Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ten Metal Bands to See Before You Die: Iron Maiden

If heavy metal had a CV, Iron Maiden shows would go at the very top. Nothing comes closer to packing everything that's great about metal into one sitting than a stage with Eddie and his human counterparts. It's humorous, political and fantastical. Sometimes it feels raw and grandiose at the same time. Iron Maiden are likeable enough to sell out arenas all over the world, yet metal enough to do it with barely any mainstream press or radio. Iron Maiden may never make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and if they don't, it'll be another feather in their caps.

Iron Maiden doesn't have to be your favorite band, or even your 30th favorite band for one to see that what they do with an audience is breathtaking. None of the musicians, the youngest of whom turns 55 this summer, seem to have been affected by aging, narcotics or world-weariness at all. If anything, they've improved, hitting higher notes and faster rhythms than the ones reached on their classic '80s output. Even on their "hits" tours (the best way to see them, between "new album" tours), they never come across as a nostalgia band, but rather a band that's still getting better at playing their best songs. It's entirely possible that they've spent their entire musical careers preparing for the performance you're about to see on any given night.

In the must-see Rush documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage, Neal Peart tells an interviewer that he will never get tired of playing "Tom Sawyer," because it's always difficult to play, and therefore he always feels good whenever he pulls it off. One can imagine everyone in Iron Maiden relating. They never stop having a blast treating their international audience to workouts like "2 Minutes to Midnight" or "The Number of the Beast," or grinning enthusiastically while running and/or swinging their guitars. On Maiden's newer albums, sometimes they seem to be writing longer and more complicated songs just to rise to the challenge, but onstage they find that challenge in their greatest music, conquering it like the heroes of "Aces High." Songs that you skipped over on Fear of the Dark sound like they should have gone on Best of the Beast. I could sooner imagine Iron Maiden releasing a rap album than phoning in a show.

For a purely metal arena show, it doesn't get any better than Maiden. More metal than AC/DC, less mainstream than Metallica, more musical than KISS, more theatrical than Judas Priest, funnier than Black Sabbath and more agile than anyone this side of Shakira, Iron Maiden are consistently the greatest live metal band in the world. Heard and viewed from any seat in any arena, Bruce Dickinson is an electrifying frontman, punctuating each power metal riff and burst of flame and with vocals that always seem to defy the larynx without forgetting to carry the tunes. If he leaves the stage for a moment, it's for an elaborate set or costume change--you're not getting any extended solos or banter tonight. Even their encore breaks don't last long enough for a bathroom stop. Just hit after hit, with a few engaging quips and explosions in between.

With another band, Maiden's stage, props, pyro and zombie mascot might seem excessive. But part of Iron Maiden's magic is their ability to blend their bells and whistles into the show itself. Their stage sets seem simple, humble even, when fused with the exhilarating hooks of "The Trooper," "Wasted Years" or "Heaven Can Wait." The brutality, steadfastness and musicianship that drive Iron Maiden's best songs deserve the sphinxes, sarcophagi and Union Jacks.

Iron Maiden with a stage is as natural and necessary as Babe Ruth with a bat or Fred Astaire with a dance floor. When people talk about metal that takes rock n' roll to extremities, metal that confronts the worst of life and celebrates the best of it, metal as high art and something to bang your head and flash your horns to, this is what they're talking about.

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