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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Iron Maiden/Anthrax : Show Review

Iron Maiden & Anthrax @ Verizon Wireless
5.31.08 - Irvine, CA
by Taylor Kingsbury

In this era of reunion tours and nostalgic harkenings back to times that weren’t really all that great the first time around (I was around in the 80’s, kids… it was actually pretty lame), it’s not surprising that a band like Iron Maiden continues to thrive. What is surprising is the REASON they continue to thrive: because, after three decades, Iron Maiden continue to be the absolute best at what they do.

Even during their formative years, when Metal as a genre was demonized as a corrupter of the young and blamed for murders, suicides, and rampant teen drug abuse, Iron Maiden was somehow spared the cold Christian hammer that was dealt to peers like Judas Priest, Slayer, and Ozzy Osbourne (although it’s admittedly strange to think of Ozzy as a frightening figure after you’ve watched him shamble around his mansion picking up Pekinese dung). Alarming as it may seem to those who don’t remember those trying times, there was a day when a lot of people though that a gay man in leather bondage gear was secretly telling children to kill themselves via backwards messages in songs that were mostly about being a gay man in leather bondage gear.

Yet, Iron Maiden somehow avoided being pigeonholed as a negative musical force, unlike Slayer, who mostly sang about Satan precisely to piss off the very people who later reviled them, Ozzy, who mostly sang about Satan to tell people to stay away from Satan, or W.A.S.P., who didn’t really sing about Satan at all, but they did sing about violent sex, which was considered even more harmful than Satan. This is intriguing for two reasons: 1) If the devil is the root of all evil, and violent sex is evil, then the devil is responsible for violent sex, which kind of gives him the edge, and 2) Your average 80’s Metalhead couldn’t get laid to save their life, violently or otherwise.

The reason for this is quite simple, actually: Iron Maiden have always had an air of sophistication about them that most other bands of the era never came close to channeling. While their peers were searching for new ways to shock and titillate their audiences, Maiden was turning “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” into an eleven-minute prog-rock opus. Even from their earliest work, Iron Maiden were a strikingly literate band. When they did write about sex, they seemed to prefer Victorian bodice-rippers to Hustler magazine. When they wrote about the devil, they made his odes so catchy that he sounded like a pretty alright guy. And when they wrote about violence, they wrote about soldiers marching through Civil War bloodtide looking for just one more enemy combatant to strike down with their sabers before their wounds weakened them to the point of collapse.

Yet, even as they projected culture and wit, they remained the very embodiment of all things Metal. Their impossibly intricate riffs both defined and elevated the genre each time out. Their mascot Eddie was (and remains) the absolutely coolest looking trademark of all time. And, more importantly, their songs were anthemic enough to stir your blood, and heavy enough to make you bang your head until every drop of blood rushed out of it.

Thirty years later, all of these things are still true. And, this is why 15,000 people will gladly converge unto Verizon Wireless every time Maiden comes to town and throw a sea of devil horns into the crisp, open sky.

This is also why the band is bigger today than they were when they were writing the vintage material that they delivered on this “Somewhere Back In Time: 80-89” tour. Now the Metal kids have Metal kids of their own, and the gambit of ages on hand to revel in the part-circus, part-history lesson, part-kick-fucking-ass Metal show ran from barely walking to freshly in a walker.

To the 2-year old girl with the denim vest adorned with a “Killers” back patch who tossed me devil horns: welcome to the family.

This tour was specifically geared toward revisiting the past, yet as Maiden thundered through their well-constructed, impossibly tight set, it was clear that they remain the future of the genre as well. After all, someday, that toddler with a stitched emblem of the band’s best album on her back is going to have a toddler of her own, and they’re going to want to see Maiden too. Judging by the energy the band set forth on their second sold-out night in Irvine, they’ve still got plenty left in them to travel that distance.

Vocalist Bruce Dickinson, in particular, hasn’t aged a day since he first belted out “Invaders”. His pipes are still remarkably polished, and not only did he hit every dizzyingly high note, he injected new energy into the tested material. He also made great use of the labyrinthine stage set, prowling the catwalks that surrounded the drum riser and leaping over monitors like a precocious child discovering chocolate.

The setlist drew heavily on the band’s more recognizable material, yet even at the expense of omitting crucial bits (“Flight Of Icarus”, “Sanctuary”, “Running Free”), they still seemed to relish in revisiting more obscure catalog gems, particularly material from their “Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son” LP that hasn’t been touched since that tour twenty years ago. In the end, it was a perfect mix of bread and butter for the first-timers, and first-timers for the bread and butter fans who have seen the band on multiple tour outings.

