It’s easy to forget now, with Iron Maiden without doubt the biggest band on our scene, that there was a time when the band was limping along, seeing dwindling returns from their efforts with their third singer, Blaze Bayley. They released two albums with Bayley. In the same space of time, Bruce Dickinson released five, as well as releasing one after he rejoined Maiden (a seventh is reportedly half written). His initial couple of albums were based on the 70s rock he grew up with, but he soon moved to a modern Metal sound. In 1996, Adrian Smith of Iron Maiden joined Dickinson’s solo band and in 1998, they worked together on this, arguably the best of Dickinson’s solo work.
Based on a concept around alchemy and the works of William Blake, a film was also made, but apart from the title, it was unrelated, and instead was about Aleister Crowley. The album is certainly heavier than anything that Maiden produced, an effect largely created by chunky, heavy riffs and the relative absence of harmony guitars (there’s a few, but not like Maiden). Dickinson left Maiden because he felt they were not being adventurous enough and he certainly lived up to that in his solo work. The second guitarist, Roy Z, also worked with Rob Halford on his solo work, but his work here is more adventurous and modern.
Dickinson stated that every song has a theme, such as fear, failure, tragedy or union. The song ‘Walls of Jericho’ is about the Bible story where they walked around the walls and the walls fell over, only in the song, it doesn’t work. It’s an exploration of the fact that alchemy was a widespread practice, but while it did lead to discoveries that informed modern chemistry, the actual process they were searching for did not exist, and so, by definition, they all failed. As in his work with Maiden, Dickinson is doing more than looking for headbanging riffs, the lyrics are thoughtful and intelligent and about a wide variety of things. This wasn’t especially true of his first solo work, but it came back to the fore and is probably strongest on this album, for the simple reason that having a theme gave him a framework to explore different ideas.
The album has its ebbs and flows, with some songs coming on heavy and others more atmospheric. ‘Jerusalem’ is particularly epic, starting with folk acoustic guitars, and certainly getting heavy, but without losing those folk elements until four minutes in when it breaks into an epic guitar solo section. By the end it has become the most Maiden-esque song on the album, and certainly better than anything his old band was producing at the time.
Reviews at the time were rapturous, which is hardly surprising. Metal was pretty underground in 1998 and while good music was certainly being made, seeing one of our old heroes produce modern, exciting heavy music and suggest a way forward for the sounds we loved was very exciting indeed. Everyone knows what happened next, Dickinson and Smith went on to rejoin Maiden, they started a run of incredible new music and even more incredible tours, and the Metal world in general recovered and came back stronger than ever. However great his second run with Maiden though, all of Dickinson’s solo work is worth exploring and this is the cream of the crop.