Correction: This article originally indicated that the song Sanctuary was included on all current versions of Iron Maiden’s self-titled debut album, despite originally only getting released as a single. This is no longer the case, as the most recent remaster has restored the original track listing. This has been corrected.
All 16 Iron Maiden Studio Albums, Ranked
Iron Maiden is the greatest band to ever exist in the history of time. Sure, plenty of bands have sold more albums, and plenty of band have attained higher degrees of critical acclaim and respectability, and sure, lots of bands have done both of those things. However, none of those other bands can rightfully claim to be Iron Maiden, therefore, none of those bands are as good as Iron Maiden. Their excellence is tautological and self-evident.
Ok ok, fine. Perhaps now that I am no longer a snotty teenager without a sense of identity or self-respect, I can concede that maybe, just maybe, there are better bands than Iron Maiden. Actually, I can do this pretty easily. Really, when you think about it, there’s almost no aspect of Maiden’s output that stands above all other artists, quantifiable or otherwise. Their discography is wildly inconsistent. They put out all of their best work (and I mean all of their best work) in the 80s, despite having churned out a new album every few years or so in the ensuing decades. On top of that, none of their albums are completely perfect from start to finish, and that includes those released in their heyday.
Hell, even if you limit the conversation of what band is ‘best’ to other metal bands, there are plenty of groups out there with more impressive resumes. Metallica played faster (and sold more records). Judas Priest was more innovative. Motorhead wrote better hooks. All these bands were Iron Maiden’s contemporaries, too. Lots of other bands from all eras of metal history did at least one thing better than Iron Maiden ever did. Listen to any Spotify playlist of modern metal, and every track you listen to will be faster, heavier, and more technically proficient than any Iron Maiden track.
And yet! And yet, there’s something about the music of Iron Maiden that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. When the band is clicking, their music soars with a perfect fusion of speed, hooks, and shredding. Their energy is pulpy and disreputable in all of the best ways. Black Sabbath famously decided to make music meant to give people the cheap thrills of a horror movie, and no other band ever distilled that B-Movie ethos into musical form as effectively as Maiden. They’re a cheap slasher and a corny off-brand fantasy flick and a poorly produced war movie that tries to say something important about, like, life and stuff, but lacking the skill to match its ambition, all at once.
Before we get to the business of ranking their albums, let’s take a moment to go over their abridged history so I don’t have to explain any of this later. Iron Maiden formed in London in 1975, and released their first album in 1980. The only constant member of the band is bassist Steve Harris, who also writes (or co-writes) most of the songs and has the final say in just about every decision the band makes, musical or otherwise. Guitarist Dave Murray has also been in Maiden for basically the whole time, save for a brief hiccup in their club days.
Since the late 70s, they’ve had three vocalists. First there was Paul Di’Anno, whose punky snarl perfectly encapsulated the dirty, dangerous vibe of the band’s early work. Then came Bruce Dickinson, whose soaring, operatic voice elevated the band to the next level. And then there was Blaze Bayley, who uhm, uhhhh……was also a guy who was technically the singer in Iron Maiden for a time. Beyond that, Iron Maiden has had more members in its history than I’ve had hot meals, and the story of each individual member’s tenure, and the story each specific lineup, is way, waaayyy longer than it is interesting. Therefore, to make things easier for everybody, fans have designated their 1983-1990 roster of Harris, Dickinson, Murray, additional guitarist Adrian Smith, and drummer Nicko McBrain as the ‘classic’ lineup.
In 1990, Smith left the band and was replaced by Janick Gers, who had played guitar for Dickinson’s solo band. Dickinson himself left in 1993 and was replaced by Blaze Bayley. To their credit, the band tried their damnedest to be interesting and relevant with Bayley at the helm, but the fan base never accepted him, and he was canned at the end of 1998. (It really wasn’t entirely Bayley’s fault, but also it kind of was. We’ll get to that in a bit.) By early 1999, both Dickinson and Smith had rejoined; Gers was also retained as a third guitarist. The six-man band has remained stable and intact ever since.
There’s a couple more things to go over before we begin. First, let me reiterate that this is a ranking of Iron Maiden’s studio albums. Iron Maiden has released several live albums in their career, and while a discussion of Maiden as a whole cannot exist without a discussion of their consistently excellent live shows, this consistency makes ranking every single live album more trouble than it’s worth. 1985’s Live After Death is their best live album by quite a lot, but all of the others are plenty of fun and well worth your time. The only exception to this is 1993’s A Real Live One/A Real Dead One. Not only are the performances sagging with the dispirited energy of band that doesn’t want to be together anymore, it’s redundant; Live at Donington,a recording of Maiden’s 1992 Monsters of Rock festival headlining-set, does an infinitely better job of capturing the band during this period.
