After entering the 1990s with the not quite impressive 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 Birch and Steve Harris
Released 11 May 1992
For nearly 30 years audiences have been singing “o-o-hohooo, o-o-hohooo” etc as the quiet intro to the band’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. A shift toward a less progressive and 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 flag bearers of the NWOBHM, 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 of the 80s were commercially dead in the water. It is something of a paradox that Maiden delivered one of their highest charters at that exact point in time…
There are probably two tracks in particular that are responsible for this distinction: 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 musical changes that were sure to eventually ruin their European popularity. America had long since bid them farewell, and 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 most confused album ever. Bassist and main composer Steve Harris delivers sub-par AC/DC with second single From Here To Eternity, while singer Bruce Dickinson’s writing partnership with Gers yields underwhelming stuff like the Led Zeppelin-pastiche Fear Is The Key.
Despite the effort to branch out of a niche, these songs are among the worst Maiden have ever recorded. Diversifying stylistically by imitating other classic rock bands does not equal being inventive, and by 1992 it seems that Maiden have run out of steam and lost the creative touch that marked their 1980s period.
Indeed, the best moment on the record is one that is decidedly Maiden in style: Harris’ beautiful war epic, Afraid To Shoot Strangers. Another song worthy of the canon, if not spectacular, is Dickinson and Dave Murray’s also very Maiden-typical Judas Be My Guide, which made our list of the top 10 deep Maiden cuts. Then again, bland and uninteresting middle-of-the-road efforts abound, including Wasting Love (the first Maiden ballad since Paul Di’Anno’s time!) and the shuffle rocker Chains Of Misery.
And there had never been a Maiden album with this much downright terrible material, like The Apparition and Weekend Warrior, songs of which both Harris and Gers are guilty. It is the sad sound of a band that has lost its teeth.
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 grunge movement ushered in. Thus Melvyn Grant replaces illustrator Derek Riggs, turning in a very good cover illustration, while the lyrics ponder political and social issues.
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.
At the time of the album’s release many critics were vocal in their opinion that Maiden was a dinosaur and should change with the times. But in retrospect it can be argued that such an attempt 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 better than 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…
In the end, there’s no denying that Maiden seem to suffer from 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.
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