Defining metal’s lyrical fascinations demands that we dive into one of its masterpieces. We will seek the common theme behind the topics that influenced one of Iron Maiden’s greatest records, Piece of Mind; Can life imitate art?
Our lyrics are also very important and the spirituality we’d like to get across are in par with the aggression of our music, because aggression pushes always further the boundaries of understanding, and therefore the intellectual effort, and therefore the opening of the mind. Take Revelations, for instance, on the last album. ~ Bruce Dickinson
Lyrics are important, since having a message of substance to communicate aids the creation of purposeful songs. Additionally, there might possibly be a correlation between lyrics and music that misses the mark and bears a misleading label due to aestheticognitive dissonance. After all, according to conventional stereotypes, music styles are characterized by their own philosophy – either compositional or related to lifestyle – and usually the lyrics are the reflection of such perspectives.
Thus, in order to provide some food for thought, we shall investigate the art that inspired the lyrics and subsequently the music of one of the greatest albums of all time, namely Piece of Mind by Iron Maiden. The band is chosen, because of its classic status and the universality of its impact.
Our method will be as follows: we will gather keywords relevant to the lyrical themes at hand and see which of them appear the most; then again, a similar process should be done for other music styles, so that we can ensure that this element does not exist on them or does exist in a limited form. We will use songs based on the same topics, to ensure a ceteris paribus state, so that a more reliable comparison can be made. In the end, although the infinity of artistic expression cannot be constrained inside the tight boundaries which we will attempt to define, we can derive some insights on what makes a lot of metal lyrics fascinating.
Hence, the aim of the article shall be thus:
1. Examine the sources of inspiration for the album
2. Find the common underlying lyrical themes behind all the songs
3. Compare with other genres of music that tackle the same sources of inspiration
4. Exhibit the findings
Without further ado, let us begin with investigating the films, books and nightmares that inspired this masterpiece!
Where Eagles Dare – Adventure/film
‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy! Broadsword calling Danny Boy!’
The first song is a statement and like a good opener states its purpose: it’s all about adventure. Based on a classic action movie set in WWII, two of the actors are on a special mission to infiltrate the ‘Eagle’s Nest’ fortress, a German fortification high in a secluded place in the alps. In the process they wreak havoc, most of which is depicted on the trailer as is the case with those old movies. Certain displays of violence and wit provide the heavy parts of the film, topped off with a final climax. Machine gun sounds in the song get the blood pumping.
An interesting example of violence is when Clint Eastwood shoots a German radio-operator; in contrast with many movies where bad guys are expendable, here the momentary glimpses of human displays of emotion shown by the victim and the ruthlessness displayed by the commando make the viewer empathize with the first and experience the perpetration of murder on a deeper level.
The sight of blood is not prevalent. When it appears, it awakens instincts in the viewer due to the impact – such effects work well when used sparingly and music works similarly, especially amidst a fantastic scenery or musical context respectively. This is a heavy part, either in metal or a movie.
Notice the end. A slight and simplistic twist can provide a punch line and make the listener feel complete. All riffs or characters of the story have been resolved. Remember the great Russian playwright:
“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” ~ Anton Chekhov, (this is known as Chekhov’s Gun principle)
The simple and ‘in-your-face’ vocal execution over the music works well. It looks like Iron Maiden follow the pattern of The Number of the Beast by inserting a very brutal and direct song like “Invaders”, musically and thematically at the start of the album.
So, which are the overarching themes of this film? War of course! Pushing one’s limits, adventure, violence and death, narrated in the third person enthusiastically!
This shall be your only proof. I forbid argument. Conquer! That is enough. I will make easy to you the abstruction from the ill-ordered house in the Victorious City. Thou shalt thyself convey it with worship, o prophet, though thou likest it not. Thou shalt have danger & trouble. Ra-Hoor-Khu is with thee. Worship me with fire & blood; worship me with swords & with spears. Let the woman be girt with a sword before me: let blood flow to my name. Trample down the Heathen; be upon them, o warrior, I will give you of their flesh to eat! ~ The Book of the Law
Revelations – Religion/Occultism
Possibly the most intriguing song lyrically. Allusions to the Book of the Law and tantric yoga blend perfectly with Christian messages of humility. Truly, it is a revelation for some to hear, that you are responsible for your own destiny:
The song is in three parts. The first one is made of the first verse from this hymn, and I chose it because there is something visionary in these verses. They were written about a century ago and they describe exactly what’s happening nowadays.
A lot of money goes around in our society, and the more money you have, the more miserable you are in fact. The last verse, ‘Take away our pride’ is the centre of the whole mystical universe. The main obstacle to communication and fulfilment is selfishness and a misplaved self-esteem, and these things divide the men.
