29 Years Ago: Iron Maiden Release ‘No Prayer for the Dying’
Sometimes bands do some of their best work right before major internal shakeups hit. Case in point: Judas Priest’s Painkiller or Anthrax’s Persistence of Time. But when Iron Maiden released their eighth album No Prayer for the Dying on Oct. 1, 1990 their health was on the wane and it showed in the album, which most consider far from their worst album but an unremarkable effort nonetheless.
During the songwriting sessions for the album, guitarist Adrian Smith didn’t like the less progressive direction the band seemed to be taking with its songs and after co-writing the shimmery, poppy “Hooks in You,” he quit Iron Maiden following a decade of service to the band. Determined to forge ahead, vocalist Bruce Dickinson suggested the band work with guitarist Janick Gers, who had played on the singer’s 1990 solo album Tattooed Millionaire and had also played with White Spirit and Ian Gillan.
In June 1990, Iron Maiden entered bassist Steve Harris’ Barnyard Studios in Essex, England with their longtime producer Martin Birch, and, using the Rolling Stones' Mobile Studio started recording No Prayer for the Dying. The sessions started out energized and playful, but it didn’t take long for Dickinson to regret the decision to track vocals in his bassist’s barn. Looking back, he has emphatically stated that it was not the band’s best sounding record, though at the time, other members stated they were happy to be working in England for the first time since The Number of the Beast.
Throughout the album, Maiden abandoned six-minute-plus songs and complex, multifaceted arrangements in favor of more straightforward, full-on musicality reminiscent of their NWOBHM roots. In addition, Steve Harris wrote lyrics less influenced by history and fantasy and more inspired by current events and modern war. “Holy Smoke” addresses the greed and corruption of televangelists; “Mother Russia” is about the democratization of the former Soviet Union; “Fates Warning” foreshadows a nuclear apocalypse; “Run Silent Run Deep” addresses an explosive battle at sea and “Tailgunner” is a story of World War II air combat and the development of nuclear weaponry.
The biggest problem with No Prayer for the Dying wasn’t the musical approach or the lyrics, it was the songs themselves. From the galloping, but overly simplistic “Tailgunner” to the whisper-to-a-scream dynamics of the title track, which builds from a melodic ballad with intertwining guitars to a raging trailblazer. Still, it passes by too quickly to make a substantial impact. Maiden sound like they’re chasing their tails, striving to achieve the immediacy of Number of the Beast and Piece of Mind but never really recapturing the magic of days gone by. That said, the guitar interplay between Gers and Dave Murray is impressive and Dickinson’s voice is theatrical and emphatic throughout. And the anthemic “Bring Your Daughter… to the Slaughter,” which was banned by the BBC for its title alone, was a crowd pleaser 13 years after its release.
More than anything, No Prayer for the Dying was a sign of things to come, a decrease in the quality and diversity fans had expected and respected from Maiden since the departure of Paul Di’Anno and the arrival of Bruce Dickinson. The record reached No. 17 on the Billboard album chart and went gold on Nov. 27, 1990, but it was the last Iron Maiden disc to do so and it triggered the band’s downward slide, which hit critical mass when Dickinson left in 1993. The band floundered on without him, but didn’t regain stride until he and Smith rejoined in 1999. In 1995 Iron Maiden reissued No Prayer for the Dying with cover songs by Stray, Golden Earring, Free and Led Zeppelin. But to date the record remains one of the less valued titles in Maiden’s catalog.
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.
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