Second, this is a reminder that this list is entirely subjective, which means all views expressed therein are scientifically verifiable and indisputably accurate.
On to the rankings!
16 – Virtual XI (1998)
The second of two albums recorded with Blaze Bayley at the mic, Virtual XI is a nearly unlistenable collection of all of Steve Harris’s worst impulses. Opening track Futureal is almost promising, at least by the diminished standards used to appraise obvious rehash tracks, but every other song on the album is a dull, droning, monotonous chore that sounds like it was recorded in an abandoned ghost studio without anyone at the controls. When I say this album is unlistenable, I am not using that term lightly – there are legitimately crappy musical performances all over the place, and while an under-produced studio recording can be loose and fun and exhilarating, that is not what’s happening on Virtual XI. There are clipped notes and phasing tempos and it’s just a complete and total mess that is utterly unbecoming of a band of Maiden’s means and talent.
Virtual XI is the undisputed creative nadir of the band, and the tour that followed was just as ruinous. See, the thing with Blaze Bayley is while he’s a decent enough singer in a vacuum, he has a lower range than Bruce Dickinson. Nevertheless he was tasked with singing the big hits from the Dickinson era night after night, and he literally couldn’t keep up. Both tours with Bayley at the helm saw several cancellations, since his voice was often totally shot. When they were able to make the gigs, it’s not like Bayley was doing a very good job, either. The shows suffered, the fans noticed and turned on him, and both Bayley and the rest of the band handled the criticism poorly (not that it’s easy to put up with a bunch of pissed off metalheads).
Anyway, after a disaster of a tour second only to Spinal Tap in sheer number of cancellations, the band rehired Dickinson, gave Bayley the ax, and never looked back. It’s always darkest before dawn, etc.
15 – A Matter of Life and Death (2006)
In a way, it’s kind of unfair to rank A Matter of Life and Death this low. It was obviously produced by a real producer, so already it has an advantage over some of the other albums further down on this list. The post-reunion lineup is in full effect, so there’s no Blaze Bayley to ruin everything. The band doesn’t sound like they’re taking the piss or otherwise participating in some sort of bizarre tanking experiment. On the surface, it’s a perfectly cromulent latter-day Maiden album.
But man oh man, this album is BORING. A Matter of Life and Death isn’t just slow and plodding, it’s self-serious, and there is almost no fun or enjoyment of any sort to be found anywhere. Only one song is under five minutes long, and there’s ten of them, and none of them stand out from each other, and they all seem to be about the grim realities of war or the necessity of sacrifice or maybe just being really, really depressed. No matter what the actual subject matter may be, it all scans as mopey macho nonsense. For the first time, the band sounds too old for this metal shit. They don’t even play particularly fast at any point – should you choose to listen to this album for some unknowable reason, steel yourself for 70 minutes of mid-tempo gallops.
Highlights: Different World, The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg
14 – No Prayer for the Dying (1990)
Speaking of bizarre tanking experiments! After the runaway success of the highly progressive concept album Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, Steve Harris somewhat abruptly decided that the follow-up to Seventh Son was the perfect time to scale back musically and put out an album of relatively straightforward material reminiscent of the band’s early recordings. This, in and of itself, is not the problem with No Prayer for the Dying.
Guitarist Adrian Smith had become an important songwriter for Maiden in his own right by this point, and up and quit the band shortly after they convened to work on the album, being disappointed with the direction Harris was pushing for and perhaps intuitively sensing that the finished product would suck. Janick Gers, his replacement, is a good enough guitar player and all, but Smith’s absence is keenly felt throughout the record. This, too, is not the real problem with No Prayer for the Dying.
The problem with No Prayer for the Dying is that it sounds like shit and is terrible.
Everything about No Prayer feels like a parody of a heavy metal band, and not a good parody either, more like a parody of heavy metal as it’s understood by the writing staff of a particularly lame cop drama. It’s overtly trashy; there’s a song called Public Enema Number One, for fuck’s sake. There’s another one called Bring Your Daughter…To The Slaughter that is about a good of a song as it is a song title, and it’s one of the best songs on the album! By like, a lot. Still other songs, such as Fates Warning and The Assassin, barely qualify as songs at all, being comprised of odd sequences of guitar noodling and pointless yelping, with nary a hook in sight.
