Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast (1982)
Coming up with a truly definitive heavy metal album (that most headbangers can generally agree upon) is a dastardly difficult thing to do. It’s difficult because of the rich variety of sounds falling under the metal umbrella, and also because of metalheads’ passionate loyalty to their favorites.
That being said, in all the discussions I’ve had over “the” ultimate metal album, I have found minimal resistance to this one taking the prize (along with a very short list of others). That’s the kind of power Iron Maiden displays on this record.
It was the start of the Bruce Dickinson era, and became one of the tiny handful of examples of a band switching singers and attaining even more success than when they began, both artistically and commercially. He came from another band, Samson, and they used to play many of the same London clubs as Steve Harris and company. When Bruce Dickinson replaced punk-inspired singer Paul DiAnno his operatic vocals soared over the top of the energetic twin guitars and Harris’ historical lyric sensibility to create one of metal’s mightiest sounds. This debut album with Dickinson was the incredible first look at some of the genre’s most iconic images, documented in the album booklet…
Bruce Dickinson with his foot planted on the amp in front of him as he belts out his part, seemingly ready to jump into the audience at any moment…Steve Harris aiming his bass guitar like a rifle, its angry buzz occasionally bubbling to the surface of the songs…and dearly departed drummer Clive Burr, playing at what is essentially an all-out sprint for four glorious minutes on “Run to the Hills.”
2. Children of the Damned
3. The Prisoner
4. 22 Acacia Avenue
5. The Number of the Beast
6. Run to the Hills
8. Total Eclipse
9. Hallowed Be Thy Name
The Number of the Beast is a bit unusual in that it isn’t front-loaded with hits (those songs start coming on at the middle of the album). But that doesn’t mean it starts with a yawn. Opening track “Invaders” introduces us to the new lineup: the musical base is still the same, but there’s something different about this singer. He isn’t Paul DiAnno, but he has a terrific vocal range to lend to this tale of the Viking Norsemen, once the bane of the “civilized” world. The first half of “Children of the Damned” is one of the few serene moments on the record before it slams down on the gas pedal again.
“The Prisoner” is perhaps the most pop-friendly moment on the record and is based on the popular TV show of the same name at the time. “22 Acacia Avenue” is a riveting suite about a seedy house of ill repute, and Dickinson snarls out as an observer of decadence: “Bite her! ExCITE her! Make her get down on her knees!”
The listener is primed for the hits by this approach, and what hits they are: the title track with its famous heavy metal prayer intro and an ungodly scream from Bruce. How did he manage it, you may ask? After hours in the studio, doing vocal take after take, Dickinson was apparently exhausted and irritated with the producer, who kept making him run through his vocal lines ad nauseam. All that fury and the desire to just be finished came to the helm in a howl so ear-shattering that he finally got to finish the take. Recreating that scream in a live setting has probably been his biggest challenge as a singer, and even in his prime he had a hard time managing it.
I also dig Steve Harris’ bass playing here. He says he wrote the song after having a nightmare, which he describes as best he can in the lyrics: “But I feel drawn towards the chanting hordes/They seem to mesmerize/Can’t avoid their eyes.” The man must sleep horribly!
And then of course there’s “Run to the Hills,” which simply never fails to bring the energy up to fever pitch. Back to back with “The Number of the Beast” almost seems like impossible overkill, having so much prime metal squeezed into the middle of the album. I was transfixed enough when I first heard the studio version of “Run to the Hills,” but when I started hearing live takes from Maiden shows in Latin America, it became an even better song. Faster, louder, and with thousands of bellowing people in the crowd is how I imagine this song playing out now, a tightly-controlled buildup of energy that simply explodes into that wild, unstoppable sprint of a chorus. Performing it takes a lot out of you, which is why it frequently forms the conclusion to Iron Maiden live sets.
But we’re not at a show here, we’re listening to unbridled energy in a 1982 studio. So there’s more.
“Gangland” and “Total Eclipse” are also solid takes that form the bridge for the final anthem, “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” which tops many polls (including one on Ultimate Guitar) for “greatest metal song of all time.” It is about the ultimate power: the ability to face death confident and unafraid, even death at 5 o’clock at the gallows pole. I once had a drunken conversation at the pub about metal and was asked what was the one song you would choose to hear before you closed your eyes forever. I chose “Hallowed Be Thy Name.”
“Mark my words, believe my soul lives on
Don’t worry now that I’ve gone.
I’ve gone beyond to see the Truth.”
To me, these lyrics inspire hope. So before I close my eyes forever, I’d want to hear this powerful reminder not to despair, but to face where we’re headed at the end of this life…eternity.
Songs from this album have been covered by metal artists as far apart as Dream Theater, Cradle of Filth, Iced Earth and Dark Tranquillity. And as they will no doubt tell you, once you’re done listening to The Number of the Beast (or Iron Maiden in general, for that matter), it is damned hard to listen to anything else.
Clive Burr (RIP)
Written by Matt P