Iron Maiden – Somewhere in Time (1986)

BACKGROUND

This album was somewhat controversial among Iron Maiden fans at the time for introducing guitar controlled synthesizers (guitar synths) into their sound. I had listened to all the Iron Maiden albums leading up to Somewhere in Time before listening to it, and I don’t think it’s a departure from the sound they established on Number of the Beast in 1982. The only difference between Somewhere in Time compared to the earlier Bruce Dickinson-era albums are the guitar synths adding a new texture. Given the futuristic Sci-fi inspired album cover, the guitar synth textures work in favour of the album. It is is a bit top-heavy as the first half of the album is really strong while the second half of the album fumbles at times. This was the last Iron Maiden album released in the 80’s that I got around listening to.

This album also saw Adrian Smith present fully formed songs to the band for the first time.

Members of Iron Maiden

Steve Harris: Bass

Bruce Dickinson: Vocals

Adrian Smith: Guitar & Guitar synth

Dave Murray: Guitar & Guitar synth

Nicko McBrain: Drums

Produced by Martin Birch

Cover art

The cover art is amazing, one of Maiden’s best, if not their best. Aesthetically, the cover is inspired by Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner from 1982. “Eddy”, the band mascot, is represented as a cyborg standing in front of what appears to be another cyborg he has just dispatched of. He stands in front of his victim with his weapon raised, harkening back to the album cover of Maiden’s 1981 album Killers. The self-referencing doesn’t end there; the cover (front and back) is riddled with references to previous Maiden songs. This makes the album cover extremely fun to look at, as you’re always looking for references to past Maiden songs and albums. Given that the general theme of the album is time, it seems very fitting to reference earlier work.

Like on all previous Iron Maiden albums, Derek Riggs provided the cover art for the album.

Here’s a link to the album on Spotify, so you can listen while you read if you wish!

Side 1:

Overall, side 1 is perfect, there isn’t a weak moment. Steve Harris and Adrian Smith prove they are songwriters of the highest calibre.

Caught Somewhere in Time

(Harris)

“Caught Somewhere in Time” is an excellent introduction to the album. The guitar synths set the stage for a futuristic sounding album. Nicko’s drumming in this song is insane. It’s incredible that he only uses one bass drum and pedal to play the bass drum figures in this song. The chorus of the song is classic Iron Maiden: soaring, melodic and epic.

After the chorus we get a quick interlude that leads into the solo section. First off is Dave who plays one of his best solos in my opinion. It’s very fluid and I love his choice of notes and which ones he chooses to emphasize. It fits perfectly alongside the darker riff playing in the background. After Dave’s incredible solo, the darker riff gives way to a more triumphant and anthemic riff over which Adrian plays an absolutely goose-bump inducing solo. In it, he uses techniques that were until then not heard on a Maiden record. What’s great about it is that he doesn’t rely on the new techniques to construct his solo: instead, it’s melodic and memorable and the new techniques are subservient to the melodic aspects.

I would say that Dave’s solo brings exactly what you want and expect from Maiden. Adrian’s brings something you didn’t expect or even know you wanted, but now that you’ve tried it, you want more.

Wasted Years

(Smith)

A classic. The intro has a sense of urgency to it as Adrian plays a descending minor scale figure. The intro hooks you in instantly and guides you to the verse which is relatively simple harmonically speaking, but very memorable.  Then comes the chorus… There is no explaining how catchy the chorus is. Just do yourself a favour and listen to it. The first chorus is followed by the second verse and chorus. The intro riff reappears after the second chorus and builds up for the coming solo section.

Many consider this song to feature Adrian’s best guitar solo. While it is excellent, I would say that he has better solos in other songs (maybe a discussion for another time?). The solo section is followed by a third chorus after which the intro riff is played again as the outro, neatly bookending the song.

The message of the song is positive and conveyed with one of Maiden’s catchiest choruses.

“So, understand! Don’t waste your time always searching for those wasted years!

Face up, make your stand! And realize you’re living in the golden years!”

Sea of Madness

(Smith)

“Sea of Madness” starts with a strange riff, which carries on into the verse which has an unusual vocal melody. Despite the strange riff and weird vocal melody, I really enjoy this song. Sorry Joel & Axel over at the Swedish-Finnish podcast Maidenpodden, this is not the weakest track on the album! The pre-chorus and chorus are also quite strange melodically speaking, but they still work for me.

It did take a few listens for me to really appreciate this song and even if I love the song now, the fact that it took a few listens for me to get into it, means that it would probably be my least favourite song on the first half of the album. But again, this is a great song. My favourite part of the song is the middle section when the guitar solo comes in and when the song slows down a bit: the guitars sound amazing and Nicko’s bass drum work is phenomenal.

Heaven Can Wait

(Harris)

A great way to end the second side of the vinyl. This song starts slowly with guitar synths, guitars and bass. The drums enter and the band plays a percussive riff and then kicks into a major-key verse. You can almost tell Dickinson had no hand in writing this song because there are a lot of words being sung in the verses at a rapid pace. The chorus of the song is also in major and is very memorable, but quite atypical for an Iron Maiden song in the 80’s if you ask me.

The middle section of the song is the highlight of the song for me, and one of the high points of the entire album. This middle section starts with a solo from Dave which segues into a vocal bridge containing one of the best “vocal chants” I have heard in a song. Generally I don’t like sports-like chants in music, but it works very well here because the melody and chord sequence behind it is great.