What’s worse is the album actually sounds bad as well. Bruce Dickinson decided to put extra snarl and stank on his voice in an effort to sound more raw, but he usually just ends up sounding like a cat waking up in the middle of its own autopsy. The guitars are thin, buzzy, and lack any kind of crunch or power. The drums sound less like real drums and more like empty crates made of corrugated cardboard. Yet nothing about the sum total of the production sounds ‘raw’ in the way the band declared they were going for. It just sounds like a bunch of guys who decided, in a moment of drunken hubris, that sounding bad on purpose is funny.
No Prayer for the Dying is probably worse than A Matter of Life and Death in the absolute sense, but I’m ranking it higher because there’s something ultimately charming about how stupid, shitty, and crudely executed most of it is. And, not every song is completely terrible. Tailgunner is actually quite tightly and expertly arranged; Run Silent, Run Deep is a similarly taut submariner yarn wrapped in one of the more put together tracks on the album. And yes, Bring Your Daughter…To The Slaughter has some decent hooks buried underneath its sub-Motley Crue stomp. There’s some pleasure to be had in listening to No Prayer, even if it’s mostly the perverse kind.
Highlights: Tailgunner, Run Silent Run Deep, Bring Your Daughter…To the Slaughter
13 – The X Factor (1995)
The first of the two Blaze Bayley albums, The X Factor is miles ahead of Virtual XI but still not very good. You would think that the arrival of a new vocalist, and therefore the obvious beginning of a new chapter in Iron Maiden history, would energize the band. However, The X Factor is sedate, bummed out, and and oddly placid, as though all of the band members cut their tracks after being woken up in the middle of an Ambien bender. And, as with A Matter of Life and Death, the album is overly grim and serious, and doesn’t seem to be concerned with pleasing or entertaining its audience in any way.
A lot of the problem is the production. None of the songs have any punch. The guitars sound weak. The band as a whole sounds distant and disinterested. Maiden always excelled at hitting tempo and riff changes with frightening power, and while the songs themselves still feature these changes, they come off flat and lifeless, and neither build nor release tension. The recording is soulless, in the most direct sense of the word. There is no feeling to anything.
And this is all a dang shame, because for all that doesn’t work about The X Factor, you can hear decent songs hiding away in there. Sign of the Cross is one of the more direct epics Maiden recorded after the glory days; later live versions with Bruce Dickinson would indicate that all it needed was a punched up tempo and a more fiery performance to transform it from a slog into a banger. Lord of the Flies has an actually pretty great hook in the chorus, as does Judgement of Heaven. Man on the Edge is kind of fast, at least. There’s some really good stuff here! But alas, it’s buried deep in the mix.
Highlights: Lord of the Flies, Man on the Edge
12 – Fear of the Dark (1992)
As you may have caught onto by now, the 90s were not particularly kind to Iron Maiden. Even before the departure of Bruce Dickinson, creative stagnation was starting to creep in, resulting in two albums comprised primarily of filler. Make no mistake, Fear of the Dark is superior to No Prayer for the Dying, its immediate predecessor, in pretty much every conceivable way. A couple of songs are even legitimate standouts, not just relative ones. The production is crisp, possibly to a fault, but that’s still preferable to whatever the hell it was they were going for on No Prayer.
The album opens with Be Quick or Be Dead, easily one of the best Maiden songs from this period, and yet one that seems to be trying too hard. It’s often cited as Maiden’s attempt at thrash metal, and while the main riff is plenty loud and fast and full of notes, it’s more in line with the speed of their early albums, and a step slower than something you’d hear from, say, Anthrax or Megadeth or Testament or whoever. Still, it rocks pretty hard, even for being forced too. The title track was hailed as a classic immediately upon release and has been mandatory at live shows ever since, but the studio version is flat, clunky, and nothing special. The real classic here is Afraid to Shoot Strangers, an anti-war colossus that transforms from dirge to powerhouse rocker and back. It’s truly inspired stuff, and might be the best single song Maiden has done since the 80s.
But then there’s the crap. Good lord, there’s a lot of crap on this album. You can tell this is the first album the band did that was designed with CDs in mind, as it clocks in at nearly an hour. Iron Maiden did uh, not have an hour’s worth of good (or even decent) material in them at this point, and more than half of the album is utterly fucking terrible, unfit for release as B-Sides. From Here to Eternity and Wasting Love were both released as singles, despite sucking ass. In all, this was an ill-fitting sendoff for Dickinson, so it’s a good thing he made it back eventually.
