Continuing this retrospective of Bruce Dickinson as a solo artist, we move into the most creatively fruitful period of his career. The Tattooed Millionaire/Balls to Picasso eras were characterized by accidents such as stumbling into recording opportunities and re-recording an album from scratch three times. He was trying to find his voice creatively and was still a member of Iron Maiden for most of it. In contrast, this next era was defined by Bruce entering into his own creatively and figuratively, he had left Maiden by the time Picasso emerged, and he plunged ahead with a new band that would become the Skunkworks lineup. This was also a strange time period in the music business when metal and hard rock artists were in gradual decline with the general public, yet could still collide with major label budgets based on virtue of their brand name alone. In Bruce’s case, this meant that his artistic efforts around this time were met with his record company’s casual indifference towards actually promoting them beyond throwing money at music videos and press tours. And in fairness to those companies, it was hard to know how to promote a veteran metal artist’s solo efforts at the time — grunge and alternative had changed things irrevocably in the pop culture landscape and even the mighty Maiden were feeling the brunt of its effects.
Yet this was also the most adventurous, throw caution to the wind period of Bruce’s career, from flying into war-torn, besieged Sarajevo in December of 1994 to play a surreal concert in a life threatening situation, to more trivial things such as completely cutting off his hair and refreshing his public image to a less “metal” profile (much to the chagrin of metal fans, who were about to go ballistic with the then upcoming Metallica album Load and its provoking band photos). He shook up his sound with Skunkworks, working with a decidedly not-metal band and the result was something that existed in between genres, not quite alternative or grunge nor metal. He then reunited with Roy Z and the Tribes of Gypsies guys and pioneered a modernized approach to traditional metal, and in doing so forged his own sonic identity towards the back half of the decade. I love reading old interviews from him during this era, and especially in hearing him more recently recall this period with the benefit of hindsight, because it’s very fearless nature was exactly what made him a compelling solo artist. He was never afraid to experiment in public, even at great personal expense and risk, and his failures were as interesting as his successes. I’ve tried to explain this to people in the past, that it wasn’t Bruce’s amazing records with Maiden that made me become a massive fan of the man personally (even though I loved those) — instead, it was the albums I’m discussing down below that really did it, and all the stories behind them.
Skunkworks (1996, Raw Power)
Perhaps the most misunderstood album in Bruce Dickinson’s solo oeuvre, Skunkworks is a document that reflects not only the times during which it was written and recorded with it’s nod towards mid-90s alternative rock, but also of Bruce’s ambition to step out of the shadow of Iron Maiden even more so than he had done on Balls to Picasso. People sometimes refer to this as his “grunge” moment, but I’ve always felt that was a narrow and simplistic description, perhaps hyper focusing on the involvement of alternative rock producer extraordinaire Jack Endino. Bruce’s true ambition at this moment in his solo career was to establish a new band called “Skunkworks”, though he was denied by his record company at the time and basically forced to release it under his name for commercial reasons. But in considering this new band that he pieced together for the Balls to Picasso tour that carried over into this album — and that he chose to co-write the entire album with his relatively unknown new guitarist Alex Dickson, it’s understandable that he was trying to do something genuinely fresh in his career as a musician. It’s true that Dickson was more of an alternative rock guitarist as opposed to having a hard rock or metal background like Roy Z, and you hear this in his approach both as a co-songwriter as well as his performances here. Like Roy Z on Picasso, Dickson was the only guitarist in the lineup, and would have to fill up more of the sound on his own, veering between rhythm and lead playing. I’ve always felt that the singular guitarist lineups on Picasso and particularly on Skunkworks were the key in connecting those albums to the sound of bands such as Faith No More, Rollins Band, and even Rush more so than the twin guitar attack of Maiden.
