There’s a lot that can change in a decade. This is nowhere more apparent than in the world of entertainment. Both music and film touch upon trends and events that shape their respective time periods. When it came to the 1980s giving way to the ’90s, the changes were so drastic, they weren’t so much a makeover as they were an entire facelift. Rock and roll went from excess, decadence, and flash to apathy and angst. The popularization of the grunge movement had completely altered the landscape. Many acts that flourished in the previous decade found themselves stranded amongst a tide of new sounds that were stripped down and, in many ways, more relatable to an alienated and disenfranchised audience.
Iron Maiden were one such act. Since their self-titled debut in 1980, they had been a major force throughout the decade. Albums such as Killers (1981), Number of the Beast (1982), Powerslave (1984), and Piece of Mind (1983) were bought up by a rabid fan base of testosterone crazed metalheads. As a new decade began, it might have been assumed that this would continue. Bassist and chief songwriter Steve Harris possessed drive and ambition held by few. If there was anyone who could lead a band to weather any storm—it would be him.
Fear of the Dark, the groups’ ninth studio effort is, if nothing else, a polarizing release. With a world changing drastically around them, Iron Maiden put forth an album that seemed to reflect the uncertain future of a decade in its humble beginnings. “The dark scares us, for we know not what is waiting for us.” Wrote Alvin Schwartz in Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones a year earlier. Taking a look at the concept of fear of the dark and one comes to a few conclusions. The dark is the unknown. It’s the part of existence that light fails to illuminate. As any horror fan will tell you—the single most terrifying thing is what we don’t see. In 1992 the future was unpredictable and uncertainty loomed. Steve Harris had his thumb on the pulse of the collected phobias and doubts of many.
If there were any doubts that Iron Maiden were going softer, than the opening salvo of “Be Quick or Be Dead” silenced any speculation. The blistering guitar and Bruce Dickinson’s banshee-like wail served as the perfect introduction. The song attacked political corruption by using an analogy of both a puppet master and biblical villain. (“The serpent is crawling inside of your ear; he says you must vote for what you want to hear.”) More than anything, this was an enormous progression for the songwriting team of Dickinson and guitarist Janick Gers since their collaboration on the Tattooed Millionaire album.
Another composition from the pair sums up the outlook many had towards the early part of the decade. While “Fear is the Key” is hampered by a disappointing conclusion, Dickinson’s cultural observations are on point with the changing times. “I remember a time where we used and abused; we fought all our battles in vein” possibly refers to the excess of the 1980s. “The kids have lost their freedom, and nobody cares until somebody famous dies” This lyric is poignant in regards to the awareness of AIDS, which came as a result of celebrities such as Freddie Mercury being stricken with the illness. It also hints at the death of the carefree promiscuity that existed beforehand.
Dickinson and Gers offered up a new take on the typical power ballad with “Wasting Love,” serving as the anthesis of the staple that was all too familiar on commercial releases throughout the previous decade. If “Fear is the Key” told of the dangers that rose from promiscuity—then “Wasting Love” depicted the isolation, emptiness, and unfulfilled life of those in constant pursuit of sexual conquest. If the song didn’t do an effective job at illustrating this point—then the accompanying music video drove it home. A man’s constant philandering is juxtaposed with him getting several tattoos of his lovers’ names, all the while writhing in agony.
Fear of the Dark is also an album of conclusions. It would mark the final collaboration with longtime producer Martin Birch, who had worked with the band since the Killers album. Aside from Bruce Dickinson’s departure soon after, another part of Iron Maiden’s history would also leave. Charlotte the Harlot, had made her first appearance in the song of the same name on their self-titled release. She developed into a mythology over the course of “22 Acacia Avenue” and “Hooks in You.” “From Here to Eternity” would be the final installment in a saga over a decade in the making. For a sex worker who had begun as just a fixture of London’s east end, her final outing, which featured a ride into hell with the devil was befitting of such a larger than life character. The songs’ hook of “Hell ain’t a bad place, Hell is from here to eternity” was catchy enough to have the music video featured on Beavis and Butthead.
Harris’ contributions included “Afraid to Shoot Strangers”, the lament of a solider on the front lines, and a not so subtle protest to the Persian Gulf war. Containing a passage from the lords’ prayer and offering a perspective of fear on the part of a combatant, it’s one of Harris’ most provocative songs. Unlike “The Trooper”, which celebrated English military history and the ill-fated charge of the light brigade, “Afraid to Shoot Strangers” shows maturity, as well as discontent with current events.
“Fear of the Dark”, the album’s title track is an anthem worthy of “Hallowed Be Thy Name” or “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.” Steve Harris has always been a composer who tells stories on a grand scale, and Fear of the Dark is another perfect example. More than simply telling of someone walking a path filled with dread, it feeds on common fears possessed by anyone. “Have you felt your neck skin crawl when you’re searching for the light?” Serving as both the personal experience of existential dread and the uncertainty of the unknown. The band have continued to play the song live to this day, a testament to Harris’ skills as a composer.
For every action there is an equal reaction. For all the moments on Fear of the Dark that are grand, there are also low points that can’t be ignored. The elephant in the room as it were is “Weekend Warrior”, a song devoted to the life of a soccer hooligan. The lyrical content, while delving into mob mentality, is itself a very weak number. For those living outside of the United Kingdom, the song could easily be misinterpreted as depicting the life of a poseur.
“Chains of Misery” and “Judas Be My Guide”, both composed by Dickinson and guitarist Dave Murray both have ambition, but are more or less interchangeable. Both titles attempt to depict how cold and shallow the modern world has become. “Judas Be My Guide” in particular eludes to everything being up for sale, similar to the famous betrayal of Christ for thirty pieces of silver. The song itself is very repetitive and fails to live up to the subject matter of the lyrics. “Chains of Misery” falls into this same trap as well. The high-water mark of the song is the lyric “There’s a prophet in the gutter of the street, he says you’re damned, and you believe him.” While it speaks of the gullibility that human beings possess, it’s ultimately a retread of the countless songs speaking out against organized religion as well as televangelists from the previous decade.
Fear of the Dark sits in a unique spot in Iron Maiden’s history. While it was a major improvement over the vapid commercial attempts that plagued No Prayer for The Dying (1990), it was one of the last hurrah’s the band had for quite some time. The era with Blaze Bailey as vocalist would be relegated to the shadow of the bands former glory. Still, Fear of the Dark shows a band taking on subject matter that was relevant to a world in a state of transition. While the fears and pessimism regarding the decade were never fully realized, both the band and the world would be changed forever. The decade would end with Dickinson returning to the fold—and subsequently the millennium would be favorable for Iron Maiden with the release of Brave New World (2000).