The next two verses are a reference to Hindu philosophy. ‘Just a babe in a black abyss’ is an allusion to Aleister Crowley, the word ‘babe’ refers to the human being, and ‘black abyss’ refers to a desperate world. ‘No reason for a place like this’ shows the nonsense of man’s existence on earth if hope is no more. The second sentence in the second verse mentions the ‘secret of the hanged man’.
In popular Hindu imagery, the hanged man signifies ‘good luck’ (…) Then we get to the third verse. The most important sentence is ‘The venom that tears my spine’. ~ Bruce Dickinson
We see how the anguish of young people about the eternal bane of mankind leads to seeking something ‘beyond’ but in the here and the now – and through the tantric doctrine of power ‘awaken’ ourselves and embrace the infinity of possibilities that lies in the cosmic sea.
The instrumental part in the middle follows the double solo – solo I – solo II – double EPIC solo formula. The ‘chorus’ and ‘verses’ flow into each other, so that is not really clear which is which, in the same way that in an infinite sphere, the centre is everywhere, all to give across the message of something that you knew all along:
The one who will be King
The watcher in the ring
It is you
Flight of Icarus – Mythology/Satanism
An ancient myth given a gnostic – satanic twist wherein Daedalus becomes the Demiurge and the fall of Icarus an allegory for the fall of Lucifer. We might even say that this song celebrates Marcionism.
What is really exciting about this song and sadly has not been exploited in metal enough, is the way the listener empathizes with the fallen one, through the artists’ presentation of his pain, yet not in an emo individualistic way, but through a wondrous third-person perspective that satirically imitates the voice of the Father, becoming the voice of the Son, the birth of evil and a life statement. Theatrics.
The way he says the chorus is one syllable short of Fibonacci, yet forms a beautiful bell curve:
Fly (1) on your way (3) like the eag-le (4) fly as high (3) a-as (2) the sun (2)
‘The revelation which Adam taught his son Seth in the seven hundreth year, saying:
Listen to my words, my son Seth. When God had created me out of the earth, along with Eve, your mother, I went about with her in a glory which she had seen in the aeon from which we had come forth. She taught me a word of knowledge of the eternal God. And we resembled the great eternal angels, for we were higher than the god who had created us and the powers with him, whom we did not know’. ~ The Apocalypse of Adam
‘But what sort is this God? First he maliciously refused Adam from eating of the tree of knowledge, and, secondly, he said “Adam, where are you?” God does not have foreknowledge? Would he not know from the beginning? And afterwards, he said, “Let us cast him out of this place, lest he eat of the tree of life and live forever.” Surely, he has shown himself to be a malicious grudger! And what kind of God is this? For great is the blindness of those who read, and they did not know him. And he said, “I am the jealous God; I will bring the sins of the fathers upon the children until three (and) four generations.” And he said, “I will make their heart thick, and I will cause their mind to become blind, that they might not know nor comprehend the things
that are said.” But these things he has said to those who believe in him and serve him!’ ~ The Treatise of Truth, Nag Hammadi Library
‘All is number’ ~ Pythagoras
‘Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.’
~ John Milton, Paradise Lost – Lines 44-49.
The next chorus is the total opposite.
Die With Your Boots On – Revelations, Mythology, War
Visions of bestial devastation! In that song Maiden are not unlike Slayer, who view themselves as prophets of ominous catastrophe.
The song has a bridge building up by going slowly up: singer states, chorus answers. And in the chorus the words come out continuously, in ecstatic wrath, giving us one of the best lyrical insignia of the album, alluding to our previous article on Twilight of the Gods and a life stance celebrated famously even back in the battle of Thermopylae:
‘If you gonna die, die with your boots on!’
Trooper – War
This most famous song is based on a bloody battle in the Crimean War and an event called ‘the Charge of the Light Brigade’.
The chorus here is pure ‘Aahs’. Battlecries.
The themes are suicide, duty, self-sacrifice and death, narrated in the first person by a struggling, yet unyielding soldier.
The rhythm section imitates the galloping of horses, giving the theatrical performance of the lyrics an even more powerful twist and making this song into a classic.
Backwards lyrics referring to people who meddle with things they don’t understand are always a treat and sets the atmosphere for the song to follow.
Still Life – Horror, Occultism
A mix of nightmares and horror movies. The reference to ‘Piece of Mind’ in the lyric ‘Nightmares, will bring me peace/piece of mind’ is the lyrical climax of the record, like a signature. In the author’s humble opinion, it is cooler than having a self-titled song since here a secret communication takes place with the listener.