In keeping with the spirit of the tour, to revisit the prime sections of their catalog, the band brought along an inclusive stage rig to resurrect the more ambitious highlights of their legendary live history. There was plenty of fire and explosions to go around, but the night’s transcendent moment arrived when Eddie, the multi-faceted mascot that adorns all of their records and shirts in his various guises, was revealed amidst billowing clouds of smoke. Ultimately, the fact that a group of dudes in their 50’s can get away with shredding beneath a 30-foot animatronic mummy puppet without looking completely ridiculous, is a pretty special thing.

Perhaps it has taken the gift of time to prove exactly how timeless Maiden’s delivery is. After all, a show that announced itself as a celebration of the past never got mired in nostalgia, and I’d imagine that, if anything, the awesome majesty of “The Trooper” sounded even better on this night than it did when the band played their famous series of shows at the Long Beach Arena in 1985. Whatever magic descended on this band when they began their journey remains very much intact, and though many have tried to mirror the dexterous and ridiculously wicked triple-guitar harmonies the band’s heavily-axed front section delivered with ease (I’m looking at you Iced Earth and HammerFall), none have come close to crafting the undeniably solid SONGS that Maiden still uses to summon deafening cries from an arena full of devotees.

Support band Anthrax have an admirable legacy behind them, but their set faltered because of the wistful dreaming of days gone by that Maiden managed to avoid. Even with their classic line-up almost intact, it was very distracting to meet their new singer, as he more resembled an American Idol early eliminatee than a Metal frontman. Granted, former vocalist Joey Belladonna used to prance around shirtless with an Indian headdress on, but somehow that made a lot more sense than the preening Rock Star 101 poses on display here. Vocally, the kid did a decent job of capturing the notes, but in the end, the collective suffered from poor song selection and an overall feeling that you were actually watching a merely decent Anthrax cover band.

The band did score points by including a couple of gems from their sadly under-appreciated “Sound Of White Noise” LP (“Room For One More” and “Only”), which was commendable since they only had about 45 minutes to work with. But, by omitting the more crushing material from “Persistence Of Time” and “State Of Euphoria”, Anthrax sounded more like an arena rock band than a Metal band, and this point was hammered home as their un-introduced frontman sounded far more comfortable belting out a crossover-baiting track like “Safe Home” than he did leading the troops through a rousing stomper like “Caught In A Mosh”.

Their finish was quite limp as well, as they closed the set out with “I Am The Law”, a song that was written about the now-obscure comic character Judge Dredd, who is best remembered via a notably lame movie/Taco Bell commercial that marks the absolute low-point of Sylvester Stallone’s career (yes, worse than “Demolition Man”… I’m fucking serious). Great music is timeless, but “I Am The Law” is about is relevant today as a shirt that says “Frankie Says Relax”.

I don’t mean to be so hard on Anthrax. They certainly have a respectable catalog, and their consistent presence within the genre reveals a fine degree of tenacity. However, they need to discover that finding a singer with a comparable voice means nothing if he doesn’t fit with the band. Once they do, I’m confident they’ll be able to provide a more serviceable set, and one that accurately reflects the best music in their catalog.

Maiden didn’t have that problem, despite reaching into the fascinatingly obtuse corners of their discography. They also cheated a bit, and any music geek will tell you that “Fear Of The Dark” was recorded a couple of years after the ”80-89” misnomer in their tour name. But, as far as presenting the most enjoyable and anthemic aspects of Iron Maiden’s musical output, they couldn’t have chosen their songs any better. “Revelations” was a stunning and perfect inclusion, and finales don’t get much better than the haunting “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, which the band concluded its encore with.

Sure, we can quibble about how maybe they should have represented their pre-Dickinson material more fairly, since the lone set entry from this period was their namesake. But that’s the thing with a band like Iron Maiden; they’ve simply recorded so many classic tunes that it would be impossible to play them all.

And, ultimately, the fact that Maiden can solicit such a deep wishlist is a testament to just how important they remain to the genre they helped define. Since that’s exactly what this night was meant to celebrate, even the omissions were perfect, because they left the crowd wanting more. Not only after a 2-hour show, but after a 30 year career.

And, guess what? When I’ve got a little toddler Metalhead of my own, you best believe that I’ll be holding that kid up to the heavens so that they can raise their pudgy horns and shout the chorus to “Run To The Hills” at the top of their tiny lungs.

I really can’t wait now, because after the thrilling, powerful, and ageless set that I heard on this night, I’m now certain that Maiden will still be around when that day comes.

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