maiden’s longest song until 2015, where Empire Of The Clouds from The Book Of Souls would dwarf Rime’s runtime (and The Red And The Black would come very close).
The song and poem’s plot can be summed up in concise fashion – ship gets lost, bird helps ship out of ice, guy shoots bird, guy is cursed for shooting bird. Sure, there’s a hell of a lot more to it than that but it’s the gist of the story.
Maiden makes extensive use of movements and arrangement to convey the poem in song form. An unfamiliar listener could be forgiven for thinking this is more than one song, at least until the curse is lifted in the song’s final few minutes. I’ve even had my mind wander off and forget what I was listening to when playing this album in the background.
While doing a song of such scope posed risks, Iron Maiden was all the better for it. They were not ever a radio hits band, so a lengthy epic based on a poem was eaten up by the fanbase. To this day it is listed among their finest works and no shortage of people have it at the top of their lists.
Powerslave was an immense triumph for a band already on the rise in the mid 1980’s. The album charted in many countries and has several platinum and gold certifications. The resulting World Slavery tour took Iron Maiden all over the world and culminated in their first live album, the immortal Live After Death.
Iron Maiden’s ’80’s run is widely hailed as a series of classic albums and performances, yet Powerslave may be the cornerstone of that era. The two singles Aces High and 2 Minutes To Midnight are constant live presences, the title track is a celebrated epic, and of course Rime Of The Ancient Mariner is hailed as a masterpiece. The album’s influence is inescapable – hell, it’s even used by some to criticize other periods of the band’s work. Even as the band has endured and carved a unique legacy within heavy metal, the shadow of Pharaoh Eddie looms large over Iron Maiden’s work.