Review: Best Of The Beast (1996)

bestbeast1

Iron Maiden released their first compilation album in 1996. But did Best Of The Beast serve to capture new fans, or did it simply shed a harsh light on the state of the band in the mid-1990s?

Best Of The Beast
Remastered by Simon Heyworth and Murray Harris
Released 23 September 1996

For a band with the artistic and commercial worth of Iron Maiden it seems that a “best of” compilation was overdue in the mid-1990s. But Maiden and manager Rod Smallwood might have missed the boat by waiting this long, and at the same time unwittingly shot themselves in their 1996 foot by highlighting Maiden’s proud history at a point when their current output paled in comparison.

This was at a time when Maiden’s record company had already reissued their CD catalog in 1995 with bonus discs, and slightly ahead of the 1998 remaster project that would dovetail with Smallwood driving a nail into the coffin of the Blaze Bayley era by convincing Steve Harris to take Bruce Dickinson back.

With the two-disc limited edition CD of Best Of The Beast Maiden went all chronologically retrograde by opening the album with a new song and working their way back through the years to the point of their mythical The Soundhouse Tapes origins. This was an entertaining approach for the rather serious Maiden fan, while it’s not likely to interest anyone else. The one-disc standard CD version catered to the hoped-for segment of non-hardcores that could be won over by a collection of most of Maiden’s singles plus Hallowed Be Thy Name.

After making, releasing and touring their first album with new singer Bayley, which you can read all about here, Maiden were typically self-assured and confident enough to open their double version “best of” with the new track Virus, a very bad video for which was shot in Harris’ empty swimming pool:

As the opening track is followed by then recent The X Factor (1995) material, Sign Of The Cross and Man On The Edge, the double version clearly doesn’t aim for the uninitiated. The single version on the other hand sets out to impress from the start with The Number Of The Beast, Can I Play With Madness, Fear Of The Dark and Run To The Hills, all certified crowd-pleasers.

Being an official “best of” collection from the mid-1990s period in which Steve Harris had complete control of all things Maiden, it’s safe to assume that this album is really the material that Harris thought of as Maiden’s best at that point in time. The song selection thus gives an interesting insight into Harris’ own view of his band.

While some tracks written or co-written by estranged singer Dickinson are indeed featured, the omission of his solo composition Powerslave (Maiden’s best ever title track, from one of their best ever albums) and his co-write Flight Of Icarus (their biggest US single ever) are telling. Not even the quadruple vinyl version makes room for any of these two, and that’s among a gargantuan 34 tracks. But the omission of Icarus from the singles-oriented standard edition CD is perhaps the most perplexing.

virus alternative cover

One of the Virus single covers in 1996. Could Maiden’s artwork possibly get any worse?

Put it this way, Maiden Revelations don’t completely agree with Harris about the best of Iron Maiden’s output. He also neglected to include the phenomenal Infinite Dreams from the Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1988) album, so it’s not only Dickinson’s work that suffers omission, but the former two tracks are highly conspicuous by their absence.

Rock Down 13 ©

Oh yes, it could get worse.

As you can see, the 1990s artwork collapse continued with the several different editions of the Virus single. Although celebrated artist Derek Riggs’ cover artwork for the album at least evoked classic Iron Maiden illustrations, the mid-90s efforts to “update” Eddie for a new decade never failed to fail… The trend would go on into the subsequent studio record Virtual IX in 1998.

As for what music is actually on this compilation album, there are a couple of surprises. One would scarcely expect the Powerslave (1984) classic Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, purely because of its length, and the rarely played Where Eagles Dare from Piece Of Mind (1983) is welcome, even if Dickinson’s Revelations would have made more sense. The more conspiracy-minded can also ponder the absence from all versions of Children Of The Damned, a The Number Of The Beast (1982) classic that Dickinson had something to do with despite not being credited for it.

