IRON MAIDEN – No Prayer For The Dying

maiden 90As the 1990s dawned and Iron Maiden entered their second decade as recording artists, their eighth studio album presented the band’s first real misfire. Sure, 1981’s ‘Killers’ may have used of a lot of leftover material but it had a lot of heart, but ‘No Prayer For The Dying’ (released in October 1990) is the first Maiden release that could be considered bad. Maybe that’s harsh. To put it another way: it is one of those albums which sounds solid enough at first, but dig a little deeper and repeated listens show it to be generally unremarkable. And obviously, compared to Maiden’s previous heights – following a decade where the band could barely put a foot wrong – that’s not so good. Since its predecessor ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ offered especially memorable material in ‘Infinite Dreams’, ‘Can I Play With Madness’ and ‘The Evil That Men Do’, it didn’t seem like too much of a leap of faith to expect ‘No Prayer…’ to deliver a similar standard of goods, but most of the album sounds genuinely flat by comparison with any of its forebears.

First off, Adrian Smith’s absence is all but too obvious. Listening to the band’s previous releases, it’s clear he brought a lot to the table and his style of chorus driven song writing provided a much needed contrast to Steve Harris’s bombastic narratives (something never more obvious than on the ‘Somewhere In Time’ album from 1986). While ex-White Spirit guitarist Janick Gers does a decent job as new boy for hire throughout ‘No Prayer…’, it cannot be denied that without Smith’s presence – especially with regard to song writing, but also his sense of melody as a hard rock guitarist – there’s just something amiss. Secondly, Bruce Dickinson’s vocal style is different than on previous works. His operatic influenced wailing is present and correct in places, but for the most part, he adopts a new vocal style for this album – an altogether less distinctive, slightly shoutier approach. The big question is: what’s with the change? His voice was great as it was.

The arrival of these new elements is obvious right from the start. ‘Tailgunner’ has plenty of the energy expected from your typical Maiden outing, but there’s something about it which feels rather heavy handed. It would be easy to point the finger at new guitarist Janick Gers, but the guitar work here (and throughout huge chunks of this album) lacks Adrian Smith’s finesse. It could be said that Dickinson’s newly found, more ragged voice suits the wordy delivery of the verses, but something never feels quite right somehow. Some of Maiden’s trademarks are more than present – the galloping bass, the storytelling lyrical content – but right from the off, there’s a gut feeling the band are treading water. Similarly, after a pleasing intro comprising clean rhythm guitars and an atmospheric lead guitar part, ‘Fates Warning’ chugs along making use of various Maiden trademarks, although you’ll have heard the band achieve better results on various past releases. Commendable as always is Nicko McBrain’s drum part – busy and complex, with the man himself making it sound like a breeze; the twin lead guitar part leading into the solo is also decent, but elsewhere, things could have been better: a reasonable chorus isn’t given anywhere near enough promotion and Bruce’s new-found voice doesn’t breathe life into the material in the way he is genuinely capable. Make no mistake, this is not ‘No Prayer For The Dying’s weak link – not by a long chalk – it’s just a little lacking.

As expected for a Steve Harris composition, chances are you’ll wish ‘The Assassin’ hadn’t had a chorus at all. While the verses hold up well and have a great musical and vocal arrangement – driven by an almost funky drum line and an arrangement which occasionally veers into progressive metal territory – any good is quickly undone by one of ‘Arry’s predictable one-line choruses. When Nicko’s playing his arse off and Dave Murray works well with Gers throughout, such an arrangement deserved so much more than “better watch out ‘cos I’m the assassin” wailed repeatedly in the name of entertainment. It soon becomes irritating. Mr. Harris should also take note that assassins are stealthy and probably wouldn’t make such a big, camp fuss regarding their impending arrival.

‘Holy Smoke’ delivers a simple but effective twin guitar riff and a tongue-in-cheek lyric about religious corruption. Such lyrical conceits are hardly original, but the lyric works well enough; perhaps most importantly, it’s one of the only times Bruce’s harder vocal approach truly fits the music. Away from the twin guitar riff, it’s a tad heavy-handed in places; the rougher guitar tones aren’t always as pleasurable as those which filled Maiden’s best 80s works. Any shortcomings are balanced out by a trademark galloping bassline from Harris, while Gers and Murray try and outplay each other on a pair of scorching solos. The title track, meanwhile, has moments of sheer majesty, as Maiden tap into their most melodic side. A lead guitar riff has a playful edge, while some of the rhythm parts have an equally lovely and very clean approach. Harris is smart enough to realise these elements are going to carry the piece alone, and so he reins in his bass work; against most bassists he’s still playing in a lead style, of course, but he’s definitely moving away from his usual full pelt. On these melodic sections, Dickinson is in absolutely terrific form – finally giving his older vocal tones an airing – smoother, wailier and as a result, undeniably better. Most of this track has an approach which would not have sounded out of place on 1988 fan favourite ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ and as consequence, if there’s a track worth keeping a copy of the album for, this is the one.

