Iron Maiden and Belgium have a long-standing love story and that is most apparent when they visit Graspop Metal Meeting every two to three years. And when they did last year, it was a blast! In my humble opinion, even surpassing the famous Rock in Rio concert. So, how did they fare, laying in a second tour already a year later and selling out one of the largest music arena’s in Europe at the Sportpaleis venue in Antwerp?
The Raven Age
The Raven Age is not new as a supporting band for Iron Maiden, as they also supported the heavy metal giant on their ‘Book of Souls’ tour. The fact that leading guitarist George Harris is the son of Maiden‘s bass player and founder Steve Harris will doubtlessly help the band in obtaining this highly desired position. However, I do not agree with some other critics that this band has little to offer.
This band certainly has that typical metalcore feel to it. Particularly the more soft vocals of Matt James (in much the same way as his vocal predecessor Michael Burrough) sound particularly recognizable in the more popular metalcore genre, something I like to term ‘popcore’. And sure, some musical parts or even certain songs feel a little generic. The fact that during the live performance, James‘ voice sounds weaker than Burrough‘s on the recordings, does not help to improve that feeling.
On the other hand, I am quite taken by the melodies and the virtuosity of the guitar play. The fact is that Harris is the hero of this band and not because of his family relations but because of his musical talents on the guitar. I must also commend both the drummer Jai Patel and bass player Matt Cox for supporting the melodic guitar riffs in such a proficient way.
To illustrate my point, just listen to the intro of one of their most popular songs: ‘Fleur de Lis’. Which really reminds me of some of the better melodic death metal riffs, and not to forget the nice tight drums of Patel. Or take another song such as ‘Grave of the Fireflies’, which has a touching slow part in which the vocals of Burrough (and to a lesser extent James for the live shows) sound a lot less generic and more authentic. Whilst the real hard parts or the soaring solo really hit good just because of the contrast with the more emotional slower part. Sadly enough, it also demonstrates that when the song gets to the more generic parts, it quickly becomes stale.
And that would be my greatest hope for this band: They should rely on their innate talent rather than to mimic popular trends in the metalcore scene. This band certainly has a lot more to offer than the fact that their guitarist is a Harris!
Tears of Stone
Angel in Disgrace
Fleur de Lis
Before talking about this performance, I deem it necessary to explain where I come from and that story starts at Graspop 2022 where Iron Maiden brought their ‘Legacy of the Beast Tour‘. I think everyone agreed that was one of their best performances and for me it even surpassed their Rock in Rio performance. Because of the sheer mass and volume of that tour, I was rather surprised when I heard they were planning a completely different tour next year and they had set a pretty high bar for it with their performance on Graspop.
It was therefore no surprise that in a Maiden country as Belgium, the band succeeded in selling out the entire Sportpaleis and on the evening of July 3rd, the streets of Antwerp coloured black with Maiden shirts. But how was the performance and did it match their feat of arms of the year before? Without any delay – and this pains my Maiden loving heart – honesty compels me to say they did not. Do not get me wrong, this was far from a bad performance, in fact it was still pretty good, but it was not Maiden good and it certainly did not came anywhere near their performance on Graspop.
Consequently, I was rather surprised to read the overly positive reviews in more popular media outlets. I have to disagree with those, in my opinion – and I am quite certain many attendees would agree – the show was somewhat underwhelming. For example, the response of the crowd in front of the stage was for most part devoid of energy. So given that as an honest indicator – and you guys, the audience, are always a huge part of my reviews – I find it hard to claim a spectacular show, certainly not compared to the experience the year before at Graspop (and I am quite aware I have used that comparison quite a bit already).
I will certainly admit there is a subjective part to my analysis as well. In order to compensate for that, I took it onto myself to talk to quite some other people, both first timers as well as die hard maiden fans, who attended the concert in order to get a better handle on this particular performance. My first constatation was that opinions and impressions were mixed, ranging from deep disappointment to the same enthusiasm that characterized some of the other reviews. So, I was even more confused! In the past week, I tried to break it down a little bit.
