Christer Reviews: Bruce Dickinson – Skunkworks (1996)

skunkworks artwork

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?

Skunkworks
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.

skunkworks bruce

Jack Endino meets Storm Thorgerson. Did not work.

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.

He failed.

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.

bruceskunkband

Skunkworks, clockwise: Bruce Dickinson, Chris Dale, Alessandro Elena, Alex Dickson.

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

6/6 Masterpiece
5/6 Great
4/6 Good
3/6 OK
2/6 Disappointing
1/6 Crap

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15 thoughts on “Christer Reviews: Bruce Dickinson – Skunkworks (1996)

  1. I am actually very fond of the album. What do you think of “Dreamstate”, Faith” or “Meltdown”? Then there are of course pieces which are totally different, like “R101” (as far as I can see with no relation whatsoever to the airship) and “Re-entry”. And things which are definite Monty Pythonish, like “I’m in a Band with an Italian Drummer” and “Americans Are Behind” (once you’ve got THAT stuck in your head you’re doomed 😆). It is worth mentioning that “Inertia” sums up his experiences in Sarajevo. With regard to such diversity in style and his choices of topics I fail to see an album aimed at a homogenous audience and / or mass market. But, in case you have ever been to my blog, you will see that my one true love here is “The Chemical Wedding”, (I am “the other Maiden blog”) so, honestly I would never want to live in some parallel universe in which Bruce had never left Maiden. I love these albums too much. I am not opposed to his solo projects in general.

  2. Probably one of the worst attemps ever to find mainstream success. He lost a lot in my eyes during that period. Not only with his music, but with his change of looks and statements in interviews. He would have sold his soul to make it. And still, the only ones buying his records were old maiden fans.. The ones he tashtalked during his midlife crisis. 2/5 is far to generous.
    To bad he didn’t skip this one and went straight to accident of birth wich was a killer.

    • I definitely think you are. In my humble opinion, the album is much better than what your review suggests. I would easily give it a rating of 4/6. Great lyrics combined with a modern take on hard rock, although it took me some time to appreciate it fully.

      I wish Bruce would have forced the band to make it sound more Sabbath-y, like the epic album closer Strange Death in Paradise. This interview with Jack Endino about the recording of the album is quite illustrative about the artistic differences within the band:

      http://www.oocities.org/sunsetstrip/club/5619/interviews/jack_endino.html

      • Easily 4/6 is way off for me. I could be argued into considering 3/6, but that would be against my long held opinions of the album. I actually liked it better back then than I do now.

        But I do see how I might not have argued well enough for my point of view in this text.

  3. Urgh. 1/6 for me. So much of this is ridiculous. The lyrics and the alt-rock elements mix as well with Bruce’s voice as oil does with water. A golden rock God wants to mope. It was never going to work. Bruce’s voice is perfect for metal. It has grit, it’s over the top, it can soar. However, it can’t express what would have been needed to pull this off. I read Bruce’s book and it struck me how many awful ideas he had over the course of his career. As mentioned in the review of Psycho Motel: perhaps he needs someone to keep him in check.

    It’s rather amusing now to look back at Harris, Smith and Dickinson flitting about in the mid 90s. It seems as if none of them had an idea of who they were. Goes to show it happens to the best of us 🙂

  4. Thanks for that link. Although I have to disagree because I do not think that stuff like “Killing Floor” or “The Alchemist” (not the Final Frontier song) is in any way Maidenish…Or “Omega” and “Arc of Space” – that’s the kind of stuff they did not want.

    I sometimes think, for my part, that I should not have a “solo” project in a Maiden blog and I think this is probably where the problems come from. You cannot really judge something like “Skunkworks” by the same standards / guidelines etc. like Maiden. My take is very different from yours, because I focus on the lyrics, but I sometimes feel like writing two different blogs. 😆

    • I understand what you mean. But on the other hand, there is also a chance that we judge Maiden solo projects more positively precisely because Maiden guys are doing them. I sincerely don’t think I would have liked Skunkworks better if it was done by an artist I didn’t already know and love.

    • I think one of the advantages to taking all of the 90s work together is that it clearly shows how much Maiden needed a reunion. But I’ll get to that later on. 😉

  5. Interesting review. I always kinda liked the whole “Skunkworks” vibe. It’s not a brilliant record per se, but it has a handful of good tracks on it and it is way better than “Balls to Picasso”, at least for me. It’s a bit too samey in parts, though.

  6. I was surprised at this review to be honest as I’ve generally been in agreement with almost all of your Maiden opinions and reviews, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything!

    I don’t know how many people on here heard Skunkworks when it was released, or if it’s being compared with the route BD took after this, but for me, at the time, it was a great album – totally refreshing and just very up and enjoyable. Maiden had been my favorite band since Piece of Mind, and when Bruce quit – not to mention the fact that he was replaced with someone I just didn’t like the voice of – it was devastating. I saw Bruce live on the Skunkworks tour, and looking back, sure it hasn’t aged well (I mean the look of the band and to some extent the sound) but again, at the time it was just great.

    The album opener, like all BD albums is amazing – Space Race is literally one of my favorite songs of his to this day – and I don’t feel the album has any bad tracks on it. That’s how I feel about it anyway.

    No solo career from a singer of a metal band is ever going to be as successful as their work with the band they just left – the chances of anyone leaving Maiden and being even half as successful are zero, no matter what the output. I think Skunkworks is simply another great piece in a great solo career that most people are unlucky enough not to know about.

    It’s no Chemical Wedding, that’s for sure, but it’s a great album. Great cover too …

    • Just to be clear: I’m always reviewing albums here by looking back, and my project is precisely to put them into the context of Maiden’s and also Bruce’s larger body of work. But for my part I didn’t like it much back then either, to be honest.

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