Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Bruce Dickinson - The Chemical Wedding

In the early 1990s [around 1992], Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson was having a crisis. He had much success as Maiden’s singer, but in his heart he wasn’t sure if he really deserved the success. The only way he would know for sure was to leave Iron Maiden. This he did after one last concert with the band in August 1993. He recorded an album with producer Keith Olsen but was unsatisfied with the results. He heard a band from Los Angeles called the Tribe of Gypsies, whose lead guitarist and producer was a guy named Roy Z. Having heard these guys play, Bruce loved what he heard and wanted to work with them, especially Roy Z. So with Roy Z, Bruce started anew on more material. The result was the album Balls to Picasso. Some people like it, some didn’t [I’m one of those who did]. When it came time to do another album, the Tribe of Gypsies had moved on with their own career, so Bruce decided he would form a his own band. He called this band Skunkworks. The idea was submerge his identity within a band, much like David Bowie had with Tin Machine. According to Bruce, the Skunkworks idea worked as well as Tin Machine, which is to say it didn’t work very well. He liked the album they created together [also titled Skunkworks], but he was in a small minority.
By this time Roy Z and the Tribe of Gypsies were released from their record deal, free to make music with whomever they chose. Roy Z asked Bruce if he wanted to make a heavy metal record. Bruce wasn’t sure if anyone was interested in anything he did anymore, but once he heard one of Roy Z’s backing tracks over the phone, Bruce made up his mind. Not only did Bruce make an album with Roy Z, he asked Adrian Smith [who left Iron Maiden himself in 1990] to come along for the ride. Expecting this to be the last record he would make, Accident of Death turned out to be an astonishing return to form for Bruce Dickinson. It was Bruce Dickinson doing what he did best – sing heavy metal with a heavy metal band. This brings us to the follow-up, and the subject of this blog – The Chemical Wedding.
Bruce wanted a loose concept for The Chemical Wedding, and he came up with subject matter one wouldn’t expect from a heavy metal album – occult science, alchemy and the art and poetry of William Blake. The cover of The Chemical Wedding is Blake’s painting The Ghost of a Flea. In between some of the songs, Arthur Brown reads excerpts of Blake’s poetry. Some of the songs from this album can be traced back to Blake’s work – The Book of Thel, The Gates of Urizen, and Jerusalem. Satan figures prominently in couple of songs [King in Crimson, Killing Floor]. The alchemy bit comes in with the title song and The Alchemist. My personal choice from this album would be The Tower. Blake was an advocate of free love during his time. I suspect this song was influenced by that somewhat. One of the bonus tracks [Confeos] sounds like Deep Purple. Bruce once described the vocals of another bonus track [Real World] as sounding like someone bit down on one of his nuts because the vocals were vari-sped too high. I think it’s a cool guitar track with pretty good vocals. The sounds on this album are pretty dark and gloomy, thanks to Adrian Smith and Roy Z re-stringing their guitars with bass strings [I bet their fingers hurt a lot!]. They make a formidable guitar tandem. Until I bought Bruce’s solo albums, Roy Z had been an unknown quantity to me. But now that I’ve heard him play, he reminds me a lot of Michael Schenker. Adrian Smith was always my favorite guitarist in Iron Maiden, and his playing here reinforces that sentiment. He still plays lots of rhythm but he gets to do his fair share of shredding. The rhythm section of bassist Eddie Casillas and drummer David Ingraham are rock solid. Bruce returns to his “human air raid siren” voice that he abandoned on the last two albums he made with Iron Maiden, No Rest for the Dying and Fear of the Dark. But ultimately, this albums rock very hard. Bruce once said the following:
“I have a simple rule. I ask myself ‘does it rock?’ And if it does, who gives a shit what it’s about? All the information’s there if people choose to dig for it. And if they don’t then it doesn’t matter, as long as they enjoy it. The point is – this album rocks like a bastard.”
Indeed it does. In my feeble mind, I think the concept of The Chemical Wedding, and Accident of Birth before it, is a very simple one. The concept as I see it – “out-Maiden” Iron Maiden. When Bruce left Iron Maiden, Steve Harris was quoted as saying that Bruce would put out a country & western album if he thought it would sell. So I believe Bruce was inspired to one-up Steve Harris. I have the two albums Iron Maiden made with Bruce’s replacement Blaze Bayley, The X Factor and Virtual XI. Maiden’s performances on those albums sound subdued, lackluster. There’s nothing about either album that is memorable. Some of the songs are very repetitive and, dare I say, boring. If you compare Accident of Birth and The Chemical Wedding with The X Factor and Virtual XI, Bruce’s albums are superior in every way – musically, lyrically, songwriting, energy, singing and production. Bruce blows Maiden out of the water.
With these two albums, Bruce Dickinson earned the success he was seeking that prompted him to leave Iron Maiden. It was somewhat surprising to learn in 1999 that both he and Adrian Smith would permanently rejoin Iron Maiden. But in retrospect, in looking at what Bruce did immediately prior to his rejoining Maiden, I think Bruce proved a point that he could be successful with or without Maiden, and that he was in a pretty good position to have greater input as a songwriter into Iron Maiden’s future work. That may not have been explicitly said, but in looking at what has come from Maiden since the reformation [Brave New World, Dance of Death, A Matter of Life and Death, The Final Frontier], Steve Harris’ stranglehold on songwriting has been somewhat relaxed. All the band members have more input to the music. I think The Chemical Wedding may have had some effect on that state of affairs, and that’s a good thing. I don’t have any proof one way or another – it’s just one pinhead’s point of view. One thing is certain - The Chemical Wedding is an outstanding album. Whether or not you’re an Iron Maiden fan, this album is well worth having. It is a great metal album.
The Tower
The Book of Thel
Gates of Urizen
Real World [Bonus Track]

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