The Trooper or the Sandman? Iron Maiden’s conservatism versus Metallica’s experimentalism in their philosophies towards musical creativity
By Samir Puri
From Metal Music Studies 1.1
The differing creative paths of Iron Maiden & Metallica
Creative genius involves a clash between design and accident. As such, it is a largely inexplicable phenomenon, perhaps even to those who create, let alone to outsiders. While it is not possible to presuppose with certainty why something created has taken its particular form and shape, one can discern contrasts over time in the successive creative outputs of a given artist. This is the purpose of this section: to consider what it is that has defined and, over time, differentiated Iron Maiden from Metallica in their respective fostering and sustaining of musical creativity.
Both bands have a common point of departure, at least in terms of reflecting heavy metal orthodoxies. It is true that neither is credited as inventing the heavy metal genre – that accolade tends to be reserved for Black Sabbath’s 1970s works, as Dunn and McFayden (2005) explain. In the 1980s, Iron Maiden and Metallica would hone the heavy metal genre’s sound and aesthetic with an influence that few of their peers managed. While influence is not quantifiable, commercial success is: Iron Maiden have sold 85 million records and Metallica 120 million. That Metallica’s tally is greater partly reflects the rewards in popularity reaped through their willingness to grasp new musical styles – something examined in detail as this article progresses. This adaptability has widened Metallica’s appeal amongst casual music fans, something attested to by their number of Facebook ‘likes’ relative to Iron Maiden. Iron Maiden’s official Facebook page had nearly 13 million ‘likes’ as of July 2014 – Metallica’s had 38 million. Although far from a scientific measure of appeal, the casual act of ‘liking’ a Facebook page does suggest a much wider awareness of Metallica than of Iron Maiden. This is, however, a difference in magnitude. Both bands have huge global appeal, the scale of which is also conveyed by their touring: Iron Maiden has played around 2,000 concerts in their career and Metallica around 1,600. In terms of sustained global appeal, Iron Maiden and Metallica exist in exclusive company in the heavy metal genre, if one excludes hard rock oriented bands like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, whose influence on the heavy metal genre has also been great, but who have not tended to self-identify as belonging to the heavy metal genre (Walser 1993: 6).
There are similarities in the stories of how Iron Maiden and Metallica became such well-established bands, and differentiated themselves from others in the pack. Work ethic, good management and good fortune have played a role for each band, as biographies of their respective careers attest (Wall 2001; 2011). But the capstone accomplishment, upon which all else would be built, was early musical creativity. In this regard, while each band may play heavy metal, they do not sound alike. Iron Maiden formed in the 1970s and rooted their sound in a blend of the heavy metal and progressive rock values of that decade, combining influences like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath with Yes and Genesis. Metallica formed in the early 1980s and, inspired by Motorhead, Iron Maiden and – perhaps above all others, Diamond Head – added unprecedented speed to herald ‘thrash metal’. As each band released a string of consistently well-received albums in the 1980s, and became known for incendiary live shows, each came to define a particular subgenre of heavy metal: Metallica and thrash metal, and Iron Maiden and progressive, traditional heavy metal. This points to the different musical space that each band occupied within the wider heavy metal genre. It also conveys how early creativity implied some measure of novelty. Both Iron Maiden and Metallica built their early musical reputations by merging previously separate ideas in unique ways, with each band crafting a coherent and identifiable musical style of its own (Kaufman and Sternberg 2010).
Despite their evident sonic differences, in the 1980s, both bands played music that conformed to certain identifiable conventions of the heavy metal genre. This was especially noticeable in their use of lyrical themes and an aesthetic that invoked the Romantic period of European artistic expression. It is worth considering Iron Maiden and Metallica in light of Bertrand Russell’s depiction of the Romantics:
[The Romantics] liked what was strange: ghosts, ancient decayed castles, the last melancholy descendants of once great families, practitioners of mesmerism and occult sciences, falling tyrants and Levantine pirates. [Whereas others] wrote of ordinary people in circumstances that might have occurred […] to the Romantics such themes were too pedestrian; they felt inspired only by what was grand, remote, and terrifying […] The ‘Ancient Mariner’ [poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, published in 1798] is typical in this respect. (Russell 1972: 678–79)
This is apt a description of the aesthetics of Iron Maiden and Metallica (at least, in the latter’s first decade of existence). The mention of Coleridge is notable: Iron Maiden released a thirteen-minute musical synopsis of this poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1984). While Metallica played a speedier, more discordant musical style, they too visited dark and epic themes in the 1980s, like Biblical plague in ‘Creeping Death’ (1984), and H. P. Lovecraft in ‘The Thing That Should Not Be’ (1986). Such songs captured a feel that was at once passionately musical yet otherworldly. Even when both bands addressed contemporary themes, most notably war, a dark and at times fantastical sound and atheistic proved to be a continual reference point.
Why is it, then, that over time, these bands have chosen such different creative paths? Separating them is the sense of duty, allegiance and constraint each has felt towards their original art form. Metallica have been adventurous, sticking to the thrash metal template they helped invent for just a few albums, before branching out into stadium rock, ballads, alternative rock and even discordant, experimental noise-oriented metal. Even country and western made an imprint on ‘Mama Said’ (1996) from Load. Along the way, Metallica have collaborated with artists as diverse as Marianne Faithfull, Lou Reed and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Their group identity has evolved in tune with their changing tastes, with their desire for greater popularity and acceptability outside of the heavy metal world, and to provoke their audience out of complacency. In doing so Metallica has made prophetic an early statement of intent from their song ‘Motorbreath’ (1983): ‘Those people who tell you not to take chances / They are all missing on what life’s about / You only live once, so take hold of the chance / Don’t end up like the others, same song and dance.’
Conversely, Iron Maiden has stuck rigidly to a plan of battle, releasing fifteen studio albums that have evolved within an identifiable template: of shorter anthems combined with longer, more complex, progressively tinged epics, often staying within sonic and lyrical traditions the band had established for itself. Creatively doctrinaire, Iron Maiden have certainly experimented, but only within the parameters of a musical template of their own devising. This reliability has been intrinsic to their appeal, invoking a timelessness that is inadvertently summarized by their song ‘Caught Somewhere in Time’ (1986): ‘Make you an offer you can’t refuse / You’ve only got your soul to lose / Eternally… let yourself go!’ In displaying such stylistic focus, Iron Maiden have embodied a set of values that have come to be core to the heavy metal genre itself: of a self-referential creative self-sufficiency; of walling oneself off from trends; of being true to values and reference points that transcend any particular time or place; and of taking pride in an outsider status.
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