Those aforementioned bands come to my mind in fits and spurts when listening to this album, largely because of the three piece guitar/bass/drums stripped down attack, and especially how Dickson loosely veers between laying down an awesome riff that glides in and out of gloriously fuzzy and psychedelic lead patterns whenever appropriate, only to fall back into a solid groove alongside bassist Chris Dale. Yet Rush is really the band that I think is the most apt comparison here, because so much of what Dickson is doing both as a songwriter and a guitarist is crafting prog infused hard rock that is breathable, loosely held together with melodic threads and with ample space for Bruce’s vocals to come in and take things into a refreshing direction with his soaring tenor. The obvious examples here are the two singles “Back From the Edge” and “Inertia”, where the contrast between a sky high soaring vocal melody during the pre-chorus and chorus is such a sharp contrast to how rhythmic and tight the verse sections are. The result are hooks that explode from the speakers, full of vibrant energy and colorful sonic imagery. Personally I’ve always felt that this album was awash in the color blue, like sky blue streaked with pinks, reds, and purples like some glorious sunrise or sunset. That kinda fits with the theme present in tunes such as “Solar Confinement” and particularly “Space Race”, where Bruce sings “Just want to feel the starlight on my face / Reach out my hand and touch beyond”, a not so veiled allusion to his then blossoming pursuit of becoming a qualified pilot.
This prog-influence I’m hearing wasn’t purposeful I think, but the byproduct of Dickinson’s natural tendencies and range as a vocalist working in the context of a band that wasn’t very Maiden-y at all. There’s a strangeness to this album that makes it one of a kind, a meeting of musical worlds that normally did not cross paths during this era (the grungier albums by once reigning pop-metal artists like Warrant don’t count because that was them trying to be something they weren’t, whereas the guys in the Skunkworks lineup were the genuine article). And look, I know the album isn’t quite perfect. The first five cuts here from “Space Race” to “Solar Confinement” are bangers, but the album hits a middle lull with “Dreamstate” and “I Will Not Accept the Truth” which although I do rather enjoy in the context of a full album listen myself, I’m willing to admit that you really have to be in the right headspace for them to land. The album finishes rather strong however with some strong psychedelic moments and an absolute epic in “Strange Death in Paradise”. Overall, its an album that might land some punches on you the first time around, but is definitely is a grower overall, requiring listens over time to fully open up. In that sense, it was a first for Bruce, a mood based album that relied on a listener being in the right headspace for it rather than just racing right into your subconscious via calvary charge ala “The Trooper”. That explains its mixed reaction when it first came out (and again, the haircut likely didn’t help), but this album has aged well in it’s opinions online from fans over the years. Bruce himself regards it fondly and with a reverence that is refreshing, as opposed to trying to ignore it or pretend it never happened. Personally, I love Skunkworks and it exemplifies the adventurous spirit that I love about his solo career overall.
Essential Cuts: So this might be fairly obvious, but “Inertia” is one of the finest songs in Bruce’s solo discography to date, there’s just something so emotionally affecting about its vocal led intro over a loosely strummed chord sequence, a sharp change of pace from how we’d normally have heard him in the context of Iron Maiden songs with their usual intros (“Can I Play With Madness” a rare exception). It was also a sterling example of just how much he had grown as a lyricist within this new band context, because “Inertia” is an incredible piece of lyric writing, but truthfully he just delivered all across the board in that regard, and its one of the main reasons I think the album has aged so well. It was clearly a reference to his experience playing in the middle of beseiged, war-torn Sarejevo in December of 1994, when he and the band were snuck into the city center and famously played a show there under the threat of mortal peril. I’ll also cite “Back From the Edge” here because its such an undeniable tune, with a refrain that’s powerful, making full use of Bruce’s range, and he just sounds exceptionally sharp on it. I also wanna make special mention of “Octavia”, an overlooked gem in the back half of the album with Dickson’s most psychedelic guitarwork, an almost Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream tone on that lead guitar that is so warm and fuzzy and works as a beautiful counterpart to Bruce’s emotive vocal throughout.
Accident of Birth (1997, Raw Power)
Widely regarded as a close second to The Chemical Wedding as the best album of Bruce’s solo career, Accident of Birth arrived less than a year after he had finished touring the Skunkworks album. He said farewell to the guys in that band, who mind you, he’d been touring with since 1994, and reunited with both Roy Z from Tribe of Gypsies and the Balls to Picasso album as well as the one and only Adrian Smith. Eddie Casillas and Dave Ingraham, fellow Tribe members who also played on Picasso, were roped back into the fold to round out the rhythm section and together this line-up can be considered the most iconic for Bruce’s solo career, yielding two masterful albums and one crushing live album. Regarding the line-up change, Bruce was quoted in Rock Hard Germany at the time stating, “We came to the point where our musical aims were so far apart that there wasn’t any sense in working together any longer. I had certain ideas about the further development of Skunkworks that weren’t shared by the other band members. After I heard their song ideas for the last album and compared them with what I wanted to do, I sat down with them and said: ‘I want a crushing, politically incorrect metal album, but you seem to want to do something completely different.’ Their world seemed to turn around Beck and stuff like that, while I was in a metal mood. So I took a plane to California and wrote a big part of the material together with Roy Z”.
