If you were a metalhead in the '80s, you had to take sides: You were either into Judas Priest or Iron Maiden. We were into Priest (though Maiden clearly had the better album covers -- with the possible exception of Priest's Screaming for Vengeance), until we found a copy of Maiden's classic 1988 opus, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, a cassette somebody'd dropped in a parking lot. What we heard sent us scrambling madly through the band's back catalog, picking up on everything we'd missed. As Maiden's Edward the Great best-of collection demonstrated last year, the group could pump out an anthemic single with the best '80s rock bands, genre be damned. But it's the epic progressiveness of Maiden's album cuts that really preserved the band's legacy for serious metal fans.
Now it's 2003, and Maiden is looking to build further upon that legacy with the second record it has made since the return of longtime vocalist Bruce Dickinson, who split in 1993 and came back six years later. "It's a really, really strong album. We're really pleased with it," says bassist and primary songwriter Steve Harris of Maiden's forthcoming Dance of Death, which is due out in September. "It's quite a varied album. There's two or three songs that veer toward the progressive, '70s-influenced stuff, but there's two or three songs that are more '70s hard rock, Thin Lizzy sort of stuff. The songwriting is split more on this album. I spent a long time, about six months, editing the Rock in Rio DVD, and it gave the other guys time to get stuff together. It's a good thing. It makes it more diverse."
Maiden's return has been eagerly anticipated since 2000's Brave New World, a rousing, fist-pumping album that demonstrated that the band is still in fine form. It's no easier to make it in metal than in any other musical genre, but metal fans' loyalty to established acts is legendary. What's interesting about Maiden is that the band has kept picking up new fans as years pass -- at least overseas. "It's funny," says Harris, "because in Europe, we've got new fans all the time. Young kids as well as the older people. But in the U.S., it seems to be that we don't pick up as many new, young fans. I don't really know why that is. But here, the average age is a bit older than when we play elsewhere. We'll see what happens on this tour."
Harris says maybe the semi-ironic appropriation of '80s metal by young pop-punk acts like Sum 41 will help. "There's a lot of young bands citing us as influences or wearing our T-shirts in the videos and things like that. We'll take whatever we can get. Anything that'll get people to come see us. I think once people come to see us, we'll do what we do, and 9 times out of 10, people will leave with a smile on their face."
Indeed. Iron Maiden's stage shows have always been the stuff of metal legend, featuring pyrotechnics galore and towering likenesses of the group's mascot, the snarling fiend affectionately known as Eddie. This tour is no different. "It's a completely different stage production than what we've had before," Harris says. "Eddie's kind of everywhere. Obviously, on other tours we've always had him there, but he's kind of all over the set this time, and then the next part of the tour, when the new album comes out, that'll be a completely new stage show again."
But doesn't all that stage stuff require a sacrifice of spontaneity? You can't change the set-list if, by so doing, you're running the risk of being stomped by a 60-foot Eddie puppet that missed its cue to cross the stage. Harris doesn't worry about such things.
"We're looking at the audience," he says, "we're not looking at the set. We're just doing what we're doing, and everything's going on around us. It's a weird thing, but you don't actually get to see a lot of it, because we're facing the other way. It's not really in our minds too much, what's going on around us. We check things out on video, to make sure that certain things are lighting properly, certain cues that happen and that sort of thing, but other than that, aside from production rehearsals at the start of the tour, it just takes care of itself, really."
Since a recent press release claimed that this will be Maiden's last extended road jaunt, one might expect the band to be breaking out all its classics -- and rarely heard cult favorites, too. "[We'll be playing] some old stuff like 'Revelations' that we haven't played in about 15 years," Harris promises. "There's a few things like that, that we played in Europe and we're going to be doing over here as well. I think it'll please people who've been fans for years, and it'll please new fans as well."
Iron Maiden's current tour will last through Dance of Death's September release, and the band will return to the U.S. in early 2004, incorporating much more of the new record into its set. (On this tour, only one new song is likely to be unveiled live.) Coincidentally, Judas Priest will be on the road next year, with Rob Halford back as vocalist. Any chance of a co-headlining tour?
"We'd love that to happen," Harris says.
So would we.