Monday, May 18, 2009

Tears of the Dragon: How Bruce Dickinson helped rescue heavy metal

The year was 1994. Heavy metal was arguably at its nadir. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest were without their lead singers, Metallica had sold out, and Queensryche released Promised Land (yuck). The pretentious, overrated grunge scene (now deader than a doornail, I gloat with savage glee) had knocked metal from its long-held reign on the music throne. Flannel, hackey-sacks, and greasy hair were king, and denim and black t-shirts were out. I was still a card-carrying member of heavy metal, but my spirits and my optimism for the genre’s future were admittedly at their lowest ebb.

But in the midst of that dreadful year a song arrived to lift my spirits like a winged angel: Bruce Dickinson’s “Tears of the Dragon.” When I first heard this song (on the now-extinct Headbanger’s Ball) it brought a lump to my throat, so majestic and amazing were its power and vocals. Like a razor-sharp broadsword, Dickinson’s unmistakable voice cut straight through the Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Alice in Chains pabulum that the rock stations were shoving down our throats.

This clip from Youtube features Dickinson performing “Tears of the Dragon” in a studio, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. There’s no faking it here, no pop-princess soundboard-smithing of his voice, just raw power and beauty. I encourage you to listen to it.

Alas, the rest of the album on which “Tears of the Dragon” appears (Balls to Picasso) ultimately proved rather weak and largely forgettable, but this song alone made the album worth owning. And “Tears of the Dragon” proved to be a harbinger of several more great solo efforts to come from Dickinson.

For those completely unfamiliar with heavy metal, Dickinson is the lead singer of Iron Maiden. Dickinson has always been an amazing singer and performer. Early in his career he could hit any note, regardless of how long or high. For proof, I offer this early live clip of him singing arguably the greatest heavy metal song ever written, Hallowed be thy Name.

But following some long tours with Maiden Dickinson’s voice seemed to deteriorate. His lowest point was No Prayer for the Dying or perhaps A Real Dead One, two albums on which his pipes sounded rough and strained. Shortly after Maiden released the uninspired Fear of the Dark in 1992, Dickinson left the band. It was a good time for a split by both sides—Bruce needed a break, and the band’s songwriting needed a recharge.

After Balls to Picasso came Skunkworks, another Dickinson solo album for which I’ve never acquired a taste. But then came Accident of Birth, in my opinion a home run. That was followed by The Chemical Wedding, the equivalent of a ninth-inning walk-off grand slam. It’s really that good, one of the best heavy metal albums of the 1990’s.

Dickinson’s voice alone does not explain his success. Other singers are as gifted or nearly as gifted as the Air Raid Siren. Rather, it’s his ability to weave powerful lyrics and themes that cut to the soul. The Chemical Wedding’s "Jerusalem" and its title track, Accident of Birth’s "Darkside of Aquarius" and "Man of Sorrows", and Tyranny of Souls’ "Kill Devil Hill" and title track are amazingly well-sung and well-written. If you’re a heavy metal fan and you don’t own these albums, buy them now. Heck, if you don’t like metal but can appreciate great singing, hunt them down on Youtube and listen/see for yourself.

When you combine an ability to write great music with a voice from the angels—or perhaps more accurately, ripped from the throat of a screaming banshee—you have a recipe for greatness. Pardon my man-gushing, but Dickinson really is, in my opinion, heavy metal’s greatest talent. Did I mention he's also a published author, licensed airplane pilot, and a one-time world-class fencer? What can't the man do?

Dickinson returned to Iron Maiden in 1999 for the Ed Hunter tour (I saw them in the small Orpheum Theatre in Boston that year and will never forget the show, which featured great music and heatstroke-inducing 100-plus degree temperatures). In 2000 Maiden released its first album with Dickinson back as lead singer, Brave New World. It was a great return to form for both he and the band. After another Maiden album in 2003 (Dance of Death), Dickinson released his sixth and most recent solo effort, Tyranny of Souls, in 2005.