The first time the chants come in they are the only “lead instrument” over the backing track consisting of bass, drums and guitars. The second and third time the chants come in, Dave and Adrian add some really cool guitar flourishes to accompany the chants. Adrian’s solo abruptly ends the chanting section. At first, I thought the transition was too abrupt, but on repeated listens it works, no small thanks to Adrian’s fantastic guitar work.

This is the best song Harris wrote for this album in my opinion and it’s easy to understand why this track became a fan favourite and a concert staple over the next few years. On the live album Maiden England (1989) and the expanded re-release Maiden England ’88 (2013) this song is played and the audience sings along in the vocal chant section as well as in the chorus. Imagine the feeling standing in that crowd…

On a final note, this song and album was written and recorded the year that Harris would turn 30. If writing “Heaven Can Wait” was him dealing with turning 30, I hope I will deal with my 30’s crisis in an equally creative way!

Side 2:

Side 2 is where the album starts to show some weakness as the songs range from mediocre to outstanding.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

(Harris)

This song starts off very promising with a guitar melody and chord sequence that is reminiscent of their later classic “Fear of the Dark”. When the first verse kicks in with a different melody and chord sequence, my interest begins to fade. The verse melody is not that memorable and the pre-chorus and the chorus come out of seemingly nowhere with little signifying their arrival. Unfortunately, the chorus isn’t that great either.

There is an instrumental passage between the first chorus and the second verse which is quite good though. This is followed by a short vocal bridge after which Adrian and Dave play a solo each. This instrumental passage and the solos lift the song. The song ends with the same “Fear of the Dark”-like guitar melody and chord sequence as the intro which then gives way to a new harmonized guitar melody, which is absolutely brilliant. Why wasn’t this used more?

On a final note, I would also like to mention that the lyrics are not the most inspired that Harris has ever penned.

Stranger in a Strange Land

(Smith)

This is by far the best song on the second side; it really lifts the second side considerably. The song starts with an interesting bass & drum intro, and a cool guitar riff enters. The song makes good use of guitar synth to accentuate certain chords in the intro and verse, which adds atmosphere to the song. Melodically, the verse is great and leads seamlessly into the pre-chorus and chorus. The middle section of the song slows down a bit and we get treated to a slow melodic solo from Adrian. This soon bursts into a more harder rocking part over which the solo continues. The song fades out with the chorus.

This song has one of my favourite lyrics in an Iron Maiden song. The lyrics deal with an arctic explorer whose expedition does not go too well. 100 years later, the remains of that expedition are discovered by another team of arctic explorers. This song is one of Adrian’s crowning achievements from a musical and lyrical perspective, in my opinion.

The song takes its name from the Sci-fi novel Stranger in a Strange Landwritten by Robert A. Heinlein, but is otherwise unrelated to that novel.

Of interest is that during the chorus, Bruce sings “No brave new world!” Brave New World would be the title for the Iron Maiden album released in 2000 when, after some time away from the band, Adrian and Bruce returned to the band. “Brave New World” is also the title of another Sci-fi novel, written by Aldous Huxley.

Deja Vu

(Murray/Harris)

Unfortunately, the album dips again on “Deja Vu”. The intro is very good though, with haunting and moody guitar work. The melody in the verse is not that remarkable and the way Bruce sings it does not make it any better either. For some reason he decided to sing parts of the verses with a raspy voice. The chorus is better than the verse, but it’s not really that memorable. After the first chorus there is an extended instrumental interlude which I find is better than the verse or chorus. After that, the second verse and chorus comes in, and the song ends with one of the riffs from the intro.

Like on “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”, I find the lyrical content here to be a little lacking. The idea of writing about a deja vu sounds good on paper, but I don’t think it was executed in the best way on this song.

Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.)

(Harris)

This song helps to redeem the album in its final stretch, but I find it lacking something. This seems like Steve Harris’ attempt to close this album with an epic like they had done before with “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, “To Tame a Land” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The music in this song is great and epic, just like its predecessors. Unlike the previously mentioned epics, the lyrics lack a certain poetic elegance. Bruce sounds more like he’s singing facts rather than poetry/lyrics.

Around 3:54, the song switches to a Rush-like major-key section which continues to around 4:40 when a sinister riff enters. After this, a solo section comes in where Dave and Adrian trade solos, and some very good ones I might add. I must confess that I don’t know who plays what solo, so if anyone knows, please inform me as it would improve my life ever so slightly!

Production

Marin Birch was the producer on this album. In fact, he had produced all the band’s previous albums except for their debut Iron Maiden (1980) and would go on to produce their catalogue up until Fear of the Dark (1992). The production on this album is great. Everything is perfectly balanced and audible. Martin Birch is also notable for producing and/or engineering for Deep Purple, Rainbow, Fleetwood Mac, Black Sabbath and many others.

I would say the guitars sound slightly different on this album than on previous records. On Somewhere in Time, they are more liquid sounding. On previous albums the guitars sound drier and therefore have more of an edge to them and sound more “metal”. In general, I prefer the liquid-like sound heard on this album.

Having said that, I think the sound of the guitars (or any instrument for that matter) should be tailored to suit the particular song or album they appear on. Sonic textures and musicianship should always, ALWAYS, primarily serve the song.

Final thoughts

If some of the song writing on side 2 was a bit more inspired and condensed so that the album was slightly shorter (it’s 51 minutes; I find the sweet spot to be around 40-45 minutes), this would be a perfect album. 5 of the 8 songs are outstanding, 1 is quite good and 2 are mediocre.

In the Swedish school system, passing grades include E, D, C, B & A, where A is the best grade achievable. If I were to rate this album, I would give it a strong C.

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