After entering the 1990s with the underwhelming No Prayer For The Dying, there is no denying the downturn in Iron Maiden’s fortunes and qualities with 1992’s Fear Of The Dark album.
Fear Of The Dark
Produced by Martin “The Juggler” Birch and Steve Harris
Released 11 May 1992
For nearly 30 years audiences have been singing “o-o-hohooo, o-o-hohooo”, and so on, as the quiet intro to Iron Maiden‘s most popular title track (Spotify rates it so, anyway) unfolds on stage. Fear Of The Dark has aged, but has it aged well?
It was certainly a challenging time for Maiden. Their first record of the new decade, No Prayer For The Dying (1990), had seen a steep decline in sales and concert attendance, particularly in the United States of America. A shift towards a less progressive and less sophisticated style than their late 1980s output was a conscious effort to fit the zeitgeist, but it did not translate to sales.
The 1990 album that saw the departure of guitarist Adrian Smith and the arrival of Janick Gers was also quite easily the poorest Maiden LP to that point, offering a primitive production and nothing more than an average selection of new songs.
Iron Maiden, the early flag bearers of the NWOBHM who had outgrown that movement to become the world’s biggest metal band, now found themselves in the category of yesterday’s news. After turning the world of hard rock upside down and claiming the metal crown in their glorious 1980s, Maiden themselves became the victims of change at the dawn of the 1990s.
In the age of grunge, most bands from the 80s were commercially dead in the water. It is something of a paradox that Maiden delivered one of their highest charters at that point, but chart positions do not necessarily reflect sustained sales over a period of time. Fear Of The Dark would chart nearly as high as Somewhere In Time in the US, number 12 to the latter’s number 11, but it would sell nowhere near the latter’s double platinum amount of records. In the UK, however, the album went to number 1.
There are probably two tracks in particular that were responsible for the popularity of Fear Of The Dark: The aggressive and thrash-like opener and lead single Be Quick Or Be Dead, and the crowd-pleaser Fear Of The Dark. With their high profile as Monsters Of Rock headliners in the summer of 1992, Maiden kept abreast of the changes that were sure to eventually ruin their European popularity. Overseas the North American leg of the tour was the shortest and least successful in the band’s history to that point.
Musically, Fear Of The Dark is Maiden’s least cohesive album ever. Singer Bruce Dickinson and new recruit Gers would co-write the engaging opener Be Quick Or Be Dead, which gave way to bassist and main composer Steve Harris’ sub-par AC/DC imitation of second single From Here To Eternity. Its chorus might have been built for singalongs in arenas, but the verses have no momentum.
The album’s best moment is the third track, Harris’ anti-war epic Afraid To Shoot Strangers: It builds beautifully from a quiet opening into memorable mid-paced staccato rhythms draped in haunting guitar melodies, and eventually thunders into a full-throttle Maiden onslaught before calming back down again.
But then the record comes to a nearly complete standstill with Dickinson and Gers’ Led Zeppelin-pastiche Fear Is The Key, which leads into the weakest middle section of any Maiden record to this point. Childhood’s End, Wasting Love (the first Maiden ballad since Paul Di’Anno’s time!), The Fugitive and Chains Of Misery all fail to make any lasting impression besides proving that they would have been unthinkable on an Iron Maiden album prior to 1990.
If most of these songs are middle-of-the-road, there had never been a Maiden album with such downright terrible material: The Apparition and Weekend Warrior, songs of which both Harris and Gers are guilty, is the sad sound of a band that has lost its teeth.
Despite the effort to branch out of a niche, several of the Fear Of The Dark songs are among the worst Maiden have recorded. Diversifying stylistically by imitating other classic rock bands does not equal being inventive, and by 1992 Maiden seems to have run out of steam and lost the creative touch of their 1980s period.
Ironically, the album also signals an attempt to make the band’s image and lyrics a little more current and threatening, possibly as a response to the darker aesthetic that the thrash and grunge movements had ushered in. Thus Melvyn Grant replaces regular Maiden illustrator Derek Riggs, turning in a very good piece of cover art, while the lyrics generally ponder political and social issues more than the history and fantasy themes that had been a Maiden trademark.
On the one hand it’s possible to see the album as a brave attempt to modernize Maiden’s sound. Dickinson in particular would soon be exploring very different musical avenues and find that he couldn’t stay in the band. On the other hand Fear Of The Dark can be seen as a desperate attempt to modernize Maiden’s sound that simply takes the band away from their strengths.
Indeed, the best moment on the record, Afraid To Shoot Strangers, is one that is decidedly Maiden in style. Another song worthy of the canon, if not spectacular, is Dickinson and Dave Murray’s very Maiden-esque Judas Be My Guide, which makes our list of the top 10 deep Iron Maiden cuts.
At the time of the album’s release many critics were vocal in their opinion that Maiden was a dinosaur and should either change with the times or go away. But in retrospect it can be argued that such an attempt at changing was actually made in 1992 and that it ultimately proved to be a wrong turn for the band.
However that may be, Fear Of The Dark remains an interesting subject of discussion about Iron Maiden. Some love this album, and some don’t.
The songs that make the cut, in this reviewer’s opinion, are Be Quick Or Be Dead, Afraid To Shoot Strangers and Judas Be My Guide. The title track is one of their most popular ever, but nothing more than a mediocre Maiden song. The rest are best forgotten.
Not even the skills of producer Martin Birch, struggling with the questionable qualities of Harris’ Barnyard Studios in his last ever job for Maiden, can save this project. Nicko McBrain’s drums do sound much better than they did on the previous album, but the polish does not cover up the lack of great songs. And when Birch retires in 1992, Harris is left alone to produce and mix Maiden’s upcoming slew of live albums.
Ultimately there is no denying that Maiden suffer a dearth of musical inspiration in the wake of Adrian Smith’s departure. Years later Harris would reflect that “maybe Maiden lost something” when Smith left, and it could be said that they not only “lost something” but actually let go of something absolutely essential: The fact remains that Iron Maiden have never made a truly great record without Smith, and the albums of his 1990s absence are easily the lowest point of their recording career.
As the 1990s start unfolding, Iron Maiden have reached a point where the incredible quality of their 1980s output is just a fading memory.
Christer’s Verdict: 2/6