Somewhere in Time was my Iron Maiden album.
I understand some bands get a little itchy when they see fan reactions similar to this, because that sort of connection / dominion very often leads to absurd notions that said bands somehow owe it to their fans to create their music inside some rather unjust guidelines. However, Iron Maiden has proven time and again that they are particularly skilled when it comes to skating a line that separates what’s expected and what’s considered progression—that last part being rather critical when it comes to longevity and maintaining creative fires.
But anyway, Somewhere in Time was my Iron Maiden album. It wasn’t my first album from the band, and it’s not my all-time favorite—two distinctions that belong to the record that preceded it. But full-length number six was the first Maiden record that I thoroughly anticipated, waited outside a closed record store to buy, and ultimately saw performed live from a notably explosive stage. Somewhere in Time was the first Maiden record I felt I had somehow earned the right to be a part of.
I discovered Iron Maiden the same way I expect a number of kids did in the 80s: through temptation and chance. The temptation element was established first, and Derek Riggs’ one-of-a-kind style was hugely responsible for igniting that particular spark. Somehow coming across a used LP copy of Powerslave pretty much took care of the rest.
Still, coming into Powerslave months after it was released made me feel like someone who was simply lucky enough to wander into the door unnoticed. Up until that point, the heaviest songs in my repertoire belonged to the Scorpions, Judas Priest and “Don’t Close Your Eyes” from Tooth and Nail. Iron Maiden’s brand of noise opened my eyes and ears to an entirely new world of absurdly melodic, epic, heavy music responsible for a very definitive moment in my young life when I fully declared, “Yep, this heavy metal business is definitely for me.”
But those early months of Iron Maiden fandom were spent being deliberately careful and observant—sort of a freshman playing the “Hi, I’m new here. Can someone please show me where I should and should not tread” game that included extensive hours spent hoarding as many magazine articles a meager allowance would permit. By the time album number six was announced early in 1986 and slated for release the day before my birthday (!!!), I was as ready to experience the same maximum bombardment of Iron Maiden emotions that fans who’d been there since 1980 endured, maybe even more so. Put differently, Somewhere in Time was the first Iron Maiden album that felt hand delivered to me by the band, and that was huge.
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really notice the clear progression from Powerslave to Somewhere in Time back then. I just knew there were endless leads, an incredible album cover, and a remarkable voice supporting an almost supernatural sense of otherworldliness that transported me away from shitty teenage life to whatever mythical planet the liner notes depicted that included candid shots of the band cruising around on absurdly futuristic golf carts. The cassette version of Somewhere in Time folded out like a glove compartment map, and I probably spent as many hours poring through all the photos, lyrics and thank you lists as I did listening to the actual album. Nicko and that golf hat, man. Nicko and that golf hat…
Of course, over time the substantial progression / mutation that occurred between September 1984 and September 1986 became clear to me. The change was enough to shake more than a few diehards off Maiden’s trail for incorporating (GASP) guitar synthesizers and strengthening a prog stance that would hit peak nerdery with 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.
But change was precisely what was necessary for the band in ’86. The heroic Powerslave tour had beaten any remaining energy out of all parties involved (187 shows over 331 days), so EMI / Capitol gave the boys four months to rest before striking while the iron was hot for the next studio release. Murray, Smith and Harris used the time to have fun experimenting with synthesizers, Nicko possibly ran off to get absolutely blottoed, and Bruce took on 873 more hobbies and struggled with the fear of releasing Powerslave Pt. 2.
The frightening truth of the matter: if an exhausted Bruce had had his way, Maiden would have followed their absurdly triumphant fifth full-length with an acoustic record. Or at least a mostly acoustic record. Let that sink in for a minute and then tip every hat you own to the persuasive stubbornness of the rest of the band as we cue up Somewhere in Time for the millionth time. One can only guess what happened behind closed doors during those band meetings, but the terribly wise legal team of Harris, Murray, Smith & McBrain must have handed Bruce a month’s worth of comped flying lessons, because not only did he fail to write a single song for Somewhere in Time, the record’s full duration dedicated precisely zero minutes and zero seconds to grandpa’s guitars. It is undoubtedly a mellower affair, both in terms of style and overall temperament, however, particularly when compared to what preceded it.
Needless to say, playing 187 shows in a year had a way of strengthening chops to the point of unbreakableness, so the most immediate epiphany after hitting play on the record was the fact that Iron Maiden circa 1986 was playing at the top of their game. Exhausted or not, Bruce was proficient enough that he could’ve hit the closing notes to “Children of the Damned” after being woken up from a dead sleep; Harris attacked that bass like it held every esoteric key unknown to the universe; that unmistakable McBrain smile was present in each and every hit; and the duo of Smith / Murray played off one another like the most solid buddy team since Waldorf & Statler. Even a song dedicated to a short story that centered around long-distance running that had every goddamn right to be awkward and awful ended up sounding like a winner because of how instinctively each player bounced off one another.