I wonder if Bruce’s change in mood towards returning to metal was fueled by the blowback he got for the changes in sound and image during that era. It may seem preposterous now (and then as well), but those things really did matter with metal fans (this was after all the era of Metallica’s Load and the absolute chaos that ensued with fans when that album was released). He’s been vocal about suggesting that management and the record company didn’t get Skunkworks, and that it was Roy Z who reached out to him with some unexpected new material: “It was actually Roy that dragged me back into some assemblance, because he called up and he said, ‘Listen, I’ve got some stuff and it’s like a metal record.’ And I wasn’t thrilled, I wasn’t really sure that I had anything to offer … Then he played me some backing-tracks he’d done for what was to become Accident of Birth down the phone and I thought ‘There is something there.'”. The resulting process was quick, and there’s not much of a major difference between the demos (later released on the expanded edition of the album) and the finished album versions. Adrian was brought in and contributed three songs (“The Road to Hell”, “Welcome to the Pit”, and “The Ghost of Cain”) which complemented what Roy was doing songwriting wise with a slightly more straightforward metallic take on the new sound. During interviews at the time, Bruce talked enthusiastically about how Roy had brought the heaviness of modern metal bands such as Biohazard to a traditional heavy metal songwriting approach. It was in many ways, a novel thing that no one else was really doing at the time, with European power metal bands staying faithful to the Helloween mode and older traditional bands such as Maiden carrying on as usual.
I wish I was one of those fans that got to hear the album directly when it was released, in the context of knowing what Skunkworks was all about. I came to Accident of Birth first, and Skunkworks after that, but I wonder how many nervous fans felt crestfallen at the first few seconds of the opening cut “Freak”, with its grunge fuzz toned guitar wail, only to get immediately punched in the gut when the slamming metal riff kicked in the doors. A purposeful bait and switch? Undeterminable. As an opener, “Freak” was a spectacular microcosm of what the new Bruce sound would offer — a slightly downtuned guitar sound built around dense, thick riffing and a fat rhythm section anchoring the bottom end. The contrast between this purposeful instrumental design and the traditional, melodic metal mode of songwriting created a vibrant, bracing sound that still sounds fresh and captivating today after decades of the “modern metal” sound permeating every subgenre of metal. Fellow bruisers such as “Starchildren” and “Welcome to the Pit” served as similar tone setters for the album, that this was not only the heaviest album you’ve ever heard Bruce sing on, but by far heavier than anything Maiden had put out (certainly not a slight, just a fact and a surprising one at that). These heavier tunes were a collective statement, that Bruce wasn’t afraid of trying to modernize his own sound and that this album wouldn’t sound out of place in a playlist with current bands.
For all the sonic heaviness of the album, there was a buoyancy to the tone of these songs that came through via the soaring lead melodies and of course, Bruce’s penchant for crafting uplifting, empowering vocal hooks. I’ve always thought “Road to Hell” had layers of depth to it despite the lyrics and riffs being very straightforward and relatively simple on the surface. Maybe its something about Bruce’s lyrics towards the back half where he contemplates how “We all have to live with our family inventions” — it rings even more autobiographical after having read Bruce’s book “What Does This Button Do?” where he detailed his rather turbulent childhood and home situation. And epics like “Darkside of Aquarius” and “Omega” were multifaceted, dynamic songs that unfolded in surges of heightened dramatic tension, the former built on passages that recall hints of Dio era Sabbath while the latter boasts one of the thickest groove riffs you’ll ever hear in a song that is inherently very un-groovy. I love “Omega” in all it’s progressive, moody, temperamental glory, especially the skyward aiming guitar solo midway through — but it also was an example of how Bruce was continuing the coming into his own as a lyricist that began on Skunkworks. Though “Accident of Birth” as a title track is very autobiographical in regards to Bruce (despite the hellish imagery), it also was an apt description for the creation of this album as a whole, an unexpected collaboration that reunited Bruce with his most successful writing partners, and launched a renaissance that would carry through to rejoining Maiden two years later.
