Bruce Dickinson decided to make a band. His own name would fade into the background, while Skunkworks took center stage. How did Dickinson’s biggest solo gamble turn out?
Produced by Jack Endino
Released 19 February 1996
If you ever wondered how much Bruce Dickinson craved to fit in with the times in the mid-1990s, you need only check the CV of the producer he chose for Skunkworks: American wunderkind Jack Endino, much celebrated for producing the likes of Soundgarden and Nirvana.
The first tentative steps down an alternative road were taken during the making of the album that saw Dickinson leave Iron Maiden, the merely OK Balls To Picasso in 1994. The record saw him searching for a different sound by which to be known as a solo artist. After consolidating his new band with 1995’s Alive In Studio A, Dickinson’s quest intensified with Skunkworks.
Dickinson had made no secret of his urge to be the anti-Maiden, which means being at the other end of the spectrum: The music that is cool, with the times, doesn’t have a following from the 80s, but does have a following of music journalists that will brand your work important in the here and now.
Space Race kicks it off. It’s a fairly funny ride, the band sounding on fire and Dickinson’s voice doing what it did for Maiden: lifting off. The best song on the album is up next, Back From The Edge. On this track Dickinson and his band touch on something that they would never be able to rediscover: A truly soaring climax of melody and groove. They were there, and then they were gone.
The big paradox of the Skunkworks album is the sound of young musicians working so hard to do their own thing, while being restrained by the older singer that sets down the parameters of what they can or cannot do. Ultimately, Dickinson’s desire to be something he never was sinks this record.
It is even possible to hear signs of something that would have been good Iron Maiden in parts of this material. Dickinson’s desire to explore is not to be mocked, but it is striking how certain moments on the album could be conceived as Maiden material, like the best parts of Inertia:
Unfortunately, most of the album is self-absorbed. It sounds very much like a great artist getting too interested in how he is perceived. Let there be no doubt, Bruce Dickinson is a great artist. But he is not insulated from two important factors: The people around him, and the purpose with which he attacks his current situation.
It’s not good feeling sorry for yourself. And it’s no better to openly resent your own history, even if it’s understandable why Dickinson felt a need for change.
Setting Inside The Machine and Headswitch back-to-back on this record makes the point. Both tracks are performed without fault. But they have zero weight. There is no way for anyone to get interested unless we are already interested in what Bruce does.
Dickinson couldn’t seem to get his solo career off the ground, never delivering albums that were more than OK, never taking flight. Something had to change. In order for Dickinson the artist to find himself, commercial aspirations had to be put aside. As the Skunkworks band project fell apart in late 1996, it would be Roy Z that provided the release and a clear course for the future.
Bruce Dickinson’s self-deconstruction never worked.
Like Balls To Picasso before it, Skunkworks fails because of its desire to be important and serious and in-vogue. Mostly it is Dickinson’s singing that lifts it to the status of mediocre. As a statement of intent, the album is utterly disappointing.
Christer’s Verdict: 2/6