BraveWords 25 Flashback - The Alchemical Wizardry Of BRUCE DICKINSON
March 29, 2019, a month ago
In celebration of our 25th anniversary, we are digging deep into the BraveWords archives and blowing the dust off some classic features that ran in Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles magazine!
We hop back to September/October 1998 (issue #25) where our Martin Popoff caught up with the esteemed Bruce Dickinson to talk about his new solo album, The Chemical Wedding, and we also pried his brain about past Iron Maiden albums. Step somewhere back in time as Dickinson guides through the thought process of his solo classic...
It's been merely a year since ex-Maiden banshee Bruce Dickinson graced the punted metal world with a little, loud record called Accident Of Birth. That one politely but proudly, put to shame an Iron Maiden abomination called The X Factor. Well, Maiden now has something sillier out called Virtual XI, and Bruce is about to stage The Chemical Wedding. Your ears shall hear sweet justice, retribution and inspired sonic craft, as this particular set of deafening nuptials tops the playlists of writers and fans alike throughout the latter part of '98. Bruce, Roy Z, Adrian Smith, Eddie Casillias and David Ingraham is the metal marriage from Hell.
"Well, that's one way of putting it!" says Bruce enthusiastically, beginning the sermon. "You can hear the development in the sound, just the physical sound of the way the guitars have been handled. And that's very much Roy growing as a producer and having the confidence to make decisions. We discussed a sonic concept for the album, just the idea that this album should be really heavy, just in terms of the tone of it."
Uh, and I guess it helps when you put bass strings on your freakin' guitars!
"Yes, that's true. That was Roy's idea. He came to me and said I have this sound I can get on the guitar, but what we have to do to get it is put the skinny string from the bass guitar on the E string of the guitar, and then increase all the gauges appropriately through the rest of the scale. It wreaks havoc on the guitarist's hands because it's like playing high-tension cables (laughs), but I guess they both built up a kind of resistance after two weeks of playing ten hours a day (laughs). Plus one other thing we did to fatten up the sound was, you know when they make concrete supports for bridges? Well, they have a mold that they pour the concrete into. So we had this fifteen foot long circular tube of that stuff, and we had the bass drum at one end of it and the microphone at the other. Eddie, when he's not playing bass, he works at a building site, so he brought this thing in his builder's truck and said 'this is for the bass drum (laughs).'"
And along with a few thunderous tricks, bells and whistles, Bruce intimates that pleasant surprises like the sight-reading skills of drummer David Ingraham have elevated the sophistication of the band in terms of studio techniques. It's refreshing to have some rocker NOT tell me 'dude, we recorded everything live off the floor.'
"Yes it's true," Bruce offers. "We streamlined and just did away with the concept of saying, 'hey, let's pretend we're playing in a big auditorium in front of a bunch of people,' because we aren't. This guy has a metronome in his head and he wrote down every single note he plays on every single drum and he opens the page to page one and he sight-reads the drumming."
In terms of writing The Chemical Wedding, Bruce affirms that very little has changed since Accident Of Birth, which, let's face it, was a pretty damn good record, evoking a chemistry that did not require a radical overhaul.
"80 percent of the record was written by Roy and myself, and actually 80 percent of the last record was done that way as well (laughs). I think having Adrian join was such a big deal for other people, that it sort of overshadowed things. And it's wonderful that Adrian is there, I'm not wishing to decry Adrian's contribution. But the contribution of Roy is absolutely huge."
And this cannot be over-stated, even if throughout the booklet for Accident Of Birth, Bruce and Adrian are seen mugging together as if we were supposed to think, 'hey, we got half of Maiden here.' Bruce goes on to speak in terms of Accident Of Birth being "a summation of everything I'd done up to that point", with this one again being more about the tones, confidence, a "step into new territory, virgin turf just in terms of the raw sounds," the man fully and rightly confident that metal fans will be headbanging to this one for years to come.
But of course, lyrically, The Chemical Wedding is a different shooting match altogether, Bruce perhaps striving to rectify the nagging reality that his last concept record, The Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, really didn't hit the bullseye. Towards this end, The Chemical Wedding is an ambitious and simply interesting piece of metallic literature.
The story unfolds: "The lyrics are kind of trippy, but it's basically a concept album about alchemy. But alchemy, as I was researching it, rapidly started to feel a bit flat. After doing a couple of songs, it's like OK, so duh, it's a bunch of chemists trying to recreate the divine through chemistry. But what kept cropping up in all of the alchemical books I was reading was William Blake, who was a mystical English poet from the last century, lived 1757 to 1827. He was an artist and a poet, and he was also sort of related to the alchemists. He used a lot of their imagery. In fact one of his big heroes, to whom he dedicated an epic poem, was Isaac Newton, who was an alchemist, which is something that has been covered up successively by historians and scientists, because it's not cool for the inventor of rationalist science to be into the occult! That was his main reason for being into science, because he was interested in mysticism. So William Blake was someone I had been aware of since I was a little kid, and ever since one of his paintings was used for an Atomic Rooster album cover."