First, it was a distinctly different crowd than on Graspop. Although Maiden is still a true metal band, honouring themselves in sticking with the metal festivals where they first found their audience, their arena concerts are marked by a distinctly different audience than at those metal festivals. It is rather obvious the band found a much wider traction than just the metal scene. Now, as many of you will know, dear readers, metalheads are just f*cking insane. So even if you are a metalhead, even if you do not like to be in it, you enjoy a good moshpit in front of your concert. When you have a more general crowd, that typical energy is going to get diluted in the masses. All ways of enjoying a concert are fine, but I understand the frustration of some metalheads who missed that energy level during a performance of your favourite metal band. That was certainly the case this evening. There was a mixed crowd, with some metalheads, a lot of Maiden fans of different breeds, and also quite a lot of mild enthusiast and first timers that I will refer to as a more ‘general audience’. Unfortunately, a lot of the more passive minded people bought a ticket for the central standing grounds, therefore resulting in a particularly calm and passive looking crowd. There was a small mosh pit during ‘Iron Maiden’ (the song) – which I of course joined – but other than some raised hands, a little bit of jumping and some failed crowd surfing, not too much was going on in the crowd.
So sure, this was a more laid-back and relaxed crowd. But there was more going on, as I saw people not giving enthusiastic responses. It seems that the music, which would normally sweep you right off your feet, did not have that same punch this concert. What I did notice were some problems with the soundmixing. The instrumentation was not really balanced untill the very end of the concert. It was not far off, but it was noticeable, certainly for a fan. However, even for those not aware of such issues, you pick it up subconsciously rendering a feeling of music that is not as full or that sounds a little off.
It started early on, before the concert began, a crew member went up two times to check the mic, the main vocalist’s microphone in particular. Something that drew my attention from the start as he spent quite some time up there, which is unusual as the soundcheck happens before the doors open. And sure enough, during the first couple of songs I noticed a lot of reverb. When Bruce Dickinson (lead vocals) addressed the crowd it was indeed clear there was too much reverb on his microphone. Now, the excessive reverb is a known problem in the Sportpaleis, but it was of such a degree that you could barely understand what Bruce was saying. The PA attempted to address the problem during the show, turning down the mic a bit, which resulted in the singing and the melodies not coming through anymore. Afterwards, the rythm of both Harrison‘s bass and Murray‘s guitar overpowered the other instruments. This was a textbook example of what many sound technicians will testify to: if you did not address an issue during the soundcheck, you are not going to mend it during the show. And this, at least to me, seemed to be the case during this performance.
I need to stress that the musicians have absolutely no fault in such things! Rather to the contary, they showed great professionalism in dealing with the problems. For instance, when the guitar solos kicked in – and the balance between the instruments plays less of a role – Dave Murray and Adrian Smith gave excellent performances. Given these suboptimal conditions, that just demonstrates what mastery these musicians have. They are beyond any doubt the most underrated guitarist in metal in my opinion! However, even these greats sometimes missed their timing, indicating that the sound problem also manifested itself in their monitors. For example, Adrian Smith was a little late during the first solo of ‘Alexander the Great’, something most people will not consciously have noticed. The same seemed to have happened in a small part of ‘The Trooper’ when vocals and guitars were a little off compared to the bass line. Again, to the great credit of these musicians, these mistakes were barely noticeable and immediately rectified. Consequently, most people will not have noticed these issues conciously. However, when I mentioned it, they often reacted “oh, that was what that was”.
Coming to the matter that will divide most fans: the setlist. Iron Maiden chose to focus on their latest ‘Senjutsu’ album for this tour, as their previous tour ‘Legacy of the Beast’ was more focused on the ‘Number of the Beast’ album and their legacy as a whole. However, back then, they did play three ‘Senjutsu’ album songs: ‘Senjutsu’, ‘Stratego’ and ‘Writing on the Wall’, of which only ‘Writing on the Wall’ was played during this tour. Somewhat a strange choice as these songs are amongst the more popular songs of that album, which has not been received universally positive amongst the fan base. Personally, I find it a good but also more ‘forgetteable’ album (I think fans will get my drift here). It therefore ranks amongst the lesser ones in my book.
Hence, we were left with the still popular song ‘Days of Future Past’, but also with the much lesser known songs ‘The Time Machine’, ‘Hell on Earth’ and ‘The Death of the Celts’. I was really happy with that last song as it is a personal favourite, but I did notice that a lot of people did not know the song and did not partake in my enthusiasm, even if it is growing to be a favourite amongst the die hard fans. The fact remains that the reception was really mixed as some love the new album, but many – particularly the pre-Blaze Maiden fans – were not that convinced, while a lot of the more general audience simply did not seem to know many of the songs.
