Iron Maiden are indisputably one of the most influential heavy metal bands in the history of rock music. While not considered a progressive metal band as such, they have always been progressively oriented due to Steve Harris’ love for early Genesis, Rush, Yes and the like. Moreover, several leading progressive metal bands have taken direct cues from Maiden’s distinct style. And, of course, their music has taken an even more distinctively progressive turn in recent years.
Therefore, the third installment in the Feed Your Brain series. Here are ten progressive Maiden tunes. Spotify users will find a playlist at the bottom of this entry.
Phantom of the Opera (Iron Maiden, 1980)
Iron Maiden’s eponymous debut album is, while the songs on it seem pretty straightforward, actually quite progressive with its unconventional song structures and surprising tempo changes. For instance, the instrumental ‘Transylvania’ features two different main parts that sound like two completely different songs, and even ‘Prowler’ and ‘Iron Maiden’ feature some, at the time, quite unconventional brides for heavy metal songs. Then, of course, there is the magnum opus of the album, ‘Phantom of the Opera’ with its 7 minutes of playing time and many changes, breakdowns, build-ups and variations. Oh, yeah, and then it’s simply a kick-ass track!
22 Acacia Avenue (The Number of the Beast, 1982)
Starting out like a conventional metal tune, this classic from The Number of the Beast suddenly breaks down after a couple of verses and what sounds like a completely new song kicks in, which in itself contains several passages and changes. According to legend, the song was originally written by Adrian Smith for his previous hard rock band Urchin. In its original state, the song was much more of a straight rocker, but when adopted into the corpus of Maiden songs, it was enhanced, as the Iron Maiden trademark changes and shifts were added, resulting in what I consider a progressively oriented heavy metal classic.
To Tame A Land (Piece of Mind, 1983)
One of the more obscure Iron Maiden songs perhaps, ‘To Tame A Land’ is nonetheless the epic track of Piece of Mind. In a way, it is a precursor to the much more epic ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ from Powerslave, as it features a similar song structure including a bass-driven breakdown and, of course, several changes in tempo. Where ‘To Tame A Land’ goes in its own direction is the slight Middle Eastern feel that it has and of course the subject matter which is inspired by the cult science fiction novel Dune. Being primarily set on a desert planet, the Dune-inspired lyrics, needless to say, definitely call for a slight Middle Eastern feel.
Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Powerslave, 1984)
This is the epic that ‘To Tame A Land’ prepared the listener for. With its almost 14 minutes, it is considered the Maiden epic of their first golden age. It features many of the not-so-progressive elements which Maiden are also known for, such as relentlessly galloping guitars and large sing-along-choruses. But with its sheer length, the song obviously is not for the mainstream pop music listener, and, after the song has been galloping around for what corresponds to the length of a standard pop song, it suddenly changes into a dynamic more uptempo section, before breaking down into a dark and atmospheric bass-driven passage, then building up into another bass-driven passage followed by a series of guitar harmony sections, before the galloping section kicks in again and rounds off the track with another verse. And, of course, the lyrics feature several direct quotes from Coleridge’s epic poem. If that’s not progressive, I don’t know what is.
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, 1988)
Maiden’s first proper concept album, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son was also the most progressive album of their first golden age. One area where this album took Maiden’s sound in a new direction was the introduction of keyboards into Maiden’s sound. Somewhere in Time from 1986 had be a kind of precursor in that the band had started using guitar synths n that album, but this was the first time they made fully fledged use of keyboards. The title track of the album almost reaches the epic proportions of ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, also featuring some of the same aesthetics such as heavy galloping guitars and an atmospheric bass-driven bridge. While neither as long nor as complex as ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ the use of ambient keyboards adds a dark epic atmosphere not heard before in a Maiden track. And then of course, there is the flurry of solos, riffs and oddball guitar harmonies that follow the atmospheric bridge. This song truly is a(nother) Maiden masterpiece whose progressive underpinnings are undeniable.
Sign of the Cross (The X Factor, 1995)
With the departure of Adrian Smith after Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and the release of two more straightforward metal albums in the form of No Prayer for the Dying and Fear of the Dark, Maiden’s first golden age ended. Eventually Bruce Dickinson also left Maiden, and Blaze Bayley was brought in as the new vocalist. With him behind the mic, they released their two worst albums ever, in my opinion. A lot of fans blamed Bayley, but that is unfair. It cannot be his fault that the music itself generally became less interesting, and on The X Factor he actually does a brilliant job I think. While the least interesting Maiden albums to me, both Bayley-fronted records have some rather brilliant moments. Virtual XI has ‘The Clansman’, and The X Factor ‘Man on the Edge’, ‘Blood on the World’s Hands’, ‘The Unbeliever’ and ‘Lord of the Flies’… and of course the rather exceptional ‘Sign of the Cross’, a dark epic track featuring a song-length intro, breakdowns, build-ups and slightly challenging rhythmic patterns, and, of course, the Maiden trademark tempo changes.
Out of the Silent Planet (Brave New World, 2000)
With the return of both Dickinson and Smith, the Maiden sound was reinvigorated, and Brave New World started off the second golden age, and took on an even more bombastic nature than ever before, both thanks to the use of three guitars and Dickinson’s unique voice. ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ is a good representative of this sound, in which the progressive is constantly lurking under the surface in the form of acoustic guitars overlaid on distorted ones, long verses, tempo changes and all those other Maiden goodies. The progressive never bursts out completely on this album, but it definitely is a sign of things to come. And, well, Brave New World is a brilliant album on all accounts.
Paschendale (Dance of Death, 2003)
Upping the progressive tendencies lurking beneath the surface on the predecessor, Dance of Death is, for my money, the first album of the second golden age where Maiden really embrace their progressive self. And the Smith-penned ‘Paschendale’ is very much the pinnacle of progressiveness on this album. According to legend, Smith, who had otherwise preferred writing shorter pieces, decided to try his hand at writing more epic material amd thus created ‘Paschendale’ which is bombastic, complex, symphonic, cerebral and emotional at the same time. They even make use of musical symbolism in the form of the hi-hat pattern in the intro, which is intended to represent the sound of morse coding, seeing that the song describes a World War I battle. For my money, this is one of the best Iron Maiden tracks of all time.
Brighter than a Thousand Suns (A Matter of Life and Death, 2006)
Taking the progressiveness even further on A Matter of Life and Death, Iron Maiden sound even better on this album than on the previous two ones, and the epic song has almost become the standard format. But they never gave up on the accessibility and melody of their music. And the marriage of the progressive and refined and the accessible and memorable shines though perfectly in ‘Brighter than a Thousand Suns’ which features both add time signatures, complex song structure, food-for-though lyrics, melodic guitar leads, and bombastic sing-along-choruses that your brain will never forget once you have heard the song.
Ilse of Avalon (The Final Frontier, 2010)
The Final Frontier is the most progressive Iron Maiden album to date, to the point that I consider it a progressive metal album proper (not so much in a Dream Theater sense as in a Crimson Glory sense). Due to its experimental nature, the album does not sit well with all listeners, but, if you happen to like both metal and progressive rock, then this album should be up your alley. ‘Isle of Avalon’ is just one example of the many epic tracks on the album. It features a long intro which slowly builds in intensity and a main body consisting of many passages, ranging from relatively simple ones to considerably complex ones, even featuring some odd time signatures.