Highlights: Be Quick or Be Dead, Afraid to Shoot Strangers
11 – The Book of Souls (2015)
Here’s the thing about Maiden’s later work. Iron Maiden made their name, in no small part, on the basis of long, progressively-tinged epics. In their early days, they had the sense to limit themselves to a few longer songs per album. On top of that, when they did spread their wings and go big, they provided smartly arranged pieces that built tension expertly, and released it in the form of hard-hitting, cathartic riffing in the late stages. Later, instead of rocking out in direct, satisfying fashion, they have often chosen to flex their prog rock muscles, resulting in a lot of long songs that have some cool bits in them, sure, but feel long and complex for its own sake and ultimately don’t go anywhere.
This problem, while present in the Bayley years, is at it’s most pronounced in the reunion albums. Everybody is back and they’re still a killer live band, so why do their studio albums still feel so bogged down? After A Matter of Life and Death, the band seemed to have loosed up in the studio and taken a more energetic, self-aware approach to new material. But they still appear to have lost any ability to edit themselves. The Book of Souls has plenty of cool riffs and shout-along choruses and all that, but it’s 90 fucking minutes long! 90! Good god! Physical copies should come with a catheter.
But still, there’s plenty of good to be had here. If Eternity Should Fail is creepy and weird and rocking without getting in it’s own way. The Red and the Black has a good vocal hooks. The payoff of the title track approaches the energy of the head-banging blowouts of the early days. It’s a good time! But there’s simply too much of it. Hey guys, here’s a thought. Maybe next time, split your eight minute tracks into two different songs, and instead of releasing a 90 minute album once every six years, release a 45 minute album once every three.
Highlights: If Eternity Should Fail, The Book of Souls, Death or Glory
10 – Brave New World (2000)
Oh look, a reunion album! Yes, technically the band never broke up, but Bruce Dickinson is back, and so is Adrian Smith! How cool is that? Brave New World is fully alive with the spirit of a band that is finally back at full and even increased strength. They got three guitar players, man! Three! And they all take turns doing solos and blasting out main riffs and harmonizing leads and all the normal Iron Maiden stuff. Even better, The Wicker Man stands up to any of the other great opening tracks in Maiden’s history. The riff is immediate and badass (and yes, a ripoff of Judas Priest’s Running Wild,but sometimes the ends justify the means), and the chorus hook is stadium-sized and backed by catchy guitar work, and it all rules. It rules so hard.
And then the rest of the album is…ok. It’s way better than either of the Blaze Bayley albums, that’s for sure, although it clears that bar simply by virtue of being well-produced. The band sounds tighter and more purposeful. These are good things. A lot of Brave New World, however, is somehow both overly progressive and repetitive. This stands out most in the choruses, many of which are uninspiring, drawn out, and not possessing good enough hooks to justify their length. There’s also only three shorter songs out of ten, the aforementioned The Wicker Man, as well as The Mercenary and The Fallen Angel, both of which, much like the rest of the album, is totally serviceable but doesn’t make a huge impression.
Some of the epics hit it off big, though. Dream of Mirrors is a wonderfully creepy throwback to the days when the band was still trying to sound evil and spooky, and it pays off well. Blood Brothers goes for big power ballad sentimentality and pulls the trick of admirably, with a chorus that drives everything home. But they’re not all hits. The Nomad is a nine minute song where nothing happens. The title track just repeats itself over and over. You get the idea. Still, unlike Fear of the Dark, which has a handful of good songs surrounded by oceans of crud, Brave New World has a handful of good songs surrounded by totally fine but forgettable ones. Progress!
Highlights: The Wicker Man, Blood Brothers, Dream of Mirrors
9 – The Final Frontier (2010)
Whereas A Matter of Life and Death presents Maiden at their grimmest and dullest, The Final Frontier rebounds admirably with a collection of enjoyably weird and refreshingly aggressive tunes. Dig that spooky synth sequence to start off the album! It’s creepy and odd and total horror movie music, and it sets an immediate tone for the rest of the album: “Yes, we’re still Iron Maiden, and yes, we still know how to enjoy ourselves.”
This refreshing burst of self-awareness goes a long way towards elevating The Final Frontier towards the front of the post-reunion LPs. Iron Maiden is a storytelling band – their songs are about storming Nazi fortresses and getting mummified and being driven crazy by Satan and such. This means that when they’re clicking, they achieve effectiveness through superior pacing. Many of the best songs on The Final Frontier reconnect with this aspect. Satellite 15…The Final Frontier and El Dorado form the most effective one-two punch to kick things off since the glory days, both tracks building smartly and tightly. Coming Home nails its power ballad histrionics. Even some of the lesser stuff here (Isle of Avalon, Starblind) is cleverly arranged, if nothing else.