Essential Cuts: Although I loved the heaviness of the album as a whole, the songs that left the deepest impression on me were the ones that were built on beautiful vocal melodies such as the powerfully epic “Taking the Queen”, where Bruce serenaded a plaintive lyric over a gentle, almost lullaby-like melody. That U-turn when the chorus hits is in my top ten favorite Bruce moments of all time, the sheer crackling power that erupts when those guitars kick in and he dramatically sings “The howling shriek of death in your eyes / The hawklord and the beast enter your room”. That layered, echoing effect on “enter your room! — just inject that in my veins please. Its the kind of moment that not only makes the song, but is emblematic of why I love the drama and theatricality of metal. In this same melodic vein, the wistful ballad “Arc of Space” sees Bruce delivering an emotionally wrought and longing vocal performance that paints a cinematic picture of a dreamlike, haunting vision. I’ve never been able to decipher what this song is supposed to be about, but I certainly know that it hits me hard and leaves a powerful impression every time I hear it. That gorgeous finger plucked acoustic guitar solo accompanied by an aching cello and violin just hits my heartstrings in a way few ballads ever have.
The Chemical Wedding (1998, Air Raid)
Finally, we arrive at the apex, not only of Bruce’s solo career but arguably some might say of metal in general in the late 90s. Frequently cited as one of the great metal albums of the decade, The Chemical Wedding is a marvel of worlds colliding, with the band further developing the down tuned, uber-heavy sound they began on Accident of Birth and fusing it with Bruce and Roy’s most inspired songwriting to date, all woven together with the literary inspiration of English poet William Blake. The collision of a truly modern metal sonic approach merging with some of the finest traditional metal songwriting of Bruce’s career resulted in a sound that was genuinely new, incredibly fresh — not just for Bruce, but for metal overall. In looking back on this record and when it was released, I defy you to find another album released before the The Chemical Wedding that accomplished something similar with such spectacular results. It was a leap forward for traditional metal, proof that the genre could sound vital, gritty, dark, and rich with depth. It was also refreshingly self-serious in an era when irony, effervescence, and humor were held in higher esteem by the music press. The band — Roy, Adrian, Eddie Casillas, and Dave Ingraham all returning and contributing to the songwriting in moments, had grown into this sound, the seeds being planted on tracks such as “Laughing in the Hiding Bush” and “Hell No” on Balls to Picasso, and of course most of Accident of Birth. As a result of this natural progression, the sound here is fully realized, the fruits of something that began organically and over the course of time. The true strength of the album however is that despite all it’s era defining greatness, it sounds strangely out of time, untethered to anything we associate with the late 90s, largely due to I think because it is a fully realized, self-contained work of art, a world unto itself and it can stand alone as such.
Bruce says that the genesis of all this began with his interest in alchemy leading him to think up the potential album title of “The Chemical Wedding”. In an interview with the guys behind the Bruce Dickinson Well-Being Network (the oldest Bruce fansite) he explained: “So then, normally when I start writing albums, I start off by going to bookstore and I just walk around the bookstore looking for strange stuff. I was just browsing and this thing caught my eye which was an encyclopedia in art history of alchemy… A big thick book with loads of great pictures in it, ranging from early pictures of alchemical engravings, right up to H.R. Giger and stuff like that. And what’s linking them all together is that they all have an alchemical thread to them. And Blake features very heavily in this book, both his paintings and his poetry. One of them was this painting of Urizen and Los which completely blew me away. This was at the time when I had written three or four songs for the album already… And I was stuck. I thought “Alchemy, yea it’s kind of interesting” but I’m not sure there’s another four songs I can write about alchemy that’s gonna be up to it, you know. Then all of a sudden… enter William Blake! So I go off to the bookstore and found “Selected poems of William Blake”. I started reading and there it was…”. That copy of “Selected Poems of William Blake” brought into focus Bruce’s interest in Blake’s alchemical symbology and reminded him of his introduction to Blake’s work when as a student he’d have to sing the hymn “Jerusalem”, adapted from Blake’s poem “And Did Those Feet In Ancient Times”. This convergence of ideas manifested into a lyrical theme that he wove throughout the album in a few tracks that were already musically composed by Roy, and others that had to be worked up from scratch.
