By the time this album was released in September 1984, Bruce Dickinson was settled in his place as Iron Maiden’s frontman, having replaced Paul Di’Anno over two years previously. He’d also proved to be a great songwriter, as evidenced by ‘Revelations’ (from the band’s 1984 album ‘Piece of Mind’). Nicko McBrain had replaced Clive Burr in December 1982 and he too seemed comfortable in his role as the new drummer. ‘Powerslave’ was the first album released by the band to feature the same line-up as the preceding offering, so it’s unsurprising the band sounded stronger and more confident than ever before.
Beginning with ‘Aces High’, the band sounds truly alive. Fast paced with Steve Harris’s trusty, galloping basslines, this track is an archetypal Maiden number, it tells the tale of a fight between British fighter pilots and the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. Similarly inspired by true events, ‘2 Minutes To Midnight’ (a Bruce Dickinson/Adrian Smith co-write) features a lyrical theme about the Doomsday clock; specifically it’s reaching close to midnight after both the then Soviet Union and the USA tested H-bombs within months of each other. These two tracks were released as singles to promote the album and are among the band’s strongest songs and possibly explain why Iron Maiden are often thought to be more sophisticated than many of their contemporaries. ‘Back In The Village’ is a sequel of sorts to ‘Number of the Beast’s ‘The Prisoner’. While this album offers much better songs (notably in the songs which follow and the two singles), this song’s energy makes it stand up and demand attention. It’s not Maiden’s best song, but certainly not their worst by a long stretch.
The title cut shows a maturity rarely seen in Maiden’s previous work. Its Egyptian theme both musically and lyrically provide the album with something accessible and striking, with a stylish approach not traditionally associated with anything NWOBHM-related at that point. Both this number and ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ push the boundaries of 80s metal into new horizons. ‘Rime’ is a thirteen minute epic: on the surface, all of Maiden’s previous musical signatures are here – most notably the galloping rhythms, Bruce’s unmistakable voice with its siren-wail, and a knack for story-telling within the songs. Between the twin lead guitars and sheer power, it features a slow, atmospheric mid-section featuring a reading from Coleridge’s poem of the same name. Maybe it is a little pretentious, yes, but you’ve got to applaud them for branching out from their tried and tested musical traits. It truly raises the musical stakes.
Very few albums are perfect; ‘Powerslave’ is no exception: Its main flaw is that it sags in the middle (or the end of the first side, if you originally had this on vinyl). Firstly, the instrumental number ‘Losfer Words (Big ’Orra)’ has a decent drum groove from Nicko, but as is often the case with instrumentals, this feels like filler. And secondly, okay, Bruce Dickinson may be a championship level fencer, but surely two songs about swordsmanship is one too many? While ‘Flash of the Blade’ (written by Dickinson) and ‘The Duellists’ (Harris) are musically strong, their themes of valour and honour seem to wear a little thin by the end – especially so, considering they’re sequenced next to each other.
Rather interestingly, given these potential weaknesses, I’ll still tell you that ‘Powerslave’ is my favourite Maiden LP (and has been since release) and with good reason: there are moments which are far more adventurous then Maiden’s previous couple of outings. I love the way they took a gamble and went for something really extravagant in ‘…Ancient Mariner’. Whether they knew they were on to something special at the time, I don’t know – but with hindsight it is pretty special, as this is an album which could be seen as being responsible for starting the progressive metal subgenre.