Strangely enough, next to their choice for the ‘Senjutsu’ album, they also chose a second older album to focus on, the 1986 album ‘Somewhere back in Time’. This was for most part due to the long-standing request of the fan base to play ‘Alexander the Great’ live. This is indeed one of their great songs that was long overdue. However, along with this fan requested song they added a whole series of other songs from that album. And just as with ‘Senjutsu’, those are often not too well known songs: ‘Caught somewhere in time’, ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’, ‘Heaven can Wait’ and ‘Wasted Years’. Sure enough, ‘Wasted years’ is a really popular song, but the others are far less known with a general audience.
If you focus on two albums for the setlist, there is not a lot of room left for the classic popular songs. And even for those songs from other albums, some strange choices were made. For instance, they chose Prisoner from the Number of the Beast album, which – although still a popular song – is not an absolute favourite from the album that contains the Number of the Beast or Run to the Hills. The result was that the ‘more general audience’ had to content itself with Can I play with Madness, Fear of the Dark, Iron Maiden and The Trooper. And that was rather apparent during the show, as there was only some movement in the audience when Can I play with Madness started and they really started to loosen up with Fear of the Dark and Iron Maiden which were the last songs before the encore. The fact that the Encore started with the rather unknown and lower energy song Hell on Earth did not help to keep the energy going towards the end of the concert.
So next to the sound issues, I do think the choice of setlist had a major influence on the audience, particularly on the more ‘general audience’ that was abundantly present in Antwerp. But does that mean that it was a bad show, particularly for the more die hard fans? Well, this is where it really gets subjective. Many die hard reviewers – for instance the YouTube channel Metal Pilgrim to name one – have praised Iron Maiden for making the choice for less popular songs.
Here I need to start sharing my personal experience as a twenty year long Maiden fan. First, the truth is that my experience for a concert is always heavily influenced by the people around me. Listening to a record or attending a concert are fundamentally different experiences and the people around me play a fundamental role in the latter one. A point often neglected in many reviews in my opinion. So, in this case, the lack of energy amongst the crowd is an important element for me even as a die hard fan. And it is a conundrum larger metal bands often have to contend with. Call it the curse of becoming a popular metal band. You draw big crowds, but consequently also a lot of people that do not know many of your lesser known songs, nor know how to partake in an energetic metal concert. Therefore, going all-in on a setlist that heavily relies on lesser known songs is a dangerous choice.
On the other hand, as a fan, I share the opinion that it is refreshing to hear some of the songs that were never played before. ‘The death of the Celts’ is a personal favourite of the last album and I was also amongst those fans that thirsted to hear ‘Alexander the Great’. Furthermore, I absolutely endorse the choice to give ‘Senjutsu’ its proper tour, but I do feel that ‘Stratego’ or ‘Senjutsu’ needed to be a part of the setlist as well. However, their choice to focus also on ‘Somewhere back in Time’ only because of ‘Alexander the Great’ feels like overkill. In my opinion, that album is the lesser album of the pre-Blaze period and it stands a little lost in between the mastodonts that are ‘Powerslave’ and ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’. So – and this is very subjective – this was not the setlist for me.
My subjectivity aside, I do think that the band should reconsider focusing on two albums, because you are not going to capture the more ‘general audience’, which makes-up quite a portion of the crowd, with such a choice. That does not mean you cannot serve the die hard fans as well, but that does not require a seperate focus on a second album. For instance, enrich the setlist with some lesser known fan favourites such as ‘Dance of the Death’, ‘Paschendale’, ‘When the Wild Winds Blow’ or ‘Empire of the Clouds’ (yes, I deliberately took some of the post-Blaze period as I feel they are often underappreciated). This still leaves room for the classics that could be played strategically at the beginning, middle and end of the setlist to keep the energy going and not to loose the general audience. The fact remains after all that even though some fans may get tired of hearing the classics, the general audience comes for those and they are the songs that puts the room on fire. The key is a good balance for everyone and that is not an easy task for a mastodon such as an Iron Maiden.
In conclusion, I cannot say that I was thoroughly impressed with this tour and I think the reason lays in the combination of audience, setlist and technical issues. On the other hand, this was still a good and unique show, which brought some songs you will rarely hear again live. So, as a die hard fan it was still worth the effort and money of attending. That said, I do think the band could make some better setlist choices to balance out the different preferences of their very varied crowd. On a personal note, however, I am fully prepared to see these guys again at Graspop Metal Meeting.
Caught Somewhere in Time
Stranger in a Strange Land
The Writing on the Wall
Days of Future Past
The Time Machine
Death of the Celts
Can I Play With Madness
Heaven Can Wait
Alexander the Great
Fear of the Dark
Hell on Earth