He tried once. He tried twice. At the third attempt Bruce Dickinson finally got another solo album together, his first music after leaving Iron Maiden. What does Balls To Picasso say about the solo singer?
Balls To Picasso
Produced by Shay Baby
Released 3 June 1994
As the dust settled and 1993 came to an end, Bruce Dickinson was no longer the singer in Iron Maiden. The prolonged trauma of his exit had created quite a mess in relations between him and the rest of the band, leaving Maiden to lick their wounds and search for a new frontman.
Dickinson for his part pulled the plug on two attempts at making a follow-up to his first solo album, Tattooed Millionaire (1990). The first attempt was too close to Maiden, while the second was too far away – bogged down in programmed music and introspective lyrics. But during the latter attempt he had met guitarist and producer Roy Z, and the two of them went about writing a third version pretty much from scratch.
This collaboration would turn into Balls To Picasso.
The 2005 expanded edition of this album carries a very generous disc of bonus material, clocking in at just over 79 minutes, that makes it possible to chart its development: From the “Maiden lite” of The Breeding House in 1992, via the “electronica” of No Way Out…Continued in 1993, to what ultimately materialized in 1994 as the Balls To Picasso record, including some fascinating remixes of tracks from the album.
While Iron Maiden were locked away in Steve Harris’ Barnyard in Essex, working on their first record with new singer Blaze Bayley, Dickinson stole their thunder in the summer of 1994 with his new look, new music, new band, airplane piloting, and a run of interviews that did not paint his former colleagues in a very flattering light.
And Balls To Picasso immediately documents Dickinson’s search for new directions, with sinister album opener Cyclops rolling along in a slow but funky groove. Tattooed Millionaire Part 2 it certainly isn’t. It might have sounded heavier if Roy Z and not Shay Baby had been in charge of production, but the guitars still take no prisoners. The lack of heavy guitars had been one of Dickinson’s reasons for making a third attempt at the album.
The band on this record is Roy Z’s very competent California outfit Tribe Of Gypsies. Bass is handled by Eddie Casillas and drums by David Ingraham, except for one track where Dickie Fliszar of Skin handles the, well, skins. That track, album closer Tears Of The Dragon, was the only one to survive all three versions of the album.
Ultimately, some of the material is too pedestrian to make any lasting mark. Hell No, 1000 Points Of Light, Laughing In The Hiding Bush, Shoot All The Clowns (written to record company specifications of needing something Aerosmith-like) and Fire are simply not exciting enough to make up for the lack of fun that sets the record apart from its predecessor.
Indeed, this is a serious attempt at carving out a modern solo niche for the ambitious singer, but Roy Z would be gone as soon as Dickinson hit the road. That would be a problem. In 1995 there was a bridge being built from Dickinson the solo artist to the Skunkworks band with the Alive In Studio A double record.
Change Of Heart is a beautiful ballad that might possibly have been a bit of a hit for a younger and less known artist. Being the ex-Iron Maiden singer was a monkey on Dickinson’s back at this point in time, and he would make even more of a distancing effort with his subsequent Skunkworks album.
It’s ironic then that the three best moments on the album are those that could be conceived as Iron Maiden tracks: Gods Of War, Sacred Cowboys (minus the rapping verses) and the bona fide classic Tears Of The Dragon. The latter is the only thing carrying over from earlier attempts at the album, and the song that Roy Z pretty much demanded to have a go at.
Too many forgettable songs and a production that doesn’t age too well makes Balls To Picasso kind of humorless and cold. Iron Maiden’s The X Factor the following year would be a poorer album, objectively speaking, but it was definitely less calculated than Dickinson’s second solo record.
Balls To Picasso is a very curious case of an earnest quest for honesty of expression that would ultimately seem dishonest for its design to fit with the times. Dickinson would go even further in that direction with his next record, and a few more years would pass before he truly found his place as a solo artist.
It’s not fair to call Dickinson’s second record insincere, but it has a tangible lack of both the human touch and the don’t-give-a-shit-about-fashion attitude that had been hallmarks of his work to that point. Balls To Picasso gets an A for effort, but too much is left to be desired on this unfulfilled first post-Maiden adventure.
Christer’s verdict: 3/6