The Number of the Beast – The Pinnacle of Metal
Iron Maiden’s ‘The Number of the Beast’ is the single greatest heavy metal album ever recorded. The release of the album heralded a new arrival of metal. Maiden didn’t invent metal, but with Beast they crafted a package that honed and polished the genre and ultimately redefined it.
It could easily be argued that Black Sabbath set the standard for metal back in 1970 with the monumental ‘Paranoid’. Or any number of Judas Priest’s records could be considered the pinnacle of metal. ‘Screaming for Vengeance’, or perhaps ‘Stained Class’, ‘Sin After Sin’ or ‘Sad Wings of Destiny.’ As worthy as they or any other recording might be, Beast is the quintessential, the holiest of holy, the ultimate zenith of heavy metal. Maiden’s two prior releases were brilliant, but with Beast, all the gears meshed perfectly. The songwriting, the performance, the production, the lyrics; everything clicked.
One can’t talk of Iron Maiden without mentioning the artwork. Maiden’s artwork and their perpetual mascot Eddie, is of major appeal to their fans. Eddie’s silver haired, decaying zombie-like figure is eerily irresistible. The first Maiden song I heard was the title track to Beast. My cousin recorded it from the radio, and I knew it only as “666.” I was blown away. Days later, while browsing in a record store, I first saw the iconic Beast album cover: Eddie with arm outstretched manipulating the devil with invisible puppet strings while hellfire rages with the title written out in dripping blood lettering. It is an image that was seared permanently into my retina. Immediately it clicked, “this is that song, ‘666’.” Needless to say I purchased the cassette. The power and magnetism of Derek Riggs’ artwork cannot be underestimated.
Of course, a great cover does not make a great album. The prime ingredient of any recording is the songwriting, and Maiden had one of metal’s all time great songwriters at the helm. Steve Harris is easily one of the greatest and most influential bass players of all time, but his brilliant songwriting make him one of the most revered figures in metal history. It’s difficult to fathom how one man could pen so many of metal’s landmark songs, and on one single album. ‘Children of the Damned’, ‘Run to the Hills’, ‘Hallowed be thy Name’, and the title track are some of the most enduring masterpieces in metal. Not to mention the grossly underrated ‘Invaders’, and the two other classics ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘22 Acacia Avenue’ co-written with Adrian Smith. Galloping up behind these seven gems is ‘Gangland’, a classic in its own right, written by Smith and having the unfair circumstance of existing in the shadow of metal’s most cherished songs.
Brilliant songwriting is essential but Beast would not be the classic it is without stellar performances and top notch production values. A key feature of Maiden’s unique sound is the twin guitars of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith. Standing on the shoulders of Thin Lizzy and Judas Priest, Maiden employed the dual guitar harmonies to the greatest effect. The stature of ‘Hallowed be thy Name’ as the most exalted twin guitar epic is undeniable. Murray and Smith also have unique voices unto themselves. Every solo on Beast is a memorable and melodic gem, characteristic of each of their individual styles. The release of Beast secured Harris’ position as a bass guitar virtuoso. His bass lines are impeccable. They are so interesting that you could listen to the entire album focusing only on the bass and be completely enthralled. Clive Burr’s drumming has an aggressiveness and conviction that is second to none. His drum beats and fills are so memorable and influential. The intro to ‘Run to the Hills’ must have been played by everyone that has ever sat behind a drum kit. Bruce Dickinson’s performance on Beast was both a first for Maiden and a first for metal. Never before has a metal singer put so much intensity and throat scarring recklessness into a performance. Maybe he was out to prove he was a worthy successor to Paul Dianno. If so, he certainly succeeded. Can any metal scream compare to the closing scream of ‘Run to the Hills’? Perhaps only the searing physical and emotional agony of the final note of ‘Children of the Damned’. Or the benchmark opening scream of the title track. The whole opening section of the title track is undeniably brilliant. The intensity of it is staggering, perhaps only matched by the final verse of ‘Invaders’. Dickinson laid down a performance on Beast that instantly raised him to the upper echelon of metal vocalists; it’s a performance he has never surpassed. Martin Birch is surely the heavy metal producer with the most impressive resume (Sabbath, Deep Purple, Rainbow, etc.). He obviously understood Maiden’s music and was able to elicit incredible performances from the band members. In addition, the unique tones he achieved with his engineering expertise set a new standard in metal; and the mix allowed every instrument to be heard with clarity while creating a thick, powerful, and explosive sound.
It’s been over 20 years since Beast’s release and every time I hear it, it’s as good as the second time I heard it (nothing can compare to the first time – that was a fucking religious experience.) Beast combined all the necessary ingredients to create a masterpiece. It’s an achievement that will never be outdone.