Okay, Vault Hunters…it’s time to debut another new column: Rank and File. The Premise is simple enough - one of our writers goes through and ranks an artist’s entire discography. Because there’s no way that could possibly start any arguments, right? Up first is our guy Chris, who’s decided to tackle the solo works of Iron Maiden frontman, airline pilot, and all-around Renaissance man, Bruce Dickinson.
Everyone loves Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden. Even if you don’t think that he’s the greatest singer in heavy metal history (in which case, I’m not sure if we can be friends anymore), you still respect him for regularly showing up frontmen half his age in the live arena, and for maintaining a wide variety of interests in and out of music. He’s also got a fair number of solo albums under his belt, and while his career outside of Maiden isn’t exactly obscure, parts of the metal world is only just beginning to see what he had to offer.
In anticipation of Bruce Dickinson’s upcoming autobiography and pending vinyl set, I’d like to rank his six solo albums. While Bruce’s solo career was at its most active in the six years that he had been away from Iron Maiden, he covered a lot of ground in that time. He collaborated with several different lineups and tried his hand at various styles before returning to his old-school metal ways. As one can expect, it’s a pretty fascinating ride.
6) Balls to Picasso
It’s pretty obvious that 1994’s Balls to Picasso was the first album that Bruce released after leaving Maiden. The lyrics are full of uncertainty and the music is a mish mash of styles. “Cyclops” coasts on an almost industrial vibe, “1000 Points of Light” has an almost funk metal groove to it, “Hell No” and “Laughing in the Hiding Bush” have more sinister overtones, and “Sacred Cowboys” and “Shoot all the Clowns” are odd glam castoffs. It’s a disjointed album and it would be pretty forgettable if it hadn’t featured “Tears of the Dragon,” which is easily the most cathartic song that Bruce has ever written. That track alone makes this a mandatory listen for Bruce fans.
Final Grade: B-
5) Tattooed Millionaire
No Prayer for the Dying was a gritty curveball after Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, but the signs of this style shift were there when Bruce released his solo debut just before it in 1990. Tattooed Millionaire sees metal’s most cultured singer cutting loose and trying his hand at sleazy hard rock. The title track stands out for wrapping a pretty catchy chorus around the main riff to Def Leppard’s “Pyromania,” while “Dive! Dive! Dive!” may be the best song that AC/DC never wrote. The mindlessly shallow songwriting was absolutely intentional and while the album isn’t a classic, it is a fun, cheeky listen for fans of the style.
Final Grade: B
While 1996’s Skunkworks was an obvious move to cash in on the grunge movement, even featuring legendary producer Jack Endino, it’s far from the watered down disaster that it could’ve been. The spontaneous songwriting feels like a real band jamming ideas out in an attempt to find their own identity, which makes sense considering Skunkworks was meant to be the debut of a completely new band. Songs like “Inertia” and “Inside the Machine” showcase Bruce’s penchant for catchy hooks, while “I Will Not Accept the Truth” and “Meltdown” feature him at his most cathartic. I also enjoy the closing “Strange Death in Paradise” for its much doomier execution. A couple soundalike songs may keep this from true classic status, but Bruce fans who also enjoy Soundgarden will find a lot to like here.
Final Grade: A-
3) Tyranny of Souls
Tyranny of Souls came out in 2005, and remains the only solo album that Bruce has released since returning to Iron Maiden. Having come together through long distance collaborations between Bruce and Roy Z, it manages to be an excellent slice of metal. The style on “Abduction” and the title track is similar to Accident of Birth and The Chemical Wedding, though on a much smaller scale. A reflective atmosphere is seen on the excellent “Navigate the Seas of the Sun” and “River of No Return” while “Devil on a Hog” serves as a fun hard rock piss take, each side suggesting that this album was likely a way to let out some steam. It’s not a bad place to start and it may actually be a pleasant alternative for those who think that the post-reunion albums have gotten too long-winded.
Final Grade: A-
2) Accident of Birth
Three years before going back to a Brave New World with Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson had already made his own comeback with 1997’s Accident of Birth. In addition to being his first straight up metal album in half a decade, it saw him reuniting with Roy Z as well as his former writing partner Adrian Smith. While the resulting slew of high energy power metal on songs like “Freak,” “The Road to Hell,” and “The Magician” is enjoyable in itself, there is a strong sense of purpose felt throughout as “Darkside of Aquarius” is a stirring six minute epic, while other songs like “Taking the Queen” and “Arc of Space” explore more folk-oriented territory. Add in the darkness of the title track and you’ve got an album that is mandatory listening for anyone who calls themselves a metal fan.
Final Grade: A
1) The Chemical Wedding
As pretentious as this may sound, The Chemical Wedding is one of the few traditional metal albums that I consider to be legitimately artistic. While downtuning one’s guitar is often indicative of dumbing yourself down or trying too hard to be modern, it ends up sounding more sophisticated than anything else. Much of this could be attributed to the lyrical themes revolving around the aesthetics of artist/poet William Blake, but the songwriting’s adherence to melody and a dreamlike atmosphere also goes a long way. In addition, Bruce’s voice is as powerful as ever, giving light to the darkness almost as often as he gleefully forces the darkness upon the listener.
Without hesitation, The Chemical Wedding is the greatest album that Bruce Dickinson has ever recorded. Powerslave and Seventh Son may be near perfect monoliths but neither could dream of boasting the heaviness and grandeur so powerfully demonstrated on songs like “The Book of Thel.” I’m pretty convinced that it is impossible for any other band to capture this vibe though it’s certainly a goal of mine to achieve it. It may take a couple listens to really get a feel for and I’m probably overhyping it, but The Chemical Wedding is an absolutely essential listen.
Final Grade: A+