"So one day I just decided to make this album three-dimensional. Blake gave it a soul and a presence, and a lot of the things Blake was writing about, his imagery, his language, really struck a chord with me personally. I felt he was almost like a kindred spirit, not like I was anything near as talented as him, but still I thought, wow, I understand this man and where he's coming from, and what he feels and how he sees things. And I thought well, what a wonderful muse to have for an album. So that's what the album started being about, it was an album about alchemy, inspired by the artwork and poetry of William Blake. And I thought, wow, this is really worth writing about, this is really worth doing! Everything just dropped into place from then, and I really enjoyed it, even though it was kind of nerve-wracking. I didn't have a whole load of time. We had two months to write the album, and then two weeks to rehearse it, six weeks to record it, and then two weeks to mix it."
"I started trying to write stories and things like that, but as soon as I started to do that, the thing became wooden," continues Bruce, delving into the artistic process. " I said to myself, I have to just let go and let this thing develop, which again was kind of nerve-wracking, because Roy would be there coming up with great backing tracks, and I felt like I was lagging behind. I realized it was a bit like putting a stained glass window together. You can have all the pieces of glass at your feet, if you put them together in a hurry, you're just going to get a piece of shit. You've got to spend the time and examine each piece of glass and put it in the right place and then you get a beautiful window. And it was the same thing with this album. I had 80 percent of the pieces of at my feet and then there was the last 20 percent. But I thought if necessary, I'm going to have to wait until Hell freezes over to get this right. Because that 20 percent is going to make it or break it."
Bruce offers how the imagery of alchemy is intertwined with the work of Blake. "Blake had visions. He saw the other world. He had a foot in both camps, and that in essence, is what the alchemists wanted to do. The alchemists' motto was 'as above, so below'. The macrocosm, the huge universe was summed up in a single grain of sand. If you could look inside the atom, you could see everything that was in the universe, if you look hard enough. So the alchemist's vision was to be able to elevate us as base metal, as lead, this useless lump of earth wandering around half asleep, doing our drudgery, our chores. We are a piece of the divine, just like everything else is, so how can we, with that knowledge, turn ourselves into union with the divine while we're still on Earth? So they decided they were going to try chemistry, or more accurately, as a byproduct of it, they invented chemistry."
Ironically, with Bruce turning in such a strong record, in essence proving through his actions how elevated his game has become, it can be expected that wistful talk of a Maiden reunion will continue unabated. After all, if the talents of Bruce, Roy Z, and/or Martin Birch could be allowed to blossom within Steve's oppressive gulag, who knows the metallic force that could erupt?
"I really think the whole deal with all of this boils down to me and Steve," offers Bruce, not at all surprised or put off by the question. "That's it. There's no friction anywhere else I don't think (laughs). We share the same manager (laughs). We're both with Rod Smallwood. I mean, we sit and talk about this in the pub and things like that. And people say, 'are you getting back together with the band?' And I say, 'look, you want me to get up there tomorrow and sing a Maiden set? Hang on, let me go find my boots.' Not a problem. And it would be great. I could walk on stage with them and we could do a concert tomorrow night, and it would be absolutely fucking mega! But, I don't think that's quite the point. For some of the people involved, there's more to it than that. There's two things here, a live situation and a record. One question is, will anything ever happen again ever under any circumstance? The other one is could something happen live? And that would be great, it would just be like a really cool laugh."
"As for records, I'm not really sure how that would happen," offers Bruce warily. "Because let's just say this. The way I make records now is very, very, very different from the way I made them in the past. I'm not sure how we would close the gap between the way I work and the way Steve works now. But having said that, there's no reason at all if he wanted to go have some fun, you know, in addition to the fun he's having now, and do some shows, sure, fuck it, yes. And you don't have to fire anybody or anything else like that. I'll go on stage, we'll do a half dozen songs, and we'll go have a drink. But it's not as simple as all that. There's all kinds of complexities and things which I'm not going to go into. And I'm perfectly happy with what I'm doing at the moment musically. Because, I made a great record, and I'm going out promoting it. And really that's where my life is at right now, and that's my future. This record is my future."
Bruce Dickinson offers a roll-call of some of the outtakes, b-sides and other odds and sods that hopefully see release in one form or another...