But, as with everything this band has done since reuniting, The Final Frontier is simply too damn long, clocking in at 76 minutes, split between only 10 songs. And yes, there’s more varied song structures, actual fast playing, and more satisfying payoffs on the longer tracks than other late period albums, but it’s not consistently compelling enough to be digestible in one sitting. Stick to the end, though, and you’ll be rewarded by the melodic splendor of When the Wild Wind Blows. Finishing albums was once one of Maiden’s (and Steve Harris’s) key strengths, one they lost sight of before everything else went to shit. It’s great to hear them save the best (or something close to it) for last.
Highlights: Satellite 15…The Final Frontier, El Dorado, When the Wild Wind Blows
8 – Dance of Death (2003)
The second post-reunion album finds Iron Maiden fully exploiting the possibilities of the maximalized six-man crew. The songs are densely layered, complex, and energetic, and take fuller advantage of having three guitarists, resulting in towering riffs and lush guitar harmonizing. Whereas the band on Brave New World operates in a clunky and awkward space, Dance of Death sees everyone locked in step with each other, resulting in the most effectively ambitious and purposeful album the new Maiden has done. This crystalizes in the near-perfect Montsegur, a masterful alchemy of riffs and leads, with Dickinson spitting melodic fire over top of it all. Wildest Dreams and Rainmaker both deliver the hooks in neat, four minute packages. No More Lies is longer, sure, but it’s fast and catchy.
At its best, Dance of Death does so much so well that it serves to highlight the several missed opportunities also present on the record. Take the late album World War I epic Paschendale – storytelling-mode Bruce is at his very best here, and the early act riffs fall down in crushing torrents, like mortal shells themselves. And then it comes time for the big wind up to the big headbanging section and it’s…kind of whatever, being played at about half the speed it should’ve been. They could’ve killed it! If they had nailed the rock out section, they could’ve come away with an all-timer. Alas. It’s still a pretty great song, but it could’ve been so much more, you know?
While Paschendale provides the most egregious example of leaving something on the table, Dance of Death has no shortage of lesser imperfections. The title track is a solid prog romp, but also feels like it could’ve been better with a more straightforward release. A lot of the back half of the album is filler – it’s better than the filler of their 90s LPs, sure, but it’s filler nonetheless. If they had cut out three or four tracks and tightened up the tracks they kept, Dance of Death could have stood astride the greats of the 80s. Alas….
Highlights: Rainmaker, No More Lies, Montsegur, Paschendale
7 – Somewhere in Time (1986)
Somewhere in Time is both the least of the band’s classic albums and a hugely important part of Maiden history. After taking their first real break of significance, Maiden returned to the studio determined to shake things up a little. Most noticeably, it’s the first album to feature synthesizers, which are used almost exclusively for atmospherics. Every album afterward would feature some synths here and there. Adrian Smith stepped up in a huge way as a songwriter – while he had written plenty of songs with Dickinson and Harris on prior albums, here he contributes three songs he wrote himself, and two of them are stone cold classics.
Wasted Years isn’t really a power ballad, but it’s power ballad adjacent in the best way. Dickinson’s vocal performance soars through the chorus, Smith shreds all over the motherfucker, and the whole thing takes you higher. Stranger in a Strange Land has the band playing no-nonsense, first-class mid-tempo groove metal of the sort that Priest and Ozzy specialized in but which Maiden had scarcely ever tried, and the results totally stomp. Smith also contributed Sea of Madness, which is less impressive but tries a lot and almost succeeds, and that’s cool too.
Harris’s songwriting, by contrast, takes a step backward, as Somewhere in Time is the first time he starts demonstrating a tendency to prog too hard instead of rock too hard. He is, however, responsible for kickass opener Caught Somewhere in Time, where he fuses the classic Maiden gallop with a hyper-dramatic, futuristic synth intro, thus synthesizing of what the band as it was in the past, and what it would be from then on. But his other songs fall a bit flat. Heaven Can Wait was a live staple for a very long time, but the studio version, while plenty of fun in its way, simply isn’t on the same level as previous epics. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is compelling, but also a near anti-song, with changes and choruses mashed together in almost arbitrary fashion.
Then there’s the closing track, Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.). Hell of a title, huh? Listen, here’s the thing about Iron Maiden in general. If you’re gonna delve into their catalog, you’re gonna have to get used to cheese. Again, this band is a B-Movie in audio format. Even their very finest works are over the top and will come across as completely ridiculous if you don’t submit to their internal logic. Alexander the Great provides both the best and worst of this approach. Dickinson yelps out a corny chorus over a Black Sabbath-tempo thump, and it’s north of eight minutes long and, for the first time to this point, the payoff isn’t satisfying. But it’s so outlandish that it proves winsome in its own way, if you can get on board.
