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As The Number of the Beast turns 40 – and is set to crash back into the charts – we appraise the best of the band who brought epic, bloody storytelling to heavy metal
30. Burning Ambition (1980)
Famously no fan of punk – music he described as “against my religion” – bassist and founding member Steve Harris has always denied its influence on early Iron Maiden. But how else to account for this intriguing, compact curio on the B-side of Running Free, a perfect gene-splice between metal, Thin Lizzy and, well, punk?
29. Coming Home (2010)
If calling Coming Home a ballad is pushing it a bit, it’s as close to a ballad as Maiden are likely to get, an indication that – had they wished – they could have aced AOR. A thoughtful reflection on touring and what you might call the philosophical pleasures of aviation, complete with stadium-sized chorus.
28. Empire of the Clouds (2015)
The longest song in Maiden’s catalogue, a complex, 18-minute cinematic, episodic leviathan that tells the story of the British airship R-101’s final voyage. The work of the singer, Bruce Dickinson, who spent a month composing it on piano, it’s the sound of a band declining to rest on their considerable laurels and pushing into the unknown instead.
27. Hell on Earth (2021)
2021’s Senjutsu is a double album that’s best devoured in full – evidence that, nearly 50 years after they formed, Iron Maiden are in a remarkable creative purple patch – but if you had to pick one track, it might be the Harris-penned closer Hell on Earth: plaintive and explosive, with a killer vocal.
26. Dance of Death (2003)
“Let me tell you a story to chill the bones …” opens Dickinson in hammy style that has more to do with horror films than Dance of Death’s actual inspiration, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Dickinson performed Dance of Death live dressed as the Grim Reaper, summing the track up: it’s knowingly preposterous and genuinely gripping.
25. Sea of Madness (1986)
The Somewhere in Time LP generated a degree of controversy among Iron Maiden diehards for its flagrant use of – gasp! – synthesisers, but the notion that this newfound interest might blunt their sound is demolished by the Adrian Smith-penned Sea of Madness: prima facie evidence that the album is under-rated.
24. The Longest Day (2006)
Harris summarised 2006’s acclaimed LP A Matter of Life and Death as “heavier than we’ve ever been”, which certainly fits The Longest Day. Among Maiden’s multitude of war epics, it might be the most brutal and horrifying – it certainly doesn’t sound like the work of multimillionaires in their 60s.
23. 22 Acacia Avenue (1982)
The lyrics of the two-part saga of Charlotte the Harlot, a sort of metal equivalent of the Police’s Roxanne, haven’t aged terribly well – “All the men that are constantly drooling / It’s no life for you, stop all that screwing” – but the music on 22 Acacia Avenue is taut, dramatic and utterly thrilling.
22. Running Free (1980)
Founded on a warp-speed take on glam’s glitterbeat, Running Free is Maiden’s early, Paul Di’Anno-fronted years in miniature. It’s sharp, punchy and founded – despite the lyrical references to LA, which sound like the wishful work of someone who has never been further than Leytonstone. east London – in a desire for escape from grim urban reality.
21. The Evil That Men Do (1988)
Most of 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son LP – a concept album – was suitably proggy, but The Evil That Men Do kicks against that particular trend. Relatively short and straightforwardly hard hitting, it sounds appealingly like the basic essence of Maiden in concentrated form.
20. Blood Brothers (2000)
With due respect to the unfairly maligned Blaze Bayley, there was no mistaking the upswing when Dickinson returned after seven years to the vocalist’s role on Brave New World. You can hear it on Blood Brothers: the verses have a hint of folk about them, the chorus is pure emotive singalong, that seems to tangentially reference Dickinson’s return.
19. Alexander the Great (356-323BC) (1986)
Unfairly overshadowed by the historical epics on their previous LP, Powerslave, the closing track from Somewhere in Time is far better than its reputation suggests, with impeccably detailed lyrics: “He spread Hellenism far and wide … he paved the way for Christianity”. They have never played it live, which seems a shame.
18. The Clansman (1998)
Iron Maiden’s years with Bayley as frontman are under-rated, but even their loudest critic should have a place in their heart for The Clansman – Harris-penned, Braveheart-inspired and Bayley’s finest moment. If you must have Dickinson, there’s a great 2020 live version.
17. Wrathchild (1981)
Dickinson is obviously Maiden’s greatest vocalist, but if you wanted to hear what Di’Anno brought to the band, then Wrathchild – the saga of a man searching for his absent father – would be perfect evidence. Fuelled by a rasping, believably street-tough grittiness, it deals in a noticeably different kind of rawness and power.
16. Flight of Icarus (1983)
The track that launched the Piece of Mind album, Flight of Icarus was a slightly abstruse choice of first single – it doesn’t have The Trooper’s grab-you-by-the-throat quality – but it’s fantastic. The Immigrant Song-like chug bears a soaring chorus, and the lyrics apparently view its doomed hero as a symbol of freedom and rebellion.