“Return Of The King”: “An extra track for Japan, which is a pretty cool track.”
“Wicker Man”: “One of six tracks from the sessions for Accident Of Birth, a fantastic track which just never got finished up and is now done.”
“Confeos”: I guess the best way I can describe 'Confeos', is 'an homage to Deep Purple.' What happened was we started out with this backing track, and I said, 'gee, that sounds kind of Purple-ish.' Why don't we have a little bit of fun, bring in a Hammond, and tell the guy to do his best Jon Lord impression, and I'll go in and do my best Ian Gillan 'I'm not worthy' voice and try and write lyrics which are appropriate. So it's going to be about a chick in Japan and getting drunk in a bar (laughs). And that's what we did. I do this thing called The Rock Radio Network over here, and I played it, and said, 'we've had a mysterious tape, and we think this is Deep Purple playing back with Ritchie Blackmore, take a listen.' And it sounds so much like Purple (laughs). So now I wonder if they're going to start getting some emails, saying 'I hear you're playing with Ritchie again, we heard this track, what's going on (laughs)?”
“Real World”: From the sessions for this album. It's actually a big, anthemic, kind of rock radio power rock thing. It just doesn't fit on the album, it's altogether too cheerful (laughs).”
“The Zoo”: “That's the Scorpions track we covered for CMC, which is going on a Worldwide Wrestling record.”
“The Midnight Jam”: “A midnight jam, from the last album's sessions. What we did is we got lots of candles out and sat around and had a jam for about five minutes on this theme. The lyrical idea was after the end of 'Taking The Queen', if we'd carried on with the same story of the destruction of the city, the burning, the desolation, the lost love and the devastation, what it would have sounded like. So it's a real trippy, late night, chill out track.”
“Acoustic Song”: “This is a little acoustic thing between me and Roy. It's just a pretty little song. I remember everybody freaking out, I remember calling Roy up and asking him how the mixes went on the b-sides, and he went, 'you never told me about the acoustic track! Everybody's going nuts about this stuff, that you sang on it!' And I was like 'Oh, it was just ten minutes on the back of an envelope.' And that's always the way, you know, the quick little stuff you do, people love it.”
The End Of An Era…
Way, way back in BW&BK #20, we had Bruce offer up a few comments on the early records he did with both Samson and Iron Maiden. Here's Part II of that metallic recollection, Bruce on his last few records with the mighty Maiden...
Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son: “Seventh Son really revitalized my enthusiasm. I loved the idea of doing a concept album. It was a great idea. I was probably responsible in a large part for the cover, with Derek. The idea was to do something surreal, a surrealist Eddie. And Derek came up with that, which I was really pleased with. I guess what I found strange is that we took the album to a certain point, and then it never got developed any further. And in the same year, while we were in the midst of mixing or something, I heard some advance tracks from Queensryche's Operation: Mindcrime, and was blown away. And I remember thinking, I was driving down a street through a park in Germany and heard these four tracks from Mindcrime, and stopped the car, and sat there with my head in my hands, and thought that they had made the album that we should have made. Seventh Son should be this. And could be this. If we'd only forced it, if we'd only thought it through and sat down and planned it and discussed it. You just don't make a concept album like that in five minutes. You don't just loosely glue a few things together and say okay, that's a concept album. So that was my feeling. I was proud of it, but there was always this thought, God damn it, artistically we were in second place. Review-wise we were as well. In terms of the way the world perceives everything, Mindcrime was a ground-breaking album. And Seventh Son was not quite. For Maiden fans it was, but there was this feeling I had then, that there was this world of Maiden and there was the rest of the world.”
No Prayer For The Dying: “No Prayer For The Dying was an album that I have to share collective responsibility and also blame for possibly being the worst sounding Maiden album ever, with the exception of the first Maiden album. We all went into a sort of collective madness and recorded in this antiquated Rolling Stone mobile, in a barn in the middle of winter. In a fit of the enthusiasm, we thought 'gosh, we'll be terribly hip because we'll be agricultural' and we were running around with straw in our hair doing guitar solos and things.' And it just sounds like a dreadful album. Just the sonic quality of it. It's awful.”
Fear Of The Dark: “As a result of the bad experience recording No Prayer, Fear Of The Dark sounds considerably better, much more like a Maiden album. But at that point, I guess I was starting to get a little disenchanted with the complacency. I suppose complacency would be the right word, at least that's the way I saw it. We weren't doing anything on Fear Of The Dark that we didn't do on every other damn Maiden album. And I was like, 'ah, shouldn't we be trying a bit harder? Like, shouldn't we be worried?'”