As Bruce said for Harris, his style of lyric writing is to create a picture with every sentence. This alternation of pictures fits the storytelling perfectly:
It’s basically a story of a guy who is drawn like a magnet to a pool of water. He sees faces in the lake. He has nightmares about it and in the end he jumps in and takes his lady with him. It’s a very enjoyable number to play because there’s a lot going on. ~ Steve Harris
Last verse contains the climax – horror: IT’S NOT JUST ME THEY WANT YOU TOO.
This is one of the few songs that can be described as first person and passive in attitude, because the character submits to forces that he cannot understand; yet the element of struggle still exists along with the Lovecraftian alienation of the narrator’s personality, which paints a terrifying mood and implies the merging and possession of the self by the dark forces. Still, the song communicates myth and morbid fascination with power.
Quest for Fire – Adventure
DMU – The Movie: a group of primitive Neaderthals goes forth to take back the fire, stolen by a darker race of cannibals. This movie deserves a review of its own. The nasty scenes of violence and mating coupled with the loveable characters who do not speak yet are understood is just perfect.
The magic of that movie lies in the fact that it reminds the viewer of all movies in the world by being totally atavistic and full of universal symbols – blood, death, racism, black metal cavegirls, cannibalism, love and comedy (the pumpkin gathering scene for example – stupidity connects us to our ancestors in many funny ways!). But the best part is their faces: the empathetic leader with the high IQ, the violent but dependable friend and the clumsy, anxious friend speak not, yet they can be understood perfectly.
In the vein of a previous song, strong lengthier chorus gets solo voice responses. Here is prehistory and war. To expand, keywords might include adventure, sex, death and self-overcoming.
Sun and Steel – The Book of Five Rings
Bruce wrote the lyrics to that. It’s basically a song about a Japanese guy who builds himself up to top fitness and wants to kill himself hara-kiri style. ~ Steve Harris
Apparently the subject is Miyamoto Mushashi and the Book of Five Rings. The description by Harris also fits another real life person and since the title is from the book of a glorious androphile, bodybuilder, playwright and writer who killed himself hara-kiri-style, well, pardon my misunderstanding. Nevertheless, this cannot be discounted too lightly.
Body-building is hesh but swords are heshier.
This is the author’s favourite chorus, the arpeggios in the end of each rep are like sunlight falling on steel.
To Tame a Land – Fantasy, War and Conquest
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
By that point in time, Iron Maiden’s best song. Based on the science fiction novel Dune, a futuristic descendant of Agamemnon gets entangled in a story about psychedelics and space Muslims. In order to take revenge from the hordes of degenerate Fins he must become the messiah and spread the tides of war throughout the known universe. No chorus here. Only amazing composition and structure.
So that was a brief presentation of each song. Now let us see how they are all connected.
‘If you gonna die, die with your boots on’
‘Join my Quest for Fire’
‘Sunlight falling on your steel, death in life is your ideal, life is like a wheel’
From the above table, we observe three things:
1. The affirmation of an active principle in most songs, complemented by a celebration of struggle.
2. Power, Self-Overcoming, Self-sacrifice are the dominant characteristics of all storyline characters.
3. War and Death are prevalent themes, yet in there is an enthusiastic attitude in more than half of the songs, as if pleasure is derived by the possibility of resistance to one’s power.
‘What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to “jubilate up to the heavens” would also have to be prepared for “depression unto death”?
You have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief … or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy’. ~ F. Nietzsche
The author’s previous article on Bathory’s Twilight of the Gods affirms self-sacrifice as an essential element in metal. The current findings complement this, since they are more lyrically focused, thus we can sum self-overcoming and self-sacrifice into struggle and experimentally formulate the struggle-power-active triptych, which perhaps it can be laconically compiled as the projection of the Will to Power into a mythical context.
But is this projection of the Will to Power into a mythical context exclusive to heavy metal? Let us compare for the sake of argument songs from other genres inspired by Aleister Crowley (such as Revelations), Icarus (such as Flight of Icarus) and Dune (such as to Tame a Land), symbolizing the occult, the mythical and the power element respectively.
