Review: Dance Of Death (2003)

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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.”

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The Dance Of Death line-up of Iron Maiden: Adrian Smith, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain, Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray and Janick Gers.

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.

In the latter 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:

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Click here for our new History article about the 1999 Maiden reunion and the making of Brave New World and Dance Of Death!

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.

In the end, the highlights carry the day. 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

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

15 thoughts on “Review: Dance Of Death (2003)

  1. Very accurate review. This album has a few highs, and few lows. It reminds me of Fear of the Dark, not in mood or tone, but with unevenness of the songs. There’s stellar songs, such as Paschendale, Dance of Death, Montsegur, and Rainmaker. Average songs, such as Journeyman, No More Lies, and New Frontier. And bad songs, that are filler and could have been left off the album, such as Wildest Dreams, Gates of Tomorrow, and Age of Innocence. Wildest Dreams is the weakest album opener of the reunited Maiden. The album would have been much better suited with Rainmaker as the lead track. It’s a good album that I never listen to in its entirety, instead skipping to those very excellent songs.

    • Definitely agree. The highs are really high, and the lows are very low (by Iron Maiden standards). Age of Innocence is especially embarrassing.

      But Paschendale alone warrants a 3/6, and the other strong songs plus a judicious playlist selection gets it another point.

  2. As a lifelong, die hard Maiden fan since 1985, it’s frustrating that some of their post 1990 albums contain one or two songs that are horrible and should have just been left off. In this case Gates of Tomorrow and The Age of Innocence. Fewer songs, but a better and more cohesive album. FOTD would have been a stronger album once you get rid of Weekend Warrior and The Apparition. The Final Frontier could lose The Man Who Would Be King. Dream of Mirrors from BNW could go, as well as The Man of Sorrows from TBOS.

  3. True, Dance Of Death really is an uneven album, similar to FOTD in the way there are absolute stellar tracks and some which are just not so good. The atrocious artwork is one thing, but the video for Wildest Dreams was unbearable. (Similar to the animated horror of Different World a couple years later.) It’s weird that the first slightly meh single has a horrible video, while the second pretty cool single Rainmaker had a pretty cool music video.

  4. “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.” Brilliant! It took me a while to learn to love the prancing song.

    There’s a classic 40 minute album at the heart of DoD, blasting off with Rainmaker, then NML, Montsegur, the title track, Journeyman, and concluding in epic style with Paschendale. The b-sides to the singles were woeful. Some of the album tracks might have been better employed as b-sides.

  5. The CD age was really a curse. The only Maiden album since 1990 to be of sensible length is really Virtual XI, which probably took that shape only because the band ran out of time…

  6. The “filler” songs from 1990 to the present are much more egregious than any “filler” songs during the 1980’s. There’s not anything from the 1980’s that should not have been included on a particular album. I wouldn’t change anything on NOTB. Quest for Fire from POM has cringe worthy lyrics, but is interesting musically. Powerslave could do without two songs about swords, but again musically I find them interesting, but I prefer The Duellists. I wouldn’t remove anything from SIT or SSOASS, even though Can I Play With Madness really doesn’t fit with what else is going on with music on that album.

    • I love “Quest for Fire” and “Sun and Steel.” Classic metal with great, classy guitar work. The “fillers” on Powerslave are technical masterpieces in terms of the guitar work. “Can I Play with Madness” is interesting. I think it fits great within the story, while also being a meta-story, like all other songs on Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. It’s also one of those songs that is impossible to overplay. Somehow it just holds up.

  7. I really don’t understand the criticism of “Age of Innocence.” There is so much the song has going for it. For one, it’s the gothic element. We’ve seen this before from Dave Murray, for example, in “The Prophecy” and “Man of Sorrows.” It’s that dark, ugly element, combined with a romantic and poetic sensitivity. The songs also have, for Maiden, atypical key changes, where at least some parts are in unusual keys, as opposed to their typical go-to key of E minor, the occasional D-minor, and sometimes A minor.
    Second, Dave’s compositions of this kind tend to age really well. To me, “Age of Innocence” is to A Matter of Life and Death what “Gangland” is to The Number of the Beast: a classy song for the sake of the song, not obvious and a bit unpredictable, and difficult to overplay, aging like a fine wine, metal for the sake of metal.
    And third, the evocative guitar solos and that beautiful harmony that makes me feel something, unlike the by-the-numbers harmonies of “Montsegur” or “The Alchemist” that are either devoid of the x-factor or sound like a parody (“The Alchemist”), while they also add nothing new, except replicate the vocal lines (a Janick Gers staple of songwriting). Consider how the harmony in “Age of Innocence” sounds like the bass is playing the same note the whole time, elevating the harmony to an etherial plane, in a similar way the harmonies on SSOASS all do, where the bass plays the different keys under the harmonies, and the string washes hold on to the same chord, or sometimes the other way around. When you do it right, you get magic. “The Age of Innocence” has one of those harmonies where they did it right.
    When you consider all its qualities, it is hard to comprehend why this song gets as little love as it does.

    • Well, to me Innocence is also a bit like Gangland, in that I don’t like either of them. 😉

    • The problem with Age of Innocence for me is the cringe inducing lyrics. They’re just embarrassing…

      Musically it’s not bad. Dave’s compositions usually bring something different and generally quite welcome to the party. The Thin Line and Benjamin Breeg are among my favorite reunion era songs.

  8. I really enjoy this album, but yeah, a couple of songs could have been cut. Rainmaker should have been the first song, so that they could drop Wildest Dreams (which is fine but it’s whatever). Same for dropping Age of Innocence and Gates of Tomorrow, which i don’t hate either, but like Wildest Dreams they are whatever. With these three dropped from the album, i think it would have made the album much stronger.

    Dance of Death and specially Paschendale are some of the best songs from the reunion albums, i’d argue they rival some of the best from the 80s albums. Montsegur is another that i love, even if i think the heaviness of the track is kind of odd for the subject matter presented in the song. I do wish Maiden would do more heavy tracks like these because they are seemingly capable of pulling it off quite well in my opinion.

    Also scrolled up and realized i pretty much just said what Bill P said which songs to cut from the album. lol

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