It’s always wild to behold that intro to “King in Crimson”, with its nearly sludge metal crushing riffs, distorted bluesy leads and Bruce’s deep, expansively unfolding dramatic vocals delivering a truly inspired picture of gothic, occult terror. That combination of sounds instantly sets the tone throughout and crafts a sonic identity for the album that works as the nexus point for all the deviations explored on the rest of the songs. Such as on the ensuing title track, a song that veers between spacious, atmospheric psychedelia during the verses to a pulverizing, grinding riff sequence ushering in the epic refrain. This is such a gloriously majestic song, both musically and lyrically, and I sometimes think its the epic on the album when it actually clocks in at an economical four minutes flat. The actual epic on the album is “The Book of Thel”, a monstrous behemoth of a song built on a devastating riff progression and perhaps the rhythm section’s most thunderous display of window shaking fury on the album. It’s a deceptively long song that feels like it just sprints by in a flash, but maybe that’s due to the sheer awesomeness of the effective tension building minute long intro sequence or the climactic mid-song instrumental bridge. That passage, queued in by Casillas’ rumbly bass notes that unfurl into a devastatingly powerful riff, is one of those moments where you can’t help but start headbanging along (it gets me every time). Along with “Jerusalem”, these three tracks serve as the album’s tent poles so to speak, emotional pillars that support the different emotions and musical approaches that flow throughout the album’s entirety.
A lot of attention has gone to “The Killing Floor” as it was the first single and video released from the album, and it’s easy to see why it was selected as such. Built on swirling psychedelic textures and a thick, heavy groove, it was easily the best rhythmically strutting tune Bruce had ever concocted. The chorus of a group vocal shouting “Satan!” was certainly ear-catching and might have been considered slightly campy had it not been prefaced by downright chilling lyrics: “I’ve never been held by the hand of god / Who’s rocking the cradle, if he is not?”. The music video is worthy of mention here, a bit of 90’s weirdo music video camp that saw Bruce as a waiter in Satan’s restaurant (the latter of which was played by a hairdresser from Camden according to Bruce). One of the hidden gems of the album is “Machine Men”, tucked away near the end of the track listing but certainly worthy of possibly being considered a single just by virtue of how fully realized it’s refrain turned out. The first of the two slower paced yet doomily heavy tunes on the album, “Gates of Urizen” has strong Dio-era Sabbath vibes happening in its soulful songwriting, Bruce’s vocals interweaving with haunting guitar leads that seem to reverberate in space. The other is the album closer “The Alchemist”, a patient, thoughtful paean to conclude the album that ends with a beautiful vocalization before bowing out with a slowed down reprise of the chorus from the title track (“And so we lay / We lay in the same grave / Our chemical wedding day”), creating a kind of full circle moment for the album as a whole.
Essential Cuts: This album stands in my mind as such a complete, holistic (first time I’ve ever used that word on this blog I’m damn sure) listening experience that its hard to isolate individual tracks as “essential”, so take these as more of my personal favorites. First to mind is “The Tower”, which might be my favorite uptempo Bruce song of all time, this song being a propulsive, rhythmic masterpiece. Casillas bass lines here are so locked into this amazing groove, with Ingraham filling the spaces in between with a bouncy pattern, that you’re already engaged well before Roy and Adrian come swooping in. Bruce’s vocal melody design in this refrain is masterful, a heavenward spiraling ascending run that is layered to sound lush and full. The lead guitar melody that serves as the post chorus outro is simply iconic, one of the more memorable guitar riffs of the entire Bruce discography, to say nothing about how devastating that thoughtfully articulated solo is towards the back half. I’m also going to cite “Jerusalem” here, because this song is at once plaintive in its hymn like simplicity (borrowing Blake’s lyrics help), and yet joyfully exuberant and majestically powerful. The choice of scaled back instrumentation throughout the first half of the song has always struck me as a particularly inspired decision, lots of chiming acoustic guitars and letting Bruce’s voice breathe and echo and fill the space. The twin harmony guitars joining together for that emotional guitar solo in the second half is just one of those glory claw to the sky inducing moments, sounding so righteous and profound by itself.
(Look forward to part three where we’ll conclude with Tyranny of Souls, and of course The Mandrake Project)