LOUDER FEATURES: Iron Maiden's 'Killers' at 40 - A Reflection
Nowadays, the name Iron Maiden is synonymous with huge, theatrical metal with an emphasis on storytelling and ambitious composition. However, for all their bombast today they had some quite humble beginnings. 1981’s 'Killers' was a transitional attempt to move into more determined territory. The first record to feature guitarist Adrian Smith, the piece helped to take Maiden's sound from its strangely punk-leaning roots seen on their debut one year earlier, to forging a truly unique sound. In all honesty it's arguable they didn’t fully achieve that for another year when they replaced their decidedly raw-sounding vocalist with Bruce Dickinson and made ‘Number of the Beast’ – the first in a series of metal albums that would make ‘Maiden one of the most recognizable metal bands on earth. That said, their second effort still deserves recognition as a great evolution in sound and style and one which set off a string of albums that can truly be considered classics. Let’s examine why a piece with a still very distinct sound from that which often gets associated with this act, remains very fondly thought of by fans and those looking to explore the genre.
‘The Ides of March’:
Procession like guitar melodies, courteousy of Smith and Murray open the album on an almost operatic note. This might be only an into yet helped ensure that from the first second of pressing play, the listener would realise this as Iron Maiden coming into their own and honing a unique and unmistakable sound. This deserves a place in every debate about intros and interludes that deserve your attention.
Steve Harris has always been an exceptional bassist, yet the line from 'Wrathchild' might be one of his first utterly distinctive inventions (I say, ‘one of’, lest we forget that ‘Running Free’ exists). With brilliant rhythmic prowess, outstanding hook crafting and exhilarating lead work, the song is deserving of the label ‘classic’ in a way no other piece of music by the band had been up to this point. After all, there’s a good reason they still perform this live, especially after Dickinson and co. powerfully reminded the world of the magic of the song at their famous Rock in Rio performance.
‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’:
Speaking of classics…Alright, this one might be slightly more overlooked, yet its no less great. For one, the anthem continued the inimitable lyrical trend of drawing on classic horror stories, that they had already established a reputation for with Phantom of the Opera (the best song bearing its title) and Transylvania. The amazing quality about this one is the way the contrasting styles of frenetic punk and classic rock are bridged to allow for moments of both contemplation and excitement. It reminds us that even at a time when they were trying to cut out a niche for themselves, they never took themselves more seriously than they needed to.
Here’s where this retrospective review gets particularly interesting as it’s the first time we absolutely need to mention Clive Burr’s fantastic drumming. For If you had to name a point in this discography where he publicly went from being a great to an exceptional drummer, you could probably make a pretty decent case for this song being the moment where he proved himself. On the surface it’s a powerful and throttling rager, with strong nods to Thin Lizzy and UFO. It’s the insanely proficient rhythmic interplay which elevates the piece and lends a taught and definite sense of precision.
One of the chief songwriting skillsets of Harris and co. has always been their ability to capture the emotion and atmosphere of their lyrical themes in song, even when the words aren’t the main focus. When writing about invasion and war they make their music carry a relentless desperation. When emphasising mystery, they exercise restraint, allowing the listener to lose themselves in the darkness. Genghis Khan is a great early example of precisely this style of writing. Entirely led by the instrumentals, we get a sense of the menacing and dreadful quality of this historical figure. Its especially poignant as ‘Maiden would harness the power of instrumental progression moving forward.
Gnashing and splicing in tone, this is one of this writers favourite songs on the record, and something of an oddball in this discography. That’s not to say that these musicians can’t be poignant and forceful at the same time – they definitely can. However, the way the instrumentals switch viscerally between bloodcurdling and dramatic, makes for a supremely entertaining yet fun experience! In spite of the contrasting elements on offer, its testament to the creativity and risk on display that the combinations work to perplex and entrance, rather than alienate, the audience!
Keeping the considered and lively qualities in perfect balance, the title track see’s Paul Di’Anno employing menacing screams, aimed at emphasising his villainous persona. Behind him, the instrumentals help to paint a vicious and bloody scene, the unforeseen tempo changes keeping you in a constant state of tension. Of course, moments like this were foundational in defining the sounds that this band would continue to champion throughout the decades and can ironically feel lacking in unique flair by comparison. That’s until you begin to notice the subtleties and nuances. Ones which would go on to define not only the sounds of this band, but of the genre as a whole.
On most Iron Maiden albums there’s a ‘Well, I wasn’t expecting that’ moment. On ‘Somewhere in Time’ that moment was ‘Déjà vu’ – a track influenced by psychedelic pop and new wave. On ‘The Book of Souls’ it was ‘Empire of the Clouds’ – an eighteen-minute, neoclassical epic. ‘Prodigal Son’ marks the first case of them truly stepping outside of their comfort zone. Almost baroque in nature, the peace utilises luscious, contemplative acoustics, while retaining that core of darkness which defines them. To this day, it remains one of their most fascinating experiments, in a career embedded with them.
Observant listeners may recognize the lead riff in this song as similar to that of a more notable anthem. That’s right, this would later inspire ‘The Trooper’. While this is far the greatest song here, the core elements – the harmonised guitar melodies, and stark melodic contrasts and clearly defined sections, would continue to permeate their writing. While many may dismiss moments like this for lacking polish or finesse, the significance can’t be understated.
We begin on a zealous and frenetic note, inspired by rock n’ roll. The rest of the closer is dominated by the guitars and the bass which don’t disappoint in helping to bring the record to a stupendous finale. I’m willing to admit that from the perspective of someone listening for the first time, the ‘kick the door down’ approach to rounding the experience off might seem strange when contrasted against the more poignant, heartfelt closers of later works. However, while ‘Killers’ is an important chapter, its also an era defining one. From this point on, Iron Maiden would go on to find a new vocalist, further change their sound, and find yet more fame. In that sense it only make sense that this stage in development get remembered and celebrated proudly!
Stream 'Killers' and re-live the majesty below: