While I have been away, something massive happened in the world of NWOBHM. It may not sound like a big deal to some people, but I think this is really significant. Not only is Iron Maiden’s ‘The Book Of Souls’ top of the UK album charts but some dude from the Guardian hailed it as his album of the week. Surely it’s hard not to get excited when a new record by a band from our era is being properly recognised and acknowledged as a significant contribution to the world of rock?
Unless you don’t have eyes or ears you’ll realise we’re currently experiencing a NWOBHM renaissance and know all about this video…
I love a bit of cowbell! I bought the album in question when I got back from my trip, and realised that it develops so many conversational tropes that typically come up when talking about NWOBHM. So what I want to do is to look at this album in the context of Iron Maiden through NWOBHM spectacles. Those of you who are familiar with this blog will know that this means listening to it with an open mind and respecting the band’s creative choices throughout their 40 year development as artists.
But hang on, For fans of NWOBHM, who are used to being present at gigs attended by about 10 other people, all this Maiden fanfare reminds us of a less well known group who despite being worthy of the same level of attention still have day jobs. Another band with a completely different sound and atmosphere but just as much energy as Iron Maiden (if not more) divided by three people instead of five. Still touring, still making music, still relevant and with a new album released in the summer that everyone reading this should buy immediately. Ladies and gentlemen, the legendary, Raven!
Now I’m not going to compare them by putting their achievements up against each other, both bands are so special to me that I couldn’t possibly think one group was ‘better’ than the other. However, the entertaining thing to contrast between the two bands is the level of recognition they’ve received from the general public in keeping their creative flame burning.
Maiden have been consistently filling stadiums throughout their career. With only one ‘terrible’ album (Virtual XI is literally the only one I can’t stomach). However, in the Raven camp things have bubbled away under the surface and somehow haven’t burst over the rim since the late 80s. In my opinion this hasn’t harmed their aesthetic, and has given them a truly underground edge. Arguably this should make them even more desirable to people who are new to the NWOBHM mythology, as so much of the Raven story is characterised by a musical virtuosity that contradicts their humble DIY set up.
Let’s consider the length of these two records.
Over the last decade or so many people have criticised Maiden’s inclination towards lengthier prog anthems, which depending on your perspective demonstrates either an attempt to soften and commercialise their sound or a brave willingness to take risks. I veer more towards the latter and consider 2006’s ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ to be a highlight of their career. Being an album with 11 songs spanning 92 minutes, ‘The Book Of The Dead’ obviously has some pretty epic compositions.
‘ExtermiNation’ has 15 tracks (if you count the bonus track ‘Malice In Geordieland’, which shows off Raven’s original Geordie roots by rattling off some of their Newcastle dialect about ‘going out on the toon’) and clocks in at 62 minutes. When I first bought this record I was worried that it may be overlong. There are so many recent NWOBHM records (which will remain nameless) that frustrate me, in that they could easily lose a few tracks and actually be better albums as a result.
When I finally heard it, I realised this wasn’t the case with ‘ExtermiNation’. It’s a solid, high quality release and has already become one of my favourite Raven albums.
The story of Maiden has been told many times, so excuse me while I take the liberty to go off on one about Raven… If you don’t already own ‘Rock Until You Drop’ (1981), in my opinion the best debut album by any band in any genre, ever, you need to add it to your collection immediately, no excuses!
Then I guess you should choose between their second and third albums ‘Wiped Out’ and ‘All For One’ (which are both great) and ‘Live At The Inferno’ (1984) which really hammers home how talented these guys are, like any great three piece, they sound like a whole army and this is probably my favourite live album of all time.
Here’s them on the tour that album was made on…
They had a bit of a blip in 1985 when they took a more commercial route and aimed for an American market (‘Stay Hard’ wasn’t as awful as people say but 1986’s ‘The Pack Is Back’ is hard work). Despite them following this with the ‘Mad’ EP, which sees them returning to their best, some curmudgeons have never forgiven them for this cock rock experimentation. Their loss, because ex Pentagram drummer Joe Hasselvander added new life to the band and filled out their sound for their ‘Nothing Exceeds Like Excess’ album in 1988, which saw them taking thrash, a subgenre they’re quite rightly renown for igniting, and reprocessing it with Raven insanity.