‘Hooks In You’ (a Dickinson/Smith number, and the only track Adrian Smith managed to contribute before recording began) has a bouncy air, the kind sadly lacking on a lot of ‘No Prayer For The Dying’s bigger cuts. It comes with a decent chorus – as you’d expect from most things with a Smith writing credit – and there’s a lighter approach to melody all round, which is distinctly Smith’s main contribution. Had he played on the final take, this track could have been fabulous, but there’s something a little muddy about some of the end results; presumably that’s Gers’s slightly dirtier tone at play. The band does their best to make this a fitting close to the Charlotte the Harlot saga with more lyrics concerning kinky sexual misadventures and – despite a few short-comings – it still manages to be one of the album’s better outings, too.

‘Public Enema Number One’ begins with a guitar line which could equal a number of the band’s classics, but doesn’t really do much beyond that. Musically, it’s Maiden-by-numbers (galloping bass, a decent riff); it raises itself beyond filler thanks to a reasonable chorus – ie: one which stretches the imagination beyond a singular repeated line, which it possibly would have had if it had been penned by Harris and not Dickinson/Murray. Most of ‘Run Silent, Run Deep’s elements are better than that, despite lacking a great opening riff. Right from its atmospheric intro, the band sound almost playful, through a great rock drumline and a classic, classic Dickinson vocal during the chorus, proving again that he really is at his best on this album once he reverts to his older style. Throw in a couple of great solos from both Murray and Gers – topped off with some twin-lead arpeggios – and alongside the title track, this becomes the album’s other essential offering. When a Maiden album is as thin on the ground with regards to indispensable numbers as ‘No Prayer’ is, it’s like a shining beacon when one such as this eventually appears.

‘Mother Russia’ leans toward the grandiose with a riff based around a tried and tested eastern motif. The twin lead intro instantly suggests something slightly proggy, and this is reinforced by the arrival of keyboards (used for colour – certainly less important this time out than on parts of ‘Seventh Son’). As Bruce makes the lyric fit around the aforementioned eastern riff, it almost sounds like a piss-take. Luckily, the instrumental sections make up for any weakness, with some decent twin lead guitars and sharp, almost militaristic drumming. In terms of historical epic, this is certainly not Maiden’s best and musically there’s a feeling in places they’re covering old ground. Against a couple of the album’s misfires it doesn’t come off terribly despite actually being fairly terrible, but measured against every one of the eight cuts from ‘Seventh Son’, it’s filler material. At least if nothing else can be said, there’s now a historical number in the band’s catalogue which is almost as silly as ‘Alexander The Great’.

It would be unfair to give ‘No Prayer For The Dying’ the once-over without mentioning the hit single ‘Bring Your Daughter…To The Slaughter’. While by far one of the worst things in the Maiden catalogue up to this point, it holds a special place in Maiden’s history, being their first and only UK number one single. It’s possible it became a number one by occupying a slightly unfair advantage on the playing field: the single was issued on six different formats, which naturally, the fan base snapped up. (It was shortly after this the rules were changed, meaning that UK singles were only eligible to chart if issued on three formats or fewer.) ‘Bring Your Daughter…’ was originally a Bruce Dickinson solo number recorded for the Nightmare on Elm Street 5 soundtrack, but here, it’s given a full Maiden re-working. Naturally, the eighties edged and almost mechanical sounding bassline from Bruce’s original version has been kicked into touch and beefed up considerably. In short, the whole thing has a much more natural feel and much bigger punch, creating a reasonable – but disposable – hard rocker. No improvements will ever make it great, though. It is – and likely always will be – something which sounds like a bit of fun; y’know, that kind of cliché-ridden heavy metal which gets laughed at by those who never appreciated it to begin with.

With ‘No Prayer…’, Iron Maiden definitely entered the new decade with a sub-par album. While the new studio material was not up to the high standard Maiden often set throughout the 80s, in the live setting, very little had changed with the band still proving themselves to be a world-class live act. Good job, too, since ‘No Prayer For The Dying’ marked the beginning of a decade long slump with regards to the quality of new material. It seemed that even the most gifted couldn’t stay on top forever.

April 2010/October 2011