Album Review: “Piece of Mind” — Iron Maiden (1983)

To chart my hard rock/heavy metal development, I would have to start as a budding young KISS devotee as a child in the late 70s. In 1981 I discovered AC/DC, having pretty much worn out my dog-eared “Back In Black” cassette tape through massively repeated listens on any boombox I could get my hands on. Soon afterward I became a quick fan of early Van Halen and the first two Ozzy Osbourne albums, and soon after I was becoming quite the budding young headbanger.

So there I was, at age 11, on my way to computer camp (!) when when I first heard Iron Maiden. This was during the summer of 1982, on the long-lamented K102 radio station in Miami, Florida, at or about 8:30 in the A.M., in a Checker sedan heading north on the Palmetto Expressway. I had by then listened to my fill of late 70s/early 80s rock/metal fare, but what I heard on the radio that morning sounded entirely different from what I had normally loved. This sound was raw, thunderous, in your face heavy metal, yet strangely melodic and – dare I say – catchy? It wasn’t pop – it was far, far from pop – in fact it was pure heavy metal, but by the end of the song my brother and I were singing along and banging our heads like a pair of preteen morons still high off of their Frosted Flakes habit:

Run to the hills!
Run for your li-i-ives!
Run to the hills!
Run for your lives!

Run To The Hills is one of Iron Maiden’s signature tunes, a metal classic by any stretch of the imagination, and it hooked us for life. Unfortunately, the DJ never announced the name of the song or the band, launching directly into Van Halen’s Little Guitars, so we had little or no recourse to follow-up on the song (You young kids today, what with your mobile phones and torrenting and Spotify and bidets and escargot forks, you have no idea what we had to go through…) Thankfully, soon after becoming enlightened, I was listening to the classic The Number of the Beast album and I officially became an Ed-head. For life. And I still am.

While The Number of the Beast and Killers usually duke it out for the “Best Maiden Album” title in my preferences, I will always have a unique nostalgic yearning for the band’s fourth album Piece of Mind. This 1983 release featured the first appearance of longtime Maiden drummer (and BBQ joint-owner extraordinaire) Nicko McBrain. It was also not only the first Maiden LP I bought with my own cash, it was the one that cemented their place as my favorite metal band of all time. While not quite as perfect as Beast or Killers, Piece of Mind is every ounce a classic metal album and top-tier Maiden. It feels leaner and scrappier than the bombast of Beast, even though the band started delving deeper into their epic prog tendencies. And with the exception of the dopey “Quest For Fire” and some of the ponderousness of “To Tame A Land”, there are a ton of great tracks here.

“Where Eagles Dare” is a perfect Maiden album opener. It erupts right out the gate with all the power you expect from the band — highlighted by McBrain’s thundering drum intro — and goes into the fist-pumping “Revelations”, one of Maiden’s best songs (and even better live). It many ways, “Revelations” is almost a prototype of the early Maiden sound: it opens with a slower, heavy groove, features mystical-whatsat lyrics, moves into an uptempo midsection that highlights the band’s musicality, and then returns back to the original slower riffage. The following track and the album’s first single, “Flight of Icarus”, is a quintessential Maiden anthem, although bassist/founder Steve Harris always lamented that the song should have been recorded faster and louder. I agree, but I still love the song.

“Die With Your Boots On” is sorta silly but how can you complain when Bruce sounds so delightfully malicious (compare his tone here to the embarrassing idiocy on “Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter” in about 7 years) and guitarists Dave Murray & Adrian Smith are totally in their twin lead element? This brings us to “The Trooper”, which is every bit a Maiden signature song as it comes. The galloping rhythm section of this Crimean War tune combined with the patented twin guitar attack gives this song a muscular groove that doesn’t relent. I remember back in early 1984, if you played guitar, this was THE riff to learn. Took me three consecutive nights of blistered fingers, but I finally got it. “Still Life” is a creepy, haunting song, with a slow build that explodes into chorus. It explains a tale of a man obsessed by faces in a pool, faces he keeps finding himself drawn to. Madness overcomes him, he drags his girlfriend to see them and plunges the both of them in, presumably to join the faces there for eternity. Good song, a little weaker than its brethren but definitely not filler.

The same can’t be said for the aforementioned quite dopey “Quest For Fire”, which really doesn’t do much musically or lyrically. It’s a little too corny, a little too obvious, and not at all that interesting. “Sun and Steel”, on the other hand, is a GREAT song that is completely unheralded. A fast little number with a catchy as hell chorus, this Samurai tale flies way under the radar and, in my opinion, really shouldn’t.

“To Tame A Land” is a good closer, training wheels for the longer, more ambitious, and more complex “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to come on the next album. I’m not overly crazy about the song, but I like it well enough. It just feels clunky and overwritten in some spots, whereas in others it rocks as hard as anything else on the album.

The B-sides of the album singles should have been included on the album proper, but as both are covers perhaps the band felt it best to stand on their own material. Shame, because both are of quality. Flight of Icarus’s B-side was a cover of Montrose’s “I’ve Got The Fire”, which surpasses the original in every conceivable way, and I love the original. The same can be said for The Trooper’s B-side, a cover of Jethro Tull’s “Cross-Eyed Mary”. I always felt they should have done “Mary” live on any and every tour, as it provides a hearty dose of both metal crunch and catchy melodics.

Piece of Mind is a great album. I’d put “Where Eagles Dare”, “Revelations”, “Flight of Icarus”, “The Trooper”, and “Sun & Steel” up there with the best Iron Maiden songs. “Die With Your Boots On” and “Still Life” are second tier songs, but damn good ones. “To Tame A Land” is OK if erratic — great in some spots, clunky in others. Only “Quest For Fire” I could live without. Nonetheless, it remains an essential Maiden album and metal classic, emblematic in every sense of Iron Maiden’s “classic era”.

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