Highlights: Caught Somewhere in Time, Wasted Years, Stranger in a Strange Land
6 – Killers (1981)
The first two Iron Maiden albums are a somewhat different beast. Most noticeably, singer Paul Di’Anno’s rough-and-ready growling is polarizing, and stands in stark contrast to the crystal clear voice of Bruce Dickinson, with which the band is most closely identified. But Di’Anno fit in just as well with the punk rock tinged ethos of the early days as Dickinson did with the fantasy rock of his era. His voice was a perfect vessel for the material on Killers, which simply wouldn’t have been the same album without him.
Killers is the most straight ahead album Iron Maiden ever did, being in no small part comprised of song’s from the club days that didn’t make the cut on the debut. There’s only one song that cracks six minutes, and all the rest clock in at less than five. There’s plenty of proggy complexity on display in the songwriting and arrangements, but it’s used to color around and add drama to the riffs and the hooks, all of which are fully accessible and all of which take center stage. Even the subject matter is the most grounded of any Maiden album – pretty much every song is about murdering someone, getting murdered, or committing suicide, and all of the occult freakiness peppered throughout is likewise there for color, not as an end in itself.
As such, Killers finds the slasher-movie ethos of Maiden at it’s most popcorn-chomping fun. The drama of brief instrument The Ides of March slides straight into Wrathchild, a three minute mini-masterpiece of punky grooving and hammering rhythm, with a shout-along chorus that will live in your head for the rest of eternity. Murders in the Rue Morgue and the title track provide enough and tension in their intros to make their transitions into then-cutting edge proto-speed metal all the more breakneck and thrilling. Another Life, second instrumental Genghis Khan, and Drifter bop in a way that Maiden almost never does, largely due to the work of then-drummer Clive Burr (R.I.P), who has a touch of rockabilly swing to his feel that would soon make him stand out like a sore thumb, but here makes everything tick expertly.
After this, Di’Anno would get canned for partying too hard, Dickinson would replace him, and the band would chart a new course straight to the top of the metal mountain. But make no mistake, Killers is a symphony of fury all its own.
Highlights: Wrathchild, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Killers
5 – Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988)
The very idea of Iron Maiden doing a fantasy concept album makes so much sense that if anything, it’s surprising that it only happened the once. After broadening their sonic palette on Somewhere in Time, the band decided to up their ambitions even further, using those new tricks in the service of a story of a child who foretells doom for his village, but is ignored, and thus everyone gets murdered by demons. Or something like that. Blessedly, the songs still take precedence over the story, resulting in triumph.
Whereas Maiden’s use of synths on Somewhere in Time is nakedly experimental and thus often more than a bit awkward, on Seventh Son every synth bit is deployed with obvious purpose. The story of the album is told largely through atmospherics, doing the heavy lifting of building dread and doom so that the rest of the music can focus on serving the songs themselves. The Evil That Men Do ranks as one of the catchiest songs the band ever did. Infinite Dreams sees Harris’s epic plotting at its most efficient, going big and heavy and building to fast and fluid and back, all in six minutes. Can I Play With Madness is sees Iron Maiden at their most pop-oriented, featuring an almost bubblegum hair metal chorus, and it rules all the harder for the way it stands out.
All of that said, Seventh Son is not perfect. The middle of the album sags noticeably, anchored by a nine-minute title track that does eventually go somewhere, but spends much of it’s time mired in indistinct noodling and is also incredibly, outrageously cheesy and silly. Again, it’s fine if you’re able to go with it, but the song makes it hard at points. Also, while the album is pretty great as a whole, no one track stands out from the pack as an obvious mega-classic (and everything ranked above here will have at least one of those). The closest it gets is The Clairvoyant, which features Harris reeling himself in just enough to focus on hook above complexity, and not the other way round. The result is a taut song that is a feast of tension and release, and that does its whole thing in less than five minutes.
This was the last album featuring Adrian Smith until the reunion, which sucks because by this point, he was entrenched as an indispensable songwriter. His riff-driven approach would be sorely missing on the coming albums. As such, this is the last album featuring the classic Iron Maiden lineup, and the last truly great Iron Maiden album, period.
Highlights: Infinite Dreams, Can I Play With Madness, The Evil That Men Do, The Clairvoyant
4 – The Number of the Beast (1982)
Contrarianism alert! Spicy takes lie ahead!
The Number of the Beast is Iron Maiden’s most famous album, the first album to feature Bruce Dickinson, and thus the album that made them into megastars in their native U.K., and regular stars in the U.S., and is regarded the ‘consensus’ best Iron Maiden album.
