To look back at Iron Maiden’s ninth and 1992 album, Fear of the Dark, is to look back at one of the band’s most peculiar and bizarre moments in their entire history, but it was also marked by one event: Bruce Dickinson ending his association with the British legends.
The early 90s were perhaps Maiden’s most confusing period, both musically and within the band. After the great success that was Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, Harris and his boys opted for a much more grounded and dark sound with the follow up, No Prayer for the Dying. While a couple of interesting tracks, such as The Assassin or Run Silent Run Deep came from that, it was widely considered the band’s less accomplished album until that point and wasn’t very well received commercially, either. The times were changing and the new decade saw a bigger emphasis on much more grounded and darker bands, thus resulting in the rise of the Grunge movement and many classical Metal bands struggling to maintaining their status–Maiden was one of those bands that wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
Having said that, the situation within the British band wasn’t the greatest and that goes all the way back to the end of the tour of the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album. Adrian Smith left after that tour; he felt burnt out by the constant touring and album productions, so Janick Gers, who worked with Bruce in his first solo album, Tattooed Millionaire, took his place. No offense to Janick, who is a great guitarist in his own right, but without Adrian’s creativity and writing skills, Maiden lost a bit of the finesse that was characteristic in them and he leaving didn’t sit so well with Bruce, either.
It’s worth pointing out that Bruce leaving Iron Maiden after this album wasn’t something that happened out of nowhere–this was building up, much like the aftermath of Adrian’s departure, for a while, specifically since the Powerslave tour in the mid-80s. We could even say that this tour was the beginning of the end for Bruce’s first era at Iron Maiden.
Little by little, album by album, tour by tour, Bruce decided he wanted to stretch beyond what he was doing with Maiden (that is part of the reason he started fencing while touring or publishing his first book in the late 80s) and try to do different kinds of music. He first tried to do this within Maiden during the making of the Somewhere in Time in 1986, promoting an acoustic-based album, but Steve Harris wouldn’t go for it. This was the beginning of the friction between both guys because they were very opposite figures: Steve has always been a very disciplined and consistent individual while Bruce was more of a mad genius of sorts, always looking and trying different things–that is part of the reason that Maiden was always such a fruitful creative force.
But this constant clash of personalities met its conclusion in the making of Fear of the Dark, a superior effort to the one in 1990 with No Prayer for the Dying, but also the sign that things were never going to be the same for the same for Eddie and his boys, thus signaling the end of the “classic Maiden era”. But in classic Maiden fashion, they would go down screaming and with a bang.
Now, focusing on the musical aspect of things, Fear of the Dark is one of the strangest Maiden albums out there, if not the strangest. One of the main characteristics from their albums is the coherence and consistency of their sound; the twin guitars, the melodies, Steve’s galloping bass lines and Bruce wailing throughout the songs. Much like No Prayer for the Dying, they have maintained the dark and rough sound, but often switching from one style to another without any clear indication of where they are heading with this–that is why Fear of the Dark is one of their most polarizing musical efforts when it comes to fan reactions.
One aspect that is pretty massive improvement to its predecessor is the fact that Martin Birch’s production was of a superior quality and this was due to the band having much more experience producing in Steve’s personal studio in Essex (this being another element that aggravated Bruce during the making of the album). All of these elements (the growing tension between Bruce and Steve, Janick’s contributions to the band, the studio, the grounded approach and the slump on sales) paved the way for what could be easily considered as the band’s most commercial album and one that is great for some and a disgrace for others.
Regardless of perceptions of the album as a whole, the opening track, Be Quick or Be Dead, is considered a Maiden classic nowadays and for good reason–it is a fast, intense and dark opener that sets up for this album in great fashion. The guitar playing from Dave Murray and Janick is tempestuous and fluid, as well as Bruce’s venomous vocals, often shrieking as if he were possessed. This is certainly different to classic Maiden and a continuation to what was done in No Prayer for the Dying, but in a far superior level.
Much like Seventh Son…’s Can I Play With Madness? and No Prayer…’s Bring Your Daughter… To The Slaughter, From Here To Eternity is the closest Maiden has ever gotten to AC/DC and that is saying a lot considering the vast musical differences between the two bands. Compared to the large musical output that the band produced until this point in their careers, we have to say that is a somewhat lackluster song that hasn’t aged very well and feels like a group trying too hard to stay current–a feeling that would be a running theme in this album.
The next song is the entire opposite to what I just said about From Here To Eternity and it has become a minor Iron Maiden classic. Afraid to Shoot Strangers is strongly divided in two sections and it is an indication of the direction Steve Harris would take in their first album with vocalist Blaze Bayley, X Factor. It’s one of the album’s strongest tracks, starting with a low pace and a dark atmosphere, with a solemn Bruce on vocals. Later on, when the song gets faster and faster, both Dave and Janick provide one of those memorable dual melodies that Maiden got us used to in their material from the 80s.
