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Death, Glory, and Triumph: Why Iron Maiden Is the Artist of the Year

Forty years in, this British heavy metal institution is still pushing boundaries, cheating death, and slaying bands half their age.

Each day this week, Noisey is announcing and discussing one of the five artists we believe defined 2015. The first Artist of the Year is Iron Maiden Follow along here all week and in the weeks ahead for more end-of-year discussion.

“If you're gonna die, die with your boots on / If you're gonna try, well, stick around”

I love Iron Maiden. Most metalheads do, and so do music fans of every stripe who eschew subcultural labels, but still know a good riff when they hear one. To love Maiden, you don’t need to have long hair, or a tattered leather jacket, or an encyclopedic knowledge of NWOBHM; there’s no syllabus (though "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is worth a good read in and of itself), no guidebook that comes with your first copy of The Number of the Beast or special care instructions on your Eddie shirt. You don’t need an interest in the occult, or a working knowledge of British history, or even a good stereo system to “get” them. All you need is a pair of functioning ears. There’s no barrier to entry, because Iron Maiden is for everyone. Forty years after their inception, they’re still here, and still reigning, armed with a new album and, in the case of their cancer survivor vocalist Bruce Dickinson, a new lease on life. They’ll be remembered long after they finally choose to lay down their swords. That’s why Iron Maiden is the artist of the year.


For many legacy acts, change is frightening, sometimes even lethal. Cast a gimlet eye over any of an embarrassing number of late-career releases by hoary old rock’n’roll icons for ample proof of that; we’ve all heard “St. Anger,” to say nothing of Lulu, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sure, Metallica’s an easy target thanks to their very obvious (and very lucrative) transformation from hungry, lightning-shredding heshers into the monied elder statesman of radio rock, but they’re far from the only example of how age can soften heavy metal. As much as we all love bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Megadeth, and Slayer, you’d be a fool to argue that their recent output comes close to anything they released in the 80s (or earlier, in Sabbath’s case). Even the greatest rock’n’roll outlaws we have, Motörhead, have their best days well behind them (though, of course, no one would ever accuse Lemmy and the lads of going soft).

Heavy metal itself has changed, too; what seemed extreme back in 1985 now seems retro, almost quaint, and more traditional-sounding bands now find themselves stacked up against musicians who have dedicated their own lives to pushing metal into louder, slower, faster, harder, weirder, uglier, more complex directions. We live in an age where NPR streams technical death metal albums, spastic noise grind bands headline festivals, the New York times dubbed a crushing doom band as "one of the best bands in America,” and black metal-based bands are added to stadium tours—the tacit understanding is that extreme = better, and while of course not everyone thinks that way, it’s become part of a common narrative in the media, on the forums, and in the jam room. It’s a development that often frustrates older fans raised up on the comparatively dulcet tones of Saxon, Rush, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden themselves, but as the success of the latter’s new album made clear, even in 2015, there’s still plenty of room in the world for good old-fashioned heavy fucking metal.


While lesser bands have imploded or faded in this inhospitable climate, Iron Maiden thrives on it, casually unrolling arguably one of the most ambitious moments of their decades-old career on the mammoth double album Book of Souls. Even for a band who have spent a lifetime chasing ambition—personifying it, even, from song lengths to globe-spanning tour routings—the 18-minute long piano suite of “Empire of the Clouds” is audacious as hell. Composed by Bruce Dickinson, a vocalist and utter novice on the piano who also happened to be suffering from cancer, the song grew into its current epic form, proving that, sometimes, genius comes as a result of pure English stubbornness to acknowledge adversity. The band’s entire fuck-it-let’s-do-it-live ethos can be summed up in one line from the aforementioned epic, too: “To ride the storm, and damn the rest oblivion.” As he told me earlier this year, “Sometimes you’ve just got to know what you want.”

That stubbornness has served Dickinson and his comrades well over the past four decades. It takes a truly exemplary band to survive the mental and physical rigors that come with spending three decades onstage, on the road, and in the public eye and to still come out swinging years after most of its members qualify for AARP memberships. It’s an even more impressive feat to stay relevant, let alone essential, in an age when instant access to music has left even the greatest acts vulnerable to the whims of fickle, trend-worshipping fans. The very fact that there was such a maelstrom of anticipation surrounded the release of Iron Maiden’s new album—their 14th, remember, and their first since 2010’s The Final Frontier—is telling. It’s frankly pretty amazing to see so many people around the world collectively lose their shit over the prospect of new music from a band who’s largely sounded the same since 1982, when now-iconic vocalist Bruce Dickinson joined the ranks of a band first formed by bassist Steve Harris in 1975. Metal Twitter went mad, everyone from Rolling Stone to the Wall Street Journal shouted the news from the mountaintops, and the resulting furor pushed the album to the top of every international sales chart imaginable.