It’s a great album, and a massively important one, not just for Maiden but for heavy metal as a whole. But it’s not their best one.
The Number of the Beast makes one hell of a first impression (no pun intended). The sheer power and precision of Dickinson’s voice immediately takes center stage and forces the rest of the band to up their game around him. As a consequence, the punk elements of the first two albums all but disappear, and manifest mainly in the sheer speed at which the album operates. Pretty much everything on this album is fast. Some of it is fast and complex (The Prisoner, The Number of the Beast), some of it is fast and not complex at all (Invaders, Gangland), and some of it starts out slow and then gets faster later (Children of the Damned, Hallowed Be Thy Name).
The album also features Run to the Hills, easily the most famous song of Maiden’s catalog, and the one you’re most likely to hear on the radio on any given day. Released as the lead single from the album, it’s the perfect showcase for Dickinson, who demonstrates both his range and his refined aggression. But its also the sort of song that, by virtue of its stature, can’t help but be a bit overrated. It’s a good song, but it’s not the best Iron Maiden song ever.
That said, this album does have Hallowed Be Thy Name, which caps off the album and is the best Iron Maiden song ever. Written solely by Harris, Hallowed features everything that a metal song should have – a gloomy intro, a fantastic main riff (driven by the guitar harmonizing of Smith and Dave Murray), and the most spectacular, head-bangingest riff in all of human history as your reward at the end. It’s Bohemian Rhapsody, if Bohemian Rhapsody had been written by Satan.
So, you may be wondering, how is this not the best Iron Maiden album if it has the best Iron Maiden song? Well, there’s a couple reasons. First off, this album still has Clive Burr on drums and, as great as he was on the first two albums, he fit into what Maiden was doing on those albums in a very specific way, one that doesn’t quite fit in the new the rest of the band is taking with Dickinson aboard. As such, the band’s chemistry is ever so slightly off in a way that may not be immediately obvious, but would be after Burr was replaced.
Second, there’s 22 Acacia Avenue, a song that is meant to anchor the album’s first side, but simply flops around with six minutes of pedestrian riffs and comically sexist lyrics veering straight into self-parody. And you’re supposed to take it seriously! And people did! Lots of people love this song, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck. It’s the most overrated Maiden track, and it brings the album down with it.
Highlights: Children of the Damned, The Prisoner, The Number of the Beast, Hallowed Be Thy Name
3 – Powerslave (1984)
Powerslave is the most consistent of Iron Maiden’s albums. While it remains the case that some of the tracks are better than others, nothing on Powerslave sucks outright. With the classic lineup finally established and entrenched, the band got right down to the business of kicking the most ass possible, resulting in gem after gem. Powerslave is the sound of band that, after a decade of grinding it out in clubs and on tour and enduring dozens of lineup changes, finally knows exactly who it is and what it wants to be.
The album is anchored on its bookends. Aces High and 2 Minutes to Midnight form a hell of an opening combo, with Aces High delivering acrobatic guitar work, and urgent, soaring melodies, courtesy of Dickinson at his dramatic best. 2 Minutes to Midnight provides glorious contrast, anchored in the chug of its main riff and featuring the band playing as tightly as it ever did, with hooks to be found anywhere and everywhere along the way.
At the other end of the album, the title track, written by Dickinson, sees him try to ape Harris’s style more overtly than he usually does, with heavy theatrics early, cathartic rocking in the middle, and a return to the main riff for the big finish. This sets the table for Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a hugely ambitious heavy metal song cycle telling of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem of the same name. In crafting the piece, Harris stretches himself the furthest he ever did without getting himself into trouble, and the pacing is expert. The song has the decency to start of at full blast to get you on the hook, then pull back before roaring into the conclusion. Seriously, the riffing at the song’s climax is enormous, and powerful enough to knock over a mountain range.
Then there’s the middle four tracks. They are all at least decent. Flash of the Blade is the best of these, with a neat hook in the chorus and some fun instrumental work in the breakdown. Back in the Village also provides some charming weirdness.
While the lineup stayed stable for a couple more albums, Powerslave still serves a capstone of sorts. The tour in support of the album was triumphant, and the live album they released to chronicle it (the aforementioned Live After Death) was outstanding, but it was also extremely long and incredibly grueling, and for thee first time, left the band in need of a long break so they could figure out what could possibly come next.
