While The Rolling Stones are the usual targets for ‘old bastard’ jokes and “this-is-it-surely”, Iron Maiden are nearly their heavy metal equivalent. Founder member and bassist Steve Harris once opined that he’d always thought the band would do 15 albums, only for Maiden to still continue their forward gallop into immortality by releasing their acclaimed sixteenth album, The Book of Souls, last year. Furthermore, it was their very first double album.
As if this wasn’t enough, there was the much-publicised cancer battle for longtime frontman and icon Bruce ‘Air Raid Siren’ Dickinson. Having thoroughly body-slammed his cancer into remission and returned to the day job like a professional, Iron Maiden have resumed their relentless activity.
Providing a level of service so reliable you could chart the sun’s movements by it, the month of May sees their time-honoured UK arena trek. While only seeing a ‘proper’ UK tour once every five years or so, Maiden have never, ever, allowed for any dip in quality or energy and make their gigs well worth waiting for.
Also of note is the amount of dates. Putting many other artists to shame, they reward their home crowd by visiting parts of the country easily left out by most bands, let alone most those their size — the likes of Nottingham, Sheffield and Aberdeen have witnessed the Maiden circus roll on through. It is especially commendable considering the size and scale of their production, as well as age — Maiden could almost be forgiven for doing a much smaller handful of arenas or 1-3 stadium dates and sodding it.
Their gradual evolution into a British institution is, as ever, on display everywhere and a truly heart-warming sight: families spanning generations and grinning veterans and first-timers rub shoulders, supping Trooper beer and forming almighty queues for the pisser.
Anyway, following the customary intro of UFO’s Doctor Doctor and a short introduction video featuring an Aztec (such is the theme for this ‘era’) Eddie causing mischief, Bruce Dickinson appears at the top of the stage, seemingly intoning into an alter, leading the band into the opening double-whammy of If Eternity Should Fail and the supersonic Speed of Light, from acclaimed new album The Book of Souls. Setting the course for the rest of the main set is a two-versus-two matching of new cuts versus the oldies, which were already heavy metal crown jewels yonks ago: Wrathchild and Children of the Damned follow, going up against new ‘uns and getting a proper reaction.
Maiden are indeed of the age to have far too many hits to please absolutely everyone, but are also of the stature and big-bollocked intent to play as many new tunes as they see fit. While tonight isn’t like the A Matter of Life and Death tour, where the main set was the album played in full, The Book of Souls is rightly represented: for Maiden’s relentless forward march is STILL going with arguably more energy, mile-wide grinning and sheer power than before.
Death or Glory and The Red and the Black ensure the new album continues to muscle into the set, before The Trooper produces the biggest cheers yet of the evening — Dickinson in a soldier’s garb and waving a giant Union Jack around — before Powerslave continues the new-old wrestling match. The Great Unknown and The Book of Souls itself fight back, and like all recent Maiden material, display impressive musicality and singalongability, but know their place: and it is reinforced as Fear of the Dark and Iron Maiden close the main set.
All throughout, Dickinson continues to be of the very best frontmen — seemingly all over the stage at once, staring down individual audience members, leading singalongs, claps and arm-waving, twirling his mic stand around and messing with band members. Steve Harris, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers (bass and guitars respectively) also transmit outrageously high-spirited energy and almost schoolboyish good fun — to witness the Maiden juggernaut is (still) utterly thilling: they continue to dominate a place in the musical universe that has become their own.
An encore trio of The Number of the Beast, Blood Brothers and Wasted Years closes the night, and Maiden have sprinted what appears to be their millionth victory lap. The inevitable question of retirement lingers, but on tonight’s evidence, Iron F*ing Maiden will still be releasing powerful, quality albums and putting a national grid’s worth of energy into their shows.
But for heaven’s sake, get out and see them while you can. Nobody does it better. Accusations of fanboyism and drooling sycophancy be damned: they were the best, they are the best, and they will never, ever be bettered.
Review: James Stokes