Harris makes an effort with the double CD version to cover every era of the band, including at least two tracks from every album except Killers (1981), which is only represented by Wrathchild. It’s inevitable that the weight of the band’s prolific 1980s makes it difficult for their 1990s period to shine, particularly the Blaze Bayley material that includes a live version of the Fear Of The Dark (1992) track Afraid To Shoot Strangers:

This compilation would be one of the last Maiden releases to feature original singer Paul Di’Anno, who has since had all his material replaced (like Bayley) by Dickinson’s live versions on compilation albums. He appears here, although only on the two-disc limited edition, on the last few tracks. The biggest attraction of these are the songs lifted from The Soundhouse Tapes sessions way back in late 1978, including Strange World and Iron Maiden, and also Prowler and Invasion on the quadruple vinyl version.

It is possible that Harris (and to some extent Smallwood) saw Best Of The Beast as a way to clean house and position Maiden for a future ahead without baggage. The Bayley era line-up had settled, although not without problems when it came to live performances, and planned on making another studio album in 1997-98. However, it was and remains difficult to listen to this compilation without acknowledging the Bruce Dickinson-shaped hole in their mid-1990s line-up. And that distraction serves to cover up another hole: that left behind by guitarist Adrian Smith when he left in 1990.

Unwittingly, Maiden highlight their own problems.

lineup1996.1

Iron Maiden 1994 – 1998: Dave Murray, Janick Gers, Blaze Bayley, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain.

There is obviously a mass of great material on this album, but in retrospect it’s merely a curiousity to have subpar tracks like Virus and the live version of Afraid To Shoot Strangers on here. Moreover, the inverted chronology of the two-disc version never creates a good listening flow, and there are two or three obvious omissions that cannot be ignored.

Best Of The Beast is out of print and has been replaced in Maiden’s catalog by the more recent Somewhere Back In Time (2008) and From Fear To Eternity (2011). As an introduction to Maiden, Best Of The Beast is fair. As a summary of their 1980-1996 history it’s got some annoying flaws but is still comprehensive enough to be somewhat entertaining.

One gets the feeling that interested listeners could just as well put on any Iron Maiden studio album from the 1982-1988 period, where other great material is found and the featured compilation tracks also come into their own much better than here.

Christer’s Verdict: 3/6

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

25 thoughts on “Review: Best Of The Beast (1996)

  1. Here’s my “best of”:

    Iron Maiden (live version)
    Phantom of the Opera
    Wrathchild
    Killers
    The Number of the Beast
    Run to the Hills
    The Prisoner
    Hallowed Be Thy Name
    The Trooper
    Revelations
    Where Eagles Dare
    Powerslave
    Rime of the Ancient Mariner
    2 Minutes to Midnight
    Wasted Years
    Heaven Can Wait
    Stranger in a Strange Land
    Seventh Son of a Seventh Son
    The Clairvoyant
    Infinite Dreams
    Moonchild
    Be Quick or Be Dead
    Fear of the Dark (live version)
    Sign of the Cross (live version)
    The Clansman (live version)
    The Wicker Man
    Blood Brothers
    Paschendale
    Montsegur
    Brighter Than a Thousand Suns
    The Longest Day
    Lord of Light
    El Dorado
    The Talisman
    If Eternity Should Fail
    Book of Souls

      • Same here. I would replace Heaven Can Wait with Empire of the Clouds though and would add Can I Play With Madness, The Evil that Men Do, Flight of Icarus and Children of the Damned to the list.

  2. I’ve never been very interested in complications, however I do like the packaging for Best Of The Beast, particularly the vinyl edition. Nicely done.

  3. Fan Club members may recall receiving a marketing questionnaire about a possible best of album during the Blaze era. I can’t remember if this was prior to BotB or what would emerge as Ed Hunter, but the suggested tracklist was underwhelming. IIRC, no Revelations or The Prisoner.

    I quite liked Virus and its Edge of Darkness vibe and bought all of the single formats for the B-sides; the 12″ confirmed that I didn’t need The Soundhouses Tapes in my collection! I didn’t bother with Botb. As far as I was concerned, LAD was (is!) the ultimate Maiden best of.

    • If I’m not mistaken this was in conjunction with the MELT video game around 1997, what would eventually become ED HUNTER, but I’m not completely sure.

  4. The omission of Powerslave and Flight of Icarus highlighted how butthurt Steve was with Bruce. The limited 4LP boxset at least included Revelations though.