I have to admit that Fear is the Key is a guilty pleasure of mine; I’m quite aware that is not the strongest song here and it might not even be a good one at that, but Bruce’s vocal performance here was always very appealing to me and the track has a somewhat aggressive nature that reminds a bit to one from the previous album, Mother Russia (thematically they share similar content in their lyrics). Childhood’s End shows very interesting guitar work from Dave and Janick, adding to some drum patterns from Nicko McBrain, who always knows how to keep things interesting. It’s a fun song, but much like From Here to Eternity or Fear is the Key, it doesn’t live up to the standard of what was Maiden at the time (or perhaps it does, which is a testament to the difficult time in which they were at the time).
I know a lot of people are not fans of this song, but I for one always liked Wasting Love. It’s not very often that we get to see Maiden do ballads and I think this is only time they have talked about romance in their lyrics–goes to show how unusual Fear of the Dark is. Regardless, Bruce steals the show here and I think from here he took a liking for ballads because his solo albums have a lot of them (and most of them are excellent, like Tears of the Dragon, Arc of Space or Chemical Wedding). The chorus is quite powerful, adding a bit of riffing and heaviness to an otherwise light track. Naturally, this was another attempt from the band to stay commercially relevant and while it’s a very good song, I can’t but think that they were trying too hard at the time–especially when such seminal works such as Powerslave or Piece of Mind sound so fluid and natural.
The next following three songs is when the album starts dipping in quality and losing the musical north. The Fugitive, Chains of Misery and The Apparition are some of the weakest songs in Maiden’s entire catalog and they are part of the reason that this album is often viewed as one of the worst in the band’s history. It’s a prime example of a band that doesn’t have a clear focus of where they want to go and it shows how much Maiden (and Harris) needed the contributions of Adrian Smith and a motivated Bruce Dickinson (who at the time was already thinking in the follow-up to Tattooed Millionaire).
But that is the funny aspect about Fear of the Dark: is so inconsistent that when it hits the bullseye, it produces some of Maiden’s most fascinating songs. Judas Be My Guide is one of the best songs they made in the 90s and it’s a total shame that they haven’t played it live because it has everything you could want from them: fast pace, powerful melodies, a chorus that is both catchy and comes up as natural (something most chorus in this album cannot claim), fantastic guitar work and Bruce finding the perfect balance between his new rough vocal style and the wails that made him great–the second best song in the entire album, in my humble opinion.
Steve Harris has always been very public about his love for football and this is shown in Weekend Warrior, which is Maiden’s attempt to write a commercial Hard Rock song. And this is the thing: there is no problem with experimenting, but when you try something different in every single song, you end up with a disjointed album and lacking a proper musical direction, thus resulting in the hit-and-miss end product that we are listening. If you ever wonder how Maiden would sound playing like Ratt, Weekend Warrior is the song for you. For the rest of us, this is a forgettable track and a mere prelude to what is about to unfold.
If there is one song from Maiden’s 90s period that has managed to live on and become an all-time classic in not only the band’s catalog, but in the wide spectrum of Metal as a whole, it’s the album’s title track. And seriously, who could blame the people that made this song a fan favorite? Its majestic introduction, Bruce’s vocals in the calm section, the sheer intensity when things get pacey and the epic feel that this song transmits is something that can win over any listener. If there was one way to say goodbye to the Bruce Dickinson Era in Iron Maiden, it had to be with a track of such status and quality–it has all the elements that made us fans love this fan and you can feel them in their home turf, doing what they do best.
It has been heard, but this title track is a monumental and imperial example of why this band has become so revered and valued as the years went by. Even if this is one of their most uneven albums, they still manage to produce three or four jewels that will endure beyond the test of time.
This album was conceived as a way for Maiden to regain commercial and musical relevance in a scene that was slowly leaving them behind. It did not work. For any lesser band, the album was quite successful in terms of sales, but for Maiden was another decline and despite heading 1992’s Donington Festival, they were playing in smaller venues, especial in the United States. The tour also proved to be the boiling point between Steve and Bruce, resulting in them not talking to each during the 1993 tour and Dickinson leaving to find himself again as a musician. Steve Harris, as always been his nature, carried on with Maiden, hired underground vocalist Blaze Bayley and went on to create one of the band’s most underrated and undervalued masterpieces, X Factor.
Fear of the Dark is a commercially inconsistent, somewhat brilliant and somewhat awful kind of album. And for that reason alone, you should give it a listen.