New decade! New guitar player! New album! The 1980s were over, and Iron Maiden faced many challenges in maintaining their status at the dawn of the 1990s.
No Prayer For The Dying
Produced by Martin “The Bishop” Birch
Released 1 October 1990
Iron Maiden had conquered the world. The 1980s were their decade, like the 1970s had been Led Zeppelin’s decade. From 1984 through 1988 Maiden were the biggest metal band on the planet in terms of popularity, and they could hardly be faulted for their innovation either.
Following a year off in 1989, at the end of which the Maiden England concert video was released, Iron Maiden reconvened at the dawn of a new decade. The 1990s would bring multiple changes and struggles to the band, and their claim to the metal throne would be challenged and ultimately succeeded by Metallica.
The first change occurred when guitarist Adrian Smith, who had recently released his first solo album with the band ASAP, became disillusioned and was pushed to leave Maiden. The source of Smith’s frustration was partially the musical direction that Steve Harris and Bruce Dickinson championed for the new project: A stripped-down, back-to-basics approach, reminiscent of the Killers (1981) album.
The resulting album, No Prayer For The Dying, is a radical stylistic departure from the previous couple of studio albums, with hissing guitars and a snarling Dickinson up front, and a very direct «garage» kind of production by Martin Birch.
Truth be told, the producer was against doing the album on an ancient mobile recording studio in Harris’ rehearsal barn (soon to become Barnyard Studios) instead of a real studio. He probably did the best he could, but the well-produced late 80s Maiden sound was now a thing of the past.
Tracks like opener Tailgunner and the rousing Fates Warning actually suit the shift in production values, the latter being one of those rare Dave Murray compositions. Even if the dry drum sound of Nicko McBrain is particularly low-fi, these tracks sport an aggressive attack that overcomes the sonic deficiencies.
But there is no disguising the fact that the band also deliver material here that is well below the high-water mark of the previous record. First single Holy Smoke and the compulsory album epic Mother Russia are among the weakest tracks that Maiden had ever committed to tape at that point, and Hooks In You (co-written by Smith and Dickinson) isn’t much better.
No Prayer For The Dying also features the weakest title track since the dawn of Maiden’s classic era. Which doesn’t mean it’s a bad song, just average. Actually, Dickinson went on record upon the album’s release in 1990 to claim that it was one of the best quiet-beginning type of songs he had done with the band. Take that, Hallowed Be Thy Name, Children Of The Damned, Revelations, and Infinite Dreams! This kind of statement certainly highlights the enthusiasm for the project that drove the band at the time, but in retrospect it seems absurdly overstated.
Two things stand out about the performances on No Prayer For The Dying. Quite predictably, Adrian Smith’s groovy and melodic guitar work is sorely missed. But on the other hand, Bruce Dickinson is back to hitting the high notes like it’s 1982! Someone should really quiz him about this unexpected development, the strained performances of the late 1980s being abandoned for good.
Also on the plus side, Smith’s replacement is one Janick Gers, and the injection of energy is palpable throughout the record, as it would be on stage. Not as sophisticated as a player, Gers is a much more free-form kind of guitarist, but the collective energy level of the band has rarely been as high, and this helps them partially counter the weakness of the production. Much of that is thanks to Gers.
It’s just not enough to salvage an album that fails to live up to expectations that are perhaps unfairly high in the wake of the band’s unreal 1980s period.
But what else should we demand from Maiden than excellence? Given my previous criticism of Harris’ songwriting on Somewhere In Time (1986) – which is still a great album – it’s clear that I hold Maiden to a very high standard, and No Prayer For The Dying is a frustrating step down from the output of the classic 1982-88 period.
Visually, the album also marked the end of the days when fans could look forward to intricate concepts and feasts of design and packaging, with artist Derek Riggs turning in an uninspired work that seems so painfully one-dimensional in light of the previous four or five record sleeves. In truth, it is nothing more than a cheap rip-off of Riggs’ own Live After Death (1985) masterpiece. After giving Eddie a surreal narrative in his journey through cover concepts from 1981 to 1988, it is now back to basics like none of that ever happened.
Tailgunner, Fates Warning and the submarine mini-epic Run Silent, Run Deep are the best tracks on offer. Dickinson’s solo album leftover Bring Your Daughter…To The Slaughter (hi-jacked from that project when Harris heard it and loved it) did become the band’s biggest hit in the UK, but it is clearly a league or two below the standard of Flight Of Icarus, 2 Minutes To Midnight, Wasted Years and Can I Play With Madness, to name a few previous singles.
The title track of the album is all right in its quiet part but suffering from the poor production values, and The Assassin is musically interesting but not emotionally engaging in the way that Maiden had constantly been throughout the 1980s. Public Enema Number One, meanwhile, is energetic enough to entertain although it is annoyingly hard work to ignore the title.
No Prayer For The Dying is a better album than the one that would follow it just 18 months later. There is still enough of the 1980s Maiden spark to just about carry them through, and with later 1990s Maiden releases in mind it is probably safe to assume that Martin Birch saved the production from being a train wreck.
But when only about half the tracks get near the expected levels that were defined by the band’s first decade of recording, Iron Maiden greet the new decade with their poorest LP offering to that point. This is a far cry from Piece Of Mind (1983), Powerslave (1984), or indeed the previous record, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son. The 180g black vinyl reissue is also of little interest, except for the monumental printing errors in renaming Tailgunner “Tail Gunner” and messing up the lyrics to Holy Smoke.
And for Maiden the troubles were just beginning. Their subsequent album would be the last of the original Dickinson era and lead into a period of commercial decline that they would only shake off upon his return in 1999.
No Prayer is alright as a bit of fun for the fans, a record that sounds unlike any other Maiden album, whether you see that as a good or a bad thing. But it’s just a diversion, accepted mostly because of the greatness that preceded it.
Christer’s Verdict: 3/6