Heavy metal, Iron Maiden, and Bruce Dickinson are back and better than ever. While I hope Maiden keeps cranking out the albums (A Matter of Life and Death is a great one), here’s hoping that the man who helped rescue metal from a dark age brings us more great solo efforts in the coming decade.

17 comments:

Falze said...

I still like Skunkworks a lot. I dunno, I'm just weird that way. Got a whole sci-fi feel to it. And Inertia's one of my all-time favorite songs, actually...not top 10, but easily in the top 50.

Can't forget the unmistakable stamp Roy Z put on those great solo albums, there's no way he didn't have a huge influence. He was all the rage for a while, producing everything metal in sight. I doubt everything he touches turns to gold, but he sure was locked in with Bruce and they were churning out magic like there was no tomorrow. And if I think of any other relevant cliches I'll throw them out there, too!

Boy, that Orpheum show was something...talk about sweat. I'm surprised Nicko didn't blow away they had so many fans pointed at him. All because Bruce didn't want the AC on. Phew. That was something. It's not often that you sweat through jeans.

Brian Murphy said...

Crap, you're right... how could I forget Roy Z? The guy is a talent and he and Bruce have undeniable chemistry on those albums.

I think my Spinal Tap t-shirt is still encrusted with salt from the Orpheum "experience."

noisms said...

There were a lot of great bands around the time of the grunge explosion. I hated Alice in Chains and was never a huge Pearl Jam fan, but look at Soundgarden, the Smashing Pumpkins, Dinosaur Jr.... Maybe not 'metal' in the traditional sense, but probably more in common with metal bands than with the likes of Alice in Chains.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Noisms, you're probably right, I just have an unhealthy loathing for that particular era of music for which I should probably seek therapy. I actually do like The Smashing Pumpkins and some Soundgarden (Chris Cornell is quite talented). It has more to do with the snobby, anti-metal backlash than the music that replaced it (though I still think that most grunge sucks).

arcona said...

There's no way bands like Dinosaur Jr or the Smashing Pumpkins have more in common with metal bands than Alice in Chains. Much of AIC's material, especially the early stuff (Facelift, Sap, and Dirt) - probably have more metal elements in them than grunge. I mean, they have an entry for AIC on the Encyclopaedia Metallum for crying out loud, and that website has the most ridiculously strict standards of what is or isn't metal.

Plus they started out as a Slayer cover band. They've got way more 'metal cred' than the band who did "1979".

noisms said...

Arcona: "1979" is one song. Lots of Pumpkin songs aren't metal, but lots are - the band were always outside of genre, which is what I liked about them. Anyway I wasn't really talking about "metal cred" (I don't like metal as a rule and don't really care about credibility), more a set of common sensibilities.

Brian: I think in some respects metal only had itself to blame for that. There was so much crap hair metal in the 80s, there was bound to be a reaction against it.

noisms said...

Also, check out The Melvins - grunge for the metal fan. This, for example.

~Artemis~ said...

Amazing man. Very gifted in a multitude of ways. I would love to see a new solo from him. After some time it would be very interesting as to what he'd write.

Andy said...

About grunge, while Alice in Chains isn't among my favorite groups, they're really not bad and are indeed closer to a metal band than a grunge group. They just got lumped in because of their Seattle roots.

I don't know if grunge really "killed" metal in the 90s - it seems to me the common villain in these stories is always record company execs looking to overexploit a hot trend - but it's striking how virtually every major metal band went through sheer hell in the 90s (well, maybe except Pantera) but as soon as the millenium hit suddenly everything started turning around, starting with Dickinson (and Adrian Smith) rejoining Maiden. It's like that entire decade was just a bad dream (not that there weren't some great bands that formed in the 90s).

shimrod said...

Metal lost popularity because of a backlash against the mindless crap hair metal that had overwhelmed the airwaves. Garbage like Warrant and Winger, and party bands like Motley Crue and Poison had taken the torch away from real artists like Maiden commercially, and eventually people got sick of it. I will note that Guns & Roses and Metallica stayed popular and got even bigger commercially, right in the middle of the Grunge explosion. Because they released great albums.

