“Welcome home”, goes the chorus. “It’s been too long, we’ve missed you”, go the fans. Bruce Dickinson found himself with his fourth solo album. And it was closer to home than he might have imagined.
Accident Of Birth
Released 14 May 1997
Produced by Roy Z
Bruce Dickinson has said that he once had a conversation with his ageing mother in which she told him that he was not planned, that he was an “accident of birth”.
In late 1996 the ex-Iron Maiden singer had shelved his band project Skunkworks and considered giving up music. Then guitarist and producer Roy Z played him some riffs and told him that he was the only singer who knew how to do this stuff.
The “accidents” of Dickinson’s life kept piling up, leading him back home.
As soon as Freak bursts out of the speakers, one thing is perfectly clear: Dickinson has done another 180 degree turn, right back into heavy metal of the much more traditional kind than he explored on his previous two solo albums Balls To Picasso (1994) and Skunkworks (1996).
First single Accident Of Birth had already given a taste of the new Dickinson metal and showcased the singer’s new band in a suitably metallic video:
As it turned out, Roy Z would be Dickinson’s ultimate solo muse. The material that Z instigated and co-authored with the singer, over the course of four records to date, is the strongest Dickinson would ever achieve outside Maiden.
Taking The Queen is an epic slow-burning track with immense power of riffing courtesy of Roy Z, who is also in charge of the production, something he could have been as early as Balls To Picasso if caution had not prevailed. Dickinson would never look back, always doing his solo music with Z after the artistic triumph of the Accident Of Birth album.
Darkside Of Aquarius thunders along in a delicious Maiden-style gallop, sounding like something off Piece Of Mind (1983) and even incorporating an “oh-oh-oooh” section that would surely make Steve Harris envious.
Speaking of Maiden, an obvious highlight of the Accident Of Birth album is the participation of ex-Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith, who co-writes two tracks and plays on several more. Paradoxically, Smith contributes a dud, Welcome To The Pit, but much is forgiven when the other Smith track is the awesome melodic heavy metal of Road To Hell:
After all, Z himself also throws a below-par song into it, the lacklustre The Magician, making Accident Of Birth a little uneven. All things told, though, Road To Hell in particular is a spellbinding reminder of the musical fireworks that can happen when the two men who wrote Flight Of Icarus and 2 Minutes To Midnight sit down to create songs.
The second half of the album is home to no less than three songs that could justifiably be called ballads, or at least ballad-ish tracks. The first, Man Of Sorrows, would not have sounded out of place on Balls To Picasso. The final two tracks on the album, however, opens up a landscape (or better yet, a space-scape) previously unheard from Dickinson: Omega (with a properly Maiden-style heavy metal mid-section) and the acoustic Arc Of Space both resound with the melancholy of something important being irrevocably over, and even so they are utterly beautiful songs.
Here’s the Man Of Sorrows video, where we get to enjoy the sight and sound of Adrian Smith delivering a meaty guitar solo that underlines what Maiden lost:
Quite how the cool Dickinson and Smith composition The Ghost Of Cain did not make the album (it was included on the US and Japan version, but not the regular release) will forever be a mystery, but there is enough good material on Accident Of Birth to determine that Bruce Dickinson returned with a vengeance.
Somewhat provocatively Dickinson hired artist Derek Riggs to design the album cover, a spooky and gut-wrenching jester that the singer dubbed Edison (as in Eddie‘s son, get it?). He admitted later that he deliberately wanted to “out-Maiden Maiden”, and it’s hard to disagree with the need in light of what Maiden themselves managed to create at the time. The X Factor was a disappointing record where Maiden failed to move on and failed to be themselves (something of a perverse “triumph”), and it would get even worse for the mothership on their next record Virtual XI.
The energy and enthusiasm that backs up nearly every song is remarkable, and Dickinson’s voice has rarely sounded as comfortably at home with the material as it does on Accident Of Birth.
This record re-established Dickinson as a premier heavy metal voice, and it also raised the spectre of a potential Maiden reunion. If Dickinson sounded this good doing music so close to Maiden’s style, what could happen if him and Harris mended fences?
Click here to read about Maiden’s struggles when making The X Factor, and stay tuned for the story of Virtual XI.
Thankfully, they would put off the reunion discussion for another year, in which Dickinson delivered his crowning achievement in solo terms: The Chemical Wedding (1998). On the way there, Accident Of Birth proved at least three things. One, Dickinson is the best ever heavy metal singer. Two, Roy Z was the indispensible catalyst for Dickinson’s best solo music. And three, the combination of Dickinson and Smith is essential to the sound of Iron Maiden.
All told, Dickinson finally delivered a really good solo album, but also one that inevitably set him off on the road back to Maiden.
Christer’s verdict: 4/6