They’ve been pushing boundaries since day one, as even 1979’s rough and ready Soundhouse Tapes demo made clear. The high-minded literary bent of the lyrics has long set them apart in a genre populated by death, destruction, and fantasy; Iron Maiden has always been the thinking person’s metal band, drawing inspiration from battle lore and poetry alike. On their very first demo, they sang of Vikings and medieval horror; their signature gallop was already there, the groundwork for their soaring solos was already in place, and the vocals—well, Bruce Dickinson’s 1981 arrival was certainly a game changer, I’ll say that much. 34 years down the line, they haven’t watered down their grandiose epics, nor have they fiddled with their formula to please fair weather fans or entice new ones raised on nu-metal or hardcore; really, save for a rather cavalier approach to lineup changes (especially in the early days, and most famously in the vocal department), they haven’t changed a bit.

And yes, they’ll probably never quite top classics like The Number of the Beast or Powerslave for pure catchiness or fan recognition—albums that sold like crazy and birthed some of the band’s most enduringly popular songs like “Aces High” and “Run to the Hills”—because those are records that generations of heavy metal fans have grown up on; you can’t beat the classics, and you may as well count yourself exceedingly lucky if you manage to write one classic song, let alone the amount that Iron Maiden have jotted down. The material they’re writing now stands shoulder to shoulder with anything else they’ve done, and save for the aforementioned piano elegiac, sounds perfectly primed to slide on in between beloved favorites like “Run to the Hills” and “Minutes to Midnight” the band’s upcoming world tour.


The band’s methodology is still as solid and immobile as the medieval torture device from which it draws its name: write the songs, record the songs, then hit the road (or, more often now, take off in a jet) to bring them to life. Iron Maiden is a rock band made up of old friends who work well together and still like to have a pint after the show; at the end of the night, once the lights have dimmed and boots have been kicked off, the considerable mythology surrounding these men and their music is just window dressing. Everything hinges on the music, and by extension, the live show. Dickinson told me about the band’s post-gig rituals, saying, “We'll sometimes travel after the show, so often we just chill out and have a beer, and Nicko’s playing cards with the tour manager and everybody's doing their little thing, and hopefully it's been a good show. If there's been a few issues or whatever everybody's a little bit more subdued. Every day is colored entirely by how good the show was the day before.”

Iron Maiden and their peers in Judas Priest and Motorhead are sturdy old warhorses who still refuse to lay down their burdens and rest, and are worshipped for their perseverance. The relative (and undeniable) merits of their respective discographies aside, Iron Maiden comes out ahead of the pack, thanks to the sheer level of ambition and audacity they still bring to the table, four decades in; the ambition to dream bigger than anyone else, and the audacity to actually pull it off. While most bands are more than content to lock into a groove, settle on it, and ride that bitch until the wheels fall off, Iron Maiden is always looking over the horizon, on to meet the next glorious challenge with swords drawn and heads held high.

Of all the great old heavy metal bands, Iron Maiden is undoubtedly the one that will best withstand the test of time with the most grace, self-respect, and heart. Their story is not one of mere survival; it’s one of triumph. Bruce and the boys have not only outlived (and outmaneuvered) most of their peers, they are one of the precious few remaining original heavy metal bands to have retained their unimpeachable credibility and boundless creativity along the way. They’ve already fulfilled the promise they made back in 1983 by trying their best and sticking around until the final curtain call. As Dickinson told me in earlier this year, when I asked how he hoped Maiden would be remembered, he said, simply, “They told good stories, and they made the hair stand up on the back of your neck.”

They fully intend on dying with their boots on. Their fans have always known it, and we’ll always love them for it, too, as generations past and generations to come unite under the immortal battle cry, “Up the irons!”

Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; she's riding the storm on [Twitter](http://Each day this week, Noisey is announcing and discussing one of the five artists we believe defined 2015. The first Artist of the Year is Speedy Ortiz. Follow along here all week and in the weeks ahead for more end-of-year discussion.).