15. Wasted Years (1986)
Lyrically, a deeply odd, anomalous Maiden track, on which Smith seems to be questioning the point of being in the band. Conversely, he sets this burst of existential self-doubt to the kind of nailed-on chorus guaranteed to keep Maiden in business for the foreseeable future.
14. Children of the Damned (1982)
It says something about the sheer quality of The Number of the Beast that a song as good as Children of the Damned feels like something of a deep cut. It leaps from acoustic ballad opening, to crunching Black Sabbath-ish riffing, to warp-speed drumming and guitar pyrotechnics. Still completely thrilling.
13. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1984)
On Powerslave’s lengthy, zero-fucks-given-for-the-dictates-of-fashion closer, Harris’s love of prog rock was finally given full episodic flower, complete with spoken-word interlude, sound effects and umpteen dynamic shifts through which the tension never lets up. A track that helped kickstart an entire progressive metal subgenre and briefly endeared Iron Maiden to a generation of O-level English teachers.
12. Run to the Hills (1982)
A Top 10 hit and apparently at least partly inspired by Frank Sinatra’s My Way – it’s all in the ascending major 6th intervals, it seems. For a band debuting a new singer, Maiden sound completely imperious and swaggeringly powerful; people who know they’ve found the missing piece of the puzzle.
11. The Wicker Man (2000)
The return of Dickinson and Smith to Maiden was announced in thunderous style, with one of the greatest album openers of the band’s career. A simple but ferociously hard-driving riff, with a chorus designed to be joyously bellowed along to en masse, it brought the overwhelming sense that the band were operating on full steam once more.
10. Fear of the Dark (1992)
Iron Maiden sounded worryingly listless in the early 90s. Exception that proves the rule: Fear of the Dark’s incredible title track. Listen to the bedlam its intro causes on 2002’s Live in Rio or 2005’s Death on the Road: the noise of the crowd is almost as exciting as the song itself.
9. Paschendale (2003)
The greatest song to date of Maiden’s second Dickinson era features one of the band’s eternal themes – the futility of war – reanimated into eight minutes of detailed dynamic surges and horrifying lyrics: the protagonist ends up choking on his own blood. “A powerful and stirring body of music,” opined Dickinson, not unreasonably.
8. The Number of the Beast (1982)
Iron Maiden’s contribution to the satanic panic brought about by metal’s interest in the occult was inspired by a nightmare; the result of watching Damien: Omen II. Vincent Price declined to provide the opening narration and more fool him: The Number of the Beast is a tacky-but-terrifying Hammer horror film, perfectly wrought into song.
7. 2 Minutes to Midnight (1984)
A radio-friendly track that doesn’t sacrifice a scrap of Maiden’s power, 2 Minutes to Midnight is a no-punches-pulled protest song about war – riven with nuclear paranoia and replete with a reference to Belsen – that also features an air-punch-inducing chorus. And it is still grimly relevant: according to the Doomsday Clock referenced in the title, it’s now 100 seconds to midnight.
6. Phantom of the Opera (1980)
Much of Maiden’s debut seemed to speak of the world from which they had sprung – a gritty take on hard rock born out of gigs in east London pubs – but Phantom of the Opera was something else: ambitious, lengthy and held together by a riff so undeniable it was, incredibly, used to flog Lucozade in the mid-80s.
5. Powerslave (1984)
The sound of a band firing on all cylinders – Middle Eastern-inspired riffs, unexpectedly dreamy middle section, intricate soloing – but Powerslave’s force lies in Dickinson’s urgent performance. You can suggest a song about a dying Egyptian pharaoh realising that he’s mortal rather than a deity is faintly daft, but the dread in his voice makes it weirdly believable.
4. Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988)
Iron Maiden’s back catalogue is full of sudden changes, surges in power and accelerations in speed, but the most breathtaking of the lot might be the one at 7min 5sec in Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, when its ominous chug and synth-assisted atmospherics unexpectedly give way to a burst of all-out aggression.
3. Aces High (1984)
Powerslave – and umpteen gigs over the years – opens with arguably the most potent, aggressive, in-your-face Maiden song of the lot. Aces High charges along at Motörhead pace, simultaneously deft and heavy. Its authors probably wouldn’t thank you for saying it, but the chorus is the kind of soaring uplifting masterstroke that pop songwriters would kill for.
2. The Trooper (1983)
The story of the Charge of the Light Brigade rendered into four minutes. The band’s trademark galloping rhythm has never sounded more appropriate and their harmonised guitar riffs have never found a more memorable expression than here. Less complex than some of Maiden’s historical epics, The Trooper’s currency is raw power.
1. Hallowed Be Thy Name (1982)
What puts The Number of the Beast’s closing track at the top of this list? It features possibly the greatest recorded example of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith’s dual guitars in action, a structure that, in its shifts in tempo and mood, reflects its condemned-man protagonist’s movement from confusion and “surmounting terror” to bold anger – vertical lift off is achieved at 4min 33sec – and a fantastic, edge-of-hysteria Dickinson vocal. If an alien, recently arrived on Earth, wanted to know what heavy metal was, you could spend hours explaining its manifold complexities, or you could just play them Hallowed Be Thy Name – they would get the idea.