Highlights: Aces High, 2 Minutes to Midnight, Powerslave, Rime of the Ancient Mariner
2 – Iron Maiden (1980)
Now THIS is what an underproduced album is supposed to sound like! Dirty, grimy, and unflinchingly nasty, Iron Maiden’s eponymous debut record perfectly encapsulates the boundless energy and ambition of the then-emerging New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Whereas punk and metal had previously been cast in opposition, Iron Maiden nearly fuses the two genres together entirely, exposing any proposed punk/metal dichotomy as inherently false and demonstrating that if it’s fast and if it’s loud, it’s good.
Prowler, which opens the album and was already infamous in the London metal scene (due to its inclusion on a legendary, independently produced early EP known as The Soundhouse Tapes), sets the tone immediately. The riff hits like a truck, the lyrics are unsavory and sleazy, being from the perspective of a public flasher/masturbator, and then there’s a break and holy crap! They’re playing so fast and so vicious! It feels, to the uninitiated, like the sound of lightning in a bottle.
And then the whole freaking album is like that! The speed and power are unrelenting and inescapable. (Except for late album dirge Strange World, which we mostly don’t talk about.) Remember Tomorrow starts off sounding like a slow mood piece before roaring, then accelerating. Running Free, which became a hit single in the U.K., has a bebop energy punctuated by tasteful guitar noodling work and Di’Anno’s patented growl. Transylvania, an instrumental piece, shows off the frightening level of talent the band had already achieved. And then, there’s Phantom of the Opera, an earth-scorching monster built of pure speed and malevolence, with awesome riff after awesome riff after awesome riff, and a perfect table-setter for what the lunatic fringe of metal would expand to be later in the decade.
The band’s self-titled theme song brings everything to a close. Boasting a truly bizarre and downright unsettling twin guitar lead driven riff, the song, it closes out the main set of each and every single Iron Maiden show, and says one thing and one thing only, as clear as it possibly can: “We’re Iron Maiden, and we’re gonna murder you with metal.” By the end of Iron Maiden, you believe it.
Highlights: Prowler, Sanctuary*, Remember Tomorrow,Phantom of the Opera
(*Technically, Sanctuary was not included on the original album and was only released a single. The most recent remaster restores the original track listing, meaning if you go to Spotify expecting to see Sanctuary on the track list, you’re gonna be disappointed. That said, it was included on the version I grew up with and owns regardless, so I encourage you to track it down nonetheless.)
1 – Piece of Mind (1983)
Poor Clive Burr. After doing an admirable job drumming on the first three Iron Maiden albums, he was fired for…reasons. Seriously, I’ve never heard a straight answer about what exactly led to his dismissal, which suggests to me that whatever the cause may have been, it was kind of bullshit. But, in the end, his ouster proved to be addition by subtraction. The arrival of Nicko McBrain (yes, that’s his actual name, not a typo), his replacement, completed the classic lineup, as his technical precision disguised as lunatic animal flailing immediately elevated the band from outstanding to untouchable. As such, Piece of Mind, the first album with McBrain behind the kit and therefore the first album with the classic lineup in place, sees the band finally go truly nuclear, mixing speed, technique, hooks, and sheer power into an unstoppable explosive force. Opening track Where Eagles Dare showcases McBrain’s thundering skill right away, and is six minutes of non-stop adrenaline and ear-pounding awesomeness. Revelations is a feast of both slow, Dio-esque power metal and high-octane riffing and shredding, and it earns every ounce of glory it works for. Flight of Icarus, Die With Your Boots On, and Sun and Steel flawlessly merge their guitar hooks and their vocal hooks, and provide awesome solos too boot. Still Life is creepy and evil-sounding and weird, both progressive and rocking in equal measure.
But the true masterpiece of the album, however, is The Trooper, an instant and urgent demonstration of everything Iron Maiden does well. The guitars harmonize instead of riff to provide the center of the song, Harris and McBrain are locked into each other, propelling the song forward with a combination of groove and speed, each reinforcing the other. And, of course, Bruce Dickinson cuts through everything like a knife, somehow stealing the show from everyone else when they’re all operating at their peak, too.
Only a couple of tracks scan as relatively weak. Quest for Fire is kind of clunky, overwrought, and the wrong kind of cheesy, and it doesn’t work. Again, it can be its own fun, but it’s not actually good of its own merits. The closer, To Tame a Land,tells the story of Frank Herbert’s Dune and is completely competent, but it’s also a pretty obvious rewrite of Hallowed Be Thy Name, and it suffers for the comparison.
But these flaws are relative. Piece of Mind is a juggernaut, a near-flawless collection of stupefyingly awesome metal madness, and a masterpiece of the genre. It is Iron Maiden’s best record.
Highlights: All of it, except for Quest for Fire
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