If there is a single defining characteristic that stands above all else as an ideal justification for why Somewhere in Time remains so durable after lo these many years, though, it is warmth. Virtually everything about the record feels like a familiar, comfortable blanket that’s always available to help obliterate the chill from your bones—from the cozy production to the artwork’s pleasant amber tones down to the unmistakable camaraderie between the players.
Smith and Murray’s guitar tone had a strangely soft tint, but it also held true to a shimmery “80s’ cocaine & headbands” sort of touch that was universal in metal and hard rock at the time. Perhaps an off-putting way to describe a release from the world’s most dynamic heavy metal band, but when you have a brilliant, full-gallop opener like “Caught Somewhere in Time” suddenly dropping the mother of all snuggly leads after just four minutes, you know you’re in for some serious Iron Maiden spooning time.
Prior to SiT, Adrian Smith mostly wrote songs with Bruce. But in the absence of the latter, Smith stepped up and dropped three huge tracks: “Wasted Years,” “Sea of Madness,” and “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
Word of caution: there are monsters out there who call themselves Iron Maiden fans that don’t love “Wasted Years.” Can you fucking believe that? On the plus side, there are also creatures in existence that couldn’t give a toss about Eddie’s comings and goings that can’t help but drum the bar when song #2 hits the All Media Hammacher Schlemmer down at the Goosed Goose Pub. At the end of the day, Smith always had an ear for the more commercial side of the band, and a song like “Wasted Years” went hard in the paint for the sort of golden radiance that coulda shoulda woulda given Maiden a radio nibble in 1986 if FM hadn’t been immersed in horse apple wobblers like “You Give Love a Bad Name.”
“Sea of Madness” was more of a Maiden flagship cut—a bulldozer of a bass line right from the gate that quickly worked its way into a dark and swirling chorus that eventually meandered into one of those beautifully mellow and drifting midpoints before bringing the heavier bits back for the close. Catchy, comfortably sombre, melodic as the day is long, and the perfect sort of tune to fill coliseums lucky enough to land Maiden with enough reefer smoke to keep Cheech & Chong high for a week. “Stranger in a Strange Land” was similarly characteristic Maiden in a very sweeping, storyteller kind of way, but something about the emphasis on moody synths and its overall slower pace made it feel like the doomiest offering the band had done to date. Fitting, considering the subject matter dealing with an explorer freezing alone out on the ice.
Closing the album with an epic like “Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.)” was perhaps the most trademark thing the band could have done. It may seem a bit odd today, but Maiden’s penchant for throwing in the crucial “If you’re not careful, you might learn something” element was huge for a lot of us who got into metal as naive teens back in the mid 80s. Not necessarily because we didn’t already learn about a guy like Alex the Excellent in history class, but more so because it gave us ammunition if parents started to believe metal’s only purpose was to drag kids into the fiery pits of Hell. One 8.5-minute ode to true history went a long way back then, and for certain there were more than a few rickety history reports given by young, pimply mullet farmers that featured the wailing teaching style of Mr. Dickinson c. 1986. Who the hell knows what happened in the midst of said reports during those extensive guitar solos, but I’m guessing it involved a lot of sweating while Mrs. Burplebottom worked that red pen as masterfully as Maiden did those frets.
Worth mentioning before we close the gates: Iron Maiden sort of saved my life. Not literally, of course—the members of Iron Maiden did not perform the Heimlich on me after a Honeycomb went down the wrong chute. But becoming a vocal supporter of the band as a teen did save a particularly nerdy (aherm… nerdier?) version of me from leapfrogging any further up the “To Beat On Next” list the bullies in my school kept tacked to a cork board. Looking back on it today, that all seemed like a particularly magical time in my young life. Hard rock caught my attention, Powerslave convinced me to swear the oath, and showing up at school wearing a Somewhere On Tour shirt from the concert at the Cleveland Coliseum in 1987 pretty much sealed the deal. Still have that shirt, too.
Similar to countless others, Iron Maiden was my first pure metal love, and being lucky enough to be present and accounted for when Somewhere in Time dropped is something I will guard in a prized box of memories until the day I die. That year and general timeframe, along with that record and the brain-melting concert that followed, all marked a precise point in my life where I feel like I actually became me. So, not only can this particular fellow look back in reverence based on merits of music, artwork and the camaraderie of the players, there’s also an embarrassingly dramatic component where Somewhere in Time now denotes a very particular Point in Time where yet another nerdy kid stumbled onto some self confidence and a life-long love of Iron Maiden.
30-plus years later, Somewhere in Time still hasn’t lost an ounce of that warmth and brilliance, and lucky for me, untold others, and an endless slew of new Maiden fans further down the line, it never will.
Forever Up the Irons