    • There you go. Much clearer and in much fewer words than my quasi-diplomatic attempt above. 😀

    • This may be a stupid question, but may this be related to copyright issues? I’ve just found out how much copyright is a pain in the neck, especially when it comes to lyrics. But then, Bruce Dickinson was still working with Sanctuary and has never left “the house” – same label, same management. Do you know anything about this?

      • Not just the same management, but all Maiden music is also published by the same company: Zomba. The Smith/Dickinson composition 2 Minutes To Midnight was included on every edition of the collection, so not including Flight Of Icarus can only be because Harris did not want to include it.

      • Thank you for your answer. I still think that whole story of Dickinson ruining concerts deliberately is much worse. It means that half of the band is lying (it’s either the part that affirms this or the part that denies this) and shows how low they had sunk. And, seen by daylight, that simply doesn’t make sense for someone who wants a solo career. To annoy his audience, I mean – that would be suicidal. I don’t know if it is true, I just say that going by logic I am inclined to doubt this. That is a grave accusation for a singer and would be a grave betrayal of fans. That is not some petty little incident. That is much worse than leaving out songs. There was a proper war going on between the band members. We just all too readily forget.

  5. I wouldn’t mine seeing a “ best of” compilation of live songs. I usually prefer the live versions to the studio versions. Such as the case for songs like Sign of the Cross, Fear of the Dark, The Trooper, Revelations, Dance of Death, Paschendale, The Clansman, The Evil That Men Do, and Iron Maiden.

  6. Here’s my Best of:
    Phantom of the opera
    Killers
    Purgatory
    Children of the Damned
    The Prisoner
    Hallowed be thy name
    Where Eagles Dare
    Revelations
    The Trooper
    Aces High
    2 minutes to Midnight
    Flash of the blade
    Powerslave
    Rime of the ancient mariner
    Wasted years
    The loneliness of the long distance runner
    Stranger in a strange land
    Alexander the great
    Moonchild
    Infinite Dreams
    The Clairvoyant
    Only the good die young
    Public enema no 1
    Run Silent Run Deep
    Be Quick or be dead
    Afraid to shoot strangers
    Out of the Silent Planet
    Blood Brothers
    Rainmaker
    Montségur
    Paschendale
    The Pilgrim
    Brighter Than a Thousand Suns
    The Talisman
    If Eternity Should Fail

      • Don’t thank me, this is sheer curiosity. I have written a research article on one of the songs and some pieces for my blog. “The Chemical Wedding” is different due to the fact that it is an interpretation of Blake’s work. And there are hardly any texts about it. I am hoping for a review and a discussion how others perceive this album.

      • The Chemical Wedding is a great and complete metal album. I love it today as I did when I first heard it. It definitely stands the test of time. However, I enjoy the album as a complete work. Meaning when I listen to it, I listen to it in its entirety. Very rarely do I go to one particular song. It works best for me as an overall listening experience.

      • I say that it is a concept album. The songs “talk” to each other. But there are more songs that are connected to the album by shared metaphors and imagery such as “Starblind” and” Revelations.”

    • No rush. 🙂

      There is a bunch of stuff about 1997-98 that will be done at about the same time, probably next year.

  7. First of all, thanks for creating this great website, really enjoyed reading these articles.
    Seeing this album cover took me back to early ’98, as it was the first Maiden album that I bought. I was one of the young kids that Maiden tried to won over with this compilation. And, i’m afraid to say it didn’t work at all. I still remember listening to it for the very first time and thinking ”well, it has its moments but it lacks cohesion” and it certainly did lack cohesion, you have a power metal song with Bruce, followed by a moody Blaze song ,which is then followed by a prog song with lots of synths, I had already had Metallica’s Master of Puppets and Kill’em All at that point and thought Metallica was far superior than this.

    Well, thankfully a few months later I bought Fear Of The Dark and Number Of The Beast and became a Maiden fan for life 🙂

    I agree that for an entry level listener any studio album from 82′-88′ time period would be a good choice, in fact it would be a much better choice than this compilation.

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