Somewhere In Time was Iron Maiden’s ultimate overdog challenge, and also the album that almost ended Bruce Dickinson’s time in the band prematurely.
Somewhere In Time
Produced by Martin Birch
Released 29 September 1986
1986. The world was at Iron Maiden’s feet. The double whammy of Powerslave (1984) and Live After Death (1985) had seen Maiden conquer the globe, including the notoriously diffcult-to-break North American market. The World Slavery Tour had been a triumph, and the Live After Death double album was Maiden’s third consecutive platinum seller in the US.
Make sure to check out our in-depth feature about the height of Maiden’s classic era in 1984-85! What Maiden achieved in the mid-80s is still the stuff of legend for up-and-coming bands, and it’s the shadow that Maiden themselves stood in as they set out to forge their path in the late 1980s.
Everyone even remotely interested in metal music was waiting for what the biggest metal band of the 1980s would come up with next, and it’s been much-publicized that singer Bruce Dickinson had envisioned a drastic departure in style that the rest of the band and producer Martin Birch nixed. What we got instead was Somewhere In Time, a classic Maiden-sounding album, without any massive stylistic shift but not without some new and surprising elements.
The biggest change is immediately apparent: Synthesizers! Dickinson famously stated a couple of years earlier that you «can’t play heavy metal with synthesizers», but that is exactly what his own band does when they launch into Caught Somewhere In Time. The track is lengthy, and relying heavily on guitarists Adrian Smith and Dave Murray to weave soundscapes around the rather simplistic chord patterns.
To a large extent, this is Adrian Smith’s album, with both his playing and his writing taking center stage like never before.
Indeed, without any songwriting contributions from Dickinson, who had all his semi-acoustic songs ditched, a heavier burden rests on Smith’s shoulders to come up with both music and lyrics. He delivers the suitably metallic Sea Of Madness, but also the brooding Stranger In A Strange Land, as well as one of Maiden’s most commercially inclined tracks ever in the form of first single Wasted Years.
At the same time, Birch’s production is far removed from the bare-bones aesthetic of the previous couple of studio albums, and the more lush and layered sound sits well with the new songs. Somewhere In Time was crafted at Compass Point Studios in Nassau and Wisseloord Studios in Hilversum in the first half of 1986, and it was the longest-gestating and most expensive Maiden production to that point.
In many ways the effort to modernize Maiden’s sound paid off. The droning synthesizers are certainly a sign of the times, but they also suit the material. Somewhere In Time has a unique identity in the Maiden catalog and enjoys a great deal of love from Maiden fans, as guest writer Pål Ødegård elaborates on in this essay.
On the other hand, there is material here that might have fallen through completely if it wasn’t for Birch’s skills with the knobs and faders. Heaven Can Wait is strictly filler in this reviewer’s opinion, despite the football chant that ensures its status as a live favorite. The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner is also middle-of-the-road, saved by some tasteful guitar work from Murray and Smith as well as the frenetic pace of Nicko McBrain’s drumming.
Deja-Vu is competent rather than memorable, and Alexander The Great struggles to live up to the immense legacy of Rime Of The Ancient Mariner as it closes the record on a fine if somewhat diluted note. The standard that the band has established for themselves is obviously tough to maintain, and it’s a surprise to discover that band chief Steve Harris’ entries are actually the weakest songs on the album, with a qualified exception for the opener.
Dickinson had written great things for Maiden before, and he would do so again. In a somewhat similar way Harris had written great things for Maiden before, and he would write better material than his Somewhere In Time songs for them later.
The theme of the album, as the titles imply, is loosely tied together by most of the lyrics relating to travelling, space and time. With that starting point, long-time illustrator Derek Riggs delivers a truly classic sleeve that really makes vinyl worth it:
The current black vinyl reissue is faithful to the original packaging, but the Somewhere In Time concept, lyrics and artworks lend themselves to the gatefold treatment, and the 2013 picture disc takes advantage of this. The gatefold opens to reveal shots of the band on and off stage in 1986-87. But just when you thought the 2012-13 picture discs were going to nail the actual pictures (unlike the notoriously period-confusing 1998 CD remasters), here comes the first fuck-up with a shot from the 1988 tour in the bottom left corner…
Anyway, the disc itself is adorned with Riggs’ Wasted Years and Stranger In A Strange Land illustrations, the latter of which cleverly continues the tale of the album cover:
Taken as part 3 of an artwork trilogy that began with the Wasted Years single and continued with the album cover, also spinning off with the Somewhere On Tour illustration, this is Maiden and Riggs at the height of their visual storytelling, an embellishment of the music that inspired countless young bands in the 1980s.
In sum, Somewhere In Time is an album that’s very sophisticated as a concept and a production, but a little less compelling as a collection of songs. Some are strong, chiefly the excellent Smith entries, while others disappoint. But even so, Maiden’s low points in the 1980s were still far better than just about anybody else’s high points. One can hardly argue with anything the band delivered in their 1982-88 period, but for this reviewer Somewhere In Time is the least great of those records, when they are put in relation to each other and not other bands.
Smith is clearly the Man of the Match and deserves great credit for making Somewhere In Time a classic. Apart from Harris’ average input, the album suffers most from the absence of a truly enthusiastic and involved Dickinson. It’s a worrying sign that his vocals also sound strained and distant in places…
Christer’s Verdict: 4/6