The year is 1984 and Iron Maiden are in an interesting position. Hot off the tails of two great releases and their first major tour, the band are starting to feel the pressures and joys of success at the same time. This is a crucible in which many bands have faltered, unable to reproduce the original sound which garnered them their first modicums of recognition. Line-ups shake, creative differences being to tear at the structure of the sound, as each member brings forth their own vision as to what the future should contain. In this situation, there were many divergent paths down which Iron Maiden’s story could have gone; they had already faced several major line-up changes and their future was anything but secure. They could have easily broken up or lost track of what made their first albums work.
But, instead, they made Powerslave, arguably one of the most important metal albums ever recorded. Whether you like it or not (and you bloody well should because it’s excellent), Powerslave‘s influence on metal as a musical community and as a viable commercial option is unquestioned. Following it, Iron Maiden would embark on the most intensive tour of their career, a tour which would also birth Live After Death, one of the best live metal albums ever. It saw them play beyond the “Iron Curtain”, the first metal band to do so, as they performed in Hungary and Poland. It also featured one of their first truly ambitious live sets, something which would grow to define them as a band and the community as a whole. It influenced artists like Rhapsody of Fire and Avenged Sevenfold and untold countless more.
So what made Powerslave so influential? First of all, it’s a phenomenal album. It features the trademark proto-power/heavy metal that would come to define the Iron Maiden sound, a sound rooted firmly in their first releases. However, the production and approach to composition is also a lot more realized and fully mature than on albums like The Number of the Beast. Don’t get me wrong, Beast is an absolutely amazing album but it’s also quite raw (not to mention Killers). Powerslave by comparison feels a lot tighter and works incredibly well as a unit; there’s just no denying the way the first three tracks work together, starting at the high point of “Aces High”, flowing perfectly into “2 Minutes to Midnight” and ending on one of the only instrumental Iron Maiden tracks.
This flow enables the adrenaline that would sometimes get lost near the middle of Iron Maiden albums to be preserved. Everything just kep going, motivated by the unconquerable duo of Steve Harris and Nicko McBrain. This duo is also the second reason why Powerslave was so important for heavy metal; the synergy and ideas exchanged between Harris and McBrain (like the brilliant fills during the solos of “Losfer Words (Big ‘Orra)”) were exemplary and would continue to echo on through Iron Maiden’s career and the careers of many other bands in the genre. Just listen to the middle/end of that instrumental track and one band name should echo powerfully in your head: Dream Theater.
Thirdly, Powerslave has two of the most powerfully moving Iron Maiden tracks ever recorded, which close it off. The first is the title track, a beast of groove and impetus that has never really be recaptured since by Iron Maiden. For the record, my favorite Maiden album is Brave New World, but no track on it approaches the power of this one. “Powerslave” is just incredible in its delivery and the ideas it brought to the Iron Maiden palette. There was nothing quite like it before in their repertoire. The band probably realized this (and that the last track would be the same) and inserted a brief intro before it. This serves to separate the last two tracks from the album, making them a sort of crown for the album. And lest we forget, it’s solo and the work of Harris in its background is probably one of the best passages the band have ever recorded, drawing heavily on Wishbone Ash and Rush.
The second track is, of course, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Arguably one of the most popular Iron Maiden songs ever recorded, it was also their longest up until two years ago. It introduced an Iron Maiden making good on their basic promises and ideas, the worship of and fascination with history and power. It helps that it’s based on one of the best poems of the Romantic period and quotes it directly at several points. The famous “water, water” passage fits in beautifully with the sonic template of Maiden’s style; listen as the repetition strikes like a guitar chord or a crashing cymbal before the passage ushers in one of Bruce Dickinson’s most famous screams and vocal passages.
All of these elements combine into the “Ingredient X” of Powerslave‘s success; it was an album of its time. It seemed to capture something about the spirit of the mid-80’s, right before Metallica (of course famously influenced by Iron Maiden themselves) changed that scene forever with Master of Puppets. It was flamboyant, massive, ambitious, fast and powerful. Drawing on the work of the above cited bands but also of the proto-progressive and proto-doom mini scenes forming at the time (by bands like Cirith Ungol and Watchtower for example), Powerslave had something for everyone. It was aggressive but also complicated, easy to digest but with rewards for those who dive deeper. It was and remains a titan of the formative years of metal. It also sounds amazing when you play it loudly so please do that.