If anyone thought that Iron Maiden’s massive comeback in 2000 had been a one-off cash-in, they were wrong. Dance Of Death was the album that made it much clearer that Maiden were in it for the long haul.
Dance Of Death
Produced by Kevin Shirley, co-produced by Steve Harris
Released 2 September 2003
The release of Brave New World (2000) had proved that Iron Maiden did right in reuniting with singer Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith. Keeping guitarist Janick Gers in a six-man line-up also turned out well, as the band now had more songwriters to share the load. More than any other of Maiden’s post-reunion records, Dance Of Death shows off the stylistic diversity of their composers.
Smith was always known as the one who would often write catchy and slightly more commercial tunes than the common Iron Maiden fare, and he continues in that vein on Dance Of Death, co-writing opener Wildest Dreams with bassist Steve Harris. But despite the fresh energy of the band’s performance, the chorus in particular is not strong enough to make the song truly memorable:
At this point in Maiden’s career, Gers would become the composer who regularly provided the epic tracks that Harris could weave mysterious words and melodies over. A great example is the title track, Dance Of Death, which balances delicately on just the right side of a fine line between sincerity and parody. It also comes complete with yet another superhuman Dickinson performance.
This could have been the album’s main epic, but Smith steps out of his comfort zone to better it: Spine-chilling Harris lyrics would rarely have a better vehicle than the sinister and haunting music Smith constructs on Paschendale, truly one of the greatest latter-day Iron Maiden songs, in fact one of their greatest ever. Inspired by the slaughter in the Third Battle of Ypres in the First World War, what would be known in German as “Der Kindermord”, Maiden haven’t been as cinematically gripping since the days of Powerslave (1984).
Harris attempts something similar with his customary epic as lone writer, No More Lies. There are compelling folksy melodies throughout the intro and the verse, but the song is bogged down by the annoyingly repetitive chorus of the single line “no more lies, no more lies, no more lies, no more lies.”
Another highlight of the album is second single Rainmaker, a much better song than Wildest Dreams, composed by guitarist Dave Murray in conjunction with Dickinson and Harris. The first half of the album also benefits from the uncharacterstically heavy Montsegur, where Gers pitches in with Dickinson and Harris. Both of these tracks launch right into great opening riffs with the full band blasting away, a stylistic choice that would be in short supply as Maiden steadily increased the lengths of songs and albums in the following years.
It might be that producer Kevin Shirley turned in his best work for Maiden with this album, a fact that got lost when the band (probably Harris) decided to issue a master that Shirley had not intended for release. The 2015 remaster rectifies this mistake to some extent (although there are still clipping issues) and we get to better enjoy both the direct and punchy mixes of tracks like Rainmaker as well as the more complex and atmospheric works like Paschendale. The latter would also come across strikingly well in concert, as shown with the Death On The Road (2005) album and DVD recorded on the Dance Of Death tour.
In the atmospheric category we also find album closer Journeyman, a surprise acoustic track written by Smith, Harris and Dickinson. “I know what I want, I’ll say what I want, and no one can take it away,” goes the chorus, as acoustic guitars and string arrangements build a song truly unlike any other in the Maiden catalog. Another example of a slightly surprising track is the slow-burning Face In The Sand, which opens with a Pink Floyd-ish section that eventually gives way to double bass drums (!) and, unfortunately, somewhat monotonous verses and choruses.
It can also not be ignored that Dance Of Death features an album cover which must surely rank as one of the worst that Maiden ever commissioned, possibly tied with Virtual XI (1998). Then again, it was hardly commissioned, as artist David Patchett only presented it as a proof of concept and requested his name be taken off when Maiden decided to use it as it was. Stripping it of the embarrassing computer figures surrounding Eddie makes it better, but only just:
The best songs on Dance Of Death are up there with Iron Maiden’s best of all time, in particular Paschendale and Rainmaker. On the other hand, there are too many songs here that only pad the record out without leaving any lasting mark, in particular Wildest Dreams, the pedestrian Gates Of Tomorrow and the embarrassingly tabloid The Age Of Innocence, as well as drummer Nicko McBrain’s first songwriting credit, New Frontier. In other words, cracking highlights in an uneven package.
Iron Maiden were clearly reaching creative peaks with some of the material on both Brave New World and Dance Of Death, but the ultimate pay-off was still ahead: the completely filler-free and creatively overflowing A Matter Of Life And Death in 2006.
Meanwhile, the highlights carry the day on Dance Of Death. Even when it’s considered as part of the immense Iron Maiden canon, and thus a long-winded list of the Maiden studio albums, Dance Of Death is a good record that would prove Maiden’s creative longevity to be all but assured.
Christer’s verdict: 4/6