David Bowie – Quicksand
I’m closer to the Golden Dawn
Immersed in Crowley’s uniform
I’m living in a silent film
Portraying Himmler’s sacred realm
Of dream reality
I’m frightened by the total goal
Drawing to the ragged hole
And I ain’t got the power anymore
No, I ain’t got the power anymore
I’m not a prophet or a stone-age man
Just a mortal with the potential of a superman
I’m living on
I’m tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien
Can’t take my eyes from the great salvation
Of bullshit faith
If I don’t explain what you ought to know
You can tell me all about it on the next Bardo
I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain’t got the power anymore ~ David Bowie, Quicksand
The striking difference is the use of ‘I’. Ego is the focus of rock music, while Revelations tries to be slightly more detached in perspective as it embraces mythos more than rebellion. The song musically is on a typical rock format and the lyrics reflect that – there is not evolution in narrative but sustained aphorisms of empowerment. In contrast, Revelations is telling a story, thus the music changes in the middle part to reflect the symbolic adventure of internal self-realization.
Icarus Themed Songs
Greek mythological symbolism is very popular and Icarus is a powerful icon for emos all over the world. Out of the multitude of songs referencing the Fall, we choose three and one, the last to save us from slitting our wrists.
On broken wings I’m falling
And it won’t be long
The skin on me is burning
By the fires of the sun
On skinned knees
And it won’t be long
I’ve got to find that meaning
I’ll search for so long ~ Alter Bridge, On Broken Wings
Oh, icarus tempting fate again
Altitude sickness setting in
Tradewinds bury fire from broken wings into arms below
The ocean losing atmosphere
Eyes full of stars
It chills you to bone
Paranoia translates the new tone ~ Hopesfall, Icarus
Fly on these secondhand wings Willing to find out what impossible means I’ll climb through the heavens on feathers and dreams ‘Cause the melting point of wax means nothing to me Nothing to me Means nothing to me Miles above the sea. ~ Thrice, The melting point of wax
We see three different shades of despair – although none of the above singers/characters wants to quit his quest, a passive stance is emphasized – the focus is on the world inflicting pain on the narrator. Naturally, it is easy to form a connection with the character of Icarus, because Icarus is the victim, a child who did something wrong and fell, meaninglessly and tragically as it seems into the Aegean sea. Victimhood also is a way to form a connection with the listener, who might usually want to feel as a victim himself since this attitude takes the burden off his life choices. Interestingly, the metal influences in the above songs increase as the self-pity decreases.
Perhaps the Iron Maiden version is too distanced from the first person view to provide much more than the recounting of events. Nevertheless, what is the metal ethos towards imminent doom?
Icaros, I dare you
For I possess the wings of faith
Though, heavy on my shoulders
(No measurement can prove their weight)
Still, a burden are they not to me
I am the challenger of gravity
The fear is not the fate I seek
My destiny will build upon
The mighty turbulence beyond
If I fall I will rise again ~ Emperor, An Elegy of Icaros
A stark picture of beauty, youth and determination. The identification with the Greek hero does not happen because of his victimhood, but because of his desire to fly high and touch the sun. This is a warrior ethos; glorifying not the martyrdom but the excitement of the turbulence beyond, to seek, to challenge, to push limits.
Hence in Iron Maiden’s song, the reverence towards the boy.
You fate embrace
A manifold of angels
I summon thee
From shattered graves
And call upon the wind
Receive my bow of reverence
Then spread your wings
On the other hand, we have the lyrics of Still Life. But the lyrics focus on storytelling and the occult, so it is not exactly about self-pity.
Furthermore, it is interesting to compare the lyrics of Daedalus by Deafheaven, a band that has been quite controversial in its genre (gender?) categorization:
Conjugate the spilled verbs; which is best for regret?
Which allows your heavy eyes to sleep?
Where has God gone wrong?
Shake the hand of your deepest fear.
Was it not your hero who saw when you wept?
Could you call if you began to weep?
Where has God gone wrong?
Her glassy eyes still feel the warmth
so carry on to seas of bliss
and heal your heart with those you miss.
Weighed down by stone doves.
Hand in hand through dooms of love. ~ Deafheaven, Daedalus
The music, for all the instrumental talent of its creators is rather monotonous, such as the lyrics which deal with mundane love and jazz sentimentalism. It is like watching paint dry, but while being stoned and aroused at the same time. There is a lot of weeping in the lyrics, which is okay; but generally, if you don’t cry Ebony Tears or if a Dragon does not cry for you and for me, I’m sorry, you are not metal enough. Another wrong label utilized for marketing purposes.
Grimes – Caladan
Under a sea of clouds I fight
For the win, my love, as she tumbles
Something fell from the blue-white snow
Bright light grew and string my bow
The wind shall seek with the sailor and me
It’s the charming love if I saw one ~ Grimes, Caladan
There existed no need on Caladan to build a physical paradise or a paradise of the mind — we could see the actuality all around us. And the price we paid was the price men have always paid for achieving a paradise in this life — we went soft, we lost our edge.
from “Muad’Dib: Conversations” by the Princess Irulan
He is the king of all the land
in the kingdom of the sands
of a time tomorrow.
He rules the sandworms and the fremen
in a land amongst the stars
of an age tomorrow.
He is destined to be a king
he rules over everything
on the land called planet dune.
Bodywater is your life
and without it you would die
on the desert the planet Dune. ~ Iron Maiden, To Tame a Land
An allusion to fight is present in both songs – art knows no dogma. However, emphasis is placed on Power and struggle in the latter piece, while the first is mostly entranced by feelings, introspection and the sensual beauty of a lush planet. We can highlight such differences better if we expose the subject matter of Feyd Rautha Dark Heart, Zoa Face-Dancer and Shadout Mapes from the same record. They all focus on love in either way and the compositions are indulgent in their emotionality, while To Tame a Land grows and develops.
To Tame a Land is the crown of the whole record, the celebration of the Active Principle that has guided us to victory.
On true metal
Finally, in the underground there is much ado over what is ‘true metal’. Also, in the light of church burnings, murder and transgression there is a tendency to differentiate between the ‘creator’ and the ‘creation’ in order to enjoy the music without associating with the lyrical expressions of controversial figures. In a future article, we will see if this is true or not for a rather infamous case, but for the moment, let us see how much are Iron Maiden true to the substance of their lyrics.
Bruce Dickinson is an entrepreneur, has interests in religion, is an olympic class fencer, did pioneering gigs in war-torn Sarajevo, traveled beyond the Iron Curtain, invests in military zeppelins, authors books, directs movies, has been in the army and pilots airplanes.
Some of the above implement a certain amount of risk that people would rather avoid – although investing time in music can be seen as a risk in itself since it can be detrimental to one’s career or property, see for example Martin Walkiyer’s giving his whole soul to Skyclad and Sabbat and Nuclear Holocausto selling his car to record Drawing Down the Moon. Struggle and belonging to the metalhead demographic could once be seen as going hand in hand, yet again, is the struggle creative, active and self-overcoming in character? Is Power increasing and the possibilities of life exhausted?
I think the best way to find out about something is to try to do it to the max. A lot of people take up a hobby or sport and then find an excuse not to carry on with it. Once I start something, I won’t stop until I’m as good as I’ll ever be. ~ Bruce Dickinson
In the case of Bruce Dickinson it seems that yes, it does!
Although the rest of the band members would rather play golf or be more involved with music, being in Iron Maiden is a testament of Will to Power in itself. All of the above are skills that testify to what ‘walking the talk’ means. In that sense, this is a case of inspirational people writing inspirational music.
To sum up, after comparing the themes of the album’s songs, it seems that lyrics tend to focus on struggle (war, self-overcoming and self-sacrifice), power and an active principle. The great unknown (myth and paranormal) is also there through the occult lens, and by this factor, metal diverges from hiphop and punk. It is difficult to define an entire genre, but we may say that the best metal is the projection of the Will to Power through myth and storytelling; verily a continuation of romanticism.
These topics rarely exist simultaneously in other genres of music and might be differentiating factors of the philosophical, lyrical and musical identity of heavy metal.
Obviously, more bands and genres should be compared to draw any conclusive evidence.
Ideally, the keywords should have been collected by a sample of listeners, so that they are not subjected to the bias of the experimenter and his ideological infatuation with Japanese homosexual samurais. This however could have been rather extensive, difficult and would perhaps be beyond the scope of our article.
A more relevant result for the website has been the – perhaps arbitrary – inclusion of the death keyword in the table and the many times on which it has been included. Does the evolution of metal absolutely necessitate death metal as the final and most true step towards the accomplishment of its final destiny?
In a future article, it would be interesting to compare the lives of other prominent metal musicians in a compendium similar to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. We may see if there is a correlation between quality of music and adherence to the philosophy of the lyrics – as is the case of Bruce Dickinson.
Another topic for future research, would be to question whether a connection exists between certain images and words; could there be any universal emotions, psychological archetypes or even colors in the mind’s eye associated with certain genres of music or techniques? Is black metal really black? On the other hand, music does not seem to cultivate the same emotions to the same people, revealing potential for the seclusion of the metal demographic based on the lifestyle needs it wants to fulfill by the consumption of art.
Metal is much like life: it seems chaotic, noisy and nonsensical on the outside, but this is just the way that life always appears to the eyes of the mundane!
For in the end, metal is the cohesive musical link of all that is interesting about existence. And Iron Maiden are its great prophets and ambassadors! UP THE IRONS!