In concert, Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson grabs a huge, tattered Union Jack flag and waves it in the air while perched atop one of the stage risers. This is nothing new. He did it for years before quitting the band in 1993 and continued without missing a beat when he returned in 2000 for Brave New World. But this time it's different.
Iron Maiden are at war.
The band has always addressed combat and animosity, creating songs that marched with the force and intensity of an army about to plunder a small village. But their new album, Dance of Death, seems more epic, valiant and militaristic than anything they've written since 1984's Powerslave.
"Face in the Sand" confronts the fear and tension that escalated after the attacks of 9-11, "Paschendale" is about a bloody World War I battle, and "Montségur" addresses the massacre of a religious sect called the Cathars in the Middle Ages. In addition, Maiden are fighting to prove they're still relevant in an age of crunk, garage rock and edgy pop.
"The album is not a statement about war, but some of the album takes on the feel of war," guitarist Dave Murray said. "You can't help it. You read about it in the paper and watch it on TV, so it has to touch you at some point, and that expression comes out of you and goes into the music. But it's not a doom and gloom album at all. It's uplifting."
Indeed, the songs on Dance of Death are too fast and energetic to be depressing. Even the single, "Wildest Dreams," in which bassist Steve Harris reflects on his divorce, is filled with high-octane rhythms, motivational riffs and unconstrained soloing.
"There's more guitar on this album than on anything we've done before," Murray said. "And I think the guitars are mixed very upfront so they really strike out at you. When we did it, everyone threw themselves into the songs and then got inspired to keep adding different little touches to the tracks that make them more interesting."
Dance of Death features multifaceted arrangements and grandiose constructions, with more than half of the 11 songs passing the six-minute mark, and two lasting longer than eight minutes. It's almost as if Maiden are consciously looking at the most complex songs in their back catalog — "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "The Clansmen," "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son" — and trying to top themselves.
"I think it's good to want to do songs that are very deep and complex and have a lot of time changes," Murray said. "That way you're always trying to push yourselves a little bit more and stretch yourself a little bit further."
Adding to the majestic journey are swirling, sweeping strings that wouldn't sound out of place in a Peter Jackson film. Yet as dramatic as "Rainmaker" and "Age of Innocence" sound, the embellishments never detract from the heaviness of the songs.
"They make it more musical and heavier," Murray said. "In a lot of Maiden songs in the past, you can imagine an orchestra playing them without the band. So this time we decided to add orchestration to some of the melodies and riffs to make them sound bigger and grander — to make them like Cecil B. DeMille epics."
Considering how complex much of Dance of Death is, it's easy to imagine the members of Iron Maiden fine-tuning the album for eons, but after writing from their respective homes, the bandmembers needed only six weeks at Psalm Studio in London to record. An additional six weeks were spent mixing the disc.
"It was really easy," Murray said. The whole thing had a great vibe to it. We did it where [Led] Zeppelin recorded 'Stairway to Heaven,' and [Jimi] Hendrix used to live there. It was really easy. We just spent the day putting down music and then we went home, and we did that for five or six days a week. I wish all of our albums were that easy."