Much as you may not like Grunge, it sprang out of two sources- punk and old-school metal (more Sabbath style than Maiden style; Maiden was New Wave British metal). The bands that became identified as Grunge had a muddier sound, and didn’t employ the operatic and classical elements of metal (which were major inspirations for Maiden, Malmsteen, and lot of other 80s metal Artists) in part to get away from the ego and showmanship which was choking out the sincerity and emotion of the music.

The Melvins were awesome. As noted, AIC and Soundgarden were basically metal bands. If Kim Thayil had his way, Soundgarden would have stayed one, but Cornell (amazing singer though he is) always wanted to go in a more Pop direction. Check out his solo albums for the evidence. I can totally see why you wouldn’t like Nirvana, which was more punk, or Pearl Jam, which were more rock/blues, but they’re still goddamn good bands. Which is a lot more than I can say for Winger. Or for what Queensryche was putting out after Empire.

shimrod said...

All that said, I agree with your core thesis: Bruce Dickinson is a superman.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey everyone, thanks for the comments. I completely agree that a glut of crap hair metal bands helped sink the genre and pave the way for grunge--in fact, I had planned to put my thoughts down on this very subject a while back and never got around to it. No arguments from me regarding Winger, Warrant, Poison, etc. They all pretty much sucked.

I've actually never heard of the Melvins before and will at least give them an honest listen before passing judgment.

Shimrod: I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on the merits of Pearl Jam. Two good albums and a heaping helping of the same overinflated ego that infected hair metal bands are Pearl Jam's legacy. Highly overrated, IMO. I do like Nirvana's first album quite a bit.

shimrod said...

I will happily concede both that their first two albums are their best (though they have a few great songs on later albums too), and that they got a bit self indulgent in places. But. I think you’re wrong when you call them egotistical. Is it ego that drives someone to NOT want to release singles or videos? Or a desire to be remembered for their actual albums? They’ve always been about the fans. Maybe it was arrogant to think they could do a tour without Ticketmaster, but the idea was to serve the fans and reduce the costs of going to a show.

In Utero is a great Nirvana album too. All kinds of good stuff on there besides what got on the radio.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with you that Bruce Dickinson is, without a doubt, the greatest singer heavy metal ever had. I wouldn't doubt that his voice could shatter a crystal goblet of "blood and red wine," to partially quote the song "Powerslave." I remember in the early nineties -- which I feel was the musical equivalent of hell for the heavy metal fan -- driving in my car and listening to one of the many terrible rock stations in Colorado when Iron Maiden's "To Tame a Land" came on. I hadn't listened to the album from whence it came for several years and subsequently became rather emotional, almost brought to the point of tears. I promptly dug out all of my Iron Maiden records purchased all throughout the eighties and began a long trip down memory lane that has yet to come to an end. I also agree with you that Chemical Wedding is an absolutely brilliant album, easily th equal of anything Bruce ever did with Iron Maiden or his earlier band Samson. Speaking of the latter band, to get one in a really great mood for a little Dungeons & Dragons, try putting on the song "Hammerhead" from the album Head On. "They lay down on the anvil a steel cold bar/needing no fire nor file/their sledgehammers following like thunder's roll/and Sandre sang runes by the fire/can you hear the hammerhead in the wind..."

Thanks for reading and thanks for such a wonderful blog,

Alphonso Warden

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the kind words, Alphonso. That's another reason I like heavy metal--it dovetails nicely with my love of fantasy and serves as frequent inspiration for D&D campaigns.

Anonymous said...

You're most welcome, Brian. Keep up the good work, and always seek out the silver key as did E. Hoffmann Price and H.P. Lovecraft before you. Speaking of Iron Maiden and Dungeons & Dragons, for me you can't have one without the other. I always seem to find myself listening to Iron Maiden or another of the "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" bands when running a Dungeons and Dragons game. As an aside, I feel that a D&D campaign based on Iron Maiden's classic concept album "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son" would be cool.

Sincerely,
Alphonso Warden

Brian Murphy said...

I will keep seeking, Alphonso.

How about that Youtube clip... amazing.