Sometimes bands do some of their best work right before major internal shakeups hit. Example: Judas Priest‘s Pain reliever or Anthrax‘s The Persistence of Time. But when Iron Maiden released their eighth album No prayer for the dying on Oct. 1, 1990, their health was failing, and it showed on what most consider to be far from their worst album, but an unremarkable effort nonetheless.
During the songwriting sessions for the album, guitarist Adrian Smith disliked the less progressive direction the band seemed to be taking with its songs, and after co-writing the shiny, poppy “Hooks in you“, he left Iron Maiden after ten years of service to the band. Determined to move on, vocalist Bruce Dickinson suggested the band work with guitarist Janick Gers, who had played on the singer’s 1990 solo album Tattooed millionaire and had also played with White Spirit and Ian Gillan.
In June 1990, Iron Maiden joined as bassist Steve Harris‘ Barnyard Studios in Essex, England with their longtime producer Martin Birch, and with the help of The Rolling Stones‘ Mobile Studio started recording No prayer for the dying. The sessions started energetic and playful, but it didn’t take long for Dickinson to regret the decision to track vocals in his bassist’s barn. Looking back, he has emphatically stated that it was not the band’s best sounding record, although other members stated at the time that they were happy to be working in England for the first time since The number of the animal.
Throughout the album, Maiden abandoned six-minute-plus songs and complex, multifaceted arrangements in favor of more straightforward, accomplished musicianship reminiscent of their NWOBHM roots.
In addition, Steve Harris wrote lyrics less influenced by history and fantasy and more inspired by current events and modern warfare. “holy smoke” addresses the greed and corruption of broadcasters; “Mother Russia” is about the democratization of the former Soviet Union; “Fate warning” portends a nuclear apocalypse; “Run Silent Run Deep” deals with an explosive battle at sea and ”Tailgunner” is a history of World War II aerial combat and the development of nuclear weapons.
Iron Maiden, “Holy Smoke” music video
The biggest problem with No prayer for the dying wasn’t the musical approach or the lyrics, it was the songs themselves. From the galloping but overly simplistic “Tailgunner” to the whisper-to-a-scream dynamic of title numberthat builds from a melodic ballad with intertwined guitars to a furious trailblazer.
Still, it passes too quickly to have a significant impact. Maiden sound like they’re chasing their tails and striving to achieve the immediacy of The number of the animal and Piece of Mind but never quite recapturing the magic of days gone by. That said, the guitar interplay between Gers and Dave Murray is impressive, and Dickinson’s voice is theatrical and emphatic throughout. And the anthemBring your daughter… to the slaughter“, which was banned by the BBC due to its title alone, was a crowd pleaser 13 years after its release.
Iron Maiden, “Bring Your Daughter… To the Slaughter” music video
More than anything else, No prayer for the dying was a sign of things to come, a decline in the quality and diversity that fans had come to expect and respect from Maiden since the departure of Paul Di’Anno and the arrival of Bruce Dickinson. The record reached No. 17 on the Billboard album chart and went gold on Nov. 27, 1990, but it was the last Iron Maiden record to do so, sparking the band’s downward slide, which hit critical mass when Dickinson left in 1993. The band flew on without him, but didn’t come back until he and Smith came again in 1999. In 1995 Iron Maiden came out again No prayer for the dying with cover songs by Stray, Golden Earring, Free and Led Zeppelin. But to date, the record remains one of the lesser-appreciated titles in Maiden’s catalog.
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legendsco-author of Louder Than Hell: Metal’s Definitive Oral Historyas well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthraxand Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, The Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.