Hasselvander is a multi-instrumentalist and is one of the best percussionists in the business, his virtuoso technical power is awesome and his demented facial gestures are a delight to behold. All three of these guys are totally nuts by the way.
I thought it would be hard for them to top 2009’s ‘Walk Through Fire’ which was quite rightly a critical success although didn’t shift a huge amount of units. I find it hard to contain my joy, not only that they’ve risen to the challenge of following that album, but the fact that it actually improves on that masterpiece!
Here’s the official video for ‘Battle March/Tanks Treads (The Blood Runs Red)’.
Believe it or not it’s actually one of the slower songs on the record. ‘River Of No Return’ is the other slow song and it’s pretty special too, having an epic almost power ballad like quality, which really shows off what prevents this hour of music from overstaying its welcome, amazing song writing.
The rest of the album is pure molten metal. John Gallagher’s voice is in the finest high pitched shape, how does a guy in his fifties sound not only this clear and full of vitality, but so passionate and enthusiastic? Mark’s intense solo guitar counterpoint workout is a showcase of forty years of blasting fun, crazy riffs and baffling audiences with his ability to sound like Raven have as many guitarists as Iron Maiden (in case you’ve been living on Mars, since 1999 they’ve been a 6 piece with three guitarists).
When I bought ‘The Book Of Souls’ I did it by digital download (I’m proud of my reduced carbon footprint record collection). I only just realised that it cost me 11 damn quid, and I stupidly missed out on the hardback book for only a few quid more (although I did get a digital book so I shouldn’t really bitch too much). So if you have to choose between either of these records to download go for Raven, they need your money more and are selling ‘ExtermiNation’ for just £6.99!
Anyway, I went straight to the song ‘The Man of Sorrows’* followed by the 18 minute Empire of the Clouds.
(* I’m sure I can’t be the only one who was worried it may be a reworking of the song from Bruce Dickinson’s ‘Accident of Birth’ solo album from 1997 which was released as a single despite being the weakest song on the album?)
While I digested these tracks, two things struck me simultaneously, the maturity of these compositions and the rawness of the production. These two factors create a balance which, in keeping with the rest of their post millennium output has a completely individual sound, in this case giving ‘The Book of Souls’ an atmospheric depth. There’s a real sense of the Kevin Shirley (who has worked with the band since 2000’s ‘Brave New World’) and Steve Harris co-production hitting a new benchmark.
As I said earlier, I’m delighted that this record has given journalists an opportunity to finally accept Maiden as a band worthy of comment. It’s about bloody time! Here’s a taste of what they’re getting excited about…
So in the context of classic rock ‘Book of Souls’ feels like a milestone, highlighting the attention and celebration the heavy metal subculture seems to be justifiably enjoying in recent years. Let’s hope that as fans rediscover this era of music they stumble across Raven’s ‘ExtermiNation’ and realise that it’s not just major label bands that are making powerful, exciting and beautifully crafted music. I’m so proud that Iron Maiden have delivered an album that pushes the boundaries of what we should expect from mature, dedicated and experienced musicians from the golden age of British heavy metal. So hear it, digest it, then encourage anyone who likes it to dig deeper than Maiden and prepare to uncover some rock n roll gold that deserves a similar lofty pedestal.
All that needs to happen is for this trend to continue until the NWOBHM renaissance becomes a ‘thing’ that people care about outside of the confines of our subculture, rather than a one dimensional story that can be wheeled out on a quiet music press week as a still lingering side-show. I still believe in the Glastonbury idea, does anyone have the contacts to get that dialogue going?
One more thing, ExtermiNation doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page yet, whereas the one for ‘The Book Of Souls’ is massive. Does anyone have some time on their hands? If so, please sort this out!
Let’s end with the legendary Millennium, ‘Kill Or Be Killed’ is a song from their 1986 demo.
It’s definitely the time of year to start getting excited about Brofest, and Millennium will be